Most of you probably didn’t notice, but a new Liberal Democrat leader was elected this week. You remember the Lib Dems, don’t you? They used to form a small and stubborn little pocket in the last government; they were the political equivalent of bondage trousers, hindering the Tories from taking the great strides forwards that the Conservative manifesto of 2010 had planned, an effective ball and chain frustrating each step towards the vision of Britain that had been hatched on the playing fields of Eton. Anyway, Tim Farron got the job. On the day his coronation was confirmed, ‘Woman’s Hour’ announced with an air of dejection that the shortlist was all-male, something that couldn’t really be helped in that the eight remaining Lib Dem MPs don’t include a single woman amongst their number.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, is currently headed by a woman – even if she’s only temporarily filling in. And Harriet Harperson has already encountered the downside of party leadership even with her pretend leader’s hat on. A minor backbench rebellion following her decision not to oppose the government’s intended welfare reforms has once again highlighted Labour’s ideological limbo, wary of lurching too left for fear of thwarting the chance of running the country again, yet desperate to locate a position that will distinguish them from the Tories. Even Tony Blair has stuck his oar in, warning the party that any tentative shift away from the centre ground will condemn them to opposition for a generation. Failed leadership candidate Tristram Hunt echoed the sentiments of God’s Special Envoy by claiming the election of Jeremy Corbyn could reduce Labour to little more than an obscure pressure group.
Jeremy Corbyn’s sudden ascendancy to front-runner in the Labour leadership contest reminds me a little of when the public keep voting for the worst dancer on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ purely for the entertainment value. The contestants who regard themselves as pretty nifty on the dance floor as a consequence of having put the hours in are understandably annoyed that the fat lump with two left feet has proven so popular with viewers and at the expense of their attempt to pass for professionals. Similarly, career politicians whose ambitions stretch all the way to No.10 are rather aggrieved that the rival who makes no concessions to the media makeover that a wannabe PM voluntarily submits to is overtaking them. From their perspective, the party members appear to be backing the candidate without a cat in hell’s chance of leading Labour back to government purely out of spite. The legacy of a leader who won the party three General Elections is so inexplicably toxic that some Labour MPs want to remain in the comfort zone of opposition instead of ‘selling out’ their principles, like an underground band who suddenly enjoyed massive commercial success yearning to revert to being a cult act again.
A diehard resident of the left such as Jeremy Corbyn enables Labour to retain links to its origins, just as numerous old right-wingers in the Conservative Party keep the Shires of Middle England happy, even if they regard David Cameron as too liberal and too willing to compromise party principles for popularity. The fact is the Tories need both sides to be in a position to win a General Election, just as the fledging Liberals required the support of Whig grandees in the nineteenth century. Corbyn contributes a certain ideological element to Labour that traditional Labour voters respond to; they don’t make up a sizeable enough amount of the electorate to fly the red flag on Downing Street, but if the frontbench section of the party can develop a method of appealing to the floating voter, backbench Socialists of the old school can play their own small part in securing electoral victory. It’s a tricky balance, but it can be achieved. Harold Wilson achieved it on four occasions and still found Cabinet places for Michael Foot and Tony Benn, having captured the trust of those members of the public who don’t order The Morning Star from their local newsagents.
So, yes, Corbyn is as crucial an aspect of the overall Labour picture as Jacob Rees-Mogg is to the Tories; as long as the least extreme and more widely acceptable elements of a party front it, their more erratic members can sneak in through the back door, almost as though they were an embarrassing aunt being invited to a family wedding, one warned not to drink too much before the ceremony is over and done with; come the reception, they can get as blotto as they like because nobody will be offended by then. What you don’t do is ply the said relative with booze and sit her at the front whilst the vicar is asking if anyone has any just cause or impediment. But if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader, this will be precisely what has happened.
Because the old system of electing a new leader resulted in the man everyone bar the unions wanted for the job failing to get it in 2010, Labour has moved the goalposts. The irony is that by doing so they could well end up with an even bigger electoral liability at the helm. The best and most successful Labour leaders have managed to hold the opposing sections of the party together, even when it seemed to be on the verge of civil war. If Corbyn wins the contest, I think a split is inevitable that would make the 1980 exit of Jenkins, Owen, Williams and Rodgers resemble a family being forced to move tables in a restaurant because the diners at the next one are making too much noise.
There is undoubtedly a large and receptive audience awaiting a party leader to come forward with an alternative to the austerity measures of the last five years; many object to the latest plans put forward by Gideon last week and despite incessant hyperbole trumpeting an economic recovery, many have yet to experience the benefits. All of which suggests the electorate is there for the taking, but if there’s no one around to take it then nothing will change. The Tory majority is the smallest a party in government has had for decades, yet it’s hard to see this as a symptom of weakness when the opposition is even weaker. Labour’s failure to the capitalise on the unpopularity of the Coalition underlined the party’s cluelessness; electing a left-winger to lead them to oblivion in 2015 might put smiles on Conservative countenances, but do the Tories really want to win an Election not because the electorate awarded them an overwhelming mandate but because Labour lost it? Has the Scottish Premier League improved without the presence of Rangers, leaving Celtic as the sole soccer superpower in Glasgow?
In yesterday’s Times, a YouGove poll placed Jeremy Corbyn on 43%, seven points clear of his nearest rival, Andy Burnham. If left-wingers within Labour aren’t supporting Corbyn simply to give Blair-ites a bloody nose, well aware their man will never become Prime Minister, are they merely looking at the alternatives and expressing the same sigh of despondency as everyone else? Then again, perhaps the election of Corbyn as Labour leader might finally give the party the kick up the arse it needs by forcing the Social Democrats within it to break away and possibly merge with the remaining Lib Dems, leaving the triumphant left with a minor little party competing for third spot with UKIP and the Greens at by-elections. Labour doesn’t need the Tories to demolish them with a compulsory purchase order; they’re more than capable of being the architects of their own downfall.