Three months ago, the Labour leadership race seemed like a shoo-in. It was almost inevitable that Andy Burnham, the erstwhile Education Minister and Establishment-approved choice, would sail to a comfortable victory over an otherwise unremarkable crowd. And so the slow decline of New Labour would continue.
But it appears that some people thought differently. The sudden entry of Jeremy Corbyn into the race has transformed it from an otherwise unremarkable transition process into a debate as to the nature of what Labour stands for in the 21st century. The reaction of the Labour establishment has spanned the gamut of emotions from delight to fury to disbelief to – increasingly – panic, as it becomes clear that Corbyn has a very good chance of winning the contest.
Until this year, Jeremy Corbyn was considered by most as an amusing oddity. Avuncular and bearded, he inveigled himself into a Labour safe seat (Islington North) more than thirty years ago and had spent much of that time carving out a niche for himself as an outspoken leftist indulgently tolerated by the Labour leadership. He was aware that his views precluded him from higher office, but the freedom afforded by possession of a safe seat gave him the opportunity to use his voice in Parliament to espouse various eccentric left-wing causes. Amongst these were House of Lords reform, animal rights and advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians – the bread and butter of the left.
But now we are in a position where Jeremy Corbyn may well become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Firstly, how on earth did we get to this place? It seems that after eighteen years New Labour has finally run out of steam. The other three candidates – Burnham, Cooper and (in particular) Kendall – are products of New Labour to a man. All Oxbridge-educated and all nestled within the bosom of the Labour establishment, the ideology they espouse is in essence a restatement of Blairism with a few modifications. They are all believers in a Labour Party appealing to the middle classes and which reflects their concerns, aspirations and hopes. This ideology governed the party from 1997 to 2007 in an unadulterated form; even from 2007 to 2015 it underpinned the direction of the party.
It is hard for people born after 1995 to comprehend the magnitude of the shift from Old Labour to New Labour. Old Labour was a statist party, a party with a profound mistrust of capitalism and the private sector. It was a party which appealed to the working classes and was fundamentally focussed on creating a socialist paradise for them. In short, it was everything which Blair’s New Labour was not. Blair (correctly) realised that Old Labour was a discredited ideology, and transformed the party into a brand-new movement sharing only the name. Fundamentally it was a middle class party, and as such it modified its’ positions hugely. Out went the trade unions, and in came the private sector. Grammar schools became acceptable once more, whilst privatising the running of the NHS via PFI contracts became de rigeur.
Kendall, Cooper and Burnham were all moulded in this intellectual milieu. Cooper and Burnham were both devotees of Gordon Brown, and as such their variant of New Labour is somewhat more to the left – their opposition to tuition fees, for example. Kendall is about as orthodox a Blairite as one can be, hence her vocal championing of the private sector and her concern to market Labour as friendly towards small businesses.
However after eighteen years of New Labour, it appears that the country has tired of it. New Labour derived its’ success from selling out Old Labour’s core constituency – the working classes. Blair calculated that they had no choice but to stick with Labour, and hence ignored them completely in favour of policies clearly designed to curry favour with the middle classes. This strategy worked as long as its core assumption held true – that the working classes would always remain with Labour.
Oddly enough it was the rise of UKIP which scotched that particular myth. There was a rather paternalistic assumption amongst Labour elites that the lumpen proletariat were congenitally left-wing. What they failed to realise was that they were in fact simply populist. Whichever party offered them enough goodies, they would vote for. This precluded the Tories, and to a great extent Labour. But in UKIP the working classes found a party which seemed to speak for them. It was a party which seemed antithetical to the elites, and which offered simple solutions towards a putative ‘Great’ Britain. The working classes left Labour in droves for UKIP.
Until recently, the assumption was that UKIP was a party appealing primarily to disaffected Tories – Colonel Blimp types who still hadn’t gotten over the Napoleonic Wars or the loss of the Empire. 2015 revealed that in reality UKIP was doing hugely well in Labour strongholds. By offering an anti-elitist platform and preying on the fears of the working class, they succeeded in stripping enough Labour votes from their core constituency for Labour to fail to engage in the ultra-important swing seats that they were targeting.
This combined with the fall of Scotland. In the same manner as with UKIP, the working classes – who Labour chiefs had previously assumed would never desert the party – migrated almost en masse to the SNP. This is not for nationalistic reasons (as has been claimed by overeager SNP politicians) but because the SNP offered a credible far-left policy that outflanked Labour. For more than a decade now Scottish Labour voters have felt alienated from a London-centric party that seems foreign to them; privately educated, socially liberal and affluent. The populist SNP was able to feed off this resentment and ride to victory.
All this explains why Corbyn seems on the verge of victory. He is a representative of Old Labour par excellence. With his beard and his flat cap, he looks and sounds like a member of the working class. His rhetoric is anti-elitist and his policies are populist. Whether he’s talking about renationalising the railways, or prosecuting Tony Blair for war crimes, Jeremy Corbyn has succeeded in capturing the attention of the working classes. After almost two decades of inattention, Corbyn has managed to convince them that Labour might still speak for them.
Ironically enough, in many ways Corbyn is uncomfortably close to UKIP. Both are bitterly anti-elitist, and both Farage and Corbyn pride themselves on their accessibility and ‘common touch’ (hence the pint that seemed superglued to Farage’s hand for most of the campaign.) Their policies are also remarkably similar in many ways – both call for grand solutions and localisation as a panacea. Though there are significant differences, most obviously on Europe and immigration, these are not as serious as they are made out to be. For voters, all that is needed is a scapegoat, and they can switch between them with remarkable ease. UKIP succeeded in scapegoating immigrants and casting them as the cause of the country’s ills; Corbyn seems set to do the same with the rich. In both cases they are hugely wrong; in both cases the public will connect with the message.
The truth of the matter is that Jeremy Corbyn is not a messiah. He is a rabble-rouser who plays on peoples’ fears to peddle a brand of far-left rhetoric that was outdated in the 80s. His rise to power is indicative of his ability to feed off the fears and paranoia of the working classes, and he is able to make farcical promises through his not having to worry about the limitations imposed by the vagaries of the national finances. Jeremy Corbyn is totally unelectable and would be a disaster for the country…
…which is exactly why I (as a Conservative) am rooting for him to win.