The British Labour Party has, against early predictions, resoundingly elected a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. A veteran left-winger, his success can be seen as an emphatic rejection of the New Labour period in which, under Tony Blair, the party embraced much of the neo-liberal agenda. Many of Corbyn’s policy positions chime with things I have argued on this blog at least as regards his anti-austerity economics and his internationalism with respect to immigration and asylum policy; less so with respect to the EU.
Corbyn’s appeal lies less, I think, in his socialism that might be thought. For that matter, many of his policies would hardly have been considered socialist even a few decades ago. An interesting article compares those policies with those of the 1983 SDP manifesto (the SDP being at the time a breakaway party from the right of Labour): they are not much different. More relevant, I think, is that the really striking thing about Corbyn is that he clearly says what he believes whereas the other three candidates for the leadership were almost visibly worried about saying the wrong thing or saying something controversial. They were constantly calibrating what they said, and as a result ended up saying nothing. Hearing them interviewed during the campaign it was just impossible to know what they actually stood for.
That I think is one of the legacies of New Labour – news management and triangulation - and it now feels very tired. In the 1990s Blair could just about get away with content-free rhetoric about combining social justice and economic efficiency which allowed everyone to read anything into it they wanted, but it doesn’t work anymore. The consequence is that, Corbyn aside, none of the candidates were able to articulate what are the things which are distinctively Labour and non-negotiable for any Labour leader. If there’s no answer to that then there’s no compelling reason to vote for them.
For that matter all the talk during the campaign of winning from the centre doesn’t really mean anything. Where is the centre? And it’s no good saying that because Blair won three elections he had some magic insight into how to win now. New Labour’s approach was formed 25 years ago and, as its acolytes used to say, you have to change with the times. One big part of that change is that the strategy of seeking to appeal to swing voters in southern marginals whilst assuming the core vote will stay solid is a dead duck given what has happened in Scotland. To put it another way, there’s no longer a single ‘centre’ from which to win and that is in large part a legacy of the New Labour project, to which replicating the New Labour strategy can’t be an effective answer.
And yet (unlike, I must admit, many of my friends) I can’t at the moment feel that Corbyn offers the answer either. He has a lot of baggage which, fairly or not, will be used against him. He doesn’t have the deep roots and support that might enable him to hold the Labour Party together or to manage the party machine or the parliamentary party: he’s always been a maverick and an outsider. Whilst transparently honest, he’s not a great orator nor an original thinker, and he doesn’t even seem to have any great desire to lead the party or the country (and certainly did not expect to). None of that is bad in itself, but all of it presents severe practical problems for leading a mainstream party.
Politics in the UK is much more unpredictable than in the past because of the breakdown of traditional party loyalties and low turnout in elections. No one predicted Corbyn’s victory a few months ago and it would be stupid to predict how he may fare as leader. In electing him, the Labour Party have decisively rejected the neo-liberalism of the New Labour years, and the carefully-calibrated presentation that went with it. Great. But that is a one-shot deal. If it goes wrong, then it’s hard to see anyone having a second go at effecting the same kind of shift. It is a potentially interesting, important and exciting time, both for Labour and for UK and world politics because a shift from neo-liberal consensus in the UK is a big deal. Leadership theory often tells us that what is crucial is not so much the personal qualities of leaders as the congruence between those qualities and the time and circumstances in which they are deployed. I have a feeling that Corbyn is the wrong man at the right time.