If you posed the headline above as a question, most people would probably reply with the assumption that Corbyn is considered unelectable and Labour would be equally unelectable with him at the helm. But that’s not the disaster that I am talking about. Single elections are rarely that important in the long run. The Tories were eviscerated in 1997 but eventually they profited from Labour’s move to the right (or centre, as Blairites like to say). In 2010 the Liberals won enough seats to enter government for the first time in 100 years (or first time ever if you refuse to draw a line connecting the Whigs and the Lib Dems). Five years later, that decision has turned them into an electoral irrelevance. A situation that seems set to last for the foreseeable future.
It’s not the electability of the Labour party as a whole that is going to be the issue for Jeremy Corbyn. It’s the prospect of various individual members of the Labour Parliamentary party losing their own seats that will cause all of the problems. And those problems are of the present, not 2020. Simply put, Corbyn is a problem for the Labour Parliamentary Party and the Parliamentary party are in turn, a problem for the grassroots. Those very same grassroots that have been invigorated by the recent electoral loss followed by the unexpected chance to vote for an actual socialist in the recent Leadership contest.
Now, whether or not Jeremy Corbyn is a hard-line socialist is another question. An uncomfortable truth for many right wingers is that a number of his policies were once pillars of Tory mainstream thought. Nationalisation of utilities, universal healthcare free at the point of use, universal education, usury laws, rent controls, etc… These are a range of policies which were supported by successive Conservative governments from the end of World War 2 until the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. It was her embrace of neo-liberal economic policies that spelled the end of the post war consensus which the Conservatives had fully embraced for over 30 years. It’s not that Jeremy is some swivel-eyed Marxist nutcase. It is simply that while the political classes in the UK have moved collectively to the right, once universally accepted policy has now become fringe thinking.
But none of this means anything to the career politicians in today’s Labour party. They have seats to hold onto. And those seats are now under threat from two directions. Firstly there is the fear of further electoral loses under Corbyn. Then there is the fear of attack from within the ranks of their own party from more left-wing candidates. Corbyn’s election is indicative of the renewed left-wing activism within the party and they do not like it. So what are the parliamentary party going to do about all this? The one thing they will not do is behave in a democratic fashion and go along with the will of their members. They do not see that as being in their interests and that is the end of the matter. The interests of the party and country as a whole are not their concern.
There is an elitist strain running through the Labour Parliamentary Party best summed up by Tristram Hunt’s words to students at Cambridge University:
You are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.
This is the mindset of the PLP. Ultimately what they really believe in is a self-electing elite who will be required to save the rest of us from ourselves. Hunt has seen democracy in action and, quite frankly, he wants nothing to do with it. Tristram Hunt is, of course, a former Cambridge student himself. The son of a Baron and the recent beneficiary of a typical piece of Nu-Labour chicanery when he was parachuted into the Stoke-on-Trent constituency by the National Executive Committee which simultaneously excluded any local labour members from the shortlist. Mr Hunt understands and thoroughly approves of the non-democratic process by which the elite maintains itself.
Hunt, of course, was one of the first refuseniks under Corbyn. He wasn’t the last and the process will continue. But to what end? The reality is that the worst has already happened. The Labour party has moved so far from it’s roots that it is simply no longer in touch with a great swathe of the working class which is still claims to represent. The petulant response to Corbyn’s election is the most obvious manifestation of the fact that the current parliamentary Labour party simply cannot oppose the Tories and their program of vertical wealth re-distribution because ultimately they agree with it. The problem is not that the party is opposed to its leader. The problem is instead, that PLP is now opposed to its own party members and the grassroots that put that leader in place.
Tactically, the PLP is in a very strong position. All that they have to do is claim Corbyn will be a disaster, and then undermine him relentlessly. This will inevitably become a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in the current leader being replaced and the next party leadership contested by proper candidates only. Who knows? We might even get a choice between the same three identikit Westminster Villagers that Corbyn obliterated the last time around.
If the PLP wants a model for this kind of behaviour they only have to look across the floor of the House of Commons. Ian Duncan Smith was a towering disaster as leader of his party. Nevertheless he was the chosen candidate of the party’s grassroots. William Hague had changed the rules before his own departure, in order to allow the actual membership to have to the final say on who ran their party. IDS would not have been the choice of his fellow MPs. Initially, Michael Portillo was seen as the man to revive the Conservative’s fortunes but eventually his campaign faltered and the parliamentary MPs decided on Kenneth Clarke over Duncan Smith. This decision was reversed by the members and so the famously inept IDS came to power, albeit briefly. After 2 years of his cringeworthy attempts at leadership the MPs removed him and then installed Michael Howard without bothering to ratify that decision via the membership. Like their Labour counterparts, democracy in action is not something that conservative MPs are ultimately comfortable with.
When Howard stood down, David Cameron managed to gain the support of both his party members and his MPs, but there is no doubt that if he had not, the MPs would once again conspire to get their way. This is the most likely outcome for the labour party. An ugly and protracted coup to remove Corbyn and then a swift return to the tactics of spinelessly aping the Tories until hopefully their turn comes around again to take the reins of power. This is what is really meant by the politics of pragmatism. This will almost certainly cause a serious schism on the left (again). At the same time it will create an additional electoral headache for the PLP by further alienating an increasingly broad section of its core vote.
It would not be that outlandish to see the emergence of a purely anti-austerity party alongside the Labour Party after Corbyn has met his own bloody end on the steps of the forum. This would threaten an electoral disaster for the Labour party but possibly a long-term benefit for the left as a whole. It is now perfectly clear that, not only does the Labour Party fail to represent the interests of the working class. It also fails to represent the interest of the country as whole. This failure has to be set against another trend in UK politics. One that even Corbyn himself is trying to ignore. The increasing fragmentation of the popular vote. In 1950 the three main parties were not the only options, but they may as well have been, garnering 78.6% of the popular vote. Fast forward to 2015 and the man three parties can only count on 49.7% of the popular vote. This trend has been steady for over 60 years now and shows no signs of slowing. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite. The rise of both regional and single interest parties has led to a massive diversity of voting intentions. This is, of course, masked by the UK’s first past the post system whereby the Greens and UKIP can poll collectively half of what Labour achieved and yet only manage 2 seats between them as opposed to Labours 232.
Nevertheless, this trend is only going to continue. In light of this, Labour would be better off looking at a grand coalition of the left rather than attacking the Welsh and Scottish heartlands in an effort to win back votes from other like-minded parties. If Corbyn survives, and this is extremely unlikely, then this would be a possibility. Under the rump of Blairites who are likely to replace him, this opportunity would almost certainly be lost.