So Jeremy Corbyn has won a resounding victory in the Labour leadership contest. Well, whoop-di-doop. It comes as no surprise, I guess, because even if most of his Parliamentary colleagues think he is a walking disaster area, the majority of the Party membership love him to bits so the result was pretty much a foregone conclusion. But it seems to me the big winners in this are Theresa May and the Conservative party, because the vote has probably guaranteed her a clean victory whenever she cares to call a General Election to rubber stamp with the population at large her own ascent to her party’s leadership in the wake of Cameron’s post-Brexit retirement.
She has little or no real opposition.
The Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out at the last Election: despite still having a reasonable say in local politics with control over 20 or so councils across the UK, but on a national level they are virtually non-existent – only 8 seats out of 650 in Parliament (a mere 1.2% of those available), representing only 7.8% of the country’s population. They have a relatively new leader, Tim Farron, who no-one except the party faithful takes seriously. This is a devastating position for a party that until last year was in Government (albeit as part of the Cameron coalition).
Then there is UKIP, the Millwall football club of British politics (no-one likes us, we don’t care). Their claim to fame is playing, mainly through ex-leader and gravy-train riding MEP Nigel Farage, a leading role in that damned Brexit campaign, and winning. He too has stepped down and been replaced by someone few people have heard of (Diane James – no, I hadn’t heard of her either). They boast a single MP, the Tory defector and generally incompetent and widely disliked (and distrusted) Douglas Carswell, who despite being the One at Westminster does not feature anywhere in the list of the party’s policy makers and leading lights. Like the LibDems, they hold more sway in local politics, largely through LCD politics – appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator of voter with rhetoric that harks back to the good old days of Britain’s colonial and world power status, and grossly exaggerating concerns about immigration, terrorism threats and border controls. It worked during the referendum, but it seems questionable whether it will hold a similar appeal in a general election campaign. Time will tell.
Then there is a collection of vested interest parties – groups like the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Ulster Unionists (all of whom are popular and indeed dominant in their own parts of the UK), the Greens and a few Independents. But the chances of them forming a genuine threat to the Conservatives, come the General Election, are at best minimal, at worst infinitesimal.
If this leadership contest has shown anything at all, it is that the party is split. This is a sad reflection of a once great party that has failed really to move with the changing times. I voted for them in the past, back in the 70s when the likes of Wilson and Callaghan and Healey and Jenkins and Castle seemed to my youthful self to offer more leadership and hope than a then weak and less than competent Conservative party under Heath. They were all from the older war-time generation, the same as my Labour supporting, working class dad. But they were clearly in thrall to a trades union movement that despite its good intentions, seemed to be abusing its power by moving increasingly to the left, to a place that was close to an already discredited Communism.
I remember the strikes throughout the 70s – working by candle-light like a Dickens character in an office in the City of London, courtesy of power cuts enforced as part of the imposition of a three day working week due to an industrial dispute. I remember the car industry, once the best in the world, being virtually destroyed by a succession of strikes. I remember piles of rubbish in the streets of towns and cities because the refuse collectors were involved in a wider ranging industrial dispute with local councils. I stopped voting Labour then, and switched allegiance reluctantly to the Liberals, then the SDP (before their merger), feeling they offered a better way forward.
Then came Thatcher, and a re-invigorated Conservative party took power and took on the unions. It needed doing, but the price paid was regrettably high – a steel industry and coal industry all but destroyed as their unions took on the government and lost, with whole communities left unemployed and hopeless, and pitched battles between union activists and the police that cost lives. But over the course of three parliaments Britain was transformed into a confident, share- and property-owning democracy, with generally higher wages and lower unemployment. But as happens, it went too far, ran out of ideas, Thatcher was replaced by John Major, and started its own soul searching period.
Meanwhile for Labour Neil Kinnock took on the left wing nutters in Militant, and diluted their power within the party, moving it somewhat to the right. He was replaced by John Smith, on whose untimely death Tony Blair took over, re-branded the party New Labour, moved it to even more of a centre ground and was rewarded by three general election victories (the only Labour leader to have done that). Perhaps unfairly branded as Tory Lite, he achieved over his time as leader arguably some quite good things – the Social Chapter, the abolition of Clause 4, further labour, educational and tax reforms, that ensured the country did not lurch back into a wasteland of industrial disputes, and continued to grow the economy. But he also joined the US in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts that were the response to the 9/11 terrorist atrocity, based on intelligence that with the benefit of hindsight proved to be at best inaccurate and exaggerated and arguably downright lies, and without a clear mandate from the UN that has tarnished his reputation and left him branded forever (and in my view unreasonably) as a war criminal.
He stepped down and was replaced by Gordon Brown, who had been a decent Chancellor of the Exchequer but proved a useless leader who led the Labour party to Electoral defeat in 2010. He in turn stepped down and was replaced by a rather wishy-washy Ed Milliband who repeated the trick of leading Labour to an Electoral defeat in 2015. Throughout the Brown and Milliband years, the Labour party seemed at a loss as to what it stood for, never really coming up with a coherent agenda or identity. After the last election, Milliband stepped down (a recurring story so far this century) and was replaced by the surprise choice of Corbyn.
Which is where we are now. Corbyn has been in the party and in parliament for 30 odd years, and has served exclusively on the back benches – Leader of the Opposition is his first front-bench position and one in which he has at times struggled – hence the leadership challenge. He is an old-style conviction politician, somewhat to the Left of New Labour, but at least consistent in his beliefs. He is strongly anti-war (he voted against the Iraq adventure and has stated publicly he will not authorise military intervention in any foreign war) and pro-trade union. He is against the austerity measures that have been forced upon most of the world after the 2008 financial crisis, and lukewarm as far as Europe is concerned – one of the main criticisms levelled at him is that during the referendum he failed to provide clear leadership in putting across the party’s Stay In stance.
His task now is to unite a fractured party behind a more left wing agenda – less austerity, more job creation, more public ownership of things like the railways, more cash for education and the NHS – that appeals to the party membership and the man in the street, but does not sit so well with a more moderate parliamentary party that whilst not rampantly New Labour is still more centrist. Whether he is up to the job is debatable. Whether there is actually anyone else in the party who could do that is equally uncertain. But unless he does so, the party is quite probably unelectable. Hence the glee with which May and her Conservative will undoubtedly greet this result.
It reminds me of an evening back at the height of Mrs. Thatcher’s powers, when the Labour party was similarly soul searching and light years from an electoral victory. I attended a dinner in the City of London (the annual beano of one of the finance industry’s many self-regulating bodies) at which the keynote address was provided by Jeffrey Archer. At the time he was an ex-MP, best-selling author and rampant Tory with ambitions still of high political office (the libel case against the Daily Star newspaper that led to a subsequent conviction and imprisonment for perjury and perverting the course of justice was still some years away).
He was also a very entertaining after-dinner speaker. Anyway, when we came to the after-speech Q&A, he wearily answered a few inane questions about how he would act if he were managing a securities settlement department in such-and-such a situation, or whether England would qualify for the next World Cup – matters for which he clearly had not the slightest interest. Then I stuck my hand up, was passed the microphone, and asked if, given the state of the Opposition and the strength of the Tories and Mrs. Thatcher’s grip on power, he agreed with me that the country was in danger of becoming a one-Party state, and whether this was good for democracy and Britain. He was delighted and answered at length (basically he agreed with me, and promised that when he became Prime Minister things would change to prevent such a thing happening again).
It seems to me, maybe 30 years later, that the wheel has turned full circle and we are back in the same place, with a strong Tory party under a female leader, and a fragmented and weak Opposition.