Labour Party members waking on the morning of Friday 8 May might have been forgiven for hoping they had dreamed the nightmare, but sadly it was all true. The Tories had been returned to government with their first majority since 1992; Labour MPs in Scotland had become the whipping boys for a post-referendum urge to do the naughty thing after all; and in the party’s neglected backyards in the Midlands and the north UKIP had rocked up, waving a St George’s cross, stubbing out a fag on the birdbox, and lugging in some tinnies from the back of a white van.
It had been, as many were quick to point out, a perfect storm; Labour’s third worst defeat of the post-war period – only 1.5 per cent up on the previous general election, which itself had seen the party sink to its lowest share of the vote since the rout of 1983. And the parallels with that now totemic failure were soon drawn: a party running a ‘traditional left-wing’ campaign had, as Tony Blair had prophesied the previous December, been punished with the ‘traditional result’; an oddball intellectual leader had failed to connect with ordinary hard-working Britons; and Labour had spoken the mantras of grievance, not the code words of ‘aspiration’ and economic rectitude.
So as that new day dawned – the activists and failed candidates commiserating, the wannabe SPADs reconsidering their careers, and the wrong-footed pundits filing their mea culpas – it was understandable that more than a few believed this was, at least, the end of the beginning, Labour’s final bump along the bottom. Indeed, the first step to recovery was taken quickly. A few minutes after noon, Ed Miliband resigned as leader, firing the starting shot of a campaign to replace him that had been building almost since the day he had pipped his own brother to the post five years previously. Many must have agreed when he reassured: ‘This party has come back before and will come back again.’
For those on Labour’s right, the so-dubbed Blairites, the path back to power appeared especially clear, however steep. First, elect a ‘credible’ leader (they had a couple waiting in the wings). Second, restore public confidence in the party on the economy. Third, reverse the drift to the left under Gordon Brown and Miliband by embracing ‘aspiration’ – Labour had to win over the ‘John Lewis community’, it would soon be told. What could be simpler?
The problem was that the two MPs most fancied for the task suddenly turned shy. Former major in the Parachute Regiment Dan Jarvis ruled himself out within days of the result, citing the needs of his young family. For the party’s uniform fetishists, the reluctance of this veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to place himself in the political line of fire was no doubt a great disappointment. Here was a man one could imagine uttering the words ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough’ and not eliciting sniggers. Here, many lamented, was a man the Tories would have feared.
But there was still the bookies’ favourite, the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna. Despite a widespread perception that Labour had become too elitist, too metropolitan, too middle-class and – in Scotland – too English, the smooth-talking, sharp-suited, privately-educated London lawyer was widely seen as the man to beat. First elected to the Commons at the 2010 election, and thus untainted by the divisions and mistakes of the last Labour government, he was the Blair apparent.
Until – just three days after formally announcing his intention to run – he too withdrew his candidacy, admitting he had found the resultant media scrutiny uncomfortable.
The saying, attributed to Harold Wilson, that ‘a week is a long time in politics’ sprang to mind. In that space of time Labour had seen the back of the defeated Miliband and, quite possibly, a new addition to that venerable list of leaders it had never had. Among those who had thought things could only get better, this was the moment when the fear that the party might sink still lower truly began to set in. For the rump candidates were hardly the stuff of political wet dreams.
From left to right – though most would struggle to slide a Rizla between them ideologically – they were: Andy Burnham (professional northerner), Yvette Cooper (safe pair of hands), Tristram Hunt (Footlights College Cambridge), Mary Creagh (no, me neither) and Liz Kendall (the one you’ll love to hate!). It was a dismal line-up.
And it appeared no less dismal with the addition of Jeremy Corbyn (the tribune of Islington North), as this dogged stalwart of the left was not widely known for his wit, charisma or imagination. So, despite the howls of anger from the party’s right when Corbyn made the shortlist – aided by indulgent nominations from MPs with no intention of voting for him – there was little reason to believe that Labour would fail to do the sensible thing. Burnham and Cooper, the new front-runners, may have been uninspiring, but they had one great merit: neither was Ed Miliband. It was hard to see either entering 10 Downing Street in 2020, but both were experienced and competent, both could ensure party unity, and both would be able to surround themselves with a more talented front-bench team than that sat behind the government box. Here, went the consolations, was a forceful opposition; a caretaker leadership until the younger generation were ready to step up.
Two months on and many of the 8 May optimists are in despair, while some Blairites are talking of coups. Because the Labour Party is in the grip of ‘Corbynmania’. Somehow this mild-mannered back-bench MP – teetotaller, vegetarian and cyclist; a man at ease in beige; and the only one of the four contenders to confess that he’s never smoked cannabis – has electrified Labour’s grassroots, drawing support from young radicals, old socialists and down-in-the-dumps activists alike.
It is a most unexpected development, and appears all the more odd when considered against the standard for cards in British politics. Unlike his friend George Galloway or his mentor Tony Benn, Corbyn is no fire and brimstone rhetorician; there is no wild-eyed demagogue straining to get out of him. Nor is he a careful flaunter of tap ’n’ spile authenticity, like Nigel Farage. And there is in him none of the caddishness of Boris Johnson or the flamboyance of Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976. His great eccentricity – aside from the beard, for which he was awarded Beard of the Year by the Beard Liberation Front in 2001, beating Rolf Harris – is his politics. He is a socialist. Not a social democrat or a Christian socialist. Not a social-ist, as some New Labourites have called themselves when confronted with the ‘S’ question (repeating Tony Benn’s own early-1980s attempt to detoxify the term). Jeremy Corbyn is the real deal: an admirer of Marx, a nostalgist for the old Clause IV, a soft-looking standard-bearer for the hard left.
It would be wrong, though, to think the ‘platform’ he has constructed during the contest thus far amounts to a promise of socialism in our time. He would abolition university tuition fees, raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour, introduce voting at 16, ‘socialise’ the energy market (along German lines), found a National Investment Bank (again, on the German model), use quantitative easing to finance infrastructure investment, reduce corporate tax reliefs and subsidies, make the tax system more progressive, keep Britain within the European Union, protect the green belt, oppose fracking, scrap Trident, enable local councils to build more houses, introduce rent controls, extend home ownership, scrap the bedroom tax and the benefit cap, ban zero-hours contracts, electrify the entire rail network, take the train companies back into public ownership, introduce a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, fill half his shadow cabinet with women, move toward universal free childcare, found a National Education Service to provide free life-long learning, increase corporation tax (although still keep it at the lowest rate in the G7) and save Britain’s bees.
It’s a radical prospectus. Certainly when compared to the Labour manifesto the British electorate rejected in May, but also by the standards of the so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’ of 1983. In some respects it even lies to the left of the much-hallowed Labour government elected in 1945; knowing all too well the threat posed by the Soviet Union under Stalin, Clement Attlee had no doubt that a British nuclear deterrent was a necessary evil. Yet Corbyn’s campaign is not, on paper at least, a simplistic step-back-in-time to the Bennism of the early 1980s. On any sober assessment the impression is of a more grown-up – dare I say it? – pragmatic Green Party.
But these are not sober times. One half of the Labour Party is binge-drinking on optimism, the rest is in its cups, ranting to anyone who’ll commission an opinion piece that the end is nigh. If YouGov, the Constituency Labour Party endorsements and the various private polls leaked to the press are to be believed (and let’s be clear: they’re really not) in the space of 14 of Harold Wilson’s weeks the mantle of saviour/wrecker of the Labour Party has been transferred from the British Obama to north London’s version of Bernie Sanders. Aspiration is out, renationalisation is back in – as Andy Burnham’s catch-up noises on the railways go to show.
One doesn’t have to be a Blairite ultra to believe this will be disastrous for Labour in 2020. Corbyn fails on all the tests the voters appeared to set at the election: leadership, economic credibility and a sensitivity to their unease about mass immigration. Worse, he will be seen to fall short on an issue that has been the undoing of the British left since the Zinoviev letter and before: patriotism.
If you thought the Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband through his Marxist father Ralph, ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’, was bad, you ain’t – as Messrs Bachman, Turner and Overdrive put it – seen nothing yet. Wait for the edition (after Mr Corbyn has been elected leader, of course) when the same paper runs a front-page interview with a relative of one of those killed by the Provisional IRA in the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974; or perhaps with someone injured during the 1996 attack on Manchester by the same terrorist group; or with Lady Tebbit, seated in the wheelchair she uses because the provos tried to assassinate her husband – and the rest of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet – in 1984. In each case the question will be the same: why did the man now at the helm of the Labour Party take it on himself to talk to Sinn Féin when innocent Britons were still being murdered by the IRA? (Corbyn supporters inclined to write this scenario off as mere speculation should note that the opening salvo has already been fired.)
Such one-man-band diplomacy – which also includes talking to Hamas and Hezbollah – will be lumped together with Corbyn’s work for the Iranian-funded broadcaster Press TV, the plan to scuttle Trident, and his opposition to NATO to paint the new Labour leader as ‘soft’ on national security. No doubt the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, will quickly pop up with a variation on his pre-election slur that Ed Miliband was ready to barter the nuclear fleet for parliamentary support from the SNP – and who could blame him? If Labour is happy to provide the barrel, the water and the fish, the least the Tories can do is turn up with a gun.
But there’s plenty of time to ponder the outcome of the leadership contest, and the merits – or otherwise – of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy. The question of this article is why a man so far removed from most of his parliamentary colleagues, let alone the apparent centre ground of British politics, now seems poised to inherit Keir Hardie’s crown? Or, in the tenor of the times: who’s to blame for Corbynmania?
The simplest answer, already offered by New Labour apparatchik John McTernan, is to point the finger at those MPs who nominated Corbyn despite having no intention of voting for him: the ‘morons’ – to adopt Mr McTernan’s blunt nomenclature – who deemed it necessary to provide oxygen to a politics that they and much of the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party have treated as toxic for a quarter of a century. However well-intentioned, this decision to ensure the widest possible debate about the party’s future seemed muddle-headed at the time and now looks like a catastrophic blunder.
Was it well-intentioned though? Some commentators have spied an agenda other than naive pluralism in the late rush of nominations that brought Corbyn into the race. Mary Ann Sieghart believes Andy Burnham lent some of his backers to the veteran Bennite in order to avoid being labelled the candidate of the left. Supporters of the shadow health secretary are not noticeably dominant among the ‘morons’, but that is not to say one should swallow the line that these MPs were acting simply in the interests of party democracy. There are other reasons to suspect Corbyn’s campaign owes its existence to good old-fashioned politicking. Three of the latecomers were London mayoral hopefuls Sadiq Khan, David Lammy and Gareth Thomas: what possible ulterior motives might they have had for being seen to help one of the capital’s longest-standing and most popular MPs?
Several ‘morons’ have come to regret giving Corbyn his moment in the sun, but one shouldn’t blame the midwives. When Diane Abbott stood as the left candidate in 2010, she attracted just 7.42 per cent of first preference votes, and came last among party members. Consequently there were few on 15 June, the day nominations closed, who believed the more obscure Corbyn would become a front runner. The concern then was that his inclusion would drag other candidates to the left, or that his exposure to the electorate might make Labour appear unserious. What’s changed in five years to make him a contender?
Some have laid the blame at the door of Ed Miliband. His detractors variously charge him with having moved Labour away from the centre, or with having introduced the party reforms that have made Corbynmania possible.
The first accusation is a canard: a case of swallowing the enemy grog. The 2015 Labour manifesto was a tepid document, containing little that would even tickle the horses, let alone scare them. A derisory hike in the minimum wage to £8 by 2020? The Tories have already trumped it. Targets for more house-building and apprenticeships? The Conservatives offered those too. Increased funding for the NHS? Ditto. Extending free childcare? Yep, that was on Cameron’s list as well. Scrapping the bedroom tax? More voters agreed it should go than disagreed. Labour’s campaign too often relied on the politics of grievance, but it was not radical in its solutions.
The crucial problem was Miliband himself. He was too timid, too awkward, too cerebral ever to play the populist. And for much of his tenure large numbers of Labour Party supporters knew full well he wasn’t up to the job – hence the repeated calls for Alan Johnson to step in. The notion that Miliband inspired a sea change in his party’s politics is laughable. That he presided over a retreat to its oppositionist comfort zone? Well perhaps, but that is not the same as changing its centre of gravity.
The argument that Miliband’s efforts to make Labour more ‘democratic’ have aided Corbynmania is more convincing. The introduction of one member one vote for leadership elections was initially welcomed as a way of further reducing the influence of the trade unions, and of encouraging a broader membership. The same thinking led many on the right of the party to applaud Miliband’s £3 ‘registered supporters’: Labour’s response to the recent vogue for open primaries – and also to allegations of union vote-rigging. Ironically, Corbyn’s rise has turned the warm words about party democracy into fear-mongering over entryism (ignoring the fact that the cuckoo has been sitting on the Labour benches for the last 32 years).
On the latest count, over 400,000 people have signed up to the party since the election. Although the verification process to weed out saboteurs is still ongoing, the number of full members stands at close to 300,000, with 190,000 affiliated supporters (mainly trade unionists) and 121,000 three-pounders. The surge has tripled the size of the selectorate for the leadership and is an undeniable democratic phenomenon, dwarfing the 42,000 members of UKIP’s so-called ‘People’s Army’, and comparable (given the much larger population of Great Britain as a whole) to the 85,000-strong bounce enjoyed by the SNP since last year’s Scottish independence referendum. By some chalk, Labour is now the largest party in the land (although still looks puny compared to the National Trust’s four million).
Ordinarily such numbers would be a cause for elation: a bleep from the heart monitor after an agonising silence. Except that Corbyn appears to be the main beneficiary. And whether or not these new supporters propel him into office, they will have a major effect on the party’s direction of travel in the months to come. For starters, don’t bet on Tessa Jowell winning the nomination as Labour’s candidate for the London mayoralty.
The Miliband reforms are not, however, a cause of Cobynism. Something had to attract these new members to sign up, and in other circumstances the changed rules might have benefited a different candidate. Had Chuka Umunna not taken fright, had he stayed to articulate a populist, optimistic vision of the left’s future, I suspect Labour would still be seeing a surge in numbers – many of them also young and idealistic.
Which brings me to the next targets in my blame game: Corbyn’s rivals.
There is no getting around it, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are mediocrities. Twenty years ago none would have been an obvious candidate for a great office of state, and the suggestion that any of them might run for leader would rightly have provoked guffaws. Competent and careful, every word calibrated to avoid unsettling a single floating voter, they are quintessentially New Labour; which is a very different thing to being Tony Blair. The result has been a charisma-free zone. And the total absence of panache, imagination and – for all Andy Burnham’s jumpers-for-goalposts laddism – authenticity has, by default, made a virtue of Corbyn’s earnestness.
Marina Hyde has seen in this an institutional flaw in the New Labour project itself. The Blairites once thought of themselves of the Manchester United of politics, she observed slyly in the Guardian, but ‘if Blairism was so brilliantly done, then where was its second great team?’ Her answer: that, unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, Blair and Brown actively snuffed out talent.
The titanic power struggle at the top of the Blair years sucked the oxygen out of the nursery, and the next generation withered. At times they were forcibly withered by the reigning egomaniacs, who either never heard that great leaders bring on and surround themselves with great potential successors, or did not care to learn it.
The comparison with Man U makes for a tart irony, but is probably too fair to Old Trafford: David Moyes was surely the Red Devils’ Ed Miliband.
Neither is the current line-up entirely a product of New Labour’s conformist, safety-first match play. But for ‘events’, the candidates might have looked very different: Umunna, of course; that relatively young greybeard Alan Johnson; the personable and pugnacious Emily Thornberry; and either Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper to make up the numbers. Not a clash of the titans, granted, but patently more fun than the actual roster.
None of which is to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity is solely due to the weakness of his opponents. That he has outpaced Diane Abbott’s run at the leadership in 2010 should be no surprise. Corbyn has spent most of his adult life as an organiser and activist. From the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the more recent Stop the War Coalition, he has toiled away in the backrooms of protest politics for over 40 years. Like his campaign director, Simon Fletcher – formerly Ken Livingstone’s chief of staff and more recently a senior aide to Ed Miliband – he has an intuitive grasp of how to mobilise grassroots support; and in a contest fought over hundreds of thousands – not tens of millions, as in a general election – this has given him an edge. When the dust settles, Corbyn’s rivals may regret having spent so much of the early campaign making set-piece speeches to think tanks and City firms, rather than reaching out to the party’s dispirited foot soldiers.
Important, too, are Corbyn’s lack of artifice, genial demeanour and fondness for that hoary Bennite favourite ‘The Issues’. He’s a politician from ‘the good old days’; an image of a simpler, more moral time. To hazard a cliché, the internet age has made vintage hot and, in Britain’s most sentimental political party, the beneficiary is a man who was too old for punk.
The so-called ‘Sex Pot Trot’ has set the pulses of many members racing, and despite the advice of their most successful leader since Harold Wilson, most don’t want a heart transplant. Yet the fact remains that it is his support that is remarkable, not the man himself. What is leading so many to contemplate such a high-risk gamble?
The ever-perceptive Helen Lewis has offered the most intriguing analysis. She thinks Corbynmania is a case of ‘virtue signalling’; a community centre version of liking Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover on Facebook because, y’ know, that’s the nice thing to think – isn’t it? She also points to the insularity of the young left; their self-enclosure within a social media bubble that acts as an echo chamber for whatever right-on cause happens to be doing the rounds.
It’s not a new phenomenon, although Lewis is right that Twitter makes it more powerful. In 1997 a university friend – someone with a particular dislike for ‘Trustafarians’ and the other middle-class eco-warriors one used to find at a Reclaim the Streets event (remember them?) – described it to me as ‘look-at-me leftism’. Look-at-me lefties preferred protest to Parliament, saw compromise as tantamount to Toryism and decried Tony Blair as a sell-out. (The few times I’ve seen said friend since graduating he’s taken great delight in listing those LAMLs who have gone on to lucrative careers in the law, marketing or the City.)
So, the Corbynistas are ‘signalling’ how pure they are? Confronted with the hard graft of winning over an electorate selfishly fixed on minding its own business, they have opted instead to withdraw from the world and live free of the sin compromise?
Well, maybe. But some of those supporting Corbyn are long-standing activists who know quite how little was gained from the pragmatism of Labour’s last two election campaigns. Others are former members who resigned out of conscience during the Iraq war. Not everyone in Camp Corbyn is a hashtag idealist. Many of them, I suspect, are acting on an emotion far more profound than a desire to look good. The root cause of Corbynmania, in my view, is remorse.
As the possibility of a Corbyn win has progressed to the front pages, senior Labour figures have resorted to impersonating Gordon Brown to clunk some sense into the party. Specifically, they have echoed his conference speech of 2009, reciting the achievements of New Labour’s time in office. Here’s Alan Johnson writing in the Guardian on 4 August:
Leave aside the transformation in health and education (plus additional jobs and extra pay for nurses and teachers), the 3,000 Sure Start centres, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Act, civil partnerships, rescuing 1.2 million children from absolute poverty and 1.8 million from relative poverty, pension credit (which made the single biggest contribution to the fact that for the first time in recorded history being old is no longer associated with being poor), the Pension Protection Fund, the resuscitation of apprenticeships and the world’s first legally enforceable carbon reduction targets… [Keir] Hardie’s vision of a national minimum wage wasn’t enacted by MacDonald or Attlee, Wilson or Callaghan; it was introduced by the Blair government.
He could have added quite a bit more: free museums, Scottish and Welsh devolution, the Freedom of Information Act, a mayor for London, peace in Northern Ireland, the winter fuel allowance and an international aid budget of 0.7 per cent of GDP, making the United Kingdom one of the most generous donors in the world.
The problem is the other list.
Many of the people backing Jeremy Corbyn have been ‘Labour’ for most of their lives. And these supporters live with some awful truths.
They know theirs is the party that proclaimed itself ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. They know Labour presided over privatisation of the NHS and a huge and costly expansion of PFI. They remember that the first Blair government didn’t ‘take back’ the railways, but did introduce tuition fees. And they recall another occasion when Harriet Harman appeared to support Conservative welfare cuts, when, as social security secretary in 1997, she pushed through a measure to remove benefits from single parents, to the sound of Tory crowing.
Then there were the scandals: the shocking neglect at Stafford hospital, cash for peerages, the allegation that donations from Bernie Ecclestone influenced a decision to exempt Formula One from the ban on tobacco advertising, and the sleazy sight of former Labour ministers Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt, Richard Caborn, Jack Straw and soi-disant ‘cab for hire’ Stephen Byers auditioning for lobbying jobs in media stings that resembled nothing so much as re-runs of the Major years.
Except that John Major never took his country into an illegal war. It was a Labour prime minister who did that. Where coalition forces had stopped in the Gulf War of 1990–91, Tony Blair and George W. Bush ploughed on, staining their hands, and those of the people who had worked to put them in office, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The other ignominies of the ‘War on Terror’ – the attempt to introduce ‘90 days without charge’, the defence of Guantanamo Bay, the revelations that Britain had been complicit in ‘extraordinary rendition’ – were as nothing compared to this cardinal political sin.
In the 1960s the British left had condemned the then Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, for not opposing the US war in Vietnam, despite his refusal to commit British troops. Three decades later their equivalents in the Stop the War Coalition saw Wilson’s heir leading the charge.
Regardless of Ed Miliband’s attempt to draw a line under the Labour Party’s divisions over Iraq, the remorse still lingers. Now Jeremy Corbyn, one of the leaders of the anti-war protests, one of the untainted million who marched against military action on 15 February 2003, offers absolution.
He may lack the dog collar, but he has all the manner of a kindly vicar, reassuring the sinner that all is not lost, that there is always time to change; that the Kingdom of Heaven will be built on Earth. A vote for Corbyn is an act of repentance for our complicity in Tony Blair’s wars.
Yet this is not all. There is still one more great sin to atone for; the crime that Labour activists past and present feel in their hearts but dare not speak aloud: the awful truth that Labour was responsible for the recession.
Not because the Blair and Brown governments overspent, but because they allowed the banks to run riot. The ‘light touch regulation’ of the City of London, that Gordon Brown boasted of in his Mansion House speech in 2006, was of a piece with Peter Mandelson’s ease with people – the people sat listening to the chancellor that night, in fact – getting filthy rich. New Labour may have fixed the holes in the roof, but it did so by siphoning off the proceeds of the most dangerous bubble of debt and speculation since the Great Crash of 1929.
Worse, they’d been warned. In 1995 Will Hutton, then economics editor of the Guardian, had published The State We’re In. It was a forensic assault on the short-termist capitalism of the City; a plea to regulate and restructure Britain’s financial markets to incentivise investment over speculation. And despite that, it became a bestseller, achieving sales of 150,000 copies in hardback alone to become the single most popular work of political economy of the 1990s.
A decade on, in the midst of the ‘credit crunch’ of 2008, Hutton recalled how Tony Blair had briefly flirted with the book’s alternative vision of ‘stakeholder capitalism’:
his colleagues, especially Gordon Brown , were appalled. The idea would upset the new gods in the City of London, and in any case was wrong because it challenged the free-market orthodoxies. The only way New Labour could win and govern was to accept the Thatcherite settlement, and try to promote social justice within those constraints. And so the madnesses became rocket-propelled.
Blair and Brown could not have shielded Britain from the financial crisis. It was a genuinely global calamity that would have reduced demand, pushed up the deficit and unemployment, and threatened the stability of the banks whatever the regime in the City. To have avoided the deluge entirely would have required the creation of an international order with the ambition of the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, and for that there was no political will in the 1990s, even among the founders of the euro.
But New Labour could have seized the momentum of its landslide victory in 1997 to do the difficult job of reforming capitalism at home. Even a small dose of Hutton’s programme – a strict division between retail and investment banking, for instance; a reversal of the de-mutualisation of the building societies; or a stronger competition policy – would have reduced Britain’s exposure to the crisis and so lessened the pain that followed. We might also now have a few more of those high-tech, highly-skilled jobs politicians seem so keen on.
Instead, the first Blair government handed industrial policy to the bankers, and then the Brown government bailed them out. Along the way, Labour ministers helpfully straightened the tables of the money changers to ensure that Temple business could continue as usual.
It is this – not Iraq – that constitutes the original sin of New Labour. This is the cause of the remorse in the old activists now returning to the fold, and also the source of the anger that fires the young people who have suffered most from the joblessness and austerity of the past seven years.
As the saying goes, he who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon; and (one might add) beware the coming of J.C.
There is, however, one other essential factor at work in Corbynmania: the Tories.
Labour splits often pre-date the election of a Conservative government, but they invariably worsen afterward. This was true in the 1950s, with the rancour between the Gaitskellites and the Bevanites; in the 1980s, when the Gang of Four split off to form the SDP and Neil Kinnock inherited the unhappy task of suppressing Militant Tendency and the Bennites; and the signs are that it may happen again today.
Part of the reason is the Tories’ shameless opportunism. They win their mandates by parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn and annexing the party’s support. Such was the case when Churchill accepted the welfare state after his defeat in 1945, it can be seen in Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’, and it is naked in David Cameron and George Osborne’s recent announcement of a ‘national living wage’ and the continued ring-fencing of the NHS and international aid budgets. The intent is to provoke an identity crisis: does Labour stay in the so-called centre ground and risk appearing ‘Tory-lite’ (the accusation lobbed at Liz Kendall), or should it open up clear red water? (The siren call of the Corbyn campaign.)
Another element is how the experience of Tory government can radicalise the left, notably the young. In 2010, with austerity yet to bite, Ed Miliband became leader of a party that was beaten but not yet bitter; indeed, the departure of Gordon Brown revealed that many of the supposed divisions of the previous 13 years were fundamentally personal, not ideological. With New Labour’s foundational power struggle removed, the party appeared remarkably unified.
The five years since have brought falls in real living standards, the bedroom tax, a rise in zero-hours contracts, a hike in tuition fees, a cut to the highest rate of income tax and scandals over non-doms and tax avoidance. Meanwhile, campaigns such as UK Uncut and the Robin Hood Tax – even Russell Brand’s The Trews – have done sterling work promoting alternatives to Osbornomics. In the process they have shown up the timidity of the Labour Party and provoked a hardening of attitudes on the left.
Up until a month ago, the most likely political outcome of this shift appeared to be a series of challenges to Labour from without: a more disciplined Green Party; a UKIP of the left (perhaps resulting from a merger of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition with Left Unity); the rebuilding of the Liberal Democrats under Tim Farron; and, of course, the ongoing delusion that the SNP is left-wing. Among those predicting a re-alignment of British politics – especially the socialists – few expected Labour to make the first move. Common to both the Blairites and their critics has been the conceit that New Labour’s ‘control freakery’ was all-powerful; that it had lobotomised the party and contained the hard left for good. As with so many other truisms of the past 20 years – ‘no more boom and bust’, for example – it has been exposed as hubris. The worry has to be that nemesis will follow.
The deadline for registering to vote in the election to replace Ed Miliband has now passed. If the bookies are correct Jeremy Corbyn will win, propelled into office by the failings of his rivals (both present and potential) and a coalition of remorseful activists and angry young converts who have jointly discovered optimism.
On the morning of 8 May this result would have been unthinkable. And it may yet turn out to be so much froth on the daydream – like Cleggmania and Milifandom before it. One of the other candidates could, at the last minute, hit upon a convincing populism. Another might urge their supporters to fall behind whoever looks best-placed to prevent a Corbyn win. The opinion polls may be suffering from a ‘shy Blairite’ factor. And, as the panicked warnings from former leaders and ministers grow evermore shrill, those bruised, disheartened Labour activists toying with the beardie weirdie might wake suddenly from their midsummer fantasy and with their own fools’ eyes peep.
That, or Labour’s nightmares are about to get a lot worse.