Around a quarter to four on the morning of 10 April 1992, Margaret Thatcher left the house of her friend and former adviser Alistair McAlpine, where she had been watching the results of the previous day’s general election. As the former prime minister stepped out into the gloaming, the press was waiting, eager to record her verdict on the Conservative Party’s surprise victory under her successor, John Major. True to form, she was unambiguous: ‘It is a great night. It is the end of socialism.’
When the Iron Lady passed away, two days before the 21st anniversary of that election, there were few in Britain who would have regarded the second half of her proclamation as anything other than fact. The only politician to have attracted popular support for socialism during her tenure as Tory leader was Tony Benn, and by the time he followed her to the grave a year later he had been one of political history’s also-rans for over three decades. Indeed, only in a country thoroughly inoculated against leftism could such a man have become a national treasure. As Benn himself used to put it, ‘It’s because I’m harmless now’.
Perhaps not, though. One thing both Wedgie and Maggie shared was a faith in the lasting power of ideology. They each relished the contesting of ideas; not simply because debate is sport, but because they believed the victor would mould the future. For all that their visions differed, the intent was remarkably similar. To quote Thatcher: ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.’
For a long time, it has been thought that the battle for Britain’s soul went to her. Yet now Jeremy Corbyn, one of Benn’s most devoted acolytes, has been elected leader of the Labour Party, and the reports of socialism’s death are looking a little exaggerated. For weeks terms such as ‘nationalisation’, ‘economic planning’ and ‘unilateral nuclear disarmament’ have been cropping up in mainstream news coverage, and not as historical curios. There is the very real prospect that one of the world’s most important social(ist) democratic parties will now take a major step to the left.
It is tempting, therefore, to describe Corbyn’s sudden rise and victory as the most remarkable political event of recent British history. Except that we are living through extraordinary times. In 2007 Britain was hit by a financial crisis – the so-called ‘credit crunch’ – that not only led to the downfall of Gordon Brown, but also accelerated a more general destabilisation of British politics, revealing deep-lying cracks in the system.
The first national manifestation of the change was the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, an arrangement not seen at Westminster since the Second World War. Then came UKIP, the self-styled ‘People’s Army’, draining support from all three main parties to bag 3.9 million votes in this year’s general election (more than the Lib Dems and the SNP combined). Meanwhile in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon transformed a ‘defeat’ in 2014’s independence referendum into a nationalist landslide in Parliament. And let’s not forget the Greens, who, despite Natalie Bennett, increased their share of the vote from 0.9 to 3.8 per cent on 7 May.
Beyond these electoral shifts, we have witnessed the MPs’ expenses scandal, the London riots of 2011, the furore over phone-hacking, the ongoing story of ‘historic child abuse’, a variety of attention-grabbing campaigns against austerity – often led by young people – and the continuing unease over mass immigration. These developments have not all been closely or easily related, but each has touched a public nerve, and they have all had political ramifications, not least in the form of the so-called ‘anti-politics’. Taken together they point to a Britain more unsettled than at any time since the 1970s.
Thatcher, it seems, was at least partly right: whether or not economics is capable of changing the nation’s soul, it can certainly unsettle its mood. The protracted recession of the past seven years has subjected Britain to a giant stress test, and numerous areas of public life have been found wanting – our political parties and electoral system most of all.
Many of those who have supported Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership believe the country has shifted to the left during this period, despite the election of two successive Tory administrations. They point, with at least a little justification, to the deep unpopularity of Westminster and the hundreds of thousands who have signed up to Labour since the general election as evidence of a latent desire for radical change. Some even argue – regardless of his positive stance on immigration – that Corbyn is the leader best placed to win back those Labour voters who defected to UKIP, no doubt seeing the Kippers as victims of alienation rather than as angry reactionaries.
Lion & Unicorn will return to the prospects for a Corbyn-led Labour Party as we enter the conference season. But many of the obstacles have been plain to see since he first made it onto the ballot. We have warned already of the patriotism problem, and there will be much to say on the subject of disunity, particularly, albeit not solely, within the parliamentary party. As for the argument that Britain has become more left-wing – that it might be won over to full-blooded social democracy, or even socialism, in the space of the next 56 months – let’s simply acknowledge that the data is open to interpretation. In May two right-wing parties (UKIP and the Tories) won over 49 per cent of the vote; if the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg are considered right-of-centre by association that total rises to over 57 per cent.
Jeremy Corbyn’s success undoubtedly owes something to the post-crash mood in Britain, though; there has been an evident intensification of feeling on the left. But we at Lion & Unicorn are not quite as impressed by his victory – or as optimistic that it might lead to some leftist soul-changing – as we would like to be.
Our main concern, other than the problem of Corbyn’s public persona and the baggage he brings with him, lies in those ‘new’ members. First off, many of them aren’t all that new; large numbers are disaffected former activists, people who, as Corbyn himself has acknowledged, deserted Labour over the Iraq war, or after one of the many other disappointments and ignominies of the Blair-Brown years. They are not spring chickens, and it is yet to be seen whether they have the stomach for what is likely to be one of the most embattled oppositions in over 30 years.
Then there are the young and the hopeful, those who have come to the party for the first time, perhaps for as little as £3. What they will discover is that belonging to the Labour Party is, frankly, dull. It takes place in drab church halls and involves much discussion of procedure and (dullest of all) local politics. Election time – assuming they last that long – will put them through the no less disheartening ordeal of trying to win the hearts and minds of their fellow Britons, most of whom will wonder who these weirdos are, traipsing from stranger’s door to stranger’s door when they could be at the pub, or watching Corrie.
Of course few will even attend a constituency party meeting. The turnout for the leadership election, while impressive, suggests that just clicking a link in an email is too much effort for some. It will be interesting to see what remains of Labour’s new intake in a year’s time. It will also be interesting to see how many longer-standing activists – the doorknockers and tombola-wardens who stuck it out through the disappointments of Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband – decide to throw in the towel as well. The Labour machine is kept going by the middle-aged and the retired; no doubt some will decide they don’t have the fight for another lost cause.
The sad truth is that Corbynmania and the associated surge in Labour’s numbers are only impressive in the context of the atrophied state of Britain’s three main parties. Relative to population size, the growth in membership is less significant than that seen by the SNP since the referendum, and has not been accompanied by a concomitant rise in the opinion polls (quite the opposite: the Conservative lead over Labour is at a five-year high).
Looked at historically, moreover, it is modestly impressive at best. In 1952 Labour’s membership topped a million, equivalent to 1 in 34 registered voters. Even after this summer’s increase the ratio is only 1 in 84, and that figure would look much worse but for the 147,000 affiliated supporters (mostly trade unionists), who wouldn’t have been counted in the 1950s, and the 110,000 who have paid less than the price of a pint to have their say.
Not that sheer numbers are a strong indicator of electability, or that any modern party can aspire to the mass followings of yesteryear. Membership of the Tory Party (which peaked at close to 3 million in the 1950s) has slumped dramatically under David Cameron and now stands at fewer than 150,000, but this hasn’t prevented him from being returned to Downing Street with an increased majority.
What ought to worry both Corbyn and his Labour critics is that the surge appears unsustainable, and – unlike the rise of UKIP and the SNP – is yet to correlate with any discernible change in voting intention among the wider population. We hope to be proved wrong, but this does not look like the start of a mass movement. The whole spectacle of the leadership election has been too inward-facing, too obviously of the left, to convince us that a genuinely populist moment is at hand. But then populism – or rather the lack of it – is why Labour is in the state it is.
To say that modern politics is dominated by ex-SPADs who have never done a ‘real job’ and are constitutionally incapable of communicating with voters might be a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless. Jeremy Corbyn has won not because he’s a charismatic orator (he’s not), not because he’s proposing bold, original policies (that’s at best partially true), and not because he offers a chance of socialism in our time (many of his supporters admit that he’ll probably lose in 2020).
He has won because he’s a dogged campaigner, because he appears to stick to his principles, and because he wasn’t one of the other three – perhaps the least inspiring clutch of leadership hopefuls Labour has ever fielded. There’s no kind way of putting it: they deserved to lose. They were uninspiring, unimaginative and – with the occasional exception of Liz Kendall, and Yvette Cooper’s late-stage call for Britain to take more refugees – devoid of any apparent courage or conviction.
Corbyn also won for one other reason, though. He is leader because Margaret Thatcher was wrong: socialism didn’t die in 1992. It may have lost its electoral appeal, and it may have been driven out to Labour’s fringes under Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but it wasn’t extirpated. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn and the Campaign Group of MPs, however diminished, still sit in the House of Commons is testament to that.
And now, with Labour’s right weakened by disgrace, defeat and decrepitude, and the party’s activists thoroughly fed up after two decades of top-down policy-making and message control, the left has finally been handed its moment. Thanks to an ill-conceived membership drive and three dullards, Jeremy Corbyn has done what his mentor, Tony Benn, never could.
It will likely end in disappointment. There hovers over Corbyn the terrible spectre of Iain Duncan Smith; a man who was also anointed leader by an unrepresentative party membership in reward for his principled disloyalty.
Yet there may still be a positive outcome. As Liz Kendall recognised on the day the ballot closed, the Labour Party made a fatal mistake when it opted not to debate its future following the departure of Tony Blair in 2007. The implication of Gordon Brown’s coronation as leader was that there was no longer any alternative to the New Labour project, while Ed Miliband’s emphasis on unity effectively put the party’s thinking on hold for a further five years following Brown’s defeat. In the meantime, the electorate moved on.
But thanks to Corbynmania, a rigid party line is no longer possible. For the first time in 20 years the different wings and factions of Labour are gearing up for a fight over policy, and from this something stronger may emerge. Corbyn, it is to be hoped, will enable a future leader to take up some genuinely radical ideas, especially on the economic front. He may also restore some of Labour’s internal democracy, allowing it to retain at least a few of those new young members, as well as energising the weary old ones.
Above all, he will bring something that Westminster politics has been sorely lacking for a long time: an alternative. The government will be faced with arguments that Corbyn’s rivals would never have dared to put, and the voters will be presented with policies previously considered idealistic or extreme. One consequence, just possibly, will be an improvement in public debate. For consensus is not always a good thing; especially not when it has lasted – or been imposed – for a long time.
Of course, this will not solve Labour’s central problem. Like Toryism, it is a thing out of time and place – a relic of a two-party era in a world where the very idea of political parties is beginning to look suspect. But asking Jeremy Corbyn to fix the electoral system and develop new forms of democratic representation would require him to win a general election, and that’s not looking very likely.
So, for now we should content ourselves with the thought that, as the late Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn would have put it, it’s all going to be about ‘the issues’. (At least for a little while.)