The gulf in perspective that that reveals, between what ordinary members think their party is for and what the elected MPs think it’s for, is one of the interesting aspects of the race. And it’s a revelation reinforced by the mutterings from some Labour MPs that they would depose Corbyn within weeks were he to be elected. There’s nothing quite like heeding the democratic choice of the membership.
Personally, I’m not convinced that Corbyn’s views are really as far away from the other three as they’re being painted, but they are at least outside the accepted ‘Overton window’ of mainstream political debate. From the perspective of the other three candidates, as well as figures from the past like Blair (who I’m assuming didn’t really intend to help Corbyn as much as I suspect that he has done), being outside that window is crime enough. In their view, elections can only be won within that window.
Whether that’s a valid assumption or not is a good question in itself. This article sets out some thoughts on why it might be possible for the Labour Party to win under a Corbyn leadership. The points are certainly worth consideration, and perhaps there is enough of an appetite for some different thinking in the short term to overcome everything that will be thrown at him, but, on balance, I tend to accept the conventional wisdom that a Labour Party led by Corbyn would be unlikely to win the 2020 election (although it’s worth adding that I’m not convinced that a Labour Party led by any of the others would win it either).
The leadership election has highlighted the longer term argument within the Labour Party about whether the party should be an advocate of significant change, and risk losing elections, or whether it is better to advocate only minor changes but be able to win elections to deliver them, even if the difference isn’t always worded in those terms. The argument of the ‘pragmatists’ as they seem to term themselves, is that it is better to be in power and do little than to be out of power and demand a lot. It’s not always clear to me whether this is entirely a principled thought-through position; sometimes it looks more like the self-serving rationalisation of power-hungry career politicians, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt - for today at least.
It’s not an argument with which I am totally out of sympathy. I can understand that sincere politicians dealing on a daily basis with constituents facing the problems caused by welfare cuts, for instance, would argue that it’s better to be in power and mitigate those effects a little than to be standing helpless on the side-lines, shouting slogans. It’s also easy to see how they can come to believe that merely having people like themselves in power – people who care rather than people who don’t – would be an improvement. But the result of that self-belief tends to be an exaggerated sense of what is possible as a result of winning an election on a platform which is only marginally different from that of ‘the other lot’. And the logical outcome of such a strategy is that winning elections and gaining power becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end.
But the worst thing of all is that failure to challenge the accepted conventional wisdom – whether about the deficit, the welfare bill, immigration or whatever – strengthens that conventional wisdom. For decades now, Labour has been chasing the Conservatives, trying to beat them on their own ground, in the name of some strange mumbo-jumbo called ‘triangulation’. The result is that the Tories have succeeded in moving the ‘Overton window’ slowly but surely in the direction of their choice, and the Labour Party has not only allowed that to happen, it has actively assisted the Tories in doing it.
The leadership election has shown that there are still some in the party – largely outside the Westminster bubble – who understand that allowing the Tories and their friends in the media to set the parameters of political debate is a recipe for continued Tory rule, even if ‘Tory rule’ is at times actually delivered in practice by the Labour Party. And the same people who have been allowed to define the parameters of UK political debate in general are now doing their very best to define the parameters of the debate within the Labour Party, by painting Corbyn as much more different than he really is, and increasingly by demonising him.
There are some who argue that Corbyn would be the Tories’ leader of choice for Labour. I don’t buy that argument. It’s often said that oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. On that basis alone, there is at least an outside chance that things could go wrong for the Tories and that Labour will win, whoever their leader is in 2020. Corbyn might not shift the centre of debate as far as some are assuming, but from the perspective of the Tories, who have been incredibly successful over the long term in moving the 'centre' in their direction, it would be far, far better for Labour to choose a leader who would simply carry on in the direction they are setting.
At the moment, I still think it unlikely that Corbyn will win the leadership, whatever the polls might be saying. Even if he does win, what passes for political thinking at UK level has become so short-term in its nature that he’d probably only be allowed one chance – failure in 2020 would see him replaced by a more compliant figure.
And that’s the biggest problem of all. Serious change isn’t a five year, single-election project. It’s a long term project which needs to convince people that there can be a better way. It’s not just about electing a new leader, giving him one chance, and then replacing him. Labour’s founders understood that – those who have inherited the party not only don’t understand it, but don’t even seem to understand why anyone would want fundamental change.
Far too many people in Wales continue to pin their hopes on Labour, still seeing it as some sort of ‘progressive force’ despite all the evidence to the contrary. I suspect that they are hoping for a Corbyn victory, and will take heart from the success of his campaign thus far. I fear that they’re deluded – the Labour Party is a spent force and needs to be replaced, not given a temporary new lease of life.
And in Wales, as in the rest of the UK, we need to understand that significant change - on any issue - will only result from a determined long term campaign to convince people that an alternative future is possible. It will never come from working within that Overton window in the belief that that’s the only way of being ‘electable’. But sadly, bubbles aren’t solely a London phenomenon.