12 Sep 2015

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory and the new party he leads

Corbyn’s victory has stunned his opponents. But it’s the size that matters. What political scientists knew, but the media didn’t bother knowing, is that the Labour Party’s membership changed under Ed Miliband. The rise of UKIP chipped away people in “old” working class communities.

So even as Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman plugged away at the idea of “reconnecting” with the working class base, the party membership became more metropolitan, multi-ethnic, networked and with the Corbyn phenomenon young.

It became common to hear, among senior Labour figures anxious about the Greens and parties like Syriza or Podemos, the assurance: “Britain does not need a Syriza”.

Even though the “right” of the party would always be in control – whether in son-of-Blair or son-of-Brown format – there would always be a voice and place for the left: Corbyn, McDonnell and Livingstone were never purged.

The logical road to rebuilding Labour after the defeat of 2015 was to do a “Clem and Nye”. Clem Attlee was the mild-mannered moderate who delivered victory in 1945 and competence in opposition, and in the coalition cabinet during wartime; it was working class firebrand Nye Bevan who kept populism and socialism alive.

The first problem was: these old metrics do not work when the old class alliance Labour is based on fall apart. The Clem and Nye act worked because it represented what was real about Labour in the 1940s and 50s: it was an alliance of organised labour with the progressive middle classes.

In 2015 it managed to lose both of these in Scotland. In large parts of small town England and Wales it has lost a significant part of its working class support to UKIP. It — together with the Libdems – lost more than a million voters to the Greens.

So Clem and Nye would have had to be something different: call it Blue and Green. Someone to symbolise “winning back the workers” and someone to symbolise winning back the Greens and Scots (ie those who’ve departed to the left).

Instead, none of the leadership candidates – including Corbyn – really spoke to that problem. Nor, at first, did they realise whose “problem” it was.

The owners of the problem turned out to be the 554,272+ people holding party cards, union membership and supporter votes. The choice they’ve made – looked at in detail – tells a clear story.

They want Corbyn even if it means losing the chance to bend the party towards the Blue Labour agenda — because the 2015 result shows it’s possible to become largest party without a massive turn to the “blue Labour” masses. They would rather have the one million Greens, and millions of young people who did not vote.

In the deputy leadership however they did have a candidate who roughly approximated to a “blue” Labour candidate, Tom Watson, who narrowly beat two candidates from the right of the party.

So whatever the challenges, whatever the fallout, a logical way to read this ballot is that the 400k people who bothered or got to vote do want a leadership that can reach out to the old Labour voters worried about migration, declining communites etc. But they wanted somebody who’s moved left in order to do it. (Watson was in his own words initially “dazzled” by Blair).

As for the leader, they wanted to re-connect with the progressive, left, green, feminist and anti-racist values they came into politics because they believed in.

There no Scots in either race. But there were two serious Blairite candidates in the deputy race: Creasy and Flint. Both of them lost – but only narrowly, and had they not had to fight each other, given the resource challenges of doing the deputy race, one of them could have won.

So Labour nearly had “Nye and Clem”. Instead it’s got an iconic representative of the far left as leader and a soon-to-be iconic leader of the union-oriented left as deputy. If, as tipped, John McDonnell becomes shadow chancellor, Labour’s leadership team, HQ and shadow cabinet are in uncharted territory.