British Labour’s leadership campaign turned into a revolt against the political establishment
by Eric Shaw
The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below.
— Tony Blair, The Guardian, August 13, 2015
Blairism is dead and unmourned.
— Len McCluskey, leader of Unite union, The Observer, September 13, 2015
A gigantic political earthquake has hit the British Labour Party, one that absolutely nobody anticipated. Jeremy Corbyn, impelled forward by a wave of enthusiasm (“Corbynmania”) that has dumbfounded everyone at Westminster, won the race to become leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition with a bigger landslide than even Tony Blair secured in 1994. How could a 66-year-old serial rebel, who had spent more than three decades on the backbench fringes and who could rely on the support of only a handful of MPs, win such a stunning victory – 60 per cent of the nearly half a million votes cast? This is the first big question Corbyn’s victory raises. The second is: what will now happen? Can Corbyn’s leadership endure or will he be toppled? And if he does take the party to the next election, will the outcome be, as many fear “rout, possibly annihilation”?1
Here I examine these two questions in turn. First I analyze the extent to which the result was the result of contingent factors, such as tactical and strategic errors by Corbyn’s rivals, or the product of longer-term trends. Then I consider the prospects of Corbyn’s leadership. Will he be able to survive and, if so, is he likely to be able to rebuild his party’s electoral fortunes?
Why Corbyn won
Nobody – including Corbyn himself – believed at the outset of the campaign that he had the slightest chance of winning. This was not the purpose of his candidacy. The three other candidates – shadow health secretary Andy Burnham (the initial favourite), shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and shadow health minister Liz Kendall – appeared to many to differ among themselves mainly on emphasis, nuance and style.2 All were from the centre (Burnham) or the right of the party and represented a narrow range of opinion.
Corbyn stood because the small group of radical left MPs felt it was essential that their voice should be heard. Crucially, he only achieved a place on the ballot because of the willingness of MPs who emphatically did not want him to win to nominate him in the interests of wider debate (nomination by 15 per cent of Labour MPs was a condition of entry). Most assumed he would come a poor fourth.
A brief word is needed on the election mechanism. Ed Miliband had been (very narrowly) chosen in 2010 by an electoral college split three ways between party members, Labour MPs and affiliated trade union members. The right of the party was convinced that victory had been snatched from his brother David’s hands by the union input, which had tilted the vote decisively in Ed’s favour. They were determined to curtail the unions’ role (in the event it fell to less than 20 per cent) even – extraordinarily – at a cost of abolishing the MPs’ cherished one third of the vote. Eventually it was agreed that the selectorate would comprise:
- members, who paid the normal membership subscription;
- “affiliated supporters,” trade unionists who had paid the “political levy”;
- “registered supporters,” who simply had to pay £3 (as against £45 for members) to win the right to vote.
Unlike the old electoral college, this was unweighted, strictly one-member-one-vote – so a majority of the votes cast were from members (see table 1). Corbyn won on the basis of mass support from all types of voters. Two sets of factors were at work: those arising from the character and conduct of the campaign, and those arising from a more structural trend, an insurgency against mainstream politics and the “Westminster elite.”
Future historians will no doubt explore the tactical and organizational mistakes made by Corbyn’s three rivals, but these were an expression of the ideological impasse of modern social democracy. Miliband’s leadership can be understood as an effort to ideologically reinvigorate Labour, to impart to it that sense of identity and direction that it had lost in the years of New Labour managerialism. The lesson drawn by the three mainstream candidates, Burnham, Cooper (both senior frontbenchers) and Kendall (a more junior frontbencher) from Labour’s severe and unexpected defeat at the polls was that Miliband’s version of a more egalitarian, socially “responsible capitalism” did not resonate with the public. It had failed to reassure voters who mistrusted its ability to run the economy and worried about its propensity to spend and borrow recklessly.
Kendall, as the custodian of the Blairite tradition, was most forthright: Labour lost not because it did not repudiate austerity but because it did not embrace it. The public, she averred, “did not trust the party with its money” and must convince voters of its determination to “balance the books … live within our means and get the debt down.”3 Burnham and Cooper were more cautious, but essentially communicated the same message.
For Corbyn, in total contrast, Labour was rejected because its opposition to austerity was halfhearted and hesitant, and it had offered no coherent alternative economic narrative.4 This message resonated with Labour members and supporters bitterly opposed to government cuts and angered by the unwillingness of the mainstream three to denounce them. In opting for a “kinder version of austerity,” in the words of Nobel laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall had “wimped out.”5 Another Nobel Prize–winning American economist, Paul Krugman, declared that the apparent endorsement by “Labour moderates” of the myth underpinning austerity, that overspending caused the crash, amounted to “a strange, sad moral and intellectual collapse.”6 This was the conclusion that many of Labour’s rank-and-file drew.
But what happened to the initial front-runner, Andy Burnham? He had impressed many with his stout defence of the National Health Service as shadow health secretary and drew support from the soft left and centre and from the unions. However, his campaign consisted of a series of strategic and tactical mistakes. Strategically his key error was his calculation that he could take union and soft-left support for granted and protect himself against Cooper, seen as his main challenger, by shifting to the right. In a much-quoted speech at Ernst and Young (a financial conglomerate associated with huge tax avoidance schemes), he called for an admission that Labour “got it wrong on business” and urged that Labour celebrate “the everyday [business] heroes of our society” and “champion wealth creation.”7 This and similar manoeuvres convinced many who might have backed him that he was indistinguishable from Cooper and Kendall, just another opportunistic politician travelling light on principle.
This impression was hardened by another miscalculation. In July 2015 the shadow cabinet deliberated on how it should respond to the government’s welfare bill, which either capped or reduced benefits for the impoverished, the young and the disabled. Acting leader Harriet Harman decided that Labour MPs should abstain as a “signal” that Labour could be as “tough on welfare” as the Tories, a view shared by Kendall.8 Both Burnham and Cooper were unhappy with this decision but accepted the majority decision to abstain. In contrast, Corbyn, along with 48 other Labour MPs, voted against the measure.
Burnham’s decision to abstain put paid to his chances of winning. For many in the party the welfare bill was one more assault on those members of society who most needed protection: surely this was Labour’s mission and purpose. Burnham’s orientation to politics, many concluded, was governed by the Groucho Marx maxim: “These are my principles and if you don’t like them – well, I have others.” Corbyn emerged, in contrast, as the man of unblemished principle.
This brings us to the second, more deeply embedded, set of factors: the revolt against the political establishment – what was seen as a cosy, privileged and complacent Westminster elite. Numerous surveys have testified to a mounting sense of estrangement from the political system and a loss of faith in the integrity of politicians. In the 2015 election this disengagement was manifested in the dramatic upsurge of support for the newcomers to the political stage – the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Scottish National Party and the Greens who, in total, won over 20 per cent of the vote – and in the mass defection of millions of citizens from any involvement in the electoral process. It was a rebellion against the world of fabricated politics, of manufactured images, “on-message” politicians and slippery soundbites.
Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, with their guarded, anodyne and synthetic formulations, all seemed products of this world. Trained in the New Labour school of politics, with its disciplined communication, carefully honed phraseologies and bland pronouncements, they bored, exasperated and alienated many of those in Labour’s leadership electorate. They compared painfully with Corbyn’s forthright clarity, honesty and integrity. Unlike his three rivals Corbyn was not part of the Westminster establishment. He disliked Westminster-style adversarial politics, with its gladiatorial combats, petty point-scoring and rancorous tone. He was, indeed, part of a new breed, the “anti-political politician” the person who seemed to stand outside the inner political circle and to represent a more honest, candid and principled approach to politics. In this he had something in common with UKIP leader Nigel Farage, London Mayor Boris Johnson and SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. All, in fact, are politicians to their fingertips but came across, at least to the groups to whom they appealed, as more plain-speaking, honest and unalloyed.
Added to this was a mood of resentment many people felt toward the disruptive, deracinating and dislocating effects of globalization, unsettling traditional communities, eliminating jobs and exposing people to mass migration. For some this mood was channelled into the right-wing, anti-immigrant populist movement, UKIP. For others it took the form of left-wing populism, a revolt against the Tories’ remorseless squeeze on public spending and a mounting anger against a tepid and equivocal Labour opposition. This revolt had no outlet – until Corbyn. His campaign unleashed energy, excitement and enthusiasm on a scale that replicated the remarkable Scottish pro-independence campaign a year previously. As in Scotland then, so now in the UK as a whole: tens of thousands of the previously disillusioned and disconnected threw themselves into political activity.
Ironically, the way the Westminster elite, both politicians and journalists, responded to Corbyn’s rise confirmed all their critics’ preconceptions. Struggling to understand what was happening and disdaining to engage intellectually, they resorted to a form of psychological reductionism. “Corbynmania” was a “self-indulgent fantasy,” a form of “self-delusion,” an “emotional spasm,” in Tony Blair’s words “a politics of parallel reality … in which reason is an irritation, evidence a distraction, emotional impact is king and the only thing that counts is feeling good about it all.” Supporters of the left-wing London MP had sought “a refuge” from reality – politics as “fantasy.”9 Similar sentiments were articulated by a whole procession of Blairite grandees such as Lords Mandelson and Blunkett, Charles Clarke, David Miliband and so forth.
These attacks failed to grasp the extent to which many found Corbyn’s old-style, homespun leftist rhetoric attractive: indeed this well-seasoned politician exhibited a quite unexpected pied-piper appeal to many thousands of young supporters. And they proved to be totally self-defeating. The more Labour right-wingers and their friends in the media belittled Corbyn’s supporters as “immature, deluded, self-indulgent and unrealistic,” the more their resentment at the Westminster elite’s arrogance and condescension – and the groundswell for the veteran left-winger – grew.10
The quiet-spoken, modest and self-effacing left-winger found himself addressing packed and jubilant rallies all over the country and his personal popularity waxed. His rejection of Westminster’s confrontational “Punch and Judy” politics, with its ritualized abuse and petty point-scoring, resonated, while his own calm, low-key and always courteous manner impressed many. He seemed to understand instinctively the exasperation, frustration and disengagement so many felt toward conventional politics. By the time the polls opened the only question was the size of his majority.
Can Corbyn survive?: The pluses
Most MPs were aghast at the result. “My party has just hurled itself off a cliff,” one lamented.11 A deep depression and sense of despair settled on the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Never before had a leader been elected on so narrow a parliamentary base. Only 10 per cent of both the PLP and the shadow cabinet had voted for him. Furthermore, he had no experience of public office, taking difficult decisions, presiding over complex policy-making processes or party management. Leadership is a specialized and highly demanding role, which requires resilience, dedication and high political skills. Has Corbyn the capacity, the power resources and the ability to discharge these tasks? Here there are both pluses and minuses.
On the plus side no one can dispute his authority as leader, with a mandate derived from the eager support of 250,000 people and 60 per cent of the total vote. Labour’s annual conference in September demonstrated his huge popularity among the rank-and-file whose numbers have grown as 160,000 new members have flocked into the party since the general election. This greatly enlarged membership, a potentially huge source of energy, drive and creativity, forms a power base which will both safeguard the leader against attempts to evict him and facilitate the pursuit of his transformative politics. More broadly, it could be used to reactivate the party, reengage it with society and rebuild its networks of social and cultural influence. The affiliated trade unions, still well represented at all levels of the party and the major source of income, add significantly to Corbyn’s power base. Though they have already indicated they will act as a restraining force on some of his more radical policies and will insist on full involvement in the shaping of any policies that bear upon their interests, they will also act as a buffer protecting him from any Blairite coup.
Added to this, Labour (unlike the Tories) has traditionally been very loyal to its leaders and loath to unseat them, and party rules are designed to hamper challenges to the leadership. Triggering a leadership contest requires that 20 per cent of MPs (around 70) nominate a challenger – and the incumbent would automatically be on the ballot. Not only does Corbyn’s thumping majority suggest that it would be very difficult to beat him, but the absence of an obvious successor who could rally all his critics makes a challenge more perilous. In short, any effort to forcibly evict him in the foreseeable future risks precipitating bitter internal strife. Such are the pluses.
Can Corbyn survive?: The minuses
The minuses are formidable. As noted, the number of Corbynite MPs is very small. A large proportion of the parliamentary party – the right wing or Blairites – have no confidence whatsoever in Corbyn’s leadership. They are implacably opposed to many of his policies and fear that he will inflict terminal electoral damage on the party. Most of them refused to join the frontbench, not wishing to be bound by collective responsibility or tainted by associating with an enterprise destined, in their view, to failure.12 Imbued by their seasoning in New Labour with, in the words of the noted historian Ross McKibbin, an entitlement to rule, they won’t “accept their dethronement lightly.”13 Not only do they believe the new leader will fail, they want him to fail and will do their very best to ensure that he does.14
Their influence extends well beyond Parliament. With many sympathizers in left-of-centre think tanks (e.g. the Institute of Public Policy Research, Demos), magazines (Prospect, the New Statesman) and ginger groups (the well-funded Progress) and among left-leaning journalists, they are well placed to set the agenda and frame the interpretation of centre-left politics. Ed Miliband’s leadership was undermined by incessant unflattering and derisive anonymous briefings by senior figures within the party eagerly seized up and broadcast by Blairite political journalists. Corbyn can expect the same, with the volume turned up.
There is another large amorphous group of MPs on the centre and soft left who, whatever their reservations (many of which are deep) and forebodings about the future (intense), are prepared to work with Corbyn. They occupy all the senior positions on the frontbench (including Andy Burnham as shadow home secretary) aside from shadow chancellor John MacDonnell. They accept that Corbyn has a very strong mandate and should be given mileage. They also calculate that it is to their advantage to display loyalty and willingness to cooperate with their eyes on a future leadership contest. But they have little ideological affinity with the new leader. Their loyalty will be time-limited and contingent on Corbyn’s ability both to manage the party in a consensual spirit and to revive its flagging electoral fortunes. If he fails, their loyalty will evaporate.
Corbyn’s biggest minuses are outside Parliament. He can expect venomously hostile press coverage, including routine misrepresentation and wilful distortion, with every single embarrassing or careless utterance he has made over the last 40 years picked up and splashed on the front pages. His every move will be harshly scrutinized, his personal life dissected, his policies ridiculed with no attempt, for the most part, at balance or objectivity. An overwhelmingly right-wing press mercilessly traduced Ed Miliband; it will waste little time in transforming his successor into a national ogre. This will have a knock-on effect on the broadcast media. Although bound by objectivity rules, the press heavily influences which issues are covered and how the political debate is framed. They used, for example, Corbyn’s failure to sing the national anthem at a memorial service to impugn his patriotism. Significantly, for many voters knowledge about the new leader was confined to this fact: he was the man who showed disrespect to the Queen.
Not least, the major constellations of economic power in the UK, major corporations and the City, will engage in a relentless campaign to discredit a Corbyn-led Labour Party. This is important. The business community is widely regarded as the adjudicator of what constitutes sound economic policies and whether a party leader has the requisite qualities to manage the economy competently, and most of the media rely on City economists and business executives as experts and impartial commentators on economic issues.
Corbyn as leader
Of course, much will depend upon how Corbyn performs as leader. Broadly speaking, he has two main options. The first is to exploit his democratic mandate and mobilize his rank-and-file base to push through the platform on which he was elected – which will inevitably deepen the fractures within the party. The second is to seek the route of conciliation, mute some of his policy positions, bargain and compromise. This will solidify his base in Parliament, but perhaps at the risk of disenchanting and alienating some of those who invested their hopes in him.
Corbyn’s style, personality and attitude toward the conduct of politics predispose him toward the second approach. He has repeatedly declared that the days of “command and control” politics are over and he has no wish to impose a leadership line. The ultimate sovereign body in deciding policy should be Conference, not the leadership stratum. On the issue of parliamentary discipline he is in a very tricky and exposed position given his long rebellion history. He could combine principle with pragmatism by allowing free votes in the Commons an matters normally whipped and permitting frontbenchers to articulate their views freely rather than being bound by a rigid collective responsibility. In fact, he has been preempted by the willingness of shadow cabinet members to adopt different stances from his own. Equally, he has shown some recognition of political realities by agreeing to accept majority frontbench and PLP positions on, for example, support for the EU and NATO membership.
On the other hand, in his more than 30 years as an MP, Corbyn has been a rebel and a campaigner. He has never held any position of responsibility or had to learn the arts of compromise. He is, above all, a conviction politician, animated throughout his long political life by an unwavering advocacy of deeply felt moral values. He has also repeatedly emphasized that his sweeping victory has given him a mandate to implement his platform.
This unresolved tension was starkly exemplified by the issue of whether the UK should invest in a new generation of nuclear weapons. Corbyn believes passionately, on moral grounds, that it should not. Many would sympathize: it involves spending a huge amount of money on a weapons system which has no strategic or military rationale. Sadly, this is not a topic that invites rational discussion and the British people are strongly and emotionally attached to the “deterrent.” That they cannot be wooed away from it is the received wisdom in the shadow cabinet and the PLP. A committee has been set up to explore Labour’s defence policy options, but by reiterating his unequivocal rejection of nuclear weapons Corbyn appears to have preempted it and alienated senior colleagues. What happens next is unclear. If he throws all his political capital behind a drive to persuade Conference to renounce nuclear weapons, he will run up against the fact that the majority of the unions, who hold 50 per cent of the Conference vote, favour a new generation of nuclear weapons. In these circumstances it is difficult to see how a major, and disastrous, split could be avoided – indeed how his leadership could survive.
The new leader’s prospects depend more than anything on his ability to energize the electorate. There is some reason for optimism. Corbyn has evoked tremendous enthusiasm, especially among the young, and there is a chance that his forthright style, clarity and communicative abilities will ignite the electorate at large. Early evidence suggests that people like his apparent mildness, self-deprecation and modesty. It is possible that millions of alienated and disengaged voters, tired of the vacuities, insincerities and shallowness of conventional politics, may find Corbyn’s straight-talking political style attractive.
But there are less encouraging signs. He has enjoyed no honeymoon – indeed his poll ratings have been the poorest for any new leader since polling began. His debut speech to the Labour Party Conference as leader seemed inward-looking, self-referential and aimed mainly at the already converted. He failed even to mention the party’s drubbing at the polls in June, and skirted issues such as the deficit, immigration and welfare which had cost Labour dearly. He seems to believe that he only has to affirm Labour’s values for the majority to rally behind the party. This ignores the degree to which individualistic and self-oriented attitudes have permeated British society over the last two generations, and the importance for Labour in engaging in a sophisticated campaign of mass persuasion.
There was little to suggest that he has grasped the predicament of contemporary social democracy in a globalized and “consumerized” world. Class solidarity continues to disintegrate, party allegiances wane and collectivist institutions like the unions and the public sector, wellsprings of Labour support, continue to shrink. Have he and his aides considered what this means for social democrats? Developing a coherent, innovative and appealing program and a winning electoral strategy will take political acumen, ingenuity and communication skills of a high order – and a large dollop of good luck. Has Corbyn the agility and flexibility to step out of his ideological comfort zone and reach out to the wider electorate? Can he convince floating sceptical voters that he has the right credentials to be prime minister?
1 Tony Blair, The Guardian, August 13, 2015.
2 In the interests of openness, I should say I voted for Andy Burnham.
3 The Guardian, June 30, 2015; The Guardian, June 29, 2015; The Guardian, September 2, 2015.
4 “We Have to Open Politics up Again and Get Out of Westminster – Jeremy Corbyn Answers Jon Cruddas’ Questions,” Labour List, August 26, 2015, retrieved from http://labourlist.org/2015/08/we-have-to-open-politics-up-again-and-get-out-of-westminster-jeremy-corbyn-answers-jon-cruddas-questions/; for a similar view see Oxford economics professor Simon Wren-Lewis’s blog Mainly Macro, September 12, 2015.
5 Joseph Stiglitz, The Observer, July 26, 2015.
6 Paul Krugman, “Labour’s Dead Center,” New York Times, September 14, 2015, retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/14/opinion/paul-krugman-labours-dead-center.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0
7 “To Regain Trust, Labour Must Admit We Spent Too Much, Says Burnham,” Labour List, May 29, 2015, retrieved from http://labourlist.org/2015/05/to-regain-trust-labour-must-admit-we-spent-too-much-says-burnham/
8 The Guardian, July 21, 2015.
9 Tony Blair, The Guardian, August 31, 2015. See also Toby Helm, The Observer, July 19, 2015; Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, July 26, 2015.
10 Gary Younge, The Guardian, September 14, 2015.
11 Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, September 13, 2015.
13 Ross McKibbin, “The Anti-Candidate,” London Review of Books, October 2015.
14 Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, August 2, 2015.
Eric Shaw is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Stirling in Stirling, Scotland.