The fact that Corbyn won with a clear margin within the party (as well as with the with the affiliates and £3 voters) spares us all the endless Kuenssberg-ing about entryism, the weaknesses of Labour’s electoral system and so on. The surprisingly strong mandate from Party members nullifies many strategic options for his detractors but the danger is far from over .
I have noted on many occasions that the Labour Party often behaves as though it is sitting an exam, when in fact it is playing a competitive sport. A friend recently brought this merciless AJP Taylor quote to my attention:
‘As always, the members of the Labour party were more anxious to decide what they should do when they came to office than to determine how they should get there. The old faith was still strong. Labour was the party of the people, and a majority would appear automatically when the people came to their senses.”
AJP Taylor, writing in the 1960s, about the 1930s.
In the recent leadership election, the mindset of having the “correct answers” to policy questions was paramount in the eyes of the voters. Now the vote is over, Labour must now face its achilles heel: strategy. Dennis Skinner has said that Corbyn’s approach will be defined by a lack of spin, but there is a difference between making your policy seem like something it is not and the anticipation and countering of your opponents’ moves.
In the last four months Corbyn will have enjoyed endless positivity. In the next few months, he will tolerate endless attacks.
His biggest challenge will be to become an open performer, engaging with people who he hates and who hate him. He must strive to avoid relying on the comfort of his familiar supporters and somehow engage with a very wide modern audience.
His first big challenge will be to face Cameron at PMQs. There is an interesting game for Cameron to play here. It may well be in his best interests to give Corbyn an easy ride to ensure he is still in charge in 2020. But my prediction is that Cameron will lull him into a false sense of security, politely giving Corbyn enough rope by which to hang himself. In a couple of weeks time, the Conservative HQ tacticians will start laying traps. It won’t be too difficult for Cameron to dodge every difficult question with parries about Corbyn’s past voting record, party disloyalty and association with the unions. Early signs are that Corbyn is so clear in his views that it is hard to catch him out on anything. This appears to be a solid strategy, appealing to the public cries for honesty and conviction politics. Clichés abound about a man for all seasons, and how wide a net can be cast.
I have noted in previous blogs that I wanted the Labour leader to be an advocate for the party. In one reading that is exactly what Corbyn is – holding the same values of many of the members’ and affiliates’. But when I used the term I was not just talking of a representative. I stressed the skill of advocacy as being able to put a point across with humour, tactics and diplomacy and to be able to slice up an opposing argument – all great strengths of Blair. That is exactly what Corbyn is not.
My main concern about the Labour machine under Mili-Balls was the weak tactical thinking. When Miliband was destroyed by Myleene Class on The Interview and again by Cameron’s VAT trap, the naivety of Labour strategists was laid bare.
With strategic political game theory potentially becoming even more of a marginalised (even sneered at) consideration in New Old Labour, I would have imagined that Cameron will have pretty much buried Corbyn at PMQs by Christmas.
But since writing the first draft of this post, rumours are abound that Corbyn intends to only attend one in five PMQs. This could be the least worst option – a good idea in the respect of the above, but bad in that it plays right into the Cameron’s hands: “Ah, Jeremy, nice of you to turn up.”
The New Movement
The numbers (thousands) quoted by the Corbyn campaign as evidence of a movement are worrying. The campaign was indeed supported by thousands of people. But thousands among millions means very little. The rallying masses seemed equivalent to the Green surge – indeed they may contain many of the same individuals. It will be fascinating to see if the movement will gather much further momentum now.
I have written a lot about the political deception of the Conservatives state-shrinking economic agenda, so I should be pleased about Corbyn’s change of tack. But I’m concerned about the lack of detail so far. He must show detailed economic awareness, not just an unfunded wish list. I don’t believe Corbyn will get the full support of many prominent left-leaning economists because he will be suspicious of prioritising growth and he has not been able to frame the deficit debate in insightful terms. Economists like Krugman may well frustrate the Corbyn camp with sticky, technical arguments – similar to the sticky, technical arguments that had to made to stay out of the Euro just in case one day we might need to be able to devalue our currency independently of the rest of Europe. (Imagine the eyelids closing during that episode of Question Time.) Simon Wren-Lewis has written a typically insightful article about how Corbyn’s planned funding for fiscal stimulus could unravel under a confusion caused by misreading as normal the extraordinary situation of the zero lower bound.
Corbyn will have to take care that he does not just oppose everything. If he does, the Conservatives will be able to throw caution to the wind – whether it’s bombing Syria or cutting funding for puppies. The sheer size of a wholly negative agenda could weigh him down. In time, the Conservatives could start bringing in some very extreme policy which, in the public’s eyes, will just merge into the mass of things which Corbyn opposes. (“Opposing the death penalty? Blimey – that Corbyn just opposes everything.”)
Will the Left Eat Itself?
I am interested to track whether the inherent inward-looking nature of social media will spread beyond the screen and into the CLP, PLP and shadow cabinet meetings. Labour may well just end up talking to itself – which will much more interesting to the media than any Conservative policy being passed through in the background.
2015 to 2019
The next few years are jam packed with red herrings. Notably, the European Referendum and the Tory leadership contest. Labour is going to be out of the picture for almost that entire time. Corbyn is, unusually for a Labour member, not particularly pro-Europe. (At the time of writing, questions are already being asked.) So during the most important debate of the next two years, Labour will be split. As soon as the referendum is over, speculation about the new Tory leader will begin. And then before we know it, it will be the general election.
What is the Voters’ Reality?
There is always a rousing sentiment in Labour meetings about the importance of social justice and equality – and Corbyn will now be a champion for the vulnerable. But I wonder how many voters in seats which Labour lost ever witness the hardship or meet the vulnerable people that Corbyn aims to protect. I suspect, not many. Corbyn will have to show he has a strong positive policy for all, not just for a few.
He will also have to consider a potentially revitalised Liberal Party who have a large patch of the middle ground to cultivate.
Corbyn is such an unknown that the next few weeks will be thrilling. By appointing a vegan to shadow the government department in charge of farming, he has either shown great courage in his convictions or disastrous diplomacy.
It will be on such strategic matters that he will rise or fall.