To those of us on the Left in Britain who would prefer to describe ourselves as “Social Democrats” than “Socialists” the idea of a Labour Party led by the socialist Jeremy Corbyn would just a few weeks ago have been anathema. Corbyn has never been a central figure in British politics, never a “front bench” spokesman and certainly never a Minister, even at the most junior level. He was one of those peripheral figures who whilst sincere, decent and articulate seemed stuck in an age long since gone by. The United Kingdom and its main left of centre party the “Labour Party” has moved on from the pursuit of the Socialist dream. Tony Blair and his “New Labour” (a liberal social democratic party which abandoned collectivism in order to be elected) had room for Mr Corbyn and those like him. But he was never given the keys to anything important and whilst he pricked the conscience of a few from different backgrounds to the privileged Blair, he was largely ignored. No more!
The main paradigm of the 2015 British General Election was protest. In Scotland that protest saw the election of almost a clean sweep of Scottish Nationalist MPs at Westminster. Across England nearly 4million voters chose the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) a right wing party which although it was established by disaffected Conservatives gained significant support from ex Labour voters as well. The traditional “none of the above” party, the Liberal Democrats, was annihilated because they had become too establishment by choosing to go into Coalition with the Conservatives for five years.
The common theme in all this is an anti-establishment bias. Labour was perceived as being part of the establishment and was not the beneficiary. The Labour front bench looked, sounded and behaved much like the Conservative front bench. The route to power, Oxbridge, political researcher, Member of Parliament, Minister was the same whether you are referring to (say) a George Osborne or (say) an Andy Burnham. Much as the politicians on both sides tried to define profound differences in policies between each other the reality was that these differences were quite small. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour was really challenging the establishment significantly.
So whilst the challenge to the status quo was coming from new almost nihilist parties like UKIP or the nationalist SNP the establishment qua policy was blandly similar. Each of the two main parties had costed economic programmes designed to reduce Britain’s budget deficit and debt. There were nuances of difference but the reality (tagged “Austerity”) wasn’t that much different. There was perhaps no collusion but the Civil Servants in the Treasury were no more likely to be shocked by Labour’s plans than they were by the Conservatives. Give or take a billion pounds or so.
The outcome of the 2015 General Election was not really determined by policy differences but by personalities. Voters (or some) preferred the colourful Nigel Farage or the clever and charismatic Nicola Sturgeon to the dull establishment figures of David Cameron or Ed Miliband. But when they had to choose between the two main party leaders sufficient chose Cameron (the devil they knew) to the geeky and rather odd and accident-prone Miliband. “Unfair” you may cry. “Hard Cheese” I’m afraid – that’s the way it was. And the Lib Dem leader who in 2010 garnered 6.4million fell to 2.4million in 2015. The voters were telling him he and his party was an irrelevance.
Ed Miliband resigned immediately after the election and Labour has been at times rather ponderously trying to find the person to succeed him. The (Labour) establishment choice has been Andy Burnham who is in many ways an Ed Miliband clone. Ex Cabinet Minister. The same age as Miliband give or take a year. The same background (see above). The same rather bland political apparatchik who you feel has long since buried passion along with his ideology, if he ever had one. Alongside him is another ex Cabinet Minister, Yvette Cooper, another figure of exactly the same age and background as Miliband and Burnham. Able (as were they) but is she likely to challenge convention any more than they have done?. Well her track record suggests not. Finally there is the youngest candidate (but not by much) Liz Kendall who has, would you credit it, the same background again as the other two and Miliband. Oxbridge, researcher, MP, (shadow) Minister.
There are nuances of policy difference between Burnham, Cooper and Kendall but these are largely window dressing. If you rolled them all together along with Ed Miliband you would not be causing much distress in the fusion.
Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn. The Social Democrat, you might think, would be content with a “MiliAndyYvetteLiz” leader and would regard Corbyn as a bit of a joke. Dear old (66) Jeremy. A generation from the “serious” candidates and with no degree of any sort – and he was never even a researcher. He was a Union Official (shock horror) and an avowed Socialist – wash your mouth out with soap. Dear Jeremy was a bit of a card banging on about poverty, and human rights, and animal rights and being a peacenik who opposed the Iraq war. Oh well let him spout his nonsense for a while before we choose one of the others. But that is not how it is working out.
Remember the post election context. Yes the Tories won a majority but the real winners were, as I describe above, the anti-establishment brigades on the right and the left. The Greens gained well over a million votes – a massive increase – signs that a left-of-centre platform can be attractive.
The establishment is under threat not just because the main players all seem the same, irrespective of Party. It is under threat because of cover-up, corruption, indolence and deceit. Where to begin? The Chilcott report into the Iraq War has been delayed and delayed to protect establishment sensitivities. (Why else?). The appalling history of child abuse by politicians from those known – Cyril Smith and others – to those alleged to have been involved is still not being tackled in a determined way. We have huge sectors of our economy – the railways, the energy sector, water which are being run not in the public interest but as private sector monopolies (the worst model imaginable). We have unaccountable businesses creaming off profits and paying no tax on them. We have an NHS which those working in it are convinced is being privatised by stealth. We have public assets being disposed of, and more to come. we have union powers being curbed and our Human Rights threatened. We have international alliances based on commercial expediency rather than decency and natural justice.We have an education system incomprehensibly diverse and divided in quality – and one which is hugely skewed to the wealthier members of society. We have a Government that is seeking to sentence the jewel in our media crown, the BBC, to death by a thousand cuts. And so on.
As Labour supporters we know what is going on and we surely want to challenge it. We are electing a Labour Party leader but we are also electing a Leader of the Opposition. This is an office under the Crown and as such accountable to us all. And it is there to hold the Government of the day to account. This is the key point. For the first time in decades we have a Conservative Government with a majority. It already has started to act as you would expect a Conservative Government to act and in the months and years to come we can expect more of the same. It needs to be challenged. Do you think that challenge would come best from a “MiliAndyYvetteLiz” leader or from Jeremy Corbyn? These are the only choices. Corbyn is unencumbranced by power and by personal ambition and at 66 he has one or two more jobs in him you might think. Don’t you think that he might just be sufficiently decent, honourable and passionate to hold David Cameron and Co. to account. He is articulate and a good public speaker. And he is principled. Not bad eh?
I may be a Social Democrat but I am also one who sees the power of the Establishment as being too great. Who feels that there are things we do of importance in our society that could be better done. That we are grossly over-rewarding privilege and grossly failing to help those in need sufficiently. That we are perpetuating advantage and failing to give enough equality of opportunity. I believe in a mixed economy but I totally agree with Jeremy Corbyn that the private sector monopoly is a scandal. I’m fed up with being conned by my Gas, Electricity and Water suppliers that I am getting a good deal because of competition. Its a chimera. I am fed up with the waste and corruption inherent in our railways. I am ashmed of our expedient foreign policy and our ambivalence to Europe.
We have nearly five years of a Conservative Government ahead of us. That Government needs to be challenged in everything that it does. Labour needs a leader up for that challenge. So do we all.