New leader a winning personality with a losing strategy
Published 14/09/2015 | 02:30
Jeremy Corbyn's landslide victory in the election for leadership of the Labour Party begins a fascinating experiment. Voters and political parties everywhere ought to pay attention.
The upset underscores one striking fact - people are fed up with politics as usual. And it raises one especially important question: Can a party of the left be true to its principles and still get elected?
Corbyn, a hard-left activist rather than a career-building MP, had been such an unlikely candidate that he barely secured the nominations needed to run.
But after starting out as a 100-to-1 outsider, he won a four-way race against well-qualified rivals, with almost 60pc of the vote. The runner-up polled less than 20pc. Corbyn didn't crush his opponents, he annihilated them.
Yet the outcome is even more dramatic than that. The Labour Party members who voted - many of them newcomers who'd joined for that purpose - have repudiated not just the other candidates but the party's entire leadership, its rank-and-file members of parliament (only 15 out of 232 backed Corbyn) and its whole "modern left" posture. It is nothing less than a counter-revolution.
That's why many of the party's shadow ministers are saying they won't serve under Corbyn.
The Corbynistas want to renationalise the railways; increase public spending and tax the rich to pay for it; pull the UK out of Nato and maybe the EU as well; and command the Bank of England to print money to pay for public investment. Anti-Americanism is a prominent part of the mix. Corbyn once called the killing of Osama bin Laden a "tragedy" and has called Hamas and Hezbollah "friends".
In short, it's prehistoric leftism. As you'd expect, the ruling Tories are struggling to contain their joy. They now face an opposition in the mould of Labour before Tony Blair - an outfit so out of touch with the broader electorate that it kept the Conservatives in power for the better part of two decades.
Corbyn is as familiar with this history as anybody, and therefore faces a dilemma. His strength is an unassuming authenticity - like Bernie Sanders in the US, he is a straightforward man who tends to say what he means.
People like that, and his seeming lack of guile will appeal to voters beyond his political base.
The problem is that his policies won't.
Corbyn is a winning personality with a losing strategy. But if he softens his line to reach out to wavering Tories - as he surely must, to win a general election - he'll be committing the very offence his supporters most despise. Perhaps, like them, he'll prefer to lose honourably than win through compromise (or betrayal, as many activists would see it). Perhaps the party will split, with the left on one side and Blairite social democrats on the other.
Now, the British left will have to learn all over again to advocate moderation on principle, not just as a tactical calculation. It must again believe that competence and restraint in pursuit of its goals make for good policy, not just good politics.
Chances are that Corbyn, one way or another, will help the point to sink in.