Can I bring to your attention some snippets from You Gov’s 2014 poll where they ask people, voters and non voters alike, where they put themselves on the political spectrum? 3% of British adults see themselves as “very leftwing”, 12% as “fairly leftwing”, 14% as “slightly left-of-centre”. Put these figures together and you have a percentage which is not far short of where Labour ended up in the 2015 General Election which, need I remind you, it lost and lost very badly. But go a step further. 20% see themselves in “the centre” and the centre ground is where elections are won and lost.
I put myself somewhere between “fairly left wing” and “slightly left-of-centre”, although I would add that I do not find these labels entirely helpful. The far left, in McCarthyite mode, refers to anyone to their right as “Blair-lite” and this is not a compliment. The clear inference is that those of us who reject the slogans and rhetoric of the far left are of the political right and Liz Kendall’s Labour leadership campaign has been marred by those who accuse her of being a Tory, wondering why she doesn’t just leave Labour and join the Tories instead. And why? Because she believes in a different brand of left-facing politics. Whilst I wince when Kendall endorses the Tory lie that Labour wrecked the economy in 2008 and when she welcomes the creation of “free schools” I strongly disagree but I do not sling mud at her. That’s what the far left do and what they have always done.
I am not interested in justifying my own socialist credentials. I have always believed strongly in the very principles of the NHS, I want good schools for all our children. I want a society that is fairer, more equal where everyone has the opportunity to get on, above all I want a genuine meritocracy. I am a late convert to the idea of a nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future, I believe government should encourage and nurture businesses to become more successful and to offer workers better wages and conditions. I see all these things, and more, as absolute priorities for the Labour Party and a Labour government. And Labour is the only party that can deliver a better and fairer Britain, but first it has the small matter of a General Election to win. This brings me to Jeremy Corbyn.
There is no doubt that Corbyn’s leadership campaign has been as unexpected as it has been successful. I know for a fact that Corbyn himself did not expect to be clear favourite with the bookmakers to become the next leader of the opposition, but the simple truth of the matter is that he is. And there is a bandwagon, of sorts. Corbyn has energised the leadership contest by appearing to say the things that other politicians dare not. He speaks his mind, unlike the timid political-speak of his opponents. Not only does he speak his mind, he votes how he likes too. Unlike most parliamentarians, Corbyn does not toe the party line, voting against his own party on 500 separate occasions, 25% of the time. In an era where politics is stage-managed and heavily scripted, he comes across as a breath of fresh air. But the cult of Corbyn is an illusion.
I often refer to the 1980s, and the 1983 General Election in particular, when explaining what happens when Labour lurches to the far left. In 1983, a Labour Party under the control of the hard left, heavily infiltrated by Trotskyists at all levels, led by a man who was plainly not up to the job, with a hard left manifesto (“the longest suicide note in history”) was obliterated on election day, scraping a mere 27% of the vote, only slightly more than the emerging Liberal and Social Democratic Alliance. Margaret Thatcher rode back into Downing Street on the back of a landslide victory and we all know what happened next.
Ah, but it’s all different today, I am told. You can’t compare 1983 with 2015, can you? Well, in some ways you can’t. The sociological and economic pillars and tribal loyalty to Labour were destroyed by Margaret Thatcher and that was after Labour achieved 27% of the vote with 209 MPs. The point about history is that if you don’t learn from it, you are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again and the rise of Corbyn is a case in point.
Labour is currently navel-gazing on an epic scale. I do not doubt that Corbyn is energising a large number of people, especially the young, although I suspect this is more of an observation and anecdotal view than being based on real evidence, but I do not believe, for one moment, there are vast swathes of the country just waiting for a candidate of the far left to assume the Labour leadership. The real evidence, which I have already quoted from last year’s You Gov poll, suggests that Corbyn is to the left of 91% of the population and way to the left of over 70%. When you consider that Labour needs a swing of epic proportions at the next election, winning 100 seats from the Tories, all this after the constituency boundaries have been changed to suit the Conservatives, the idea of electing a man whose sole experience of office was as chair of the Planning Committee of Haringey Council in north London in the 1970s is absurd. A man who campaigned for Tony Benn to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, a man who regards jew hating Hezbollah and Hamas as friends, a man who honoured IRA terrorists? Corbyn has a lot of baggage.
Back in 1997, I happily supported “New Labour” because I had seen what “Old Labour” had done for our country, which was largely to allow a right wing Tory government to get within a whisker of wrecking the NHS and to generally make this a far more unequal country. Tony Blair tarnished his own legacy with his wars and his marketisation of public services, but make no mistake that without him, following the groundwork of Neil Kinnock and John Smith (the best prime minister we never had), Labour might never have won again.
Labour needs to choose between being a serious political party, aspiring to run the country for the betterment of all, or a noisy pressure group, shouting from the sidelines, impotent and largely irrelevant.
Corbyn has made all the running so far, not least because of the heavy media focus on his campaign to the exclusion of the others, and it is up to the other candidates to inspire and make us all believe, as Corbyn has done for so many on the left.
The public looked at Ed Miliband and did not see a prime minister. In the cold light of day, I am quite certain that if Corbyn fronts the Labour campaign in 2020, they will walk away in droves, allowing the new Tory prime minister George Osborne a landslide victory. Osborne is the master of tactics, of short term gain. You just watch.
Where I differ from the far left is that I see politics as the art of the possible and the art of winning. Opposition mostly hurts those Labour who purports to represent and if it cannot convince those outside Labour’s already shrinking heartlands, what is the point of it anyway?