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Saturday, 15 August 2015

Vanity Project

Napoleon Bonaparte once said that you should never interrupt your enemy when he's making a mistake. I’d imagine that the Conservatives must be enjoying not interrupting the spectacle of the Labour leadership contest, in which Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign -having started out as a bit of a joke- has gathered enough momentum to make the prospect of victory quite realistic.

I happen to believe that Mr. Corbyn is wrong about most things, but I respect principled politics and principled politicians; our national discourse is all the richer when ideas (from the left or the right) are presented honestly to the electorate. Elections though, are usually decided by a huge number of floating voters and, as a consequence, pragmatism invariably trumps principle. The evidence of the last few decades indicates that the Labour Party doesn't do pragmatism very well, because it hasn't been very good at spotting -and picking- ‘winning’ leaders. Of its last seven choices, only one managed to win an election and his name (Lord Voldemort) is never mentioned now in polite company. 

With that in mind, the impulse to elect Mr. Corbyn looks -from the outside- like some kind of death wish, oddly reminiscent of when the Conservatives put Ian Duncan-Smith at the helm in 2001. IDS might have appealed to a large proportion of their grass roots supporters, but he had absolutely no chance of becoming Prime-Minister. Anyone who wasn’t a ‘grass roots’ Tory back then could see that, just as anyone who is not a grass roots ‘principled’ leftist now can see that the electorate will never hand Jeremy Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street. The Conservatives at least recognised their mistake quite quickly and, within two years of his coronation, Duncan-Smith was forced out. His successor, Michael Howard, knew that his job was not to win the 2005 election, but to stop the rot and lay the groundwork so that the leader who followed him could have a decent stab at victory in 2010.

The Corbynistas are perfectly entitled to follow their principles and 'go left', but they won’t get a Labour government; in fact, they’ll be lucky to have a Labour Party at all (although I suspect that some kind of schism is what some of them really want). If their candidate wins, they can -to paraphrase David Steel’s oft-quoted remark- go back to their constituencies and prepare for a decade of oblivion. The 2020 election can be written off and, perhaps, 2025 as well. The task faced by whoever succeeds Corbyn will be so huge that s/he might –like Michael Howard- be able only to lay the groundwork for his or her successor to win in 2030, by which point the electorate will presumably be fed up of 20 years of uninterrupted Conservative rule. It hardly needs pointing out here that a Corbyn victory would delight the SNP, because they’ll be looking to exploit what they would see as the rich opportunities afforded by continued Conservative hegemony.    

I can understand why folk born from the mid-seventies onwards might have a romantic view of the Corbyn candidature, because they may not know much about Labour’s last significant lurch to the left, when a ridiculously ‘principled’ manifesto led to humiliation at the polls in 1983. Older Labour supporters though, don’t have that excuse. If you’re old enough to remember 1983 and you’re still backing Corbyn, you can’t seriously claim to have Labour’s interests at heart, at least not the ‘broad church’ Labour Party that was once serious about winning elections. Anyone who thinks that it lost in 2015 because it wasn't far enough to the left is seriously deluded. The fact is that Labour loses UK elections when it goes left and, if you’re looking for evidence to back up that statement, I’ll simply refer you to every general election result of the last 50 years.

The British political system works best when there is a strong opposition to hold the ruling party to account. Without that, all governments become complacent and corrupt (or perhaps that should read: even more complacent and corrupt). The incumbents have to believe that there is a genuine prospect of them being evicted by the electorate at the next time of asking; in that sense, a Corbyn-led Labour Party won’t provide any sort of meaningful opposition.

As it pauses at this existential fork in the road, Labour should consider that it owes something to the country, not least to the 9.5 million people who voted for them and the millions of floating voters who could, in the right circumstances, be persuaded to elect a centre-left government. Instead of indulging in a vanity project, the party should reflect on the fact that it owes it to those voters to act like an effective opposition.

If it puts Mr. Corbyn at the helm, we might, over the next few years, get some interesting debates and some wacky ideas about wealth appropriation, but we won’t get the most important thing of all: a sense that here lies a government in waiting.

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