Opposition politics has suddenly become interesting. A couple of hundred thousand people have flocked to the Labour Party since the election, seemingly attracted by the prospect of electing Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the party.
The prospect of this independently-minded left-winger suddenly being elected to serve as the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition has caused alarm amongst those used to being at the pinnacle of the Labour Party over the past 20 or 30 years. The mantra that a left-wing agenda is patently unelectable is trotted out repeatedly, the clear inference being that the important thing is winning power rather than being seen to stand for certain principles.
The cry since (at least) the latter half of the Blair years is that British politics is broken, with too many career politicians in safe seats with no experience of the “real world”. The Labour politicians of that era are now busy telling everyone that the supposedly radical agenda is wrong, and that to be electable you need to buy into the status quo. I have people on my Facebook page who are saying much the same thing.
But this message simply won’t touch those who have been disconnected from politics, or who see the system as irretrievably broken. And the irony is that the message is largely coming from people who have failed to win the last two general elections.
The mainstream view is that austerity is necessary, even though it’s hard for those at the bottom of the heap. This continues despite the gap between rich and poor extending at an alarming rate, benefit sanctions hitting one in every six claimants every year, social mobility having slammed into reverse gear, and the vast amounts of public money that’s bailed out the banks appearing to have gone to the pockets of those who caused the chaos in the first place. That’s ignoring the warning signs that the world’s economy is about to hurtle off another cliff, with demand (and hence prices) for basic commodities falling precipitously in recent weeks, with matching falls in global stock markets. Seven years is a long time for millions of people to struggle through with slim prospects of getting then holding onto poorly paid jobs – being dependent upon benefits which are in perpetual danger of being severely cut back. Seven years more would be unbearable – yet that’s what’s being asked even before any fresh new financial crisis. It’s anyone’s guess what the public mood would be if banks and large corporates started going bust again and demanding public bail-outs.
Many people were amazed when the SNP pretty much swept the Scottish board in May 2015, leaving only 3 out of 59 seats not in their hands. Looking north of the border, it appears that the SNP have captured a large number of hearts with a motivational message of hope. After all, they won 50% (rounded up to 1 decimal place) of the votes – the first time in 60 years that happened, and 60 years ago, Scotland was a two-party nation. When all else seems broken and none of the establishment seems to want to fix it, then where else are people expected to go? The 2015 election saw the largest percentage of votes ever going to none of the three mainstream parties. I’m not surprised.
Yes, there are valid questions about whether any particular policy position is sufficient to motivate people across the country to vote for it – but that applies equally to the right as to the left. Survey after survey indicates that certain left-wing policies are nationally popular, which gives little credence to the established wisdom that the British electorate is Conservative by nature. Undecided voters appear to look more at credibility rather than specific policies. That, I would suggest, is how Blair won in 1997 – the Labour party then appeared vastly more credible than the outgoing Conservative government.
I’ve written before about how my centrist views of the 1980s are being characterised as radically left now. For a Labour government to restrict human rights, to enter a war on dubious grounds, to oversee a gradual privatisation of national assets – that would have been a ridiculous concept in the 1980s, yet they happened. So it’s not surprising that the left that’s felt left behind has expanded to what I would consider to be centreist Britain.
The cry I’ve seen is that Labour have forgotten their roots. I suspect that’s largely true. They’ve become a machine, much like the Conservatives, aimed at winning elections rather than clearly laying out what their vision for society is. Politics over the past 20 years has become a competition over who can best manage the economy and a shrinking public service sector. Maybe that’s the true legacy of Thatcher.
That’s what I see Corbyn subverting, whether or not he wins the Labour leadership. He’s come across as a man who has not lost touch with his principles, and that’s appealing in a landscape of interchangeable career politicians – remember the BBC Question Time with Paris Lees when Chris Bryant admitted that the three politicians on the panel looked and sounded pretty indistinguishable from each other?