Independent on Sunday, 2 August 2015
The surge in support shows all the signs of magical thinking
Oh, how I hate to be proved right – on this occasion, at any rate. I pointed out last month that Labour is having a nervous breakdown after its shattering general election defeat, and everything that’s happened since has just confirmed my thesis. Supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign seems to have made quite a lot of people feel better, for the moment at least. But it’s therapy, not politics.
It’s a measure of the state Labour is in that the longest-serving MP among the four candidates has managed to present himself as the new kid on the block. Corbyn’s politics look pretty much the same as they’ve done since he was elected to Parliament in 1983, yet he’s suddenly being hailed as Labour’s future. I’m happy to accept he’s a nice guy, although I’m uncomfortable about his willingness to welcome “friends” from the Islamist group Hezbollah to a meeting in Parliament. I’d love to see Labour renationalise the railways and the utilities, but I’m not clear how Corbyn would pay for it.
Back in May, Labour failed to persuade sceptical voters that the party was economically competent, and I don’t see a Corbyn victory changing their minds. “The Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn, has just left Buckingham Palace after telling the Queen he is confident he can form a government ….” Does anyone seriously believe this is what we’re going to hear a day after the next general election?
It’s only three months since Labour’s hopes of getting back into power evaporated with a single exit poll. No one with an ounce of common sense could believe that this was a productive atmosphere in which to choose a new leader, and I always feared that old wounds would reopen with destructive force. The furore over how Labour MPs should vote on the Welfare Reform Bill brought to mind Freud’s famous phrase about the “narcissism of small differences”; Labour has five long years to suffer in opposition and this was not the moment for the party to tear itself apart. And while I’ve never been a fan of Tony Blair, my heart sank last week when the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, Dave Ward, talked about getting rid of a “virus within the Labour Party”.
Hitler notoriously used the “virus” metaphor to dehumanise Jews, characterising them as a sickness which needed to be eradicated from the body politic. Ward’s rhetoric, which went on to describe Corbyn as the “antidote” to the Blairite “virus”, has absolutely no place in democratic discourse.
One union after another has thrown its weight behind the Corbyn campaign, and it’s widely believed that thousands have joined the party just so that they can vote for him. I don’t suppose anyone knows if that’s true; opinion polls suggest he’s in the lead but I thought the last election had made us all a bit more sceptical about the accuracy of polls. I’ve talked to new members in my constituency party in west London and some are supporting Corbyn, but we nominated Yvette Cooper in a secret ballot.
Part of me wonders whether the Corbyn surge is real or is being talked up. The media always look for a line to inject a bit of excitement; in 2010 it was “The Brothers”, a Cain-and-Abel melodrama which did incalculable damage to Ed Miliband throughout his time as leader. The current contest looked even more unpromising at the outset but a slew of “Corbyn to win” headlines has livened it up no end.
What worries me about the Corbyn surge is that it shows all the signs of magical thinking. In this scenario, his disadvantages as a candidate – including the fact that most Labour MPs don’t support him – suddenly become positives. MPs, what do they know? Others have pointed out the illogicality of assuming that giving the Tories an outright majority is a sign that the country secretly wants a left-wing government; Miliband fought the election on a platform somewhat to the left of Gordon Brown, and the result was even worse for Labour than in 2010.
It’s bad enough that some people believe that Corbyn can win in 2020. Even worse is the argument that it doesn’t matter whether he can because restoring the party’s principles is more important than getting back into power. Leaving aside the fact that many of Labour’s principles are intact – its commitments to equality and eradicating child poverty, for instance – this is a species of political puritanism which has dire consequences for real people. Spiteful policies such as the bedroom tax will go on hurting the poor and disabled for as long as the Tories remain in government.
This brings me to the heart of Labour’s self-inflicted wound. What was supposed to be a contest to choose a new leader is in danger of becoming a protracted group therapy session. I’ll still be surprised if Corbyn emerges as the party’s leader next month. But if he does, an irrational feel-good factor will have eclipsed Labour’s will to win.