A true alternative to the establishment can emerge in British politics
It has become a bit of cliché to start an article by expressing surprise at Jeremy Corbyn’s recent victory in the Labour leadership election. As the dust begins to settle, the debate roars on as to whether Corbyn can really deliver a Labour government in 2020, or whether his victory merely symbolises a trivial Back To The Future adventure for ‘Old’ Labour. Platitudes and perfunctory historical accounts aside, there is certainly a route to Downing Street for Corbyn, though it is not bereft of obstacles.
The past six days serve to show the scale of the task facing Corbyn. Press coverage about the seemingly radical views of the Labour leader and his Shadow Cabinet will be daily, as the right-wing propaganda machine attempts to discredit the party. However, two factors work in Corbyn’s favour. Firstly, a vibrant and growing movement that has forged one of the most successful political campaigns in UK history. Secondly, the new space that has emerged in Western electoral politics that has rejected the neo-liberal consensus. The latter is happening on both the left and the right across Europe, with Syriza, Podemos, and even the SNP serving as prominent recent examples. If galvanised properly, these factors could be proverbial game changers for Corbyn.
Opposition leaders must command public confidence on the economy and their leadership in order to overturn an incumbent government. No-one has ever become Prime Minister without positive poll ratings in both. The challenge for Corbyn will be significantly greater even than that experienced by former Labour leader Ed Miliband. Indeed, the former’s socialist credentials will cause insecurity for some (fear of the unknown left), and will be treated with open hostility by others.
On the economy, Alexis Tsipras was able to seize the Greek public's trust, primarily, due to the financial mismanagement of the right. However, Syriza also had a team of expert academic economists in their ranks who could convincingly articulate an alternative. Corbyn could tackle Britain's economic questions by implementing a similar tactic, perhaps, as Owen Jones has suggested, by creating a commission to explore the alternatives to deficit reduction. Tactically, this could not only expose the malignant ideologies that underpin the Tories’ austerity agenda, but no doubt also open the debate – something Labour failed miserably to do under Miliband.
Yet, for this strategy to work, Labour must conceive a political language that promotes the party’s programme in everyday, understandable terms. During the past five years, the Conservatives have been particularly successful at drumming home, repetitively, the phrases ‘Hardworking People’ and ‘Long Term Economic Plan’. Although it’s important for Labour to create a more organic, honest language than the Tories’, the party must halt Cameron and Osborne’s rhetorical stranglehold on British politics. Labour must counter the kitchen economics of ‘Paying Britain’s Debts Down’ with something equally potent.
Moreover, you cannot consider Corbyn’s future personal poll ratings without considering the movement behind his bid. It’s true that his supporters’ views don’t necessarily correspond with the views of the British electorate, currently. However, a vibrant campaigning movement based locally has a strong propensity to change minds and convince people that socialist policies are viable. If Constituency Labour Parties continue to swell, and assume a more prominent place in local communities, this will raise the profile and popularity of local candidates, and also create a strong party machine during election times, which could make all the difference in key marginal constituencies.
It will be crucial for Corbyn to not only retain the thousands of individuals who signed-up to join the Labour Party during the leadership election, but to attract thousands more. This effort to build a grassroots army will help to expand electoral turnout by connecting politics with disillusioned voters. Indeed, electoral expansion is often viewed as one of the reasons for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential victory, who was able to mobilise record amounts of youth and BME voters.
Undoubtedly, there’s something new and frankly unpredictable about Jeremy Corbyn. The Corbyn movement has shown there’s an appetite for something vastly different to the status quo. With the right ideas framed using an appropriate language, ‘Jez’ might not reproduce the embarrassment of Michael Foot in 1983, but rather imitate the fortunes of Tony Blair in 1997. Indeed, after receiving an emphatic mandate from party members, Blair went on to double the Labour Party’s membership from 200,000 to 400,000, providing a strong basis for his future success.
That Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour Party leadership contest by an outstanding margin by no means guarantees a victory for Labour in 2020. However, after the shock many of us received on Saturday, it would certainly be naïve to write him off just yet.