It's one thing to galvinise the base, quite another to win over the general electorate. And it's hard to see a strategy which Jeremy Corbyn can use to achieve that

As a favour for a mate, I penned (keyboarded?) a few lines for The SpinOff on Jeremy Corbyn's election to the Labour leadership in Britain. And a bunch of other commentators did the same. Here are my views:

 

One thing we know for sure is that he’ll be different. Possibly very different. But we know little else. Can the ideals of civility, internet-driven grassroots activism and “sticking to policy” handle the stress test of modern political realities? Will they translate to middle Britain? Can he overcome the mostly mocking media and the sense he’s from a bygone era? Or will he look like what Bill English might call a “nice to have, rather than a necessity”, even for the left?

Capturing the imagination of activists is very different from lighting a flame under a busy and bored general electorate; while getting thousands of volunteers is impressive, that’s barely a decimal point when it comes to actual voters. The fear for Labour is that this is a reaction vote – and a reaction to a particular moment in time, at that.

And when that moment passes, the party will be left with an, er, “quirky” leader and a divided party.

For Corbyn to succeed it will take a massive swing to the left and an effort of political will and skill not seen a long time (arguably harder than Tony Blair’s push away from these very policies).

So if he triumphs, it will be fascinating and phenomenal. But the reality is that centre-left and social democratic parties have long won elections in the centre; we’ve all heard promise of new social movements, reconnecting with disillusioned voters and about being unashamedly left (most recently in NZ from David Cunliffe), but it’s hard to remember when it last resulted in victory.

...I'd add one other thought from this morning. Is Corbyn the Donald Trump of the British left? Of course he's a more substantial politician. But it's hard to avoid the strikingly similar conclusion that while he can speak about issues and in a language that resonates with his party's base, many leading the party are dismayed at him and are agitating against him... and it's hard to believe he can move – or even win – the centre.

Comments (19)

by Lee Churchman on September 14, 2015
Lee Churchman

But the reality is that centre-left and social democratic parties have long won elections in the centre; we’ve all heard promise of new social movements, reconnecting with disillusioned voters and about being unashamedly left (most recently in NZ from David Cunliffe), but it’s hard to remember when it last resulted in victory.

Thatcher.

Every so often, there is a reasonably radical change in what is politically acceptable. People said much the same about Thatcher when she was elected Conservative leader. The key thing here seems to be reintroducing mass participation in politics (e.g. the SNP).

It's been obvious since the crash that current orthodoxies are a bit silly. 

by Andrew P Nichols on September 14, 2015
Andrew P Nichols

1. The only reason Corbyn is described as far left is the distance rightwards the political spectrum has moved since the 80s.

2. Trump is an obnoxious rightwing narcissist that appeals to the baser instincts of the dimwitted Tea Party types and therefore comapring him to Corbyn is an insult to thellatter and highly inaccurate The analogous figure to Corbyn in US politics is Bernie Sanders who we progressive hope gives the repulsive Clinton a sound primary spanking.

by Rich on September 14, 2015
Rich

I'd agree with Lee. Thatcher took politics far to the right. The SNP have taken it back to the left in Scotland. Further back, Attlee won in 1945 with what would now be considered a hugely radical leftist programme.

It's all about narrative - since the 90s, nominally left parties (in NZ and the UK) have basically shared a narrative with the right, and competed primarily on style and personality.

Cameron doesn't have the support of a majority of the UK, you know (no winning party ever has). 37% at the last election. The oppositional vote was fragmented. An opposition that stands for something is more likely, IMHO, to garner those opposition votes than a party that just offers to manage austerity better.

 

by Lee Churchman on September 14, 2015
Lee Churchman

Trump is an obnoxious rightwing narcissist that appeals to the baser instincts of the dimwitted Tea Party types and therefore comapring him to Corbyn is an insult to thellatter and highly inaccurate

I would agree for the most part. I think that there is something really important in the Trump candidacy though. Trump told Fox News to get lost, and it's working. Perhaps the price of crossing mass media narratives is no longer as high as it once was.

by Flat Eric on September 14, 2015
Flat Eric

Trump is his own man. He can moderate at will. If Corbyn does, it is only a matter of time until one former supporter calls him a “Tory”. Game over.

by Murray Grimwood on September 14, 2015
Murray Grimwood

Left, Right and 'centre' are old cliches which are easy for tired journalists to refer to.

When the paradigm shifts - the one Tim keeps avoiding - then it is a question of which incumbent leader - if any - can adapt, has a script, has a plan. Churchill is the well-worn example.

Corbyn may - just may - have a plan.

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-09-12/jeremy-corbyn-the-green-bri...

Which would make him somewhat more relevant than just about all politicians and most commentators.

by Ric The Writer on September 14, 2015
Ric The Writer

The rise of Corbyn and Trump is more a reflection of people's frustration with the gridlock of the political process in both countries and their disillusionment with politicians of all parties than a real indication of support for these two mavericks. With the Primaries months away US voters are free to cast a protest vote without any real consequences. The situation right now is more like a by-election where voters want to send a message to an unpopular government rather than an indication of real intentions.

Trump is riding the conservative media train and scoring points with the Tea Party extremists but once it gets serious his campaign will lose momentum. Corbyn has a huge fight on his hands to unite his party, get his message through a Murdoch dominated media and present policies which will resonate with a wide section of the electorate. Personally I don't think he has much chance. Ultimately these two guys will just further destabilise a democratic system that is in serious trouble.  ricthewriter.com

by Peggy Klimenko on September 16, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Rich: "The SNP have taken it back to the left in Scotland. Further back, Attlee won in 1945 with what would now be considered a hugely radical leftist programme."

Indeed. And it marked a shift in the UK political landscape from that which had pertained before the War. I doubt he'd have been electable in the 1930s with such a programme.

Some time ago, I was with a group of much younger people; we were discussing the Rogernomics revolution, a point of history for them, something I'd lived through. I remarked to them that, in the last 30-odd years, politics here has lurched far to the right of where it was before the Lange government came to power.

That old conservative PM, Robert Muldoon, would scarcely be recognisable as a National MP nowadays; he might well fit more comfortably into the Greens. People born after 1984 are largely unaware of this shift: scarcely surprising, given the profound influence on this society of the Rogernomics bulldozer and subsequent neoliberal reforms.

@ Lee Churchman: "The key thing here seems to be reintroducing mass participation in politics (e.g. the SNP)."

Yes; and along with that perhaps reviving the idea of greater collectivism. Certainly many younger people are unhappy with the status quo and some at least seem to be ready to consider alternatives. I wouldn't write off politicians such as Corbyn and Sanders just yet.

@ Rich: "Cameron doesn't have the support of a majority of the UK, you know (no winning party ever has). 37% at the last election."

A very important point, which seems to have been completely overlooked by many commentators in NZ. It's an FPP electoral system, with all that that entails.

by Julian Ang on September 16, 2015
Julian Ang

It is deeply unflattering for Corbyn to be compared to Trump. One has a history of being a stalwart of progressive politics for the general betterment of the under privileged. The other is a property tycoon that has come up through the system by screwing people over. From a morality and public interest standpoint, they are polar opposites. I guess how successful Corbyn could be will largely depend on whether he can  win the hearts and minds of his caucus or if not, purge the Blair-rites from his party. It is unlikely he will succeed unless the general electorate start finding alternative forms of media to get information from. The Murdoch controlled press and London Financiers and power brokers will be launching an all out attack to destroy him. Hopefully this barrage will be so over the top, that a more sophisticated electorate will be able to work out for themselves whose the real enemy here. I live in hope that he might have a significant impact on pulling back the reforms of Blairism and even Thatcherism ... perhaps a split in the UK Labour party might be a good thing in the longer term so people actually know what they are voting for - not some watered down version of Thatcherism. It is important for Labour to move with the times but equally important to ask, whose interests do they actually represent and what are they fighting for ...

by Tim Watkin on September 16, 2015
Tim Watkin

Andrew/Julian, the comparison is one of political trajectory, not a quality judgment. You may be right that the centre has moved to the right since the 80s, but it is where it is. Corbyn is going to have to deal with political realities not where anyone thinks the centre should be. And if the party does split, that could help the left. Or it could destroy it for a decade.

Lee, I'm no expert on Thatcher... Did she start that far right? From memory she moved further as she went. But either way, it's a fair comparison. The question then becomes whether Corbyn is a Thatcher. She was a force of nature. Also, Labour were in kind of a mess when she came in. The Conservatives are coming off the back of a big win, so the conditions are less favourable for him.

by Tim Watkin on September 16, 2015
Tim Watkin

Ric, it does look like the rise of these two are an expression of frustration from voters. So does that fade away, as per my suggestion in the post that this could be a 'reaction' result for Labour? Or is there a historic shift going on? Too soon to say for sure, but it looks more like the former to me. And do they destabilise politics or reinvigorate it?

Peggy and Lee - you're right about the 37%, but how important is that really? As you say, it's FPP and if so many don't vote then he can keep winning with low turnout. And my point in the post is that we've heard a lot about the left inspiring non-voters in recent years, but a) inspiring the base and inspiring non-voters are very different things, b) is there any evidence from actual elections that non-voters are being inspired to return? and c) who says non-voters will vote left?

 

by Wayne Mapp on September 16, 2015
Wayne Mapp

One of the great advantages of Jeremy Corbyn's win is that no-one is going to be left wondering whether his style of politics can win elections or not. That is assuming he lasts until 2020, but I think he will given the size of his mandate.

Then at least we will know.

This comment is predicated on the usual range of economic outcomes that exists in the UK. Obviously when you get an economic collapse of the scale of Greece, normal political calculations disappear.

As for Trump, my prediction is that he will get the Republican nomination. He has too much momentum to be stopped now. Can he win a general election? Maybe.

In my view he is not an outsider like Corbyn. He is well known, obviously successful, and the sort of guy a lot of Americans admire.

The unusual aspect is that he is an outsider to party politics, but that matters much less than it used to (and in any event Trump was around the GOP field in 2012). The same could be said of John Key back in 2002 and 2005. He had no history in the National Party, a lateral hire so to speak, and within 4 years was leader.

by Lee Churchman on September 16, 2015
Lee Churchman

@Tim

Did she start that far right?

Yeah. IIRC she was associated with the Institute of Economic Affairs (a fairly far right kook organisation) well before and after she became Conservative leader. From Wiki:

Thatcher began to attend lunches regularly at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a think tank founded by the poultry magnate Antony Fisher, a disciple of Friedrich von Hayek; she had been visiting the IEA and reading its publications since the early 1960s. There she was influenced by the ideas of Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, and she became the face of the ideological movement opposing the welfare stateKeynesian economics, they believed, was weakening Britain. The institute's pamphlets proposed less government, lower taxes, and more freedom for business and consumers.[60]

Adam Curtis has an excellent post (w/video clips) on the history of these people and their weird beliefs and associations (including Pirate Radio). They are delightfully bonkers in the way that only the English seem to be able to manage (e.g. the "Your Fish" pamphlet). Curtis' article is well worth anyone's time. An excerpt:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/09/the_curse_of_tina.html

But the most interesting - and influential - member of the family is Linda's father from whom she inherited her fervour for the free market. He was called Sir Antony Fisher and he invented the first modern think tank back in the 1950s. The Institute for Economic Affairs. It is the template for practically all the think tanks today.

Fisher himself would go on to found another 150 think tanks around the world.

But back in the early 1950s he was an isolated figure who felt completely at odds with the mood of his time. He worked with his friend Major Oliver Smedley in pokey offices in an old alleyway in the City of London, called Austin Friars. Together Fisher and Smedley were fighting a lonely battle against the state planning that was trying to reconstruct Britain after the war - because they were convinced that it was going to lead to a totalitarian state and the end of democracy.

Fisher and Smedley had met at a fringe organisation called The Society of Individualists. They became friends because they were both convinced that the innocuous-looking, state-run Milk Marketing Board and Egg Marketing Board were actually the enemies of freedom. Major Smedley had formed an organisation called The Cheap Food League, and his first pamphlet had a wonderful title:

by Lee Churchman on September 16, 2015
Lee Churchman

@Tim

Also, Labour were in kind of a mess when she came in. The Conservatives are coming off the back of a big win, so the conditions are less favourable for him.

Personally, I think he's a dead man walking. He's only been in the job a couple of days and already the endless media hit pieces have started (as they did on David Cunliffe). I would be quite surprised if this campaign doesn't force Corbyn out of the job by the middle of next year.

By that time his supporters might finally have woken up to the fact that no Labour leader with leftish ideas will ever again be permitted a fair hearing in the UK. Why they bother participating is beyond me. 

by Ross on September 17, 2015
Ross

 Is Corbyn the Donald Trump of the British left? 

Yes I hear that Corbyn wants to put up a wall between England and Scotland.

by Ross on September 17, 2015
Ross

In my view he is not an outsider like Corbyn. He is well known, obviously successful, and the sort of guy a lot of Americans admire.

So is Tom Hanks but I'm not sure he'd make a great President. :)

http://www.rd.com/culture/readers-digest-trust-poll-the-100-most-trusted-people-in-america/

by Tim Watkin on September 19, 2015
Tim Watkin

Wayne, I'm not sure your former colleagues will want comparisons drawn between Trump and Key! Not exactly the image they're projecting.

More seriously, I don't think you can say the voter-friendliness or public acceptability of a whole world view can be determined by the success or failure of a single person. We don't assume certain right wing ideas are dead because Abbott failed.

Le, you may be right. As I say, my knowledge is very sketchy. But she was facing a very left-wing Britain and divided party when she took over, so I'm not sure how much she pushed right or was seen as very right (as Corbyn is seen as very left) early on.

by Judy on September 19, 2015
Judy

Really, Tim?  You choose to place Corbyn and Trump in the same 'ballpark'?

That says more about you than it says about them.

Corbyn has spent a lifetime arguing on principle and Trump merely on shock n awe.

When I try to imagine a Donald Trump type controlling NZ, through TPP, I can only see a workers' revolution (eventually, even NZ workers will wake up to the systemic abuse by KeyJoyce and NZ initiative).  With Corbyn, at least we'd all get fed and housed and treated as human beings, until the Slaters and Hootons and Paganis of this country start spinning their webs.

by Charlie on September 20, 2015
Charlie

Corbyn has spent the last three decades hiding in a dark corner of Parliament and done essentially nothing other make radical speeches to the remaining handful of the Hard Left.

Now he's just been thrown into the limelight and will be under immense pressure from all sides to perform. Sitting with colleagues and advisers from Treasury he'll be struggling to formulate policy statements consistent with his out of date views and which also add up. So either he will abandon most of his sillier ideas as 'the tyre meets the road'  or he will have massive fall-outs with his shadow cabinet, which no doubt will get leaked into the press.

 

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