Labour needs to go on the offensive, and electing Corbyn is the first step
There’s an exchange in the original 90s British version of House of Cards (it’s on Netflix and just as good, if not better, than its US counterpart) that goes like this: the Conservative prime minister asks an advisor, “How do you rate the performance of this Government?” The advisor replies, “You’ve got 46% of the people, and that means you can afford to ignore the rest. The opposition has no chance because it’s got no powerbase. Most of the ‘underclass’ aren’t even registered to vote. You’ve virtually destroyed the two-party system.”
Some things apparently never change.
The reasons for Labour’s general election defeat have already been discussed at nauseating length. Suffice it to say, certain vested interests within the party may be motivated to claim that Miliband & co were simply too left-wing for the electorate, but that doesn’t make it so. In Scotland the explicitly anti-austerity Scottish National Party won a landslide and, as has already highlighted, there are now more MPs opposing the Conservatives than there were in the last parliament. SNP MP Mhairi Black’s speech condemning the Government’s welfare policies has been shared online over 10 million times in just a few days.
Labour’s leadership election has been blighted by constant calls for party members to ‘act responsibly’ and vote for anyone but Jeremy Corbyn. But it is far less responsible to allow the Blairite farce undeserving of the moniker ‘Labour’ to continue. Boring Burnham may yet scrape in to become leader if the membership sees him as a safer option, but in reality with no risk comes no reward. There’s just no point in someone other than Corbyn winning. Even if the British public reject Corbyn’s stances en mass at the next election, he will still be the best long-term choice for the party, and the country in general. The other candidates stand for little more than their own career progression, and if any real passion once motivated them to become politicians those vertebrae have long since been sucked out by the cynicism of party politics. By choosing to fight on your opponent’s battleground you give them a natural advantage, and every attempt they make to appeal to the UK’s vested interests hurts Labour’s long-term chances even more.
Put simply: Labour can’t out-Tory the Tories. It’s a political impossibility. Just look at the Lib Dems: as the party moved further to the right to try to justify their kowtowing in government they destroyed their voter base, leading to their ruination in May. Not only were the party’s previous supporters now aghast at their actions while in government — considering on many issues the Lib Dems stood on a platform more left-wing than Labour in 2010 — but anyone with the hots for neoliberal shenanigans would surely go straight to the Conservative source.
The Blairite solution of winning over the centre ground – the people that already vote – worked once, but it won’t work again. Labour’s — and the rest of the parliamentary left’s — only option is a long term goal to draw the public discourse back towards them, challenging the media moguls that would paint anything more progressive than Virgin-owned workhouses as an anti-British conspiracy. Corbyn and his supporters need to be bold and consistent, drawing attention to those issues that the public already has broad support for: building council houses, re-nationalisation of railways and opposition to foreign military intervention. The Tory-led national media machine will of course fight them at every turn, but the only way for UK politics to get out of its Thatcherite rut is to challenge and eventually disarm said machine. As long as the message is consistent and credible it will become legitimised, forcing the right to respond to, rather than set, the popular argument for once.
The concept of the ‘Overton Window’ (one admittedly favoured by the right) describes just this. The ‘window’ refers to the range of ideas considered publically acceptable. This range is constantly changing as society evolves. Just look at our views on sexuality; only decades ago it would have been laughable to predict a Conservative prime minister would lead the charge for gay marriage. Cameron merely responded to our increasing collective acceptance, gaining public support in the process. When George Osbourne co-opted the rhetoric of the Living Wage campaign into his first budget he did so to disarm his opponents of it. Never mind that Osbourne’s ‘living wage’ is actually not one in the predefined sense of the word; the point is that the policy is one that has broad public support. Before New Labour the concept of even a minimum wage was one the Conservatives argued fiercely against, but that would now be political suicide; so the window shifts.
Corbyn has unwittingly tapped into the trapped resentment of Labour’s membership, becoming the figurehead of a movement against the party’s powers that be. His views may be labelled ‘extreme’ by his enemies, but that perception of them is more fluid than they might care to admit.
The truth is that vast swaths of those Labour should be representing feel so disempowered they don’t bother to vote: the election results show Labour is by far the most popular party among working class and unemployed voters, but almost half don’t turn up to the ballot box. Only half of private renters voted, compared to over three quarters of homeowners in the UK. 65% of Black and Minority Ethnic voters supported Labour, but they had only a 56% turnout. So it goes on.
Only hope can win back this support. An inspiring message that empowers people and explicitly tells them how their lives can be made better is what Labour desperately needs, and Corbyn is the only person who can offer it. To do this is to shape the landscape of public opinion, and not merely respond to it.