Jeremy Corbyn's election is a symptom of the withering of mainstream social democracyby David Goodhart / September 13, 2015 / Leave a comment
Does Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour have a realistic chance of winning a General Election? ©AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader ends a long period of cross-party consensus at Westminster. It has often been disguised by the noisy clash of adversarial politics but for the past 25 years differences between the two front benches have generally been a matter of nuance and emphasis rather than of underlying principle on economics, social policy and international affairs. With Labour now led by an old-school socialist and dominated, at least for a while, by the outer fringes of the trade union and globalist left, the political atmosphere will become more shouty and aggressive and Corbyn will give a new lease of life to extra parliamentary protest of all kinds. But there is no evidence that his election represents any significant shift in political opinion—a British version of Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain is not emerging. Corbyn’s hostility to the very gradual deficit reduction being pursued by this government does have some support in the country as does his support for the renationalisation of some utilities, especially railways, where public opinion remains unusually left-wing. His worldview is a rare mix of economic statism and radical egalitarianism and a rather extreme version of the metropolitan liberalism that is generally hostile to tradition and suspicious of national borders. These views are shared by a tiny proportion of the voting public. (My own former accountant Richard Murphy is one of them: the tax/economics adviser to Corbyn is a middle class radical in a conservative profession who liked to represent artists and writers.) And the young people who are flocking to the Corbyn banner seem to be mainly middle class, university educated idealists. They are not representative of British young people in general who are increasingly liberal on race, gender and sexuality but, if anything, shifting to the right on welfare issues and economics. The middle class youth also have very different concerns from the rump of the trade union left, which is Corbyn’s other main support group. This could be an interesting emerging tension in the Corbyn alliance. The youth have little sympathy for traditional working class concerns for community, place and family but can comfortably talk the language of identity politics and global rights. Read more on Corbyn’s victory: How Corbynomics could work Jeremy Corbyn needs to take Scotland seriously Seven things we learned from Labour’s leadership race In any case, Corbyn leads the Labour Party not as a result of any leftward shift in public opinion but because of a quirk of internal Labour politics at the end of the Blair/Brown era and the utterly uninspiring alternatives. A cleansing was long overdue but instead the party has indulged itself in a sort of Oedipal spasm chucking out not only the sterility and pragmatism of the New Labour era but the very idea of professional democratic politics itself. Normal service will presumably be restored at some point though given the magnitude of his victory it is hard to see when. A semi-alien group of leftists now sit astride the party and will be able to direct its day-to-day positions in parliament and in responding to events but they will have to live with much of the policy inheritance from more centrist times. Some senior figures and activists may drift away in desperation to the Liberal Democrats but most will stay and fight, providing a permanent media story of internal Labour division. At some point a new more electable leader will emerge for the non-Corbynites to rally around—Dan Jarvis maybe?—who will be able to triangulate his way to victory in the party and perhaps eventually in the country too (though it is hard to see that happening before 2025). In the meantime does it matter if the main centre-left party is unelectable for almost a generation? There are, of course, other reasons for Labour’s predicament than Jeremy Corbyn, indeed his election is a symptom of the withering of mainstream social democracy experienced across all rich countries.