If he is elected Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn will need to seek broader alliances and promote constitutional reform to overcome his and the party’s ‘electability’ dilemmas. This post first appeared on openDemocracy.
It will now be a major upset if Jeremy Corbyn is not elected leader of the Labour Party on 12 September, and the ‘electability’ of a Corbyn government remains the main reason why rivals and commentators alike question this choice.
Electability has not always been an overriding consideration for Corbyn’s critics – Tony Blair squandered Labour’s support in his Iraq adventure, Gordon Brown refused to resign when it was clear that his leadership would cost Labour the 2010 election, and David Miliband declined to challenge Brown when it seemed a challenge might restore Labour’s fortunes.
However they are right that Labour needs to win elections, and it is clear that any Labour leader will face a formidable task to be electable in 2020. Labour is on 232 seats, needing a landslide of 94 seats to win outright in the next General Election in 2020. The Tories will introduce boundary changes, making the target still more onerous.
Landslides happen, but in the present circumstances it is almost as improbable that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall will lead Labour to outright victory as it is that Corbynmania will last another five years and sweep an unprecedently left-wing party into power.
All the candidates are talking as though their ideas and leadership could construct a new majority on their own, but the evidence is strongly against this. Jeremy Corbyn – or any other leader – will need to move out of his and the party’s comfort zones to win.
The full scope of the problem
The Tories are not tired, divided and mired in sleaze as they were in the mid-1990s, when Tony Blair rode into power, but aggressively confident after their surprise election victory.
They have seen off both their main UK-wide rivals. Not only has Labour suffered a historic defeat in Scotland, unlikely to be reversed even if Corbyn neutralises the SNP’s anti-austerity rhetoric. The Lib Dems, who previously took a big swathe of seats across southern England, have suffered equally catastrophic losses, the scale of which gave the Tories outright victory.
This means a non-Tory government will not only require Labour need to gain seats in England that it failed to win in 2005, 2010 or 2015, but will probably require a broader base. This is a moment for thinking laterally about the predicament of the large majority who did not vote Conservative – and some who did but now don’t want their new policies – in finding a way forward.
Wider non-Tory representation?
Beyond the scope for Labour gains, there are two key questions. First, how can non-Tory votes be made effective in the parts of England and Wales that the Lib Dems have lost and Labour is unlikely to reach? Second, can ways can be found of combining the non-Tory parties to enable an alternative government?
These two issues need to be addressed in tandem. Both challenges are as formidable as the task of returning Labour itself to a stronger position. The Liberal Democrats will doubtless recover a little: a Corbyn victory may offer them some extra space in the ‘centre’ ground. But it is not clear that Tim Farron’s mix of leftish liberalism and evangelical Christianity will do the job (and he has already compromised his liberal credentials on gay rights). They are unlikely to bounce back to their former strength.
Otherwise, what hope do rural, small-town and suburban areas, especially in southern England, have of non-Tory representation? Could local independent coalitions be a model for some constituencies to escape the Tory straightjacket?
In an overlooked result, independent Claire Wright in East Devon scored a remarkable 24 per cent of the vote in May, forcing UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dems out of the race with the local Tory. The past successes of Richard Taylor and Martin Bell (and Caroline Lucas’s solitary Green breakthrough) offer precedents. However this route seems likely to work only with strong local issues, high-profile candidates and local election campaigns which prepare the way.
Resolving the divided opposition
This year’s Conservative victory resulted – far more than the Labour contenders are recognising – from how the Tories exploited the divisions among the anti-Tory parties. Miliband failed to respond effectively to his prospective parliamentary dependence on the SNP, allowing Cameron to paint Labour as a recipe for anarchy. Any Labour leader will have to deal with this and other coalition problems, which none of the candidates are even mentioning in their campaigns.
There are two routes to address these issues, which are not mutually exclusive. One is to achieve understandings between the opposition parties, which could be prepared by common opposition to the (often unmandated) policies of the Tory government. This could lead to an informal alliance at the 2020 election – or the voters could do it themselves, as they have in the past, through tactical voting. However the Tories, despite benefiting from coalition themselves, seem to have successfully demonised the dangers of a hung parliament.
The second and surer route is to find common ground in attacking the democratic deficit in the UK, so that the opposition is united around a programme of constitutional reform, which will attract civil society support, even as it differs on substantive economic and social policies.
Tackling the democratic deficit
The Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP all have a strong interests in ending the unfair electoral system that gave the Tories an absolute majority on 37 per cent of the vote. Labour should surely have learnt the lesson of Blair’s failure, even after the writing was on the wall in 2005, to implement the electoral reform to which the party was committed before 1997.
It is depressing that none of the candidates for the Labour leadership are seriously addressing this issue. Even Corbyn is very cautious: rightly defending the constituency-MP link, he seems unwilling to explore the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies (as in Ireland), which is the best way to combine this link with proportionality without creating second-class party-list MPs (as in Germany).
Corbyn has, however, proposed calling a constitutional convention, which if done in the right way could be a way to open up the issues more widely. Democratic reform of the House of Lords, where executive patronage is as anachronistic as hereditary titles, should also be common ground.
The SNP and the Miliband trap
The national question will be trickier. It will be difficult for Labour (and the Liberal Democrats) to ally with the SNP so long as the latter sees independence as a short-term goal. If the SNP goes all-out for a new referendum after next year’s Holyrood election, that will make their participation in a UK-wide alternative to the Conservatives impossible. A referendum campaign would divide and divert any non-Tory momentum – even if it resulted in a new ‘No’, as is likely because the economic fundamentals have moved against independence.
What we may call the Miliband trap will only be overcome with a viable constitutional alternative. Federalism could be more tolerable to Labour (and the non-Tory English generally) if coupled with proportional representation in both UK and national parliaments. The non-Tory parties and civil society need to get ahead of both the Government and the SNP and find a new common ground which will help prevent a repeat of the impasse of 2014-15.
The European challenge
The first big challenge, in any case, will be Europe, where the opposition must avoid a different trap – condemning the failings of European Union democracy and exposing Cameron’s cosmetic renegotiation, without embracing the dangerous tendency to reject the European project altogether.
Corbyn has already half-stumbled over this issue. Although the questions of Eurozone austerity and just migration policies resonate powerfully, Corbyn – or whoever is the Labour leader – will have their work cut out to find an internationalist way through the referendum dilemmas that boosts rather than fragments the party.
Corbyn’s international commitments
Wider international issues will mostly be less pressing for the opposition leader, but are still crucial ground on which to judge the candidates. None of the alternatives to Corbyn has much to offer, and their sycophancy towards Israel (evident in a recent Labour Friends of Israel hustings) says much of what needs to be known about their conventional attitudes.
Corbyn, in contrast, has an unusual record of international engagement, underscored as Gary Kent suggests by anti-Americanism. Yet he is not as committed to authoritarian governments as Gordon Brown suggests. I checked out links offered by Nick Cohen to back this case, and they actually showed that Corbyn was supportive only of Hugo Chavez – not of Iran, Gaddafi or Putin.
Nevertheless Corbyn’s closeness to Sinn Fein, symbolised by his recent tea party with Gerry Adams and refusal to specifically condemn IRA killings, is troubling and will be a focus of attacks. Likewise, his campaigning for peace in the Middle East has brought him into contact with some dubious figures. Even if he doesn’t share their opinions, in some cases there are legitimate questions about whether he should have shared platforms.
Certainly his anti-nuclear, anti-NATO and anti-Israel stances will not only provoke big conflicts within Labour as it tries to resolve its policies, but also make him a target of media denigration which will make Miliband’s treatment seem mild.
An opportunity for renewal?
Burnham and Cooper, the other possible winners, have conspicuously failed to inspire, and it is not obvious that either could take Labour back to office. Although Corbyn has aroused great enthusiasm among the six hundred thousand Labour selectors, it will be a tall order to convince the wider electorate of an alternative, not least because the fiscal responsibility issue which helped sink Miliband remains an obstacle, as Jon Cruddas’ research shows.
Corbyn will need to broaden his appeal if the failure predicted by his enemies is not to come to pass. The necessary radical shift is most obvious on constitutional reform. Yet Corbyn’s economic agenda also seems rather conventional (rail ownership, tax avodiance, etc.). It is not clear that his much-flagged support for ‘people’s quantitative easing’ will fly now that the economy is growing.
Deeper sources of inequality, like the exemption of property gains from tax – Corbyn’s own Islington voters recently earned twice as much from untaxed housing gains as from taxed work – remain off limits. Since the Tories have effectively abandoned universal home-ownership, the left could claim the idea of a ‘property-owning democracy’ for itself – but only if it was prepared to radically reform the housing market and the challenge the vested interests in the status quo.
The prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party has raised many hopes. The unlikely opportunity for renewal which it offers will only be realised, however, if Corbyn moves himself as well as his party far from their comfort zones.