It is a dismal law of elections that you need to win in the centre ground. In the UK, it may well be the case that you can win a majority with nothing like 50% of the popular vote, but you can only do so by getting the votes of swing voters in marginal constituencies. No party can win a majority by simply appealing to their core base, and the single member plurality system we use for Westminster elections undermines any party which attempts to do so. In this respect, Jeremy Corbyn’s critics are absolutely correct; all things being equal, we can expect to see him leading the Labour Party into the political wilderness.
With that said, this isn’t the only law of election campaigning. The “centre ground” is constantly shifting, and not just along the right/left axis. Politicians can – and indeed do – shift the political centre ground. It’s a little thing we call “leadership”.
Despite this, the left has been obsessed with the centre and specifically triangulation (moving on your opponent’s ground in order to claim the centre ground) for two decades now. In fairness to Tony Blair, it got him some great results. But there’s a problem: it depends on your core supporter base having neither the option or the willingness to go somewhere else. If you can’t hang onto your supporter base then you aren’t triangulating; you’re simply shifting to the centre and risk losing more support than you gain.
This is something that Nick Clegg spectacularly failed to appreciate. His analysis was that the Lib Dems were taking a knock in the polls because of “protest voters” who never wanted power, and that he was better off without them. Weirdly, at a time when his base was abandoning him, he became extremely hostile to them. It was their fault for abandoning him, not his fault for abandoning them.
This is oddly similar to the reaction that most Labour establishment figures have had to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the apex of which has to be Tony Blair’s bizarre article published in the Guardian today. What I find interesting in all this is the asymmetry. If a (for want of a better word) “centrist” voter abandons Labour, then it is always deemed to be the party’s fault and an onus on the party to do better and reach out to them. If a “leftist” voter does the same (or in this case votes for the wrong candidate), it is because they are a protest voter, stupid or selfish (to quote Blair: “think about those we most care about and how to help them” – which apparently mean accepting that Labour has to go along with the wholesale cut in the welfare system and reducing employment rights).
What seems to have happened is that triangulation has become so internalised that it has reached a point where the centrist floating voter is now seen as all-wise. And yet we see on a daily basis evidence of the political centre being claimed by the right because they understand that changing minds is at least as important, possibly more so, as changing policy.
It is strange that at a time when the media institutions that used to hold such sway over public opinion are rapidly weakening, centre-left political parties are writing off their ability to influence opinion themselves. Basing your politics on chasing the centre ground is a form of magical thinking. It’s simply wrong to believe that Labour achieved its great victory because New Labour simply seized the centre ground.
There were numerous reasons why Labour won as comprehensively as it did in 1997. Yes, triangulation was a factor as it limited the number of areas which the Tories could attack them on. But the 1997 Labour government rode in on a pledge to introduce a national minimum wage, impose a windfall tax on privatised utility companies and rewrite a large part of the UK constitution. There’s this mistaken idea that Ed Miliband shifted the party to the left; if he had been half as radical as New Labour were in 1997, the media would have lost their minds.
The other two factors were the fact that the Conservatives had utterly disintegrated as a meaningful force and Tony Blair’s own charisma. As hard as it may be to imagine now, Blair at the time was enormously popular. He looked young, he smiled all the time, he seemed to have a sense of humour. The strange Gollum-like figure who occasionally pops up on TV these days claiming to be Tony Blair isn’t the man who lead Labour to victory.
More than anything else, finding a leader who is actually likeable is Labour’s problem. Ed Miliband may have been a bit weird, but that’s nothing compared to Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall. Jeremy Corbyn simply outshines them. If he came across as an inhuman technocratic android, he wouldn’t be getting anywhere.
I’m hardly the first person to point out that Corbyn is winning because he is managing to inspire people, but it is a message that Labour’s establishment seem to simply not understand, like it’s a concept that is totally alien to them. And in that respect, they don’t have any idea how Labour won in the 90s and 00s. Gone are the pragmatic idealists like Robin Cook who were willing to work within the system but still had something resembling a vision.
I don’t happen to think that Corbyn has what it takes to win a general election. In fact, if he wins the leadership contest, I’ll be very surprised if he last two years. This is for three reasons. The media will monster him, and while they may not be as powerful as they were, that pressure will be unrelenting. The left will abandon him the first time he makes a compromise in the interests of holding the party together. And fundamentally, I don’t think he has what it takes to be a leader; specifically, I don’t believe he is capable of eating shit on a daily basis and looking like he enjoys it. In this respect he reminds me of Menzies Campbell; someone who the media would fete on a regular basis as an expert, but who failed to appreciate that the sort of scrutiny he received would completely change once he became leader. It is striking that while he clearly loves protest and shoring up the political left, he has never sought to influence Labour on the inside, merely content to sit on the backbenches semi-detached.
But as much as I’d like to say Labour have a better option right now, I just don’t see it. Their best hope is to get this election out of the way as quickly as possible and find someone in good time before 2020 who is willing to work inside the party, capable of leading and actually has a personality. The policy stuff is ultimately a distraction. Sadly, I’m not optimistic that this would happen. My best guess is that we’ll see Tom Watson in charge by the next general election.
EDIT: Changed 4 instances of the word “weird”. Lazy writing. For the record, I love weirdos – it’s the ultra-normos who you can’t trust.