Donald Clarke: Why Jeremy Corbyn could win the Labour leadership battle

‘Peter Mandelson would never have let that happen’

 

Why might Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing MP for Islington North, be poised to take over the leadership of the UK Labour Party? To adopt the lawyerly semantics of Bill Clinton, that very much depends on what you mean by “why”.

One happy answer is that Corbyn’s policies win approval with a large number of voters. His proposals to renationalise rail and mail services are particularly popular. Significant sections of the British population would be happy to ditch the Trident missile programme. They like his language on tax avoidance.

The political elite has, over the past 50 years, managed to rebadge certain reasonable attitudes as indicators of ideological psychopathy. Never mind titans of the Labour left such as Aneurin Bevan or Barbara Castle: many of Corbyn’s views on nationalisation would have been tolerated by Harold Macmillan or (an unfortunate example this week) Edward Heath.

Taking another angle on “why”, we might point towards the alleged “entryism” by both right and left. Last week, Neil Kinnock, who fought famous battles with the Militant tendency in the 1980s, suggested that “the Trotskyite Left and the Telegraph Right, who might participate in this election, clearly have their own malign purposes”. It seems that any half-interested passerby can pay £3 for Labour membership and gain a vote.

To be fair to the “Trotskyite Left”, there is little “malign” about voting for the candidate in whom you genuinely believe. The Telegraph Falange is a different business.

In the middle of July, as the Corbyn juggernaut gained speed, a commentary in that right-wing newspaper half-jokingly proposed a scheme for annihilating the Labour Party. Working from the uneasy assumption that Corbyn is unelectable, the writers urged readers to pay their £3 and vote for the trending rebel.

“A lot of people, both in the Labour Party and outside it, think that would be dreadful for Labour, the sort of political disaster the party last suffered in 1983 when Michael Foot’s Left-wing views saw the party lose by a landslide,” the piece said of a potential Corbyn leadership.

Registered supporters must sign an agreement that they “support the aims and values of the Labour party”. How well will this work? About as well as screens that ask teenage boys to turn back when seeking pictures of nude ladies in unhealthy corners of the internet.

Last week, the Guardian reported that Tim Loughton MP, a former Conservative minister, had signed up to vote in the election. “If I’d got a voting paper, I was going to tweet myself ripping it up, just to make a point about how ridiculous the whole open exercise is,” he claimed later.

Energised by Corbyn

The least interesting version of our opening question yields an answer concerning the supposedly underwhelming quality of the candidates. This argument does Yvette Cooper some disservice.

The MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford has been chief secretary to the treasury and secretary of state for work and pensions. She has done brave battle on Newsnight while less robust colleagues kept heads strategically lowered. Yet Cooper is seen to be tainted by association with the old regime. Andy Burnham is too dull. Few had ever heard of arch-Blairite Liz Kendall.

Sadly, image does matter. If media- friendly possibilities such as Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis or Tristram Hunt had stayed the course, then Corbyn would have found it much harder to register.

Now, here’s the really intriguing query. How was this surge allowed to happen? Two weeks ago, Margaret Beckett MP was asked if, as a Blair adviser suggested, she was a moron for nominating Corbyn. She reluctantly agreed.

“At no point did I intend to vote for Jeremy,” she said. “We were being urged as MPs to have a field of candidates.”

Traditional sentiment

The Tory party may occasionally vote for borderline nutters, but few of its MPs would nominate a candidate for the leadership just to “widen the debate”. When Mrs Thatcher, despite delivering three election successes, became a liability, she was defenestrated quicker than poor Queen Jezebel.

At time of writing, Corbyn is 6/4 joint favourite with the bookies. Peter Mandelson would never have let that happen.

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