Jeremy Corbyn getting on the ballot paper for the Labour Leadership is the best news the Party has had since the election. Not because he stands a realistic chance of winning (although early indications are that he commands a substantial level of grass-roots support), but because of the effect that he will have on the debate around the Labour leadership, and about the future of the party.
Labour has traditionally called itself a broad church, but that is not the impression given by the other three candidates – individuals fighting over a very narrow political spectrum, offering no more than marginal differences in political stance. What they agree on is more significant than what divides them – that Labour spent too much in office, that it failed to connect with the voters, that it was seen as anti-business. These are ideological positions, and need to be challenged.
The last of these in particular has political myth written all over it. It’s best summarised in a piece in the Guardian by Mary Creagh before she left the leadership election, but the question remains – what is your evidence for this? Where does this come from? Nobody appears capable of answering this (and my own doorstep experience in a year of pre-election door-knocking is that I heard a lot about Labour’s economic legacy, and a lot about Ed Miliband, but nobody mentioned this issue once). One of the effects of a Corbyn candidacy should be to challenge the post-election myth-making: perhaps it can focus candidates’ minds on the fundamental question of why, following five years in which the living standards of the people who have traditionally looked to Labour have been trashed, why did they not come out and vote for us?
But there is a more fundamental issue for the Party, one that was raised by psephologist and pollster John Curtice in his influential analysis of the outcome of the general election. Labour lost votes on the left to various parties claiming to be anti-austerity: the Greens, the SNP and, to a lesser extent, Plaid Cymru (although the latter is the one party that can honestly be said to have had a worse election than Labour). It also failed to convince its former supporters to abandon their new-found allegiance to UKIP. 2015 left that “broad church” argument looking pretty threadbare, even when one considers that SNP (especially) and the Greens are far more about the appearance than the reality of opposing austerity. Curtice argued that Labour support was less cohesive than that of the Tories, and that this presents a real electoral challenge to Labour.
One way of looking at this is to ask why the SNP slaughtered Labour in Scotland while, in Wales, Plaid’s vote slumped further after their thumping defeat in the 2011 Assembly elections. Part of that is because, as First Minister Carwyn Jones said at a post-election event at the Hay Festival, Labour ensured that Plaid’s territory was limited to independence: by promising – and delivering – free prescriptions, EMA and Flying Start, while projecting a strongly Welsh political identity, Labour never allowed Plaid to park its tanks on Labour’s traditional lawn.
Which brings us back to Labour as a broad church. Labour is strong when it is united and is able to command the widest range of supporters. Had Corbyn not received the required nominations, supporters would have been driven away; but, more importantly, three candidates standing on near-identical platforms on the centre-right would have been evidence that Labour had become a very narrow church indeed, one accepting a version of events that is, to put it at its mildest, framed in the terms and language of the prevailing economic orthodoxy. Without that candidacy, we ran the real risk that Labour would surrender its tradition task of acting as the advocate of the vulnerable to the faux anti-austerians: the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP, while offering nothing to our former supporters who have stuck with UKIP. The traditional role of Labour – to offer both a programme for fundamental change as well as the means of delivering change – would have been fatally undermined. After the nightmare outcome of the 2015 election, we simply cannot allow that to happen.
Party leadership elections are not just about choosing a figurehead: they are about setting agendas, reasserting values, rediscovering identities, developing languages. Without Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy, there was a real risk that the election would have seen great swathes of Labour’s history, meaning and language devalued and abandoned; and thousands of those who do Labour’s heavy lifting on doorsteps, in council chambers and in campaigning hopelessly isolated and marginalised. A big Corbyn vote will send a powerful message that, following its 2015 defeat, Labour is determined to remain a broad church with an ethical rather than a managerial vision at its heart. And, at the very least, it means that we’ll have a proper debate.