The panic among some Labour people on social media after two private polls suggested that Jeremy Corbyn will top the Labour leadership poll has been wondrous to behold. Time to get some perspective.
First, the electoral system means that Jeremy Corbyn will only win if he gets something approaching 50% of the first preference vote – since it appears vanishingly unlikely that he will attract many second preferences from other candidates. Second, the way the election works, wth Union members and others permitted to sign up as “supporters”, means that polling is incredibly difficult.
Having said that, it’s obvious that Corbyn will receive a far higher vote than anyone predicted when he was looking for those last few last-minute nominations to get his name on to the ballot paper. Why? He’s not obvious party leadership material, as someone who has spent a long (but certainly principled) political career on the fringes, not in the mainstream. He is strongly associated with a particular wing of the Party, and not the obvious figure to unite it.
Corbyn’s surge is the product of serious disaffection with the quality of the leadership election. The Labour Party remains the only political force that is capable of challenging the Tories head on, and of making the case for social justice and against austerity. But not one of his opponents is rising to that challenge – least of all to challenge the politics and economics of austerity. We are hearing about Labour becoming not opposing for the sake of it, continuing deficit reduction, not opposing the Tories’ welfare legislation. We hear that Labour can only win by reaching out to Tory voters, with the implication that that means adopting Tory framing. We continue to hear Labour leadership candidates ditching Labour’s 2015 programme wholesale.
It’s not good enough. Osborne’s budget, for all its sleight of hand and political grandstanding, is simply the continuation and acceleration of the shift in wealth from poor to rich, from young to old, from wage-earner to rentier, that has continued unimpeded since 2010. Yet Labour’s response has been feeble. Where is the anger, where is the passion, where is the determination to act as advocates for the people that austerity is hitting hardest? Labour, in office from 1997 to 2010, lifted a million children out of poverty. Why do its leaders – interim and prospective – have so little to say as Cameron and Osborne plunge them back?
For many of us, a Corbyn vote represents perhaps the last best hope of getting Labour’s leaders to wake up – to propose a decent, evidenced economic alternative; to restore its commitment to social justice; and to win back those at the sharp end of austerity who have abandoned the political process. It’s a vote that is less about the choice of leader – it still seems inevitable that one of the three Spadocrats will win – but about setting an agenda, and about fighting back to ensure that Labour reasserts its values.
If Jeremy Corbyn is pulling ahead now, it is largely because the other candidates have had so little to say. Yes, of course we have to win elections, because the people we represent cannot afford the luxury of oppositionism. But we need values, a clarity of vision and an understanding that you do not win by aping the political framing set out by your opponents. It’s argued that Corbyn as leader would lose the next election – but, in all honesty, has anything we have heard from the other candidates suggested that they can bring back those millions of voters who have deserted Labour, either for UKIP or abstention, since the high-water mark of 2001?
There is still time for the other candidates to set out a credible, evidenced, passionate vision for a more equal and fairer society, while exposing the utter futility of austerity economics. There is still time for them to explain how they intend to build a consensus for change, based around grasping the fact – that after events in Greece should be clearer than ever – that with the huge benefit of a sovereign currency, we don’t need to worry about the deficit in the short to medium term. Are they prepared to rise to that challenge, to abandon their personal comfort-zones, and to pull their heads out of the Westminster burrow?