Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was a sign that, for Labour at least, everything would change. Corbyn won on a surge of new members and supporters to the Party, on a platform that was – in contrast to his opponents – firmly focussed on policy. Since that election there have been many steps forward – the appointment of a team of economic advisers demonstrating an admirable serious of purpose, the (perhaps unexpected) ability of Corbyn to dominate Prime Minister’s Question Time in a way that few of his predecessors managed, to Cameron’s obvious discomfort.
There have also been wobbles – the uncertainty over the Commons vote on the Fiscal Charter, the various controversies concerning Corbyn’s appearances at public occasions – whether to sing the national anthem, whether to wear a poppy. The latter may indeed be media creations, but they matter; they suggest a lack of sureness of touch. But it’s early days; it’s always worth remembering that at this stage in her leadership of the Tory Party, Margaret Thatcher was widely regarded as unelectable.
But there is a deeper issue that concerns me, something that has arisen time after time in party gatherings, and not just those on the Left; a concern with Labour internal politics and structures. I have heard too many conversations in which Labour people – especially those on the Left, including some quite senior holders of elected office – have seen the big issues for Labour as being around Party democracy and structures. And my own feeling is that those who talk about how the wheel has turned away from new Labour are missing the point.
The key issue is that, at heart, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader has absolutely nothing to do with old power struggles in the Labour Party; it is a response to an entirely new set of circumstances, partly brought about by the coincidence of a controversial electoral system that nobody on the Left wanted, but also through a realisation that, to be electable, Labour needed to find a new policy direction, one that represented a much stronger challenge to the politics of austerity, than Labour’s leadership managed in the run-up to the election. This was in part a reaction from those of us who had trodden the streets in our constituences and wards in the run-up to the General Election, to be told “you’re all the same”; it was about a desperate desire for something new, something more grounded and authentic than Westminster Labour had to offer.
What it was absolutely not about was the old sectarian politics of the 1980s; many of those joining up as supporters were young and simply did not have the memories of or commitment to the old causes, even if there was a core of old hands who saw this election as pay-back time. Many other old Labour did come back, people who had been repelled by the Iraq War, or could no longer stomach latter-day Blairite accommodation with the economics and politics of austerity; but the claims of mass entryism were, for the most part, nonsense. In fact, such entryism as there was appears to have come from the Green Party; it was widely reported that the majority of the 4500 people barred from voting in the Labour leadership election were Greens, which means, if true, that more Greens tried to vote for Jeremy Corbyn than voted in total in the 2012 Green election won by Natalie Bennett.
But the point is that all of this was a reaction to things as they are now, not as they were in the old days; a reaction to the crushing election defeat of 2015, an understanding of what an unfettered Tory government would do, an appreciation of the realities of the political choices implicit in the austerity narrative and a determination to resist them. It is about people looking outward, not contemplating the niceties of Labour’s internal politics.
And, for me, the things that Labour must do have absolutely nothing to do with internal politics. They are about crafting and expressing a powerful, grounded, alternative to the politics and economics of austerity, in an environment where the values of austerity have defined discourse for a decade, and where the media remain largely hostile. They are about winning people back to the idea that mainstream politics can bring about change, especially those traditional Labour voters – many of them at the sharp-end of the Tory assault on living standards – who have deserted Labour for UKIP, or have abandoned politics altogeter; about showing people that they have not been forgotten. They are about energising the influx of new members into the Party, but at the same time remembering that Labour is a party of Government and that what is being done to the most vulnerable in society is far too serious for the frivolities of posturing or gesture politics. We need to be looking outward, not inward – especially for those of us in Scotland, London or here in Wales where we face crucial elections next year.
And it is against that background that, even as a Corbyn supporter, I have sometimes found myself worrying at the way in which we as a party have presented ourselves; we need to move beyond the narratives of division promoted by the media, and at times the Left has appeared still to be playing the old sectarian games. We need to do better than this; it’s not about diluting our values, but ensuring that we don’t ever look anything less than a party that is determined to win and bring about real change. Put bluntly, to win the game, you need to be in it, and focussed on the outcome.
The real challenge for Labour now is whether we can grasp the anti-austerity Zeitgeist and turn it into a credible, irresistible political force. At one level – although it is not a comparison many on the Left will relish – we need to do what Blair and Brown did in the 1990s, and indeed what Thatcher did in the 1970s, and win the intellectual and political debate by clearly, powerfully articulating an alternative to austerity. Making the Party more democratic obviously matters; but for now it must remain a long way down the list of priorities. We cannot afford the distractions.