If anything illustrates the desperate need for a reordering of British politics, it is the treatment, or rather mistreatment, of Jeremy Corbyn. Almost everyone with even the tiniest stake in the system as it stands has contributed; that includes the London-based media, as well as the Labour MPs and celebrity spokespeople who are theoretically on his own side. The Conservatives have hardly needed to deploy any of their assault forces, so keen have others been to do the job for them.
Don’t get me wrong. I am no Corbynista. His politics are not mine, but I understand his appeal. His arguments are coherent; they deserve to be heard, and every government needs a credible opposition. Alas, this is not what is happening
To his many enemies, Jeremy Corbyn is a pretender. He is a pied piper who has cast a spell over a deluded section of the young. He is incompetent. He was eviscerated by Theresa May at PMQs. He’s hopeless in Parliament generally. He can’t lead. He could never be elected prime minister. He is a stubborn egotist, who won’t acknowledge his failings. He is traducing the noble Labour cause and should stand down post haste for the sake of the party he loves.
Well, that is a point of view. The trouble is that, even in our land of free elections and free media, it is pretty much the only message that is finding its way out to the great British public. Part of the fault may lie with Corbyn’s own media operation, but a lot of it derives from the dominance of a self-serving establishment logic, according to which only “people like us” are entitled to a say.
Here is an alternative version. Let’s start with legitimacy of party leaders. It is little short of astonishing that Jeremy Corbyn, with the colossal mandate he received a year ago from party supporters, in a contest conducted entirely according to agreed rules, should be dismissed as somehow illegitimate and an aberration. The losers may not like the rules (retrospectively), but at least some of them were instrumental in setting them. When Corbyn resists calls for his resignation, citing his mandate, he is absolutely justified in so doing.
Compare this with the position on the benches opposite. Theresa May was on the losing side (if only nominally) in the EU referendum; she was one of several candidates to succeed David Cameron, all of whom fell – by fair means or foul – by the wayside, leaving her to be crowned party leader and prime minister without a contest.
It beggars belief that the Conservatives, as Cameron did in his valedictory PMQs, have hailed this as a triumph (of efficiency, rather than democracy?) and that there are no calls – as yet – for Theresa May to seek her own mandate at a general election. May herself demanded this of Gordon Brown in analogous circumstances, so what is different now? It is not good enough to hail the return of political stability and insist that the poor electorate is suddenly tired of voting.
And how incompetent is Jeremy Corbyn really? He has not been nearly as ineffective a parliamentary performer as his adversaries charge. If you take into account that a large number of his own MPs have set out to stymie, if not actually sabotage, his efforts, just hanging on in there is a feat. He may not be the best picker of people and he may not be a natural leader, but it is hard to judge his strengths (beyond an almost superhuman resilience) when you consider the obstacles placed in his path.
He had to sit through a speech by his foreign affairs spokesman in the Syria debate that argued the opposite of what he, as party leader, believed. Earlier this week, he had to watch as his MPs hand May a victory in the Trident vote, that was out of all proportion to public sentiment. His difficulty is that the Labour Party’s electoral system threw up a leader whose mandate came from the popular, rather than the still nostalgically Blairite parliamentary, party. How many leaders would look competent in such circumstances?
Consider other measures of political success and the picture changes. As Corbyn said yesterday in his opening bid to remain leader, the party under his tutelage has won every by-election it has fought and four mayoral races, including London. It has changed the terms of the economic debate – George Osborne’s demise and Theresa May’s first remarks as Prime Minister are the latest testimony to that. Party membership is higher than it has ever been, and Corbyn – improbable though it once seemed – has fired political enthusiasm into the supposedly apathetic young.
He has done this by reviving old Labour priorities and applying them in a way that speaks to a generation growing up in the shadow of the financial crisis and several disastrous wars. Nor does his brand of Labour speak just to the young. It appeals to many of those whose employment is precarious, who have seen huge mistakes (in finance and Iraq) go unpunished, who resent the stratospheric rewards the bosses reserve for themselves, and who ask whether Labour’s pursuit of electability in the 1990s was not at the price of their interests and the party’s soul.
The political centrism that prevailed in Parliament in the wake of Tony Blair’s landslide, left sections of the population essentially without a voice. The Iraq war, a touchstone now for mistrust of government, was supported by both major parties in Parliament, as was sweeping de-regulation, as – despite the Labour leader’s best efforts – was the Trident decision this week.
Jeremy Corbyn’s was a lone voice on all these issues, but he can claim in many ways to have been vindicated. His so-called “intransigence” has now won him a following in the country at large, where levels of discontent – largely disguised by the first-past-the-post electoral system – were spectacularly laid bare in the Brexit vote. Whether you agree with him or not, you must accept that Jeremy Corbyn represents a real opposition. If only the Labour elite could accept that, too.