Unite’s decision to back Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership may mark a decisive moment in the history of the Labour party. Since 1995 it has been possible to define Labour’s politics as an often heated dialogue between Blairism and Brownism. Jeremy Corbyn has now butted in on this conversation to remind everyone that there were other things that Labour once banged on about.
Unite’s flight from the current Labour establishment has been signalled by Len McCluskey’s increasingly forward flirtation with the SNP, and their support for Corbyn is unsurprising – he is, after all, offering them pretty much everything they’ve ever wanted: an end to austerity, national pay bargaining, a massive extension of union membership and so on. Corbynism unleashed is a scary prospect – one that would seek to restore the national finances by spending and taxing like it was the 1970s – and he now has a backer with big pockets.
I’ve been glued to Corbyn’s campaign with a limpet-like fascination. I got to know him a bit when I stood against him in Islington North this year where I took the Conservatives back into second place for the first time since 1992 but was edged out by 20,000 votes. He is a down-to-earth, likable, dry and wry old leftie, utterly sincere in the principles that he has always held (something one struggles to say of his rivals). This cantankerous old Trot act has won him many long-standing friends and allies in the People’s Democratic Republic of Islington North which he has represented since 1983. (At one hustings I attended a gentleman announced that ‘as a member of the Communist party, obviously I believe that only violent revolution will free the masses from the tyranny of the bourgeoisie’, and a number of other members of the audience nodded thoughtfully to themselves).
Here Labour are overwhelmingly strong – they’ve held both Islington parliamentary constituencies since the 1930s and have all but one seat on the council (the other is held by the Greens). Yet going door-to-door during the election campaign, I found little real love for the Labour party, people supported it like they might a failing football team – they dislike the management, many of the players, the tactics and the results, but it’s still their team. Local people do like Jeremy very much, not because he is Labour, but because he is a rebel. People like them could make him leader. But they could just as easily leave the Labour party if a decent alternative were to come along – something their sometime cousins, the former far left Scottish Labour voters, have just done.
Even with Unite’s backing, Corbyn is very unlikely to win. The unions’ might has been muted by the shift to one-member-one-vote, lessening the likelihood of an Ed Miliband-style stitch up this time round. Yet as Paul Staines has pointed out, Corbyn is a value bet for second place in the first round. Where will it leave the Labour party if the most left-wing leadership candidate since Tony Benn ran in 1988 does better than he did? Can a more centrist parliamentary party respond to such a battle warble from the grass roots? If it cannot then it may send such violent eddies through the Labour movement as to create a new political force.
The rise of a ‘Real Labour’ party, run by Corbyn and like-minded left wingers and funded by the unions, would end the long-standing and false consensus between the two extremes of the Labour party (extremes who agree on neither taxation nor the role of business, nor welfare, nor foreign policy, nor education policy etc. etc.). It would be delightfully damaging for Labour but it would also liberate each side from the other, perhaps allowing Real Labour to regain ground in Scotland and to secure it in the North, and New Labour (or Newer Labour) to compete with the Tories on public sector reform and fiscal responsibility.
It is probable that none of this will happen, that the momentum JC has built up will sputter out and that the unions will continue to grumble sullenly against the new incumbent. Yet, as the political nation is finding out, people underestimate Jeremy Corbyn at their peril. His willingness to explore an alternative ideology in the face of prevailing consensus makes him appealing to that sizeable portion of the British electorate which prides itself on being contrary. But his uncompromising integrity means that he has the potential to reach out to an even greater constituency – he has been loudly cheered and applauded not just at union hustings and End Austerity Now marches, but also at the Newsnight debate and on Question Time. And he is, undoubtedly, giving voice to a part of the Labour party of which its leaders have long been slightly ashamed – it would be strange if that voice, once roused, was quickly silenced.
This article first appeared on Conservative Home