Commentator Russell Bruce offers some advice to the new Labour leader on developing a focus and a strategic play in the weeks ahead
For some, Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory seems like an “English Spring” and a change to the rightward pull on the centre ground in British politics – that phrase itself being an oxymoron in a state with a government elected from only one of the four constituent nations and rejected by the other three, nowhere more significantly than in Scotland this May.
Corbyn now leads a party that has become accustomed to, and comfortable with being one of the pillars of The Establishment. Leading does not come naturally to the outsider, the rebel – a remnant of a radical past, tolerated as a link to that past and believed harmless because existence outside the chains of power have advantage in holding together a coalition of views and securing broader electoral support.
The heroes of the past, Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan et al – but not the intellect of Michael Foot – are referred to in wholesome terms by the New Labour right. These are fragile linkages aimed at preserving internal coalitions and the stretch of Establishment hegemony.
Jacques Peretti in The Independent makes an interesting comparison with the rise of Margaret Thatcher, who moved the Tories to the right with the adoption of neo-liberal views that her party believed would make them unelectable. Thatcher was always conscious of who she could trust. “Are they one of us?” she would ask. I doubt Corbyn has the drive, or the years, that Thatcher had to bring about the significant movement in the centre of British politics she achieved.
The forces ranged against Corbyn, including a hostile media, are more powerful and universal than Thatcher faced. In the end she was defeated but her political legacy survived, with muted variation, in the Blair/Brown years. A modern establishment, if that is not another contradiction in terms, relies on a duopoly to preserve the reality of continuity.
Cameron’s masterstroke in 2010 was to form a coalition with the LIbDems. Bound to the discipline of government they placed themselves at the mercy of a right wing government with a long-term agenda. Come 2015 the electorate was unforgiving and a third party of some size was reduced to a miserable handful with no influence in the new corridors of power, yet ready to don the ermine robes to cling to a vestige of past influence on the fringes of establishment.
The duopoly only matters in England as long as it can outnumber the Celtic hordes. That is Corbyn’s big challenge. He has to regain the narrative in England and must chose what is achievable. For a rebel of 33 years that is a difficult proposition. The centre ground moves slowly and the pull must focus on the inequalities and unfairness that makes One Nation rhetoric an absurdity to the other nations of these islands.
For the people of England, riven by growing elements of antagonism to other nations in Europe and beyond, and the fracturing of a consensus where all people are treated fairly and equally, there is the potential to focus on what One Nation, for England, really means. Fairness, social justice and sharing the fruits of national productivity, have a compelling attraction not yet offered to the electorate in England.
The SNP can work with an English party that focuses on these aims. England needs to be drawn out of itself and the “me” philosophy that is Thatcher’s legacy and pursued with an unrestrained vigour by Cameron, Osborne and Duncan Smith.
Recent history is often forgotten, especially when the media thinks it unnecessary to remind people. Iain Duncan Smith was Tory leader from 2001 to 2003 when his MPs passed a vote of no confidence in his leadership. Politics can be unforgiving and it is the IDS driven agenda that is the Achilles heel of this Tory government. Compassion is not without support in England and the reclaiming of a truly centralist agenda is the only means of placing the brakes on a rightward march that even Thatcher did not believe was attainable.
Corby finds himself a rebel leader – another oxymoron – caught in the establishment web and leading one side of England’s duopoly. From within and without he faces forces bent on his destruction. The Establishment is not ready to give way on hard fought ground. The seeds of change are all around us but can Labour in England make them flourish in a way that the pragmatic and efficient SNP has managed in Scotland?
Corbyn has one toe in the establishment. He is a Unionist and opposed to more powers for Scotland. That will not help him or Ms Dugdale. Labour is losing ground in Wales to the Tories. Boundary changes will place a number of Labour’s Welsh seats at risk in 2020.
Northern Ireland is falling apart and that is a concern to all the nations of the UK and to Ireland. Only Scotland has a coherence providing a stability with which Corbyn should chose to work on common ground.
His policy agenda is too wide, fractious for his own party, a delight to the Tories and meat for the media to fill endless column inches. Corbyn must attack and concentrate on areas of Tory vulnerability and build from there.
Margaret Thatcher understood where the ground was movable and where the deep bogs were and she built her legacy on that understanding. Has Corbyn that clear focus to choose the ground for the battles that lie ahead? His victory makes it essential the camp followers, who gave him such overwhelming support, are needed to keep his dispirited and fragmented regiment of MPs in a unified and disciplined formation.
Some shadow cabinet members have already peeled away and left the field. His election victory gives him only a brief period before he must hit the ground running. If he is not to become another forgotten leader of the opposition like Iain Duncan Smith. The same Duncan Smith and the policies of his department must be Corbyn’s focussed target. That is the route to undermining Cameron and his would-be successor George Osborne.
Changing the consensus in England is fruitful ground, but the bogs are many, patches of quicksand abound, pits are being dug and spikes fitted in the areas of solid ground. With some of his troops sitting out the battle, and others willing to throw straw over the pits, he has not his challenges to seek.
In a life spent within the Establishment as a token thorn, Corbyn needs to change more than just his jacket to succeed. My advice is to fight one battle at a time. Choose promising ground. The enthusiasm of more than 200,000, mainly recent recruits to Labour, has to be harnessed and aimed. Napoleon was a very successful strategist until he opened up too many fronts.
England is where the front needs to be redrawn in order to galvanise people behind a realignment of the political spectrum. We have already done that in Scotland. I suspect Corbyn may have opened on too many fronts during his leadership campaign. These can be hard to pull back to achieve the more strategic application now required.