As Labour approaches a landmark in its 100-year history with the prospect of veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn winning the forthcoming leadership election, it's time to examine and explode some of the myths that have grown up around his campaign.
MYTH ONE: CORBYN REPRESENTS SOMETHING NEW
To anyone under 30, it must probably seem as if Corbyn is saying something new and radical. After all, his particular brand of leftist rhetoric died a death with Labour’s fourth consecutive election defeat in 1992. If you’re from the ‘millennial’ generation, it may seem as if Corbyn has emerged from nowhere in puff of smoke, a little like the anti-austerity movement Podemos in Spain. But those of us involved actively in British politics back in the 1980s can confirm that Corbyn was saying all the same things back then. He’s a 45rpm vinyl single, stuck in a groove. As John Rentoul elegantly put it in a recent article, the Islington North MP has been ‘consistent to a fault in his career’, which is ‘one of the worst things about him’.
MYTH TWO: CORBYN’S BIG RALLIES MEAN HE’S POPULAR
There is a natural constituency in the UK for people who embrace radical politics. Corbyn’s rallies attract young activists, people involved in campaigns and pressure groups, trade unionists and old-school Labour Party ‘sleepers’ who felt excluded in the Blair and Brown era. I wouldn’t be surprised if folk with these kind of overtly left-wing sympathies amount to between 15 and 20% of the total population. It is therefore quite possible to have big, energised rallies that say absolutely nothing about the likelihood of Labour winning a general election. Michael Foot notoriously believed he was doing well in 1983 as minders ushered him from one adoring meeting to another.
MYTH THREE: CORBYN IS PARTICULARLY POPULAR WITH YOUNG PEOPLE
Unsurprisingly, there will always be young people attracted to radical left-wing politics. I can say this with confidence, as I was one of those people who would have given Jeremy Corbyn a hearing myself as a teenager in the middle of the 1980s. Is there some kind of particular upsurge of support right now which represents something new or unusual? When we see young people at his rallies, it’s legitimate and logical to conclude that he does indeed have young supporters. This is rather different from saying that young people as a whole support Corbyn. If aliens landed in Oxford Street, they might assume that every road in the UK was full of shops and red London buses. But they’d be wrong.
MYTH FOUR: CORBYN HAS ATTRACTED VALUABLE NEW SUPPORTERS TO THE LABOUR PARTY
It seems clear that the large numbers of people signing up to participate in the leadership contest are doing so specifically to vote for Corbyn. In order to be allowed entry, they have to declare that they are loyal supporters of the Labour Party. Funny, isn’t it, how their loyalty never drove them to make any commitment in the past. Some may well be Tories and Trotskyists, although this is actually not the real issue. More than likely, many of them are people who have spent the past ten years or so badmouthing the Labour Party and denouncing Tony Blair. They are activists, campaigners and former members who wouldn’t have anything to do with Labour in recent years until they saw a chance to sway a critical vote. The idea of the open primary was actually to attract ordinary members of the public, rather than make ourselves vulnerable to deliberate entryism in favour of specific candidate. The process is completely open to legal challenge.
MYTH FIVE: CORBYN WILL WIN BACK SCOTLAND
Only 4.7% of the UK population voted for the SNP, but the first-past-the-post system has given them a huge landslide in seats north of the border in May. Even if we won back these seats, Labour would still need to win the critical Tory-held marginals in England to form a government. And there is no guarantee whatsoever that Corbyn’s left-wing rhetoric will do the trick anyway. While some SNP voters were undoubtedly swayed by party’s vocal stand against austerity, others were simply expressing their support for nationalism in the wake of the referendum or were protesting against politics as usual. It’s not entirely clear why they would revert to voting Labour because of Corbyn’s election.
MYTH SIX: CORBYN’S ECONOMIC POLICIES ARE COMMON SENSE
There is a legitimate intellectual case against the politics of ‘austerity’ pursued by the Conservative government, which is why many respectable economists are prepared to endorse an end to the programme. But as Yvette Cooper has pointed out, Corbyn’s money-printing ‘quantitative easing’ strategy is certainly not what Keynes would recommend as an economy grew. The costs of renationalisation of the railways and energy companies would be astronomical unless the intention is to offer no compensation to shareholders. And when it comes to industrial policy, Corbyn has proposed the outlandish idea that we might start re-opening coal mines. He is stuck thirty or forty years in the past and would come into immediate conflict with the reality of modern globalised markets.
MYTH SEVEN: CORBYN HAS A FUTURE AS LABOUR LEADERAlthough there is much talk of unity and pulling together whatever the result, Labour simply cannot carry on with Corbyn as leader and be a credible party of government. First of all, there might well be a legal challenge to the result. If he survived this, then some MPs talk about giving him a year or two, rather than challenging him straight away. Really? A year in which we debate military action in Syria against ISIS? A year in which the campaign on the EU referendum takes place? A year in which the immigration crisis in Europe comes to a head? Even people who admire Corbyn’s stand against austerity know that he would be incapable of offering any credible leadership in these key areas of European and foreign policy. My prediction is that there will have to be a quick challenge or there will be a schism at least on the scale of the 1981 SDP defections.