Why Corbyn is winning and what it means for public affairs

A number of factors are propelling Jeremy Corbyn towards success in his Labour leadership bid.  So what started as an attempt to shake up Labour’s policy orthodoxy – an accommodation with austerity – looks increasingly likely to result in outright victory for Corbyn’s anti-austerity pitch.  

Labour members are clearly having a soul searching moment after an unexpectedly bad election result.  Looking at the success of anti-austerity parties in other EU countries and scratching their heads at the prospect of one party rule in Scotland, many members and supporters seem to be taking the view that Labour should seek to re-establish a more overtly left of centre platform.  The emphasis that many seem to be placing on Corbyn’s integrity and authenticity is part of a backlash against politics-as-usual – similar to the sentiment behind support for Nigel Farage and indeed part of plain speaking Nicola Sturgeon’s appeal.

Confronted with arguments about ‘electability’, Labour members backing Corbyn say either that they believe Corbyn can win with the support of a new coalition of voters, or that their belief in Corbyn’s policies is more important than pragmatism about ‘electability’.   Some commentators have talked of a ‘head versus heart’ dilemma, a framing of the debate that is rejected by Corbyn’s most fervent backers.  Corbyn has undoubtedly also benefitted from a lack of star quality in his challengers.  A race against Chukka Umunna perhaps, or Dan Jarvis, might have taken on a very different character.   Cooper, Burnham and Kendall all have CVs that make them credible contenders but their campaigns have been uninspiring.

Paddy Power are the first bookmaker to pay out on a Corbyn win following predictions that he will win on the first round of voting.   It is time to consider what a Corbyn victory will mean for British politics.  There are three major implications for the public affairs professionals:

  • Opposition is going to be more robust – Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday 16th September is a must see. We can expect Jeremy Corbyn will be more trenchant in his own rather impersonal way. The terms of political discourse will inevitably track to the left. Those trying to make a case to Government will need to consider more carefully any dual approach that involves also working with HMG’s not so loyal opposition.
  • Policy making is going to become more ‘grassroots’ – the next battle within the Labour Party will be over how it makes policy with the current dominance of MPs, the majority of whom will be out of tune with Jeremy Corbyn on issues from the deficit to defence, and the supreme role of the National Policy Forum likely to be usurped by ‘the membership’ and ultimately a reinvigorated (chaotic? more interesting?) Labour Party Conference. Influencing strategies will need to be more orientated towards the membership and campaigning including better at using social media.
  • There may well be the emergence of a new third party – with Labour choosing a leftwards lurch there will be some who will re-consider their membership. Might the space in the middle of the political spectrum reinvigorate the Liberal Democrats – or even might a new Party emerge with members from New Labour and Liberal Democrats joining up. New Democrats? Watch this space – and engage with it because, if it does happen, then after the General Election in 2020 we may well be back to coalition politics.

The first instinct of many public affairs professionals may be to dismiss a Corbyn led Government as such an unlikely eventuality that it can be ignored for now.   A Corbyn led party may stand a better chance of winning back seats in Scotland and the more traditional Labour areas, but it may struggle to win over swing voters in England’s marginal seats.  Corbyn supporters argue that by 2020 he can build a new coalition of support from centre-left voters, such as those who may have turned to the Greens in recent years, and that he can engage with people who haven’t voted in recent elections, particularly younger voters.  The difficulty with this view is that it echoes the failed Miliband electoral strategy.  Labour did attract more votes on the left in May 2015, but many more ‘swing’ voters supported the Tories, fearing a lurch to the left, and amid concerns about economic competence.   That said, it would be foolish of the commentariat who wrongly dismissed Corbyn’s prospects in the leadership election to now refuse to at least entertain the possibility of a Corbyn government.

It is possible, of course, that prior to the next election Labour MPs could seek to remove Corbyn.  He will have many detractors in the Parliamentary Labour Party and his first big challenge will be to form a Shadow Government.  Corbyn might struggle to find a hundred Labour MPs willing to serve in Shadow Ministerial, Whips and PPS roles.  He will have to decide whether to seek to unify his MPs by appointing centrist figures to key roles, or whether to go all-in on a new left wing team at the top.  In all of these machinations the Deputy Leader will have a hugely important role to play and they will have to decide quickly whether to conform to the tradition of demanding that the Deputy serves as a loyal lieutenant.  The last four Labour Deputy Leaders: Harriet Harman, John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Roy Hattersley, have all been loyal, publicly at least, to the Leader they served.   Corbyn may find, however, that when it comes to exerting authority over the wider Parliamentary Labour Party and, perhaps, avoiding or seeing off a challenge to his leadership, the role of his Deputy will be pivotal.   Tom Watson is the bookies favourite for the Deputy role and is a highly experienced operator who has signalled that he will seek to work with whoever is elected Leader.

Whatever the prospects for 2020, Corbyn will have an immediate impact on politics in the UK.   David Cameron and George Osborne have proved capable of running rings around their opponents on everything from welfare reform to public sector pay.  Corbyn will be a different prospect because he will refuse to play the politics of compromise and triangulation.  Short term opinion polls and focus groups will matter little to Corbyn who will take the view that is better to be a signpost than a weather vane, to borrow Tony Benn’s analogy.  Corbyn will hope that whilst the public may not always agree with the positions he takes, they might respect him for acting with conviction.   On everything from defence and foreign policy to nationalisation and borrowing, Corbyn will aim to challenge the status quo and presumed consensus of the Westminster establishment.   This will make politics more unpredictable, more febrile, and more open than it has been for many years.   This in turn will have huge implications for those seeking to engage with the political process and there is no better consultancy than Connect to help you navigate the choppy waters on the horizon.

Lora Shopova