Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader may be frightening indeed. But Corbyn as Party Martyr would be even worse

CorbynI like Jeremy Corbyn. I met him once on a dark railway platform in Blackpool, catching a train back to London towards the end of a Labour conference in the early noughties, and we got talking. Although I was a mere conference delegate from Greenwich he gave me his verdict on the Blairite stitch-ups, stage management and backstage arm-twisting that had gone on as generously and candidly as he would have spoken to a fellow MP or indeed anyone who had asked him for his opinion.

Everyone who lives in his Islington North constituency says he is a dedicated, hardworking MP. He lacks the vanity that afflicts so many other long-serving left-wing Labour MPs (step forward, Diane Abbott). Nor does he have the pious self-righteousness of John McDonnell, George Galloway or Tam Dalyell. And his serial rebelliousness has never quite crossed the line into outright support of candidates opposed to Labour (unlike Ken Livingstone, he has steered well clear of endorsing the odious Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, just a few miles down the road from Islington North).

Many of the “loony left” causes that Corbyn backed in the 1980s – gay rights, a negotiated settlement to the carnage in Northern Ireland, justice for the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, public control of the banks, an end to the Apartheid regime in South Africa – look, with hindsight, very unloony: all became mainstream orthodoxy in the nineties or noughties. Many of his current policy proposals – a national investment bank, renationalisation of the railways, and investing in green technology  rather than Trident renewal – are spot on.

Although I am not a fan of many of Corbyn’s other policies, I respect his integrity, stamina and humility. And those who assume that a Corbyn leadership will be electoral suicide rely on very dated evidence from the early 1980s. Led by Michael Foot, Labour was heavily defeated in 1983 but was then heavily defeated twice more, in 1987 and 1992, while led by the centrist Neil Kinnock.

About half of all voters are too young to have voted in any of these elections, and at least a quarter were not even alive in 1983. Politics has changed so much since then that it is impossible to guarantee that a Corbyn-led Labour party would be obliterated at the 2020 election. We are on uncharted territory, in which political leaders are no longer expected to look and sound identikit.

Much of the media coverage of Corbyn – such as the hyperbolic reaction to his vague suggestion that woman-only carriages may be one way to make rail travel safer – shows that any left-wing candidate is handicapped from the start. That Corbyn has risen above such vitriol, and the queue of party grandees – Alan Johnson, David Blunkett, Tony Blair, Charles Clarke and Peter Mandelson, among others – who protest that his leadership could destroy the party, says much about how politics has changed in the last two decades.  None of these supposed heavy-hitters seem to have any influence whatsoever on most party members. The spin-doctored, focus-grouped party grandee is dead. Long live the veteran backbencher.

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So why do I find myself unable to support him (I’ve voted for Yvette Cooper first, Liz Kendall second, Andy Burnham third and Corbyn fourth)? My head has over-ruled my heart for four reasons. Firstly, for Labour to succeed in 2020 its Leader needs to win back voters in provincial towns like Corby, Milton Keynes or Ipswich. Corbyn has packed out halls in London, other big cities and some university towns – places which already have Labour MPs – but I don’t detect any groundswell of support for him outside Labour’s core supporters: trade unionists, public sector workers and the urban intelligentsia. Secondly, while it’s impossible not to admire the speed and strength of the Corbyn bandwagon, it is fuelled purely by rhetoric that Labour party members – and his backer Len McCluskey -want to hear, not by arguments that will resonate with the wider electorate.

My biggest concern about Corbyn is not that he is too bold and courageous but that he is not bold enough: nowhere in his stump speech does he challenge the assumptions of his audience, or ponder how Labour is to win back those small-town and suburban seats in the Midlands and the South that are its only path to victory.

Thirdly, I think it’s high time Labour had a woman leader, and Yvette Cooper is the better of the two women candidates standing. And fourthly, I think Jeremy Corbyn is simply wrong with so many of his policies. It is not “straight-taking, honest politics” to argue, as Corbyn does, that a Labour government could have an extra £93bn to spend by “stripping out some of the huge tax reliefs and subsidies on offer to the corporate sector”, and another £120bn from clamping down on tax debt, avoidance and evasion. Many of the tax reliefs in Corbyn’s sights encourage the very growth and investment he wants to see more of. And both the £93bn and £120bn figures rely, as the tax expert Jolyon Maughan has argued, on much double-counting, guestimation and wildly optimistic assumptions. As soon as a Labour manifesto retreated from these targets, or a Labour government failed to achieve them, the party’s economic credibility would be shot to pieces.

Stop the War, a ragbag organisation Corbyn chairs, has dangerously close links to anti-Semites and Islamic extremists, deplores any military action by the West, but is oddly silent about the atrocities committed by ISIS. And the Corbyn campaign’s “unity statement”, which argues that there’s “no place for personal animosity, negative campaigning, and saying or doing anything now that will damage our ability to work together as one party” is a bit rich coming from an MP who has defied the party whip 500 times, and shows that the right has not monopoly on misleading spin.

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Corbyn is often compared to Michael Foot. When he was elected Leader in 1980 Foot was 67 – just a year older than Corbyn is now. Just like Corbyn, Foot was a left-winger who defeated the centrist frontrunner – Denis Healey – after a bruising election defeat a few months before. But here the similarities end. Foot had held numerous ministerial offices – including  Employment Secretary and Leader of the Commons – before his election as leader, whereas Corbyn has always been a backbencher. And although Foot was, like Corbyn is now, the oldest candidate he was neither the most left-wing (John Silkin was further to the left than Foot at the time) nor the most maverick (Peter Shore, who simultaneously favoured nuclear weapons, withdrawal from the EEC and an autarkic managed economy, easily beat Foot on that front). A Corbyn victory would be a far greater upset than Foot’s election in 1980, as since Keir Hardie and Ramsay Macdonald Labour has never been led by someone with no frontbench experience.

Corbyn’s success says a lot more about the woodenness of the other candidates than it does about Corbyn himself. It is astonishing how 13 years of Labour government, followed by five years in opposition, has produced so few plausible leaders. Corbyn is the only candidate who has consistently sounded like a human being, and none of his opponents really know how to talk to ordinary party members as Corbyn does. (When I sent Cooper, Burnham and Kendall some policy suggestions back in July only Cooper’s campaign replied substantively. Kendall merely sent me an automated ‘Thanks for your feedback’ email, and Burnham’s camp did not reply at all).

And it says much about Labour’s woes that an influx of new members and supporters – many of them attracted by Corbyn, but not all – is seen as an existential threat rather than an opportunity.

Let’s look at the other candidates. Liz Kendall started as a serious candidate – stealing the limelight in a barnstorming interview on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme, during which she turned the tables on a smug Andrew Neil and got him to admit that he owed much to the old boys’ network. A fresh face – like many, I had heard of Kendall but never heard her voice before – she briefly had more momentum than any other candidate.

At the time I was minded to vote for her, but soon she became too smart for her own good and her campaign faltered. Saying unpopular things to Labour party members – the case for Trident renewal, her argument that Free Schools should not be abolished or forcibly reconstituted by a future Labour government, and her backing of a benefits cap – may have struck David Miliband as courageous, but they were also foolish excesses for any candidate who wants to win.

The most astonishing thing about the campaign was how quickly the “also ran” mantle passed from Corbyn to Kendall. It soon became clear that Kendall was an “I told you so” candidate who entertained little hope of winning this time, a standard-bearer for the Blairite right biding her time to stand again once a Corbyn or Burnham leadership ends in disaster. Kendall’s utterances increasingly became a collection of Blairite clichés – “For the many not the few” – or glib soundbites such as “I am passionate about this party”, which made her sound less and less like an insurgent outsider and more and more like a party apparatchik. When she complained that women politicians were constantly judged by their personal appearance, asking ““Can you imagine the Mail on Sunday asking the weight of the prime minister, George Osborne or any other leading politician?” she was shrill and also wrong: in fact the media have obsessed for years about Osborne and Cameron’s hair loss, waistlines and dress sense. Putting identity politics at the centre of her campaign, just as other candidates pondered long-term care, privatisation and defence spending, made her look shallow and self-regarding.

The lightweight Andy Burnham‘s campaign has also been a disaster: as the most prominent of the two shadow cabinet members in the race, and tipped early on as the front runner, he had furthest to fall and seemed to have done so with all the grace of a circus elephant. Having first been elected as a Blairite MP in 2001 and extended private sector involvement in the NHS as health secretary under Blair and Brown, he has recently pitched leftwards and called for an end to privatisation. But during this campaign he has oscillated between right and left like a weathervane: arguing one minute that he is an ally of Corbyn, and that he is the only candidate who can stop Corbyn the next.

Rather than be ignored or lambasted Burnham has suffered an even worse fate: he has been damned with faint praise. Richard Leese, veteran leader of Manchester City Council and someone who might be expected to support Burnham (whose constituency is nearby) delivered a damning put-down: Andy was “perfect for a constituency fundraiser” but has “all the hallmarks of an old-style centraliser dragged to the devolution table… he appears to me to be the potential leader least likely to change the party in the ways needed for it to be electable.” For a centrist, technocratic council leader like Leese to put Burnham behind Corbyn in the electability stakes was damning indeed. If Burnham does win, as now seems unlikely, it will be one of the most dramatic comebacks of political history.

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But is a Corbyn victory as inevitable as everyone thinks? Far too much reliance has been placed on opinion polls which, as the party does not release its membership list, cannot possibly be accurately weighted in terms of gender, social class or political disposition. And thanks to the party’s unusual electoral system – in which voters are encouraged to rank all candidates in order of preference rather than just vote for one – “front-runners” often end up coming second, third or fourth. Most people expected either Alan Johnson or Hilary Benn to win the deputy leadership contest of 2007: in the event Benn came fourth behind Jon Cruddas, and Johnson was pipped into second place by Harriet Harman, a candidate who few had expected to win. Ultimately, respect for Harman’s unshowy confidence and political longevity, and the fact that she was the only credible woman standing, saw her through. It is easily possible that the same could happen in 2015: Yvette Cooper winning a narrow victory over Burnham or Corbyn by mopping up lots and lots of second-preference votes.

So why am I backing Cooper? She has a reputation as an indecisive and dithering minister, but was the first candidate – other than Corbyn – to address the refugee crisis head-on and call for Britain to take tens of thousands of Syrian migrants: a courageous step that could have misfired. Born in Hampshire but representing a Yorkshire constituency, she would have credibility and electability both north and south. She is articulate, savvy and level-headed. One criticism often levelled at her is that she happens to be the wife of Ed Balls. I have little time for Balls, a liability who did little to enhance Labour’s economic credibility as shadow chancellor. But ruling out a leadership candidate on the basis of who their husband is a depressing example of the latent sexism that persists in the party, and needs to be put to rest.

One under-reported feature of Cooper’s upbringing is that she studied at Balliol College, Oxford – a political hothouse that also produced Harold Macmillan, Ted Heath, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey – and was JCR President there. I studied at Balliol a few years after Cooper left and knew several women students in Balliol Left Caucus (a left-wing discussion group encompassing everyone from Leninists to Lib Dems) just like her. They were gritty, tough, state-school educated, but with a worldly sense of humour to temper their ambition. There are plenty of worse characteristics a Leader can possess.

If Cooper does win, I hope she wins comfortably. A narrow victory for Cooper or Burnham could only be the start of the party’s troubles. Kendall, Cooper and Burnham have been repeatedly asked if they would launch a legal challenge to the result if they are defeated – and both have denied that they would. But I have not heard the same question directed at Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. If Corbyn loses by only a few thousand votes, expect lots of squealing from the likes of Jeremy Hardy: a hard-left comedian who sneered at everything Labour achieved in office and who has tried, unsuccessfully, to register as a party supporter so he could vote for Corbyn.

Although I deplore the opportunism of such Trotskyite entryists the party may well rue the day it decided to bar many of them from voting in this contest. If Corbyn does lose narrowly, he will become even more of a hero to such left-wingers: a martyr denied his rightful victory by Labour’s control freaks. No matter that the exclusion of a few thousand oddballs may make little difference to the outcome. No matter that the chaotic organisation of the contest meant that Corbyn’s opponents were just as likely to be disenfranchised (I, a party member for 20 years and never likely to support Corbyn, was only authorised to vote online 48 hours before the contest closed). With reports that hundreds if not thousands of party members never received a ballot paper, legal challenges to the contest will undoubtedly follow a narrow Corbyn defeat.

So if Corbyn does win – as seems likely – we will at least be spared the endless whingeing, silly conspiracy theories, boat-rocking and legal wrangles that would follow Corbyn’s narrow defeat by Burnham or Cooper. Many, many people – me included – look to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party with trepidation. But having Corbyn as party Leader may, ultimately, be less damaging than his coronation as party martyr.

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