UK election: Can Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn win?

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London: “Holy is the true light, and passing wonderful.”

These words, embossed on the ceiling in bold, golden capitals, halo Jeremy Corbyn’s head as he makes his first big election campaign speech.

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The venue is Church House, a heritage-listed building tucked round the corner from Westminster Abbey. Winston Churchill was a big fan: he chose it as the alternative home for Parliament during the war. It’s the administrative headquarters of the Church of England – the general synod meets here twice a year.

On Thursday, it’s packed with another kind of true believer. In this room, today, faith trumps reason, hope conquers fear, and paradise – the Treasury bench of the House of Commons – awaits the just and the good.

The golden script on the ceiling promises it: “They inherit a home of unfading splendour, wherein they rejoice with gladness.”

Warm-up act MP Ian Lavery assures the crowd it is his great honour to introduce “the next prime minister of the United Kingdom”.

And in walks Jeremy Corbyn, grinning underneath his trim white beard.

There is a standing ovation. JC, apparently, has them believing in miracles.

Lazarus returned from the dead, and so too can Labour return from 24 per cent in the polls (the latest YouGov figure), literally half the Conservatives’ figure, in just a month and a half.

Water was turned into wine, and so too can Corbyn turn his 23 per cent approval rating – less than half his opponent’s and one of the worst of any Labour leader in history – into a ticket to Downing Street.

“We are bigger, stronger and more determined than we have ever been,” Corbyn assures the room – and the electorate on the other side of the cameras. “We will prove the establishment experts wrong and change the direction of this election.”

Those “experts” have taken a pummelling recently. But their polls project that Labour will be pummelled on June 8. The laws of statistics and probability have Labour winning fewer than half the number of seats as the Conservatives, who would have their biggest Commons majority since Margaret Thatcher’s after the 1983 election.

That was the year Thatcher rode a wave of post-Falklands popularity, against a Labour gutted by defections to the new Social Democratic Party (SDP). The Labour of 1983 had swung sharply to the left under Michael Foot, whose 39-page election manifesto was later famously dubbed – by a fellow Labour MP – “the longest suicide note in history”.

That document proposed unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher taxes for the rich, renationalisation of recently privatised bodies such as British Telecom (ironically, it also included withdrawal from the European Common Market).

Corbyn’s manifesto is expected to be significantly less radical. But his rhetoric echoes the old politics.

On Thursday the Labour leader flies a very red flag. He rails against the powerful, the “cosy club”, the “wealth extractors”, the “corrupt rule of the City and the tax dodgers”.

“It’s the establishment versus the people and it is our historic duty to make sure that the people prevail,” he says.

Cartels are hoarding wealth that belongs to the workers – the nurses, teachers, builders and carers, he says.

“I don’t play by [the establishment’s] rules. They are yesterday’s rules, set by failed political and corporate elites we should be consigning to the past.”

It’s an energetic, punchy speech, despite an oddly paced delivery that often sees him end obvious applause-bait lines with his quiet voice, rather than his “cheer now” voice.

But it’s the content rather than the delivery that raises eyebrows.

ITV’s political editor Robert Preston asks afterwards “is there anyone alive who has heard class-war rhetoric like this from a Labour leader when fighting to win a general election?”.

After Corbyn’s speech, a journalist has the temerity to ask if he’s not just a member of the “Islington elite”. The crowd boos. Corbyn hits back, smartly, pointing out his constituency has its share of poverty, social injustice and inequality.

A journalist mentions the polls and Corbyn sarcastically thanks her for bringing it up. But he’s prepared with a zinger comeback.

“All I can say is, in 2015, almost exactly two years ago, I was given 200-to-one as an outside chance,” he says.

It’s true. The crowd loves it.

Two years ago, of course, Labour was just about to go into an election under Ed Miliband, which it was projected to win or nearly win, but instead convincingly lost (leaving pollsters red-faced and apologetic for their forecasts’ failure).

The consensus among commentators in the wash-up was that Miliband had been just a little too left-wing for the electorate – though it’s interesting to note how many of his policies, such as caps on energy bills, were quietly adopted by the Conservative government.

In early June 2015 Corbyn announced he would run for leader, as an “anti-austerity” candidate. He only just managed the minimum number of nominations from his parliamentary colleagues who saw him as useful to widen the debate but never expected him to win it.

Bookmakers didn’t rate him. William Hill put him at 100-1, Ladbrokes 200-1 and Betfair an extraordinary 980-1.

But in the leadership battle that followed over the summer Corbyn defied all predictions. He was backed by trade unions who didn’t want a return to Blair-style “New Labour”, and grassroots campaigners from the anti-war and Occupy movements. It was cheap and easy to register with the party as a supporter, and many did, especially young people, excited by Corbyn’s left-field style and old-school left-wing politics, flooding social media with their enthusiasm.

Party members suspected they were being infiltrated by “entryists”, interlopers from the Socialist Party. But their complaints fell on deaf ears, especially as Corbyn packed room after room on a barnstorming campaign. In the end he won not just the most votes from Labour MPs and MEPs, but also from members of affiliated organisations such as unions, and among the registered supporters both new and old.

It felt like a breath of fresh air. There was a sense that he was a genuine political phenomenon, a cut-through, plain-speaking figure who could sell the left’s message, draw on resentment against austerity economics, and transform Westminster.

But Corbyn has never hit such heights again. His eccentric style in Parliament (he likes posing questions supplied by voters to the PM) exacerbated his unpopularity with his own parliamentary colleagues, who felt he was regularly trounced by the government in the Westminster bullring. He was forced into reshuffle after reshuffle as MPs decided they couldn’t work with him in the shadow ministry. And his popularity among potential voters dropped, month by month, until many – even within his own party – considered him unelectable​.

A wave of Labour MPs have chosen this snap election to announce their retirement. Many used age as an excuse, some say it’s time to move on. But many might have hung on if they thought they’d be on a winning team – or could say with a straight face they thought their leader would make a good prime minister.

On Thursday, former MP and longtime ally of Corbyn, Bob Marshall-Andres, revealed he had joined the Liberal Democrats, calling his former party “a political basket case” that had failed to rise to the challenge of the Brexit referendum campaign.

Middlesbrough MP Tom Blenkinsop​ said he wouldn’t stand as “I have made no secret about my significant and irreconcilable differences with the current Labour leadership”.

Slough’s Fiona MacTaggart​ said she had been “bored by political squabbles over personalities and I know I don’t still have the passion which has driven my politics”.

Oddest of all, perhaps, is John Woodcock, the Barrow and Furness MP, who said he would stand for re-election “but I will not countenance ever voting to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister”.

Theresa May has chosen to frame this election as a kind of Brexit referendum, on her vision of a “hard” separation from the EU, and on her – versus Corbyn’s – ability to lead the country through the messy, difficult years to come.

One theory is that this could help Labour, boosting their vote with the near half the country that voted against Brexit.

Anand Menon​, professor of European politics and foreign affairs, at King’s College London, does not buy it.

“If the whole narrative of this election is about Brexit, [Labour is] in trouble because they don’t have a narrative,” he says. “[Corbyn] wants to talk about social care, the NHS, schools, cuts, that sort of thing.”

Corbyn was never very convincing on his arguments for Remain – to the annoyance of his colleagues. And he has a pro-free-movement stance that is causing headaches for MPs who are being told on the doorstep “control immigration or piss off”, Menon says.

This week BBC radio sent a reporter into Labour – and Brexit – heartland in the north of England. They found working-class voters who professed themselves satisfied with the way May was running things, who were considering voting Tory for the first time in their lives.

Menon says this loss of the working class is not a new phenomenon for Labour.

“Across Western Europe the centre-left is getting screwed, partly because it was an unhappy coalition between metropolitan liberals and traditional working-class communities and it’s very hard to hold that together,” Menon says.

“Labour have suffered from that. From 2005 onwards the working-class vote for Labour has been in massive decline.”

That said, it’s wrong to say all Labour voters who voted Leave would switch to the Tories.

“Yes they don’t want to be in the EU, but they’ve got 100 years of family history of loathing the Tories,” says Menon. “It’s visceral, it’s emotional … The crucial thing among heartland Labour is whether they actually feel impelled to get off their arse and vote for Corbyn – I think they won’t.”

Here, again, is the unpopularity of the leader.

“The phrase du jour [among Labour MPs] is ‘I will be running a very personal, local campaign’,” says Menon.

In summary, he says, it’s not looking great for Labour.

“A lot of people out there at the moment are saying you can’t trust the polls, the polls are always wrong. The polls haven’t had it great over the past four or five years but they’ve never been wrong by the sort of margin they’d need to be wrong to see Labour win this election.”

Some of Corbyn’s grassroots supporters have come up with the wheeze of encouraging everyone to bet a tenner on a Labour win, on the theory that if the odds shorten, the media narrative will change.

It’s a long shot. But it’s a measure of the desperation, already, in Labour ranks.


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