No one could have predicted the likely outcome of the Labour leadership election: that a 66 year old backbench MP from Islington will defeat three opponents who were basically bred to be potential Labour leaders. In the scramble to make sense, two opposing schools of thought have emerged on the consequences of a Corbyn victory. Those who support Corbyn believe he will usher in a socialist Britain and cleanse Labour of the flesh-eating virus known as Blairism. Corbyn opponents argue that the sock-and-sandal-wearing pensioner will contribute to a Conservative dystopia where City traders will have the legal right to use the unemployed as piggy back taxis. However what if, between Owen Jones’s unflappable self-assurance and Tony Blair’s five yearly vanity bender reminding us how he won three consecutive elections, both sides are correct?
Corbyn supporters are right that his principled left-wing beliefs and authentic persona are more appealing to Labour supporters. Socialist ideology consistent since 1983. A beard and vegetarian diet before they were cool. When a photo of an exhausted Corbyn on a London Night Bus went viral, this symbolised the success of his campaign: an appeal to everyday, honest left-wing values. Call it London Night Bus Socialism. In comparison, Blairite centrism feels dispassionate and inauthentic and voters aren’t stupid or naïve for wanting more than what else is on offer – image wise. Preened, over-rehersed former special advisors whose carefully-crafted positions appear to lack solid answers for inequality, housing prices, and international conflict – issues exacerbated and/ or ignored under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendal appear more like examples of what would happen if Japanese robot hotel technology was applied to Westminster. Basic movement, repetition of fluffy but positive soundbites, and can complete basic tasks but lacking in capacity for human connection and expression of depth. Mandelson’s Mandydroids. Because Labour was founded as the political representative of working people, it is better served representing supporters rather than function as a career ladder for Oxbridge graduate special advisors to fulfil their childhood ambitions of becoming Prime Minister.
However, Corbyn’s opponents are correct that he is not an ideal leader. He has had no experience in cabinet and a well-founded reputation as a party rebel – hardly the case for an experienced or unifying leader. Even Tony Benn had cabinet experience. Because Labour is a big tent, Corbyn has to lead a party in which many MPs despise him. In his defence, Corbyn has expressed willingness to appoint Blairites to his shadow cabinet but it’s Kendall and Cooper who have publicly refused to serve on his team – which is like claiming to be the life of the party while huddled in the corner snidely gossiping about others with close friends. Corbyn’s leadership would also require him to make decisions and policy compromises that many supporters will dislike but can work if it maintains the core principles and anti-politician humbleness that has energised his campaign. Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London is a good example that this is possible for an old-school socialist. However, with the weight of political elites, corporate leadership, and octagenerian Australian-owned media conglomerate power who stand to lose from a Corbyn victory united against him, compromise might not be enough and would require leadership skills he might not have.
In a final push for votes, Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall would be wise not to only criticise Corbyn as an extremist or resort to dystopian threats, but to appeal more to the Night Bus Socialism that has been key to Corbyn’s success. Corbyn supporters enamoured with idealism for a new socialist Jerusalem where their saviour will throw out the moneylenders could have a better sense of the realities of politics and the sheer challenge. A Corbyn leadership would need to master juggling credibility, political nous, and core principles – a tough ask. If both sides can listen and learn from each others’ valid concerns, perhaps Labour can unite as a party that doesn’t ignore ‘political reality’ but isn’t afraid to promote bold, appealing, authentic policies regardless of who is leader.