As you may have gathered from my twitter and Facebook I have fortunately been slightly pre occupied over the last week with the Parliamentary Rugby World Cup. Ironically the event got me onto the Daily Politics Programme when they did a light hearted piece on Friday.
However, with over 300 Parliamentarians from across the globe conversation inevitably drifted to politics very quickly and because the Commons & Lords is an All-party Rugby Team I have been talking with Lib Dem Peers & an MP, Tory MPs and Labour backbenchers. I was at an event on the Integrity of Sport in the Lords too which I chaired mid-week and again the walk from the tube through the Commons & Lords brings me into regular contact with many old colleagues from all sides of the House willing to share their news and views. My ‘friends’ extend right across the political spectrum from very old red Labour to Tory MPs many expected to defect to UKIP!
Of course there was lots to talk about this week – about 99% of it about Corbyn and the effect it will have on British politics. The conversations centred around; what does it mean for the realignment of politics, how will the Tories react, what will it mean for the Lib Dems (one offer to defect and one “You’d be mad”), ‘what a shambles’, How long will he last, why didn’t he sing the national anthem etc.
Each of these topics probably deserves a blog of its own and I have been catching up over the weekend on some great articles from a variety of commentators. So let’s start with what went wrong and why Corbyn let himself be defined in his first week because he wasn’t organised. The Corbynites must have known for some time he was on for victory. I was told even before I went on holiday by one camp that they were going to lose to him. Through most of September there was no doubt (despite me being told off for daring to suggest this would happen). So why on earth did the first 48 hours look like it was all a surprise and nobody had a plan what to do? Surely somebody has a ‘First 100 Days’ playbook somewhere in his team or are they all so anti-media and spin that they REALLY do think they can win the next election via twitter and town hall meetings? I was pleased to see even Owen Jones in the New Statesman pointing out the danger of such a strategy. It is a recipe for disaster. So in the first week we have the sight of a Shadow Cabinet being formed without any leadership and with MPs distancing themselves and even making it clear when they took jobs on what terms they had agreed to serve. Corbyn actually has a Shadow cabinet with more women than men, from a pretty wide spectrum of the party yet even this was turned into a PR disaster by the non-appointment of a woman to one of the ‘top’ jobs and the appointment of the much disliked John McDonnell to Shadow Chancellor. I see a number of astute appointments have been made but I fear it may be a little too late to try and sell Corbyn via the media to the public.
For me the above examples from the first week confirm my greatest fear. At no point during the campaign did anybody really test the ‘leadership’ qualities of the candidates. The least qualified of the candidates to offer leadership or even management (the two are different) was of course Corbyn. It may seem strange to those outside politics that we seem to choose the most like our political prejudices rather than the best placed to lead and win elections. Since Blair we seem to have decided we don’t like the idea of wining, as it means compromise.
Following this slightly inauspicious start we then had the sight of a non-singing leader of the Opposition at an official WW2 event. Poor old Jeremy would have been damned as a sell-out if he had suddenly started singing the national anthem and equally lambasted as we found out if he stuck to his guns and stayed silent. The coverage was way over the top but welcome to modern day journalism! I will admit to being a republican too and in my student days I didn’t sing the anthem. I started singing when I represented my country in sport and the anthems were used. I realised that whilst I didn’t necessarily want God to save the Queen we had stumbled upon this awful song as our sporting anthem too and I had better get used to it. Equally funny in recent years has been having to work with a Royal or two through my sports links. I am pretty open that I would prefer not to see our Head of State chosen by the accident of birth but whilst there is some minor constitutional link I am happy to be polite and work with them to achieve common goals – like more sport being played. If their patronage opens doors to help then it is worth working with them rather than ignoring them and waiting for the day we abolish the monarchy. The position Corbyn now holds is to represent the entire Labour party and official Opposition at these events, so he may need to put aside some personal student politics!
On the positive side I have written about the change in mood he created at PMQs. I am sure there will be some positive feelings about party democracy in future as members will feel more included in the decision making inside the party. So all is not bad. But the important test now is to see how Jeremy starts talking to the country and what reaction people outside the party have for him and his policies.
This brings me to the conversations with political opponents who seem slightly uncertain what this might all mean for them. Having just elected a left leaning leader for the Lib Dems they are now wondering exactly how to position themselves and whether they like to call it centrist or not, the possibility of them being the sensible left leaning party seems possible. For some time they positioned themselves to the Left of Labour (in Northern seats at least) whilst being soft Tories in the South. In 2015 they were found out under Clegg and almost need to start again. For those I have spoken to they see themselves as a home for sensible social democrats if Labour continues to drift further left leaving the centre ground. Most of the Tories I spoke to were more certain this was good news for them but with a heavy note of caution added on top. Their fear is that it allows the Tories to take the centre ground for granted now that Labour has abandoned it and all those who had fought hard to modernise the party and reject their ‘nasty right wing’ label are going to have to fight this all over again. They are also wary of a populist creating more hope and optimism than they care to admit. They are of course delighted that Corbyn won because they think it gives them the 2020 election already, but they are wary it allows their own ranks to descend back into the old rivalries over Europe and other defining issues that gave them a civil war for 20 years. Without a serious opposition there is a danger that it may be created from within, especially with the European Referendum looming in 2017.
I don’t see the possibility of the immediate re-establishment of the Lib Dems as a political force. Their defeat in 2015 was so deep and painful. I can’t see the Tories completely imploding over Europe either. So this leaves the other two rumps of voter’s choice – UKIP and the SNP.
I have not seen much about the impact on UKIP yet – especially from a Labour perspective. As we know UKIP gained large votes in many Labour held seats and prevented us winning some marginals. Two years ago UKIP was a Tory problem but it is equally a Labour problem now. Many left because they didn’t recognise that Labour stood up for them or didn’t speak for them now. I don’t think many of those that left over issues like immigration and welfare will be won back by the Corbyn position on these two issues. But again we will have to see. As for the SNP, there are many Corbyn supporters who believe our path back to power lies through telling SNP voters they can have a left wing labour party again. Having spent time talking to defeated Labour candidates and party workers north of the border I don’t think it as simple as this. The SNP surge is much more complex than this simple analysis suggests.
Where does all this leave us? We have a Labour leader who is unable to control the positions taken by his MPs and Shadow Cabinet who are currently still working and speaking up on positions taken prior to the Corbyn victory. They have all agreed to take positions after being given assurances about some key issues like NATO and Europe. We have the daily sight of Shadow cabinet members contradicting positions taken by Corbyn and certainly not quite enthusing about the likelihood of a Corbyn win in 2020. We are told this is all very refreshing and great to see open debate. The problem is that the electorate also hate seeing divided parties and there is a fine line between open debate and open warfare!
There is still a lot of settling down to be seen. The build up to conference will be really enlightening and we await to see more details from the Leader and his Office about how they plan to take forward policy making and who will control this process. I can’t see Shadow SoS really staying if the Party decrees they have to take an untenable position on some key issues.
Finally I wonder how long it will be before people decide if Corbyn is actually up to the job of leading an opposition political party. I ask this in all seriousness. There has been little sign of these qualities so far. They are not the qualities I want or expect of Corbyn. His strengths have always been elsewhere. He is a good constituency MP determined to pick unfashionable political fights. That is great and there is a role for MPs like this. It is the sort of role I would like to have carved out if I had 32 years in politics! It is a nice place to be. Leadership is difficult and a long hard slog. It means daily attention to the job and whilst it is great that Corbyn is fulfilling some constituency engagements and surgeries he can’t neglect the official invites he is getting as Leader of the Labour Party and Official Opposition. It is a full time job, not a drop in when you can part time chair role!
For me the jury is still out about how long he can last. If we lose in May 2016 in London, Scotland, Wales & in Local Govt surely the knives will be out. So until then let’s allow him time and space to get this shambolic start behind him and give him the opportunity to show some leadership.