U.K. Labour Party Was Dead Already
Something simple is missing from the analysis of how Jeremy Corbyn just came from the forgotten recesses of Britain's hard left to take over the mainstream Labour Party: It's the "why not?" factor.
When people say Corbyn is unelectable, they're right -- barring some unforeseen political cataclysm for Prime Minister David Cameron and his ruling Conservatives. But that matters a lot more if Corbyn's opponents for the leadership would have had a chance of winning in 2020, which (again barring an unforeseen shock) they probably didn't.
So for the ideologically motivated party activists who tend to decide party leadership elections, it was reasonable to ask themselves: Why not the guy we like?
Many contributing factors have been cited for Corbyn's victory: a new selection system designed to broaden the process out to non-party-members; the general disenchantment with center-left parties that's sweeping Europe; Corbyn's air of saying what he believes, rather than what will get him elected; his savvy use of social media, among others.
These are all valid, but even together they don't fully explain Corbyn's annihilation of the Labour Party establishment on the weekend, in what most observers of U.K. politics seem to agree was an act of party-political suicide. Corbyn finished 40 percentage points clear of his nearest opponent.
The perception that the other more mainstream candidates wouldn't be able to win the next general election, either, made it a lot easier to follow their hearts.
In the eyes of Labour activists, what had they seen over the last few years? A Conservative Party they loathe took on a financial disaster caused by rich bankers, and paid for the rescue by slashing the welfare state Labour spent decades constructing. At the same time, the banker-bonus party was allowed to carry on and the government cut the top income tax rate to 45 percent from 50 percent. Despite all this perceived injustice (Corbyn's Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, recently described it as "feudalism" and elite "kleptocracy"), the Tories won a completely unexpected majority in May's general election.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader who led his party to defeat, did not take Corbyn's radical leftist approach. He didn't promise to nationalize the banks or squeeze the rich till their blazer buttons popped; he tried to straddle the angry left and mainstream center. Even so, he was destroyed at the polls, and the post-mortem consensus is that he didn't pander to the political center enough.
Meanwhile, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne followed his party's election victory by erasing some of the core ground from which Labour might plausibly have spent the next few years fighting back: He raised the minimum wage by at least as much as Labour dared to propose.
The heaviest blow, however, came from May's election result in Scotland. There the Scottish National Party -- which also tacked to the left of Miliband -- obliterated Labour in its traditional Scottish fiefdom, leaving the party with a structural deficit of seats to overcome at any future election.
How to deal with this loss has presented the party with a dilemma. To retrieve the Scottish seats, Labour would have to tack hard left to outflank the SNP, at the cost of more seats in England, where voters tend to be more conservative (with a small "c"). That would lead to almost certain general election defeat.
But if Labour responded as many pundits and former Prime Minister Tony Blair have suggested, by moving further to the center and picking a Blairite candidate such as Liz Kendall (who won just 4.5 percent of the selection vote), those Scottish seats might be gone for good, creating a formidable margin of new English ones to win in order to close the gap. Again, the probable outcome was electoral defeat.
Not only that, another rout of the U.K. Labour party in Scotland's own parliamentary election next year could boost the Scottish independence movement, as it seems increasingly unlikely to Scots they will ever get a British government they voted for. This is something SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was quick to point out:
All of which raises the question: If you are going to lose anyhow, why not choose how?
There is, of course, an answer to this, one that some lifelong Labour supporters fear may come true: This time a self-defeating leadership choice might not just mean 18 years in the wilderness of opposition, as it did between 1979 and 1997, but extinction as a party. That's possible, though it's hard to see right now who would fill the void Corbyn may leave on the center left to make that happen. In the meantime, radical Labour can go down enjoying the fight.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at email@example.com