All but the most left of commentators have declared that if Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour leadership contest, the effect on that particular party will be deleterious. Some of the stuff written about Corbyn, particularly from a centre-left perspective, has been verging on hysterical. I myself have joined in, remarking on many on occasion just how damaging I think a spell of Jeremy’s magic would be for the Labour Party.
But today, I want to try and be objective: would it really be that bad for Labour if Jeremy won the thing? The guy does seem to really reach people, particularly young people, in a way that is extremely rare in this age of anti-politics. Perhaps, whatever I personally think of his world view, all of us who are shouting about what a car crash it would all be are howling into the wind, if I may use two clichés in one sentence? In better English: what if Corbyn is a lot better than we’ve all made him out to be?
To answer these questions, let’s look at all of the individuals who have ever led Labour to parliamentary majorities. There are only three: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair. Despite them each being from very different eras, examining them closely tells you a lot about how a Jeremy Corbyn leadership would go.
Let’s start with Attlee: he’s often immortalised at CLP meetings and Labour conferences as some sort of purist, the real deal; spirit of ’45 and all of that. In reality, arguably Atlee’s greatest strength was his pragmatism. He was monumentally committed to getting the Labour Party elected, for a start. Comparing him to Corbyn reveals two very, very different men: Atlee was a hero of WWI, injured at the Battle of Hanna. Moreover, he chose to go and fight himself (he was a lecturer at the LSE and in his early-thirties when the conflict broke out). A very apt wartime spell as Deputy Prime Minister to Churchill demonstrated his gravitas.
Harold Wilson served in government throughout the Attlee years, and after the Tories won in 1951 served as both shadow chancellor and shadow foreign secretary before becoming the leader of the Labour Party in 1963. He won the 1964 and 1966 elections with an image as a sort of technocratic social liberal (although he would have run a mile from that actual description himself). Like ’45, part of the appeal of Labour was the Tories having become out of step with what the public wanted (although the Profumo Affair certainly helped Wilson in ’64).
Finally there was Blair, who was actually the most radical of the three. He figured pitching Labour further to the right of where they had ever been, combined with a Conservative Party in meltdown, would result in a large parliamentary majority. Whatever else you can say about the man, he was right on that account.
In each case, the public wanted change of one sort or another and the combination of the Tories seeming to be unwilling or unable to action said change, with Labour seeming credible and competent meant that Labour won. Each victorious leader had the ability to reach beyond their base and into middle England.
If it looks like all I’m doing is comparing Corbyn to the three greatest leaders in Labour’s history only to show him come up short, that isn’t the point of the exercise. Rather, I’m trying to demonstrate that it was no fluke that Attlee, Wilson or Blair got majorities. They each had what it took to unite their own parties and convince enough of the rest in the outside world. So that’s the real problem that a Jeremy Corbyn leadership represents for Labour. Not whether or not he’d make a great, good, terrible, abysmal prime minister – but that he will never, ever get close to having the chance to prove it one way or another. Because Corbyn isn’t Attlee – he’s someone visibly on the far-left of the Labour Party who has never had a frontline job; a purist who has been out of step with his own party for most of his political career. No one like that has ever come close to being prime minister. I doubt Jeremy can buck the trend.