Jeremy Corbyn, George McGovern and winning by default

by David Butler

A party is selecting a new leader and is using, for the first time, an open selection process. The early front-runners from the moderate wing of the party, who have dominated the party in the previous decades, have faltered and disappointed. Others, young and dynamic politicians, have refused to run for personal and political reasons. Instead, the insurgent, an outsider candidate from the left of the party is gaining momentum. He is backed by a wave of younger activists who are disappointed by the party’s previous period in government with its compromises and controversial war and are idealistic for a new settlement. As the campaign progressed, the moderates try to rally around a candidate, any candidate, to stop the insurgent left. However, it is too late. The insurgent suddenly finds himself party leader.

The year is 1972 and George McGovern has just become the Democratic nominee for President.

On his way to the nomination, McGovern defeated the combined talents of three leading party moderates, Senator Edmund Muskie, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. George J. Mitchell, a Muskie staffer and later Muskie’s successor as Senator, reflected afterwards that “Muskie’s appeal was to reason, to legislative accomplishment, to sort of general policies in the best interest of the country. The primary electorate was interested in emotion, passion, strong views on every issue, and the general election candidate who tries to navigate a nomination process by not being clear on very hot button issues finds it difficult in the nominating process”.

McGovern’s supporters wanted emotion and clarity in their candidate; they were the heirs to the spirit of Bobby Kennedy’s tragic last campaign. His support base was made up of ethnic minorities, women, the young and New Left activists; they were anti-Vietnam, pro-drug liberalisation, pro-abortion and supportive of a basic income. His supporters mixed the heady idealism of youth and anger at Nixon and the Democratic party establishment.

Corbyn’s supporters, according to a recent YouGov poll, preferred a leader who will make a shift to the left and providing effective opposition to the Tories to one that understanding how to win. As Jonathan Freedland so accurately observed, Corbyn’s support is about identity, not power. His supporters want authenticity over the (perceived) cynicism of the party’s moderate wing and a break from the supposed disappointments and failures of the ancien régime.

Like McGovern’s supporters, Corbyn backers have turned their guns on their own side. From the accusations that Liz Kendall is a “Tory” to the CWU referring to Blairites as a “virus”, the real vitriol in this contest has not been towards the Conservatives in power but towards people who have sacrificed much for the Labour cause.

There is nothing new about this. After the defeat in 1951 (as well as during its tenure in office), the Attlee government was attacked from the Left for not got far enough with nationalisation, building the atomic bomb, introducing NHS charges and the fighting communism in Korea. At the end of the Wilson-Callaghan government, again the party elite was criticised for failing to implement the 1974 manifesto in full and the 1976 IMF deal which saw the UK shift towards monetarism; this provided the fuel for the internal party reforms that sparked the SDP split, destructive Benn-Healey deputy leadership fight and the Longest Suicide Note in History. The tragedy of Labour history is that it is cyclical, not linear.

The Muskie, Humphrey and Jackson of this race are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. Burnham and Cooper have positioned themselves carefully, seeking not to offend the Left or the Right. Burnham flip-flopped on welfare and he and Cooper have failed to set out any defining mission for their proposed leadership. Their campaigns have been vanilla in the extreme. Kendall’s analysis of Labour’s failings is correct and her attempts to move Labour towards the centre are necessary for the Party to win. Yet, she has employed too much of the short, sharp shock and too little of the optimism, hope and moral language needed build a winning coalition within the Labour selectorate. She has begun to do this but it has been lost in the sound and fury of the campaign.

Winning by default is rare, rarer still in parties that have just suffered a traumatic loss. There was an assumption that people who see the light after the disaster of Milibandism; this was wrong. The right of the party has failed to put forward a candidate who has articulated a popular message that could reunite Blair’s intra-party coalition of pragmatists, rightist revisionists and the soft left. We should reflect on why we have failed to express an optimistic, coherent and compelling vision of the future. David Miliband, channelling the great Philip Gould, once wrote that “idealism is the oxygen of politics, but realism is its anchor”; our oxygen supplies are in severe need of replenishment.

David Butler is a Labour activist. This article is an adaptation of an earlier piece

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6 Responses to “Jeremy Corbyn, George McGovern and winning by default”

  1. swatantra says:

    A bit of trith in the article. When it comes to back stabbing and coups and countercoups the Labour Party are past masters in this and need no lessons from anyone else, just ask Morrison Brown Ed Milliband and Ken Livingstone.
    But Corbyn is not that passionate a guy; ok he has his idiosyncracies but when Leader he will soon realise that he needs to lead a Party and if he lurches to the Left then there’ll be no Party to lead; so basically he’s stumped.

  2. swatantra says:

    … and the beauty of the whole scenario of Corbyn being elected Leader is that the Left will have one of their own having to as it were impose draconian decisions which it was 180 degrees opposed to!
    I know its different in Opposition since we ‘re not in power to impose draconian decisions, but I’m using an analogy, but if you want a specific case, then look at Greece, the Leader trussed up and ready to be served for Xmas Dinner.

  3. john P Reid says:

    All this labour must stay in the centre, so we can scare the Tories into thinking we can win, that they don’t swing too far to the right, is wrong,
    In 1983 we nearly came third, we nearly swung further to the left after that had election although FPTP,would have meant it would have took a few years for the Alliance to have over took us with seats, but by 1992 if we’d swung to the left we’d have come third and the SDP/Liberals may have eventually become alternative the government to the tories by 2001

    So those who feel its better for Corbyn to be leader and us lose on a far left ticket thats pure, have the right to feel that if we did this give it 20 years of further tory rule, we could see the Libdems as the second party, and us down to a minority protest like TUSC

  4. The problem in looking for examples in US presidential campaigns to compare with the rise in support for Corbyn is as you find one, the McGovern campaign, to prove your point, I can find another, the first Obama presidential campaign when he beat Hilary Clinton, to disprove it.

    Myself I would look closer to home. I would compare it to the first mayoral bid by Livingstone as an independent and winning in London.

  5. Tafia says:

    A good summary.

    Corbyn tells a straight, simple message which the Labour faithful want to hear and have waited a long time to hear. He’ll probably win the leadership, but he almost certainly won’t be Prime Minister. However ‘almost certainly won’t’ puts him above the other three – should any of them win the leadership, they definately won’t.

    Kendall psrobably speaks the truth but her message is so stark and so un-Labour that she has no chance and nor should she have. She is no more Labour than David Cameron.

    Burnham has shown himself as completely out of touch with real people – probably as much as if not more so than Ed Miliband. He no longer relates to them and they in turn do not relate to him. He is seemingly totally unable to actually take on head-to-head any of the three others. If he isn’t willing to attack his rivals he has no chance with his enemies across the Chamber.

    The least said about Yvette Cooper the better. She makes Burnham look competent.

    Unfortunately for Labour there are two realities they have to accept. The first is that the 2020 election is already lost and the second is that Corbyn – probably the last intellect Labour have, is the best of a low quality selection and probably the only one capable of unifying both wings of the party.

    Provided of course what will be his MPs let him.

    The destruction oif the Labour Party won’t be because of Corbyn. If it happens it will be because of his fellow MPs who seem not only unable to accept that what Corbyn represents is what their rank & file want, but hell bent on flinging it back in their members faces. The MPs tail well and truly wagging the memberships dog.

  6. tyronen says:

    US elections are determined by just two things; 1) the state of the economy, and 2) how long the incumbent party has held the White House. Ideology doesn’t matter all that much.

    That’s why the big landslides (1964, 1972, and 1984) have all happened in years of very strong growth, and the big defeats (1952, 1980, 2008) have happened during recessions.

    There have only been two exceptions since 1948 of a party not holding the presidency for exactly two terms.

    Which all means that a moderate candidate in place of McGovern would have done no better.

    The pundit class was convinced that John Kerry lost in 2004 because he was too far left. Yet Barack Obama in 2008 went even further left, and won.

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