by Atul Hatwal
Jeremy Corbyn’s been in post for 13 days. It still doesn’t seem real. On Tuesday he will give his inaugural conference address as Labour leader against a backdrop of splits on unilateralism and talk of mandatory reselections for MPs.
The party has been bundled into a DeLorean and now we’re back in the 1980s.
During the leadership campaign I wrote a couple of pieces predicting doom for Corbyn’s candidacy. When YouGov published their first poll I was pretty disparaging. Surely the majority didn’t want to go back to 1980s Labour?
Clearly I was wrong, wrong as it’s possible to be. YouGov were right, the Corbynistas were right, the earthquake happened and everything came crashing down. The Tories are jubilant and privately looking at a majority in 2020 that could tip over into three figures.
In the past fortnight, since Labour’s election results I’ve spent time speaking to members, registered supporters, CLP office-holders, MPs and candidates to understand the answer to two questions: who switched to Corbyn – because this level of support for the hard left in the party is unprecedented – and why.
Back in August, Mike Harris articulated the scale of change at a local level in this excellent post. As Mike says, it’s like an entirely different party has been created.
However, this new party isn’t an entirely unfamiliar party.
CLP chairs and secretaries are uniformly clear that most new members and supporters have been involved with the party before.
The defining characteristic of the majority in this group is that they are from the soft left. Not the hard left from where Corbyn hails, nor Trotskyite entryists or Stalinist tankies from fringe groups outside the party (the far left in the declension of the British left).
One of the candidates told me that based on their experience of umpteen CLP visits and hustings, the people who’ve joined, “are the people at the back of the GC (General Committee) who just want it all to be better and feel more right on.”
This is the soft left.
In a sense, the political persuasion of Labour’s new recruits shouldn’t be surprising. For decades, the soft left has played the central role in deciding the leader and political direction of the party.
In the early 90s, following the trauma of the 1980s and the desolation of the defeat in 1992, the backing of soft left members and MPs, helped give Tony Blair, a member of the rarefied revisionist tradition, his big majority in 1994’s leadership election.
In 2010, the soft left candidate was Ed Miliband and despite some critical flaws, including obvious and insurmountable short-comings as a PM-in-waiting, he won. Diane Abbot, flying the flag for the hard left, got less than 10% of members support.
In 2015, despite the huge influx of members and supporters, very little actually changed. The soft left was once again the swing vote. This time they rowed in behind Corbyn’s platform boosting the hard left vote from Abbot’s miserable showing in 2010 to 60% this year.
Many, myself included, expected the excoriating nature of May’s general election defeat to ultimately tip sufficient numbers of the soft left back towards a mainstream option at the last minute.
Jeremy Corbyn would still have done well but not have won.
So what happened?
Two factors are key: memories of the last Labour government and Ed Miliband’s failure.
It’s become a trope that Labour’s centrists are exclusively focused on achieving power as an end in itself.
This caricatures the centrist position and doesn’t capture the true failure of our argument.
Virtually every time centrists make the case that electability matters, it’s illustrated with the example of what the last Labour government did for schools and hospitals.
The lesson from the leadership election is that this doesn’t work with the soft left.
It’s not fair or right but the memory of government for soft left members is sufficiently alienating that using any aspect of it as a rationale for support – even one as compelling as the rebuilding of virtually every school and hospital in this country – is discounted.
When Tony Blair became leader in 1994, the party had been out of office for 15 years. The soft left had seen and experienced crushing failure. The bitter memories of division and betrayal within Wilson and Callaghan’s governments had been replaced by bitter memories of Mrs.Thatcher and the impotence of opposition.
In contrast, today, it is a little over five years since the final dog days of Gordon Brown’s premiership. Many remember them, few look back with affection.
The second reason the soft left fell in with the hard left is Ed Miliband, specifically, their experience of his leadership and the subsequent election result.
From day one, Ed Miliband’s Labour utterly failed to work out how to deal with the Tories’ cuts. He was trapped in a double bind: reluctant to promise to reverse them because of the electoral poison of higher borrowing and taxation, but then unable to fund new policies that might paint a picture of a brighter tomorrow.
The entire political conversation was conducted on the Tories’ terrain.
Miliband’s was an unhappy compromise largely accepted by soft left members in the hope of power. This settlement was blown apart by the devastating nature of Labour’s loss in May.
As one avowedly soft left member said to me when talking about swing voters, “What’s the point of trying to appeal to them anyway?”
The tragedy is of course that Ed Miliband didn’t try to appeal to swing voters. He spent five years triangulating between the left and right of the Labour party, leaving himself zero chance of attracting sufficient numbers of marginal voters.
Political compromise only works when underpinned by electoral success. Ed Miliband didn’t just lose the election, he turned compromise into a dirty word.
Andy Burnham tried to run as this year’s Ed Miliband. He got 19% of the vote for his trouble.
Faced with candidates either promising a return to an unloved, grinding Labour government or Miliband redux, soft left members pushed the nuclear button and voted Corbyn.
His was the only path which hadn’t led to failure in the past five years and his easy solutions and faithful following enabled doubts to be set aside.
The one ray of light for centrists from this dismal situation is that the soft left’s choice was driven by a deep aversion to the alternatives, not a conversion to hard left dogma. They backed Corbyn out of despair, not hope.
The Mayoral selection in London – a choice that was distinct and untainted by the disappointments of national politics – saw soft left Sadiq Khan convincingly triumph over centrist Tessa Jowell with hard left Diane Abbot trailing far behind.
The reality is that the soft left, Labour’s critical internal constituency, is exasperated, emotionally exhausted and ideologically disorientated.
Three implications flow from this analysis if the soft left are to be won back for the centre.
First, time will demonstrate the criticism of Corbyn’s electability to be correct. Every day Jeremy Corbyn is leader, the reality of Labour’s predicament will become clearer to the soft left.
Councillors will lose their seats with Lib Dems, Tories and Ukip all making gains at Labour’s expense; MSPs will be swept aside at the Scottish election and the national polls will prophesy a huge Tory majority.
The claims that Jeremy Corbyn can inspire a revival in Scotland and mobilise non-voters will be exposed and the prospect of decades of uninterrupted Tory rule will loom. This won’t sway the hard left but the soft left will be alarmed.
The necessity of attracting Tory voters into Labour’s column and appealing to the centre-ground of politics will be back on the agenda.
Second, centrists need to engage constructively with the soft left.
This requires us to take some of our own medicine.
Centrists and modernisers rail against the manner in which hard left Twittervists harangue anyone deviating from their line as morally wrong Tories but too often we can react sharply towards soft left activists and politicians on policies that compromise electability.
Bridges need to be built not burnt. Where possible common cause should be made.
This doesn’t mean going easy on Corbyn or his hard left agenda, but understanding that many in the soft left who currently publicly back Corbyn also harbour serious reservations and are persuadable.
Shouting at them won’t help the centrist cause.
Third, when electoral gravity takes hold and Corbyn falls, as likely he will before 2020, centrists’ view of the best should not be the enemy of the good.
The leap from Corbyn, and where he will take the party politically, mean it’s unlikely a thorough-going, modernising candidate will be viable.
Labour’s direction of travel needs to be reversed which means uniting around the candidate most acceptable to the soft left, who will move Labour back into the realms of electability.
The 2020 election was lost the moment Corbyn became leader. What matters now is 2025.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut