How unelectable will Corbyn have to be to not get elected?

Photograph: David Holt via Flickr
Photograph: David Holt via Flickr

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In response to ’s article ‘When will the left stop deluding themselves’, offers another perspective on the ongoing debate over the electability of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. This has been the mantra of the vast majority of the political establishment for the past three months. At first, he was unelectable as Labour leader. Nobody so far from the centrist line of the party could possible gain enough popular support. Despite being so obviously unelectable, however, Corbyn is now the Leader of the Opposition. Now, of course, he is entirely unelectable as Prime Minister. This begs the question, exactly how unelectable will Corbyn need to be to actually lose an election?

Labour’s defeat in this year’s general election was resounding and humiliating. Some commentators claimed that under Ed Miliband Labour had gone too far left, causing them to lose centre voters. Others maintained that Labour did not go left enough, failing to distinguish themselves in any meaningful way from the other major parties. The simple fact of the matter is, regardless of their position on the political spectrum, Miliband’s Labour failed to inspire people to passionately support them. They allowed themselves to be painted as irresponsible by the Conservatives, and had neither the courage to defend New Labour’s policies nor the conviction to significantly deviate from them. Without pushing any meaningful alternatives to Tory policy, it is no surprise that they lost to what was perceived as the more stable, competent party.

Thanks to Corbyn, this attitude towards Labour has undergone a complete reversal. For the first time in a long while, a large number of people, especially young people, are once again feeling inspired by politics. The constant cries of irresponsibility from the Tories and the mainstream media only served to push people further towards Corbyn. And yet, the right are doggedly sticking with their tactic of telling anyone who will listen that Corbyn is just too far left to be taken seriously. What they fail to grasp is that just because the electorate voted centre-right in the last election, this does not mean that they are truly committed to centre-right ideas. What people want, more than any particular ideology, is to feel that their elected representatives are defending their interests. In the last election, this led them to choose the lesser evil, the party that seemed least likely to jeopardize their precariously maintained stability. In the next election, it may cause them to choose a radical political change.

This is by no means certain, and it will depend very much on how Corbyn develops his ideas and media persona over the next five years. So far, however, it already has more substantial evidence than the claim that he is unelectable. According to a YouGov poll published at the end of August, Corbyn supporters were approximately twice as likely to have voted Lib Dem in the last election as supporters of any other Labour leadership candidate. This statistic does not lend much credence to the idea that voters are only interested in moving further towards the centre.

Many also claim that Corbyn’s ideas are old-fashioned and outdated. Unlike the more general claim that he is too left wing, this criticism has a grain of truth in it. Corbyn believes in strengthening unions, supporting a strong welfare state and limiting the power of markets, all ideas which have noticeably gone out of fashion over the past several decades. The fact that his ideas are old ones, however, does not mean that they do not still hold wide appeal. If the right fail to do something about their complacent, end of history delusion that the course of politics is an inevitable slide towards neoliberal capitalism, they may be in for a particularly rude awakening. This is not to say that we are set to experience a return to the politics of the mid-20th century, either. In fact, if Corbyn does not manage to develop more forward-looking ideas over the next five years, he may well fail to win any further hearts and minds. His focus on labour as the prime commodity in society already feels dated, and it will only become less relevant as technology and automation continue to improve. Unlike most other party leaders, however, change at least seems like a possibility. Corbyn has shown that he is prepared to engage in active discussion with his supporters, and to wholeheartedly defend their interests. If he is able to continue this process of youth engagement, to develop a system of left-wing ideas that are forward-looking and suited to an increasingly tech dominated world, then he may well bring about a drastic change in Britain’s political landscape.

Jeremy Corbyn’s future is almost entirely uncertain. It is precisely because of this fact that his election as Labour leader is such an exciting development; nobody knows quite how he will affect the status quo. Nothing is clearer, however, than the absurdity of the claim that he has no hope of being elected. If the right want to have a chance of dealing with the political changes which may be approaching, then they would do well to revise their tactics.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are not representative of Palatinate, and are those of the author only. If you disagree with the opinions expressed, or would like to write for Palatinate in response, please contact the Politics Section at politics@palatinate.org.uk.

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