Jeremy Corbyn’s victory might have seemed to be a foregone conclusion by the end of the race, in itself a remarkable achievement. In the most open democratic internal election the Labour Party have seen, Corbyn had a clear lead from very early in the campaign. The more his opponents scrambled around looking for a response, that lead consolidated, and even grew. The truth, of course, is that this result is actually a mark of who and what the Labour Party are.
Forget talk of entryists and infiltrators. The vast majority of these new ‘supporters’ are people who qualified for a vote last time and had to re-register to be included this time. In the 2010 election when Ed Miliband narrowly won, there were 2 million affiliate votes, many of them members of other parties but eligible to vote through their trade union affiliation. In fact, though the detailed figures were never published, Neil Findlay had more actual votes than Jim Murphy in the Scottish leader election. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that, given an open ‘one member, one vote’ system, the party voted for someone who is seen to represent what many see as “real” Labour values.
Here in Scotland, the decision to choose an arch-Blairite, under the old system that handed huge power to a small group of 80 elected representatives in Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels, was devastating. It lead to a wipe-out that took Scottish Labour below the panda benchmark. That result should have been a wake-up call to Labour’s elite in London, who predict only doom and gloom ahead. As a result of that short period, the Corbyn victory might be a boost to the Scottish left but will only be a small step in a long recovery that is anything but assured.
In England, however, his leadership of the official opposition and its associated machinery puts Labour firmly at the head of the movement against Tory welfare reforms, austerity and cuts. It comes at a time when what is arguably the single most important fight for the organised left, within and outwith Labour, is about to be fought – the Tory’s Trade Union Bill. Make no mistake, the Labour Party were in very real danger of losing the support of UNITE and possibly other trade unions, this would have been a defining event in their history. Now they will be standing shoulder to shoulder with the unions, and might even see a rise in support from those trades unions not affiliated to Labour.
In 2017, parliament will make the final decision on the renewal of Trident. Again, the anti-nuclear left in England will have a party in parliament, with large numbers of MPs and huge resources, taking their fight into the corridors of power. Not, as has been suggested, a protest movement locked outside.
And these arguments will take place against the backdrop of a divided Tory party, split on the forthcoming EU referendum which will be followed by their own internal leader election when Cameron stands down ahead of the 2020 elections.
This gives the English left a focus, an actual chance to win reforms in parliament. That is, after all, what the Labour Party is supposed to be, the voice of the disenfranchised, the collective force of those who are not represented by power and wealth.
The trick for Corbyn will be in how he unites his party, the unions, and the wider progressive movement that will join Labour in the push for change. Labour has never been an easy party to lead. They exist, essentially, to bring the forces of the broad left together. It has always been understood that this means not being a socialist party as such, but a party where socialists can find a home alongside the centre-left. Keir Hardie was one of those who fought for this model of the party and the arguments about its direction have never changed. Being able to represent people and make change on their behalf in parliament is what labour are for.
But Corbyn understands that much of the party drifted from that goal. Winning elections was the most important thing for many in the post-Thatcher rebranded party. The idea of uniting the forces for good was less important than forming a Government. People, quite rightly, questioned the model of the ‘broad church’. If worker’s conditions were worsening, if the gap between the rich and poor grew, if we were engaged in costly military adventures, if the poorest were queuing at foodbanks, if immigrants were treated as scapegoats, what was the Labour Party for?
The test for Labour now is re-establishing the raison-d’etre of the party, without diminishing the numbers of seats and therefore power where it matters, in the halls of Westminster. The English left have been largely enthusiastic about Corbyn, it will be their influence – the trades unions, the anti-austerity movement, the peace movement and anti-nuclear lobby, that will decide whether this becomes what the new leader claims “A new way of doing politics”. If he can keep them on board while building bridges with the centre-left and moderates within the parliamentary and constituency Labour Party, then this result will change UK politics.
I believe he can and he will. I believe this because the result (and other results) shows clearly where the party members are. The ones who are out of step are the top of the party, the Westminster party. They have discovered that they don’t represent the party. They have given Labour an image that is not reflective of the people in the wider labour movement and their aspirations. They are the old politics, and they are about to be swept aside.
The Labour Party are about to come home.