Robert Leitch is a Conservative councillor in Bexley.
Despite the snowballing media frenzy over the Jeremy Corbyn campaign, it is still unknown if he will emerge as the new Labour leader (though today’s YouGov poll gives him a sizeable lead). Nonetheless, whilst the Corbyn scare is causing as much joy in Conservative circles as outright alarm in the remnants of New Labour, there is an underlining message that his supporters are trying to send; a message which may just resonate with the rest of the country too.
Corbyn is not another incarnation of the typical 21st century politician; he is not the youthful, media-friendly, spin-obsessed character that we have associated with politics since the rise of Blair. Indeed, this quite dramatic differentiation symbolises both his charm and his potential impact on Westminster, even if he doesn’t come out on top of the ongoing leadership struggle.
On the surface, I accept that Corbyn seems like an easy target to dismiss. He epitomises many of the Old Labour values and policies which doomed them to the electoral scrapyard in the 1980s and early 1990s; a columnist for the Morning Star, he believes in scrapping Trident, he opposes reductions in benefit spending, he is against foreign intervention and is a traditional left-wing trade unionist who supports public ownership. Corbyn also rebelled against the Labour governments of 1997-2010 over 500 times – almost unthinkable in the modern, whip-dominated Westminster.
Yet, if you take away the old socialist values, Corbyn represents something rare and politically pure – independent thinking. Sticking by your principles in politics is considered a dangerous tactic, and certainly one avoided by most who seek to climb the greasy career pole. Groucho Marx’s famous line, “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others”, springs to mind.
Those backing the Corbyn campaign believe that the time has come for an authentic voice to push their traditional values. This may appear naive to the metropolitan Labour elite, particularly given the high political stakes after the Miliband disaster. Indeed, such concerns may yet prevent Corbyn from becoming the Party’s leader. Yet, his level of personal support, despite the obvious risks, can be seen in a rather more admirable light.
After all, the public mood towards politics has yet to realign from the expenses scandal. Westminster continues to suffer from a lack of trust amongst the electorate and those expecting a restoration of reputation are likely to be disappointed. In my view, the public will never again respond to traditional politicians. The idea that our MPs are in Parliament to represent us for a now fixed period of time is losing appeal, particularly amongst younger voters. The public is becoming a more demanding clientele, voters want community campaigners over party politicians; pro-active local voices rather than reactive, distant representatives.
Consider the standard pathway to Westminster, even today. With some notable exceptions (and we do have some in our parliamentary Party), one gets involved in a local association, attends political events to fund the running of that association, gets elected to the local council where he/she builds a 100 per cent whip voting record, spends the annual conference building contacts, applies to get on the candidates’ list, and campaigns around the country in order to be noticed by other Party members, before keeping fingers and toes crossed for a safe Tory seat to come up in the hope that they know one of the selection committee.
My overly simplistic summary may be a little harsh – working so hard for our voluntary Party is actually very noble and something that I am guilty of myself as a local councillor and activist. However, whilst those of us within the Party may feel aggrieved by it, the above process of insiders rising to the top is an impression held by many in the non-political, non-party public. With such a negative view of the party system in place, the public yearn for an alternative; for the type of politician with whom they can relate even if they disagree – the authentic voices of community champions.
Even though UKIP thankfully failed to make a break-through at the last election, they were considered by many ex-Tory and ex-Labour voters to be the more honest and genuine of the electoral offering. Nigel Farage was considered, rather bizarrely given his past career as a City broker, to be in touch with the public mood, a man of the people, an authentic voice in a PR political age.
Likewise, Corbyn should not be underestimated. Many political experts consider a Corbyn leadership to be a blindingly obvious pathway to disaster, not least because he doesn’t tick the focus group boxes. Such is the influence of the pollsters and experts that I suspect an increasing number within the Labour movement will vocally distance themselves from the Corbyn fanfare in the coming weeks. Yet, the fact that we are even discussing him as a serious contender reflects the continuing tectonic shifts in our political plates, which continue to threaten that long overdue Westminster earthquake. The unanswered question is, who will finally be able to capitalise on this new public appetite for authenticity?