Labour governed for 13 years fairly recently, but it is more at home in opposition – protesting, agitating, marching, as befits a party that grew out of the then underdog trade union movement. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest problem of all is that he has spent his entire political career as a serial agitator. He has never had to bother his head about how to govern. It shows.
The Conservatives were not only out of office for those years, but saw the electoral system work against them and were deeply divided over a major constitutional question, Europe: we could not even win in a majority in 2010. But we cannot help but see ourselves as the natural party of government: perhaps because we have been electorally successful for so long, perhaps because emerging from part of the ruling class has left us with – let’s not mince words here – a sense of entitlement.
That Labour has more sway in most of Britain’s institutions – the universities, the arts, the teaching profession, much of the judiciary, parts of the police, the state broadcaster – and has become the real Establishment party is a paradox that need not detain us today.
ConservativeHome has been talking to Tory MPs about Corbyn – asking them whether or not he is a threat, and how to deal with him. Most of those we spoke to discount an immediate coup. But some of them believe that he’s unlikely to be in place in 2020. “If he does badly next year in Scotland’s elections and local elections then he’s in trouble,” one said. Another wondered if Labour will survive at all: “there could be a realignment of the Left. Another SDP. That might help us by splitting the Left but nothing is certain.”
Corbyn has a Shadow Foreign Secretary who holds a different view from him on the EU, a Shadow Home Secretary who disagrees with him about immigration, a vegan spokesman on food who has called for an end to animal farming, and a Shadow Chancellor who has praised the IRA’s “armed struggle”. He has no majority in his own Shadow Cabinet, a powerful deputy leader with his own mandate – and now a shadow First Secretary of State, too, appointed because of a lack of women at the top. Corbyn himself hates the media, has developed a way of walking away from it or complaining about it, and has no team in place yet to try to use it as a means of communicating his message to voters. Yesterday’s collective rendition of Send In The Clowns was evidence that in conventional terms Team Corbyn is a shambles.
You would therefore expect those Conservative MPs to be sending for the Bollinger – or real ale or bitter or pints of snakebite if they describe themselves as Blue Collar Tories. But what is striking in talking to them is their caution. “We have got to take him seriously. He has certainly connected with some young voters – I’ve seen some who don’t remember the 1970s who are very enthused with what he is saying,” said one. “You never know. His integrity may resonate. People can sense that he
says what he means,” said another, worrying that Corbyn will shift political debate to the left.
“There must be no gloating. Some of our front bench can’t resist a jibe. The cheap shot is tempting but we must resist,” said another – though none of them disagreed with the Downing Street and Treasury plan to tar Labour with the Corbyn brush.
What all these takes have in common is a fear that although Team Corbyn is indeed a shambles in conventional terms, this is a deeply unconventional age: that of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage: new forces on the Right of politics as well as on the Left – such as, up to a point, the SNP. True, none of the first three are in government, and Farage is nowhere near it. But the revolt against the established parties that is convulsing Labour today could hit the Tories tomorrow.
But the roots of this wariness of Corbyn goes even deeper. One astute observer worried yesterday that although the leadership may not underestimate him, his Parliamentary colleagues simply won’t be able to help themselves. It’s that sense of entitlement, you see. No-one said it to us but you can almost hear it. “We’re going to win!” “Labour are out for a generation!” “We’re on our way!”