If Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, is he really going to try to lead as the great red hope? Or is he going to moderate, softening some of his positions in order to bring his opponents into the tent and hold the party together?
We got two contradictory pieces of evidence in yesterday’s papers.
On the one hand, the Daily Telegraph brought word that Corbyn had u-turned on his commitment to leave NATO, arguing instead that he would attempt to restrict the alliance’s role and forestall its attempts to include former subjects of the Soviet Union.
Yet on the same day, the Guardian reported that the Member for Islington North plans on handing a much more substantial policy role to the Labour membership.
This would suit Corbyn, as it would transfer power to the grassroots, his area of strength, whilst undermining the Shadow Cabinet and Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) where his support is vanishingly small.
Two stories, two different possible directions for the onrushing reality of a Corbyn leadership. But which will he choose?
The prospect of moderation is very easy to believe, not least because it brings what’s happening to Labour closer to how we who monitor politics understand it to work.
Win an internal election by pandering to the base, then tack to the centre for the public? We understand that. That’s like a US primary. Even Tony Blair did that.
But it seems more likely that the logic of Corbyn’s position in the party might lead him closer to option B.
If Corbyn wins, it will probably be the hard left’s best shot at proving their dog-eared thesis that Labour loses to the Tories because of an insufficiency of socialism. It’s too late to effect the heroic near-miss once he’s actually installed as leader: if he falls, the left’s credibility falls with him.
So if Corbyn really believes that his prospectus is both realistic and best for the country – and we should do him the courtesy of assuming he does – he has little choice but to commit to it. His surprise mandate would leave him little wriggle room, especially if (as predicted) he wins on the first round.
That being the case, the left’s best shot at actually getting its agenda adopted as party policy is to undo the changes of the Blair years and return power to the membership – the composition of which skewed dramatically leftwards under Ed Miliband and would likely be further swollen by Corbyn’s legion of £3 supporters should he win.
We may well return to the days when Labour conferences revolved around genuine votes on policy motions – and were plagued bitterness and chaos.
This is only one way that the membership could be wielded against the centrist elements of the party hierarchy. As one Labour commentator writes:
“Across the country, MPs should be nervously assessing their chances of being deselected by new members who didn’t vote to select them in the first place. You have to wonder how long the last remaining Blairite MPs have left. If Corbyn is leader, he will argue for the mandatory re-selection of all MPs. The parliamentary Labour party could look very different by 2020.”
The legacy of his predecessor, who very much fell between two stools, may also dissuade Corbyn from moderating his position too much.
If he abandoned the radical prospectus and grassroots enthusiasm which are his selling points, what could he hope to amount to but ‘like Ed, but worse’ – a vacillating void, unable to adopt a coherent, consistent policy prospectus for fear of splitting his party?
In any event, May’s rout may finally have exhausted the PLP’s seemingly infinite capacity to tolerate a manifestly unelectable leader for the sake of party unity.
In short, the two competing blocs of Labour opinion are likely too far apart to ever unite around the same candidate, and Corbyn is probably neither willing nor able to win over the right. It thus makes sense – for him and his faction, at least – to double down on the left.