Former Labour Foreign Office minister Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup, about a socialist British Prime Minister who is undermined and brought down by a hostile British establishment in league with Washington, opens in the venerable Athenaeum Club on election night as former steelworker Harry Perkins becomes PM. The reaction of the members is one of horror as they digest the elevation of somebody who isn’t “one of us”, as the blessed Margaret might have put it. A friend of mine is a member of the Athenaeum, and I will have to ask him sometime how authentic the scene is, though I am inclined to suspect that if such a moment came to pass it would be treated with a bit more equanimity than the fictional response.
Of course, the captivating development in British politics this summer has been the likelihood of Britain having a “real” socialist Prime Minister in 2020 shifting from absolutely impossible to merely highly improbable. Since Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable rise in the Labour leadership contest from token left wing candidate to serious contender, comparisons with Mullin’s novel have frequently been noted. While Mullin has suggested that the security services would be less disposed to pulling dirty strokes today compared to a generation ago, one is still obliged to stake out reasons why it is near impossible to visualise Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.
Firstly, what the security state might shirk from doing now, the media – much of it foreign and non-dom owned, and generally to the right of the British people – would gleefully step in. New Labour made relations with the media a paramount concern, but the party has progressively lost sway in that regard since then. Corbyn as Labour leader would probably make few overtures to the press and take his chances. While people of most political persuasions like the idea of the people deciding who governs rather than media barons, experience suggests this is a naïve and fanciful notion. The media are enormously powerful, despite the denials your average high profile journalist would issue. And with Rupert Murdoch quietly being returned to his ascendancy by the Conservative government, the media forces militating against a populist left wing leader in 2020 will be extensive, well financed and determined.
Another problem, already visible during this ongoing campaign, is the composition of the contemporary Labour Party, which has become home to a wide and often contradictory collection of views. Effective political parties and movements tend to be broad churches, but they are held together by a shared overarching vision. That collective sense of mission is badly damaged, and a recalcitrant Labour right is prophesying doom in the event of Corbyn becoming leader. In the meantime, there are grumbles about entryism and a Trotskyite takeover, even though those complaints are largely unsubstantiated. There have even been calls for a suspension of the election so the Marxist spoilers can be weeded out first. There might not be a subsequent SDP-style mass defection if Corbyn wins, but there are many parliamentary colleagues who would fight the change in direction Corbyn has in mind. Many of the senior figures on the Labour benches would surely refuse to serve under him. It is difficult to visualise an unhappy and divided party winning a national mandate, especially given the political splits opening up across modern Britain – SNP hegemony in Scotland, UKIP’s inroads in England – which the Labour Party currently seems particularly ill suited to adapt to. Beyond ad hominem media attacks and Labour internecine chaos, Corbyn would face a wide coalition of institutional opposition, such as from business groups like the CBI. Most of the international organisations Britain is a member of would be unlikely to join in the Corbynmania as well. Corbyn’s slight backtrack on whether he would campaign to leave the EU might counter some of this potential antagonism, and he likely needs to clarify his position on that if he becomes leader.
There is also a rump in the electorate, particularly in England, which is unlikely to want to even engage with Corbyn’s argument about the economy. They certainly don’t represent a majority of the electorate, but they reliably vote. And anybody who witnessed the Question Time debate, actually more a town hall event, before this year’s election will appreciate the difficulty for any Labour leader to win a UK wide election in the next decade or more. It featured an audience mostly persuaded by The Big Tory Lie about the UK economy, and they were determined to put Ed Miliband in his place. Demanding an admission that Labour had “spent too much” when they were last in power, they were incensed when Miliband denied the charge. I don’t recall many people during that election asking if Labour had spent wisely? That is a far more interesting question, and one that is very worthy of debate. Did Labour throw money at problems rather than address them? Did Labour preside over an economy that was weaker than it could have been in the face of global shocks? Arguably yes on both counts. Either way, Labour spending plans were backed by the Tories up to 2008, and when also placed in the context of Britain’s eminently sustainable debt to GDP ratio during that time, were unexceptional by international standards. Government spending on this scale has never knowingly been responsible for a deep global recession. You don’t have to be a trained economist to know that the overspending charge is an assertion without any merit. But it stuck, in large measure thanks to media cutouts acting as a mouthpiece for Conservative debating points. Further to that, the Conservative Party is very good at presentation, and they have been hard at work for several years presenting an ideologically driven effort to redefine the state as a matter of pragmatic and practical necessity. Making a case pitched as prudence, good housekeeping, etc., is also the easier one to present, and Middle England is receptive to it. Combating this will be a tall order for any opposition leader.
And who will that be? If one was to take a calculated view of all the political considerations, and asked which candidate had a combination of the strength of character required to carry the fight to the government day after day, respect from Whitehall’s mandarins, support from the party, experience of governing, and who doesn’t totally put off the electorate, the rational choice is probably Yvette Cooper. Not electrifying, but she probably wins a sterile box-ticking exercise for choosing a leader. The fatalistic attitude of the Labour right, epitomised by their unimpressive standard bearer Liz Kendall, is to essentially concede both the economic argument and the false historical narrative of overspending to the Conservatives. Kendall might think she is delivering home truths, but she is preaching to a party membership who have heard these lines before and think they represent a con job to acquiesce in a system that only works for an elite. Andy Burnham is a decent man and more genuinely connected to the party than most other front bench figures, but is perhaps suspected of a little too much intellectual suppleness over his career. That is a charge that can’t be directed at Corbyn, a point even his most strident critics would accept.
But Corbyn is supposedly an unthinkable candidate for leader, because conventional wisdom has it that he is utterly unelectable. Lots of the MPs who nominated him to get on the ballot for the purposes of broadening the debate don’t actually support him, and one Labour Party grandee publicly described herself as “moron” for “lending” her nomination to him, because he wasn’t supposed to win. The same gibe that has been directed at all the MPs who initially supported Corbyn’s bid, while Tony Blair has said that those whose hearts are with Corbyn should “get a transplant”. Clearly Corbyn has to be stopped, say these folk, but if he is so potentially disastrous, it’s worth giving his policy positions a closer look.
Even a cursory examination reveals that Jeremy is not as retro as his critics claim, and his anti-austerity platform has even earned the encouragement of Nobel laureates. In fact, some of his most significant policy positions are not only mainstream but widely popular. 60% of the public want the railways renationalised, the same figure who want rent controls and a mandatory living wage. Two thirds of the public want an international convention on banning nuclear weapons. And he is solidly with the majority mainstream in his opposition to military interventions in the Middle East. His advocacy for talking to Hamas and Hezbollah have drawn some cheap shots from his critics, but given that attempts at conflict resolution are simply not serious when militant groups that command a significant groundswell of popular support are excluded, those criticisms can be dismissed as either ill-informed or downright disingenuous. In this, Corbyn is probably much closer to the views of security and intelligence experts than hawkish, grandstanding politicians and the armchair warrior columnists egging them on.
His attitudes to private finance initiatives, the bedroom tax and corporate welfare are also unlikely to diverge far from the predominant public view. Concerning the latter, it was recently reported to cost the UK £93bn a year between tax benefits, subsidies, capital grants, etc. Tax avoidance costs the UK exchequer tens of billions annually. Welfare fraud amounts to little over £1bn, less than 1% of the total welfare bill (according to figures for 2012/13), yet this is the waste the public is continuously conditioned to be outraged by. If Corbyn is gaining traction, it is because he resonates with a public mood that is aware of these kinds of injustices and sees nobody with the decency or the bravery to fight against them. Fairly or not, that view is extended by a good number of Labour members to include the other leadership candidates, particularly Kendall.
The Conservatives, while they currently appear unassailable, could be seriously beset by challenges that are easy to foresee. There will be turmoil up ahead for the Tories over Europe, and to a lesser degree over the succession to David Cameron. Perhaps just as dangerous for them are the potential ramifications of their state-shrinking agenda. Tory cuts have been popular as many people have so far accepted the argument that they will only target the undeserving, the “scroungers” of Daily Mail caricature. Many are likely to find the cuts coming down the track in this parliament are not so accurately pinpointed, which would significantly dent George Osborne’s growing reputation for political astuteness.
However, as already argued, it is hard to plot a path for Corbyn to Downing Street. He surely threatens too many special interests to become Prime Minister. In addition to that, he would likely offer a left wing wish list to voters that, while exhilarating for some, could put off a lot of people who are instinctively change-averse. These are also the kind of people who vote. And voters solely focused on their own back pocket will for the most part be easily persuaded to steer clear of him. Prime Ministers don’t rule by decree yet, and trying to push through a Corbyn agenda would be opposed fiercely in Westminster. It could be so difficult for a Prime Minister Corbyn to get anything done that London clubland could possibly sleep quite easy.
In the meantime, bookstores are reordering A Very British Coup, and Chris Mullin is planning a sequel. This is a thrilling development for readers of political novels, and naturally some people will be gauging it for its prescience. But as we continue to follow the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, it still remains to be seen how much the earlier book prefigures first.