During the 1998 Conservative party conference in the seaside town of Bournemouth, Rupert Murdoch’s rottweiler the Sun famously pronounced the Conservative Party dead. Using an old Monty Python joke, the tabloid put the face of William Hague, the then Tory leader, on a parrot hung from its perch and proclaimed: ‘This party is no more. It has ceased to be, this is an ex-party.’ The cause of death: “suicide”.
How wrong that turned out to be. Fast forward a decade or so and after a second general election victory – the Conservatives are very much alive and kicking.
Instead obituaries are beginning to be written about the Labour party. Back in May Labour lost its heartlands in Scotland – reduced to one MP in a nation swept up in a nationalist fervour. With Labour holding just 232 seats – down from 258 in 2010 – the general election was the worst for the party since 1983. But the strange death of Labour is being attributed to the arrival of the party’s new leader: Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn, a bearded, vegetarian teetotaller, was elected this weekend by grassroot party activists with the largest mandate of any Labour leader ever. A self-avowed socialist who has been a serial rebel – opposing his party hundreds of times over his 30-year career in parliament – he was part of a left-wing fringe that had been ostracised by every Labour leader since Neil Kinnock.
Until early June, the battle to succeed Labour’s Ed Miliband, had been played out between representatives of the party’s three centre-left factions: followers of Tony Blair, followers of Gordon Brown and followers of political fashion. Corbyn was none of the above. Instead he offered a strikingly left-wing analysis that took the party back to 1983: questioning Britain’s membership of the EU, advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament and calling for the nationalisation of privatised utilities.
None of these ideas were popular with colleagues – many of whom had fought running battles with the left for decades. Corbyn only made it onto the leadership ballot after his centrist rivals accepted the need to “broaden the debate” and lent him their supporters so that he go the required 35 parliamentarians backing him. It was a decision easily made but bitterly regretted.
Corbyn’s appeal was that he repudiated New Labour: its toxic legacy in Iraq; its accommodation with Tory austerity; and its indifference to City excesses. This coupled with a voting system which empowered the Labour grassroots, largely fed up after being ignored for 20 years, saw the 66-year-old become leader.
From here on
The immediate impact is that the new left-wing leadership will see the Tories turn to the right, believing that they no longer have to worry about the Labour Party as a centrist force. This will mean a tougher line on immigrants and welfare recipients to win back voters who have turned to the right-wing UK Independence Party.
In many ways Corbyn is part of a trend of European populism, which has grown up around the idea of the people pitted against a corrupt elite. Both left- and right-wing parties have emerged ploughing this furrow – which has been fertilised by the financial crisis.
In Denmark we have seen the nationalist Danish People’s Party. In Greece this is represented by Syriza, whose internal contradictions saw them split recently. In Spain, Podemos may yet take power in upcoming elections. Harnessing social media and riding to power in a series of town hall meetings characterised by an almost religious revivalism, Corbyn has no qualms in trading in populism.
People power has arrived at a time that the British electorate is fragmenting – giving rise to UKIP, the Greens and the Scottish National Party. In some ways this new politics favours a sectarian approach: pandering to its base in London saw Labour increase its vote by 6.5% in May. However this strategy is risky in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system where the political death of the once-mighty Liberal party, which inexorably declined to third party status, is a stark reminder to politicians seeking to shake up politics.
Many do not believe Corbyn will last. To his critics on the right, he is a political dinosaur, able to enthuse left-wing activists with soaring rhetoric that will leave the wider electorate cold. Although he’s a veteran of championing lost causes and speaking from left-wing platforms, Westminster watchers don’t rate his style of communicating with the public very highly. The way he has cobbled together a shadow cabinet betrays the thinking of a muddled strategist.
If Corbyn fails to connect successfully then there will be a coup. He will have to establish and maintain his authority. This will require hitherto undiscovered depths – perhaps in his charisma, and political skill. Burdened by a rebellious past, Corbyn will have to inspire loyalty through the exercise of his office. For now, his authority is unquestioned. If it drains away, his leadership will be doomed.
Randeep Ramesh is the social affairs editor of the Guardian