Power for a purpose - how Jeremy Corbyn has created an energy around an indifferent contest
Mandy Rhodes asks if Jeremy Corbyn can help Labour find its sense of purpose as leader
The headmaster of a prestigious private school once told me that he hadn’t ever wanted to go for the top job as principal despite the fact that the parents and pupils alike mistook his popularity and leadership skills for him actually being the man in charge.
His reluctance to formally step up to the plate was rooted in his belief that he could enjoy all the power, popularity and acclaim without the onerous weight of responsibility if he stayed where he was.
I am reminded of this very specifically middle-class dilemma – ironically, when you consider the politics of the man involved – when I look at the rise of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. Here is a man, a seasoned campaigner and a happily radical backbencher, who entered the Labour Party leadership race to spark a debate and he ends up being criticised for not being of sufficient prime ministerial material himself.
Corbyn may never have initially been in it to win it but if opinion polls, Twitter feeds and column inches are to be believed, at the end of this week Corbyn could well be the next leader of a Labour Party that, yet again, appears to be on the brink of a war with itself.
But if Corbyn does win, he is not the accidental victor that some wish to paint him as. Rather than tearing the party apart, he could help it find its purpose.
The clue to his 32-year-long overnight success has its seeds in the immediate aftermath of the general election and a series of vacuous utterances from those that still view themselves as the party’s titans: word heavy summations that were long but said nothing and were telling of the vacuum at the party’s core and of its lack of purpose.
The question of what the Labour Party stood for hung in the air like a bad smell long after David Cameron wafted back into No 10 on the back of a majority that no one had foreseen.
And if nothing else, Corbyn has since held a mirror to the party. He has created an energy around an indifferent contest. He has filled halls; given a moribund membership list a kiss of life. And he has framed an argument about what Labour should be and what it is for. It is a debate in which his opponents in the party have been found wanting. Kendall, Cooper and Burnham sound too much like the old and ironically, given his political longevity, Corbyn like the new.
Remove Corbyn from the equation and the leadership campaign would have been reduced to a stale in-fight between two tribes – Blair’s and Brown’s – that no longer matter. Labour has been for a long time, a hollowed-out shell. New Labour has still, bizarrely, defined its direction of travel but said nothing about its future.
And while Scotland had already filled that vacuum left by a Labour-lite, without Corbyn, Labour in the rest of the UK could easily have drifted into a leadership battle won on measures of indifference.
But because of Corbyn the bar has been set at a different level. The others have had to pitch themselves against him and that has meant some more interesting explorations of the economy, of social justice, of grassroots appeal and of party command and control.
Freed from the surefire expectation of winning and framed by the ideological extremes of Corbyn, Cooper and Burnham, in particular, seem to have found their voice, albeit in the last throes of the race. The inhumanity to man encapsulated in the Syrian refugee crisis has created an unscripted opportunity to be able to speak with a passion hitherto missing from their campaigns.
Labour’s response to immigration has been slow and confused. And just four months ago during the election campaign, it was castigated for producing a ‘pledge mug’ which read ‘Controls on Immigration’. It was a naked and cynical attempt to capture the Ukip vote by capitalising on the public’s fear of migrant numbers.
Cooper’s husband, Ed Balls, the then shadow chancellor of the exchequer, was unapologetic about the furore on Sky News. “I’m hoping after the general election I can do a toast in that mug as we get on and change Britain for the better.” Balls lost his seat. Labour lost the election. And last week, Cooper called for Britain to open its doors to the Syrian refugees. It was her best speech of the leadership campaign. And could yet see her overtake Corbyn.
The #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (humanity washed ashore) moment was the tipping point. It allowed Cooper and Burnham to let the manufactured mask slip and talk about a humanitarian crisis. To talk about real politics. The politics of what is right and what is wrong. That is what the Labour Party should be about. That is what Labour values are about. That is what the SNP was instinctively and without hesitation about, and if Corbyn has done anything, it has reminded his members of that simple key to authenticity.
And like them, I cannot now unsee what I have seen: the image of that little boy washed up on a Turkish beach like a piece of flotsam – the detritus of despair. That one dead soul – one of many – that should give any prospective leader of the Labour Party a clear blue divide between what they stand for and what a Tory Prime Minister stands for.
Even if Corbyn doesn’t win, he has created an energy that will not simply go away. He has brought in a new membership, raised issues that forced deep debate, made future leadership candidates forgo vapid statements, soundbites and banalities for something a little deeper, and he has brought an authenticity to a Labour Party that sounded manufactured and stale. Corbyn is a reminder that not all politicians need or desire power to force change.
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The campaign comes as Labour’s national policy forum meets in Leeds