Can Corbyn win?

I’ve picked up the question from some of the press coverage, but it’s the wrong question.  We don’t, in the UK, have a presidential system, despite the obvious aspirations of the likes of Blair and Cameron to run things that way, and we don’t get to vote for a choice of party leaders.    Several key elections have been won because the party of opposition presented a strong team.  Wilson, in 1964, had major figures in Crosland and Crossman.  Thatcher, in 1979,  had Heseltine, Howe and Whitelaw – at the time, all serious candidates for premier in their own right.  Blair in 1997 had Brown, Harman and Blunkett.   One of the advantages the system gives to incumbents is that the members of the team currently in government are better known. Conversely, by the time some key figures lost office – Douglas Home, Callaghan, Major, or Brown – their cabinets were relatively undistinguished.    Establishing that a government is competent relies on establishing isn’t done well by focusing on the person at the top – the mistake made in elections by Wilson in 1970, Heath in 1974 and Brown in 2010. Whether Labour can win, then, depends as much on the team Corbyn builds as it does on his personal impact.

In some ways, Corbyn’s style is more interesting than the substance.  I bemoaned the way that the last election was conducted: the leading parties, dominated by an insulated political elite, largely excluded ordinary voters, preferring to use a series of staged  photo-opportunities to the dangerous, unpredictable process of subjecting themselves to democratic discourse. Both Labour and Conservative campaigns were inept – that is one reason why Labour lost nearly all its Scottish seats, where the tone of the campaign was different, and why UKIP was able to garner four million votes with policies that looked a lot like an alternative  Conservative manifesto.    In the balance between Labour and Conservative, however, the Labour Party went head-to head with a Conservative machine devoted entirely to public presentation and political advertisement, and that is an unequal struggle:  the Conservatives had much more money to conduct that sort of campaign.  The difference it made may have been marginal, but it was critical.

I’m sceptical that next election campaign will look much like the last – and I’m rather relieved to be able to say that.  It seems to me that Corbyn and McDonnell have learned the lessons of the Scottish campaign: to include, to engage, and to listen.  That holds a great deal of promise for the next election.  Corbyn was elected with the votes of more than 250,000 people.  The Conservatives   will find it much harder to win by relying on the campaign strategies of the USA.  However, they have another four years to rebuild their own party base and to engage people on their own terms.  As the parties adapt, the next election should be a far more interesting and worthwhile exercise than the last.

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