Adrian McMenamin: What makes Corbyn so confident?
There are four key reasons why the Labour leader still believes he can be prime minister.
Jeremy Corbyn – all but certain to be re-elected as Labour leader next weekend - really believes he can win the next general election, despite having the worst ever poll ratings for a leader of the opposition, not just at this stage, but at any stage, of a parliament. What makes him so confident?
1. The shock of fame
Corbyn has been a full-time politician since he was 24 and between the ages of 34 and 66 was a backbench MP so obscure that last summer a number of Labour MPs said they had never met or talked to him. Today he is greeted like a rock star wherever he goes, fans compose songs in his honour, comedians and poets gig for him and his every word makes the national news. Perhaps it is not too surprising he thinks this sensational change in his personal status reflects a deeper change in the nation.
2. The eschatology of the far left
In 1938 Leon Trotsky declared that capitalism was in its “death agony” and the far left have never lost faith in the imminent collapse of the global economic order. It is true that Corbyn is not a Trotskyist and has not shown much interest in Marxist theory. But he has been surrounded by Trotskyists all his life and they have done much of his thinking for him. So the idea that a systemic economic crisis is just around the corner, and with it a political upheaval, dominates his economic outlook.
Of course, since Trotsky made his pronouncement, capitalism seems to have done rather well: extending its reach to effectively every corner of the globe. Even the so-called “socialist countries” of China, Vietnam and Cuba have or are succumbing. But Trotskyists have an explanation for that too and one that comes from their master. For in 1938 Trotsky also claimed that the only thing stopping the global revolution was “the crisis of proletarian leadership”: namely the weak-kneed vacillators that led both social democratic and communist parties then and now. For some of those around Corbyn he is the solution to that leadership crisis.
3. The breakup of the old order
For many of those surrounding Corbyn the events of the last five years – the rise of UKIP, the Scottish independence referendum, the Brexit vote – are signs of hope because they show the breakup of the old political order and signal that people are searching for something different. Even the Tory electoral victory of 2015 does not break with this pattern in their view: they say the Tories won a majority with their lowest ever voting share. James Schneider, chief organiser of Corbyn’s Momentum faction, has taken to quoting not Trotsky but the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
As unlikely as it may seem to some, in this vision it is the pensioner member for Islington North who represents the new struggling to be born.
4. Ye are many – they are few
Shelley’s great poem – The Masque of Anarchy – offers a final inspiration, though one that is perhaps all too familiar for those who watched Ed Miliband’s claims about the election-winning potential of “four million conversations” on the doorstep. Today, like the poet’s “lions … in unvanquishable number”, Labour vastly outnumbers its opponents in terms of members and is even, after many years of penury, reportedly flush with cash.
Team Corbyn’s view is that with such a large base of members – more than 600,000 identified supporters, three times as many as Ed Miliband could rely on – a newly energised Labour can simply route around what they see as a uniformly hostile media using social media. No more need to appeal to the Sun, the Mail or even the BBC. Of course they have a hashtag for it #WeAreHisMedia.
If challenged as to why we have not yet seen this pay off in rising popularity, Corbyn’s supporters are likely to denounce those they see as blockages in the party’s hierarchy: principally its MPs and the party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol. So expect early moves to settle scores with both.
Does any of it make sense? Almost certainly not.
Electorally impotent but mass-membership parties of the far left are not anything new in Europe: the French Communist Party attracts 600,000 visitors to its annual “Fête de L'Humanité” yet polls as few as 900,000 votes in national elections.
The key questions are whether the majority of Labour MPs and the significant minority of party members who oppose Labour’s lurch towards far left politics are alienated enough by it all to leave (given that the alternative of an internal challenge has failed), and whether the unions, who still underwrite much of the party’s finances, will eventually call time on the Corbyn project.
On the former, the mood suggests not. Leaving the party requires turning your back on a lifetime’s worth of social and political connections and friendships and few, for now, seem keen. But that may change if it all becomes very nasty – as indeed it may.
On the latter, the third largest union – the GMB – has already adopted an openly hostile position to Corbyn, while the largest, Unite, is deeply embedded in the leader’s inner circle. Between them lies the public sector-based Unison whose leader, Dave Prentis, has little love for Corbyn but seems unwilling to challenge him in public. Unless or until that changes, Corbyn is very much the master now.
Adrian McMenamin is Partner at Bell Pottinger and was Labour’s Chief Press and Broadcasting Officer under Tony Blair.
Picture by: Jane Barlow/PA Wire/Press Association Images