Welcome to Britain’s First Ever Prime Ministerial Primary

This blog post, in an abridged form, has been republished at the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog here.

#JezWeCan? It’s a laughable comparison, of course: the engrossing election of 2008 which brought the United States its first African-American president, at the expense of its first female one, propelled by the power of hope, change, and the unifying rhetoric of the most gifted politician the twenty first century has so far seen. Jezza, you’re no Barack Obama, as I suspect the battle-hardened North London socialist would himself attest. But hope is a funny thing in politics, and as different the two men are in their background and ideology, it’s not hard to feel some similarities in their shocking, insurgent campaigns, both driven in no small part by social media.

There are two main reasons, I think, for the Corbyn surge and its potentially earth-shattering consequences for British politics as we know it. The first is circumstantial. The UK’s 2015 general election mirrors the 2004 US presidential election in instructive ways. A decidedly wobbly right wing leader rouses the ground troops with unexpected efficiency to see off an antagonist perceived to be foppish and over-educated (with more or less subtle smears from outside quarters against the content of the opponent’s character). Well-meaning left-wingers react in unalloyed shock, puzzled more than angry over the general electorate’s unexpected shift rightwards and in favour of the status quo.

Barack Obama is, as noted, a gifted guy in the extreme, but he’s a lucky one too, and the 2004 election provided the perfect foil for his candidacy. The blackest mark against Bush’s administration – the disastrous decision to invade Iraq – had been given rhetorical and legislative backing by then-Senator Hillary Clinton, a vote Obama, not yet in Congress, did not have to face. (He spoke against the war, but with perhaps a little less vehemence than he might, as his principal biographer suggests.) This allowed Obama to paint his opponent as on the wrong side of the most significant policy decision of the decade (or closer to a century, if the bleakest predictions about ISIS are to be believed.) It’s doubtful that, absent this sharp point of contrast, Obama would have been able to overcome Clinton’s juggernaut of a campaign.

As I say, the 2004-2008 experience for American Democrats is instructive for the next five weeks, and potentially the next five years, of Britain’s Labour Party. But the comparison is meaningful only because of the second major factor in Corbyn’s rise, which is structural. Labour’s last election in 2010 brought to the helm Ed Miliband, someone who the electorate hinted in poll after poll – and confirmed in the election proper – wasn’t up to the job. Miliband had only been able to see off his more centrist brother David with the support of the unions, who at the time enjoyed a 33% weighting in the electoral college, alongside a third each for Labour’s parliamentary party and its general membership, both of whom plumped for David.

The change to the way in which the Labour Party elects its leader is the structural reason behind Corbyn’s surge. After 2010, the tripartite division of voting rights was replaced with a simple one member, one vote system (albeit incorporating the Alternative Vote system of multiple preferences when more than two candidates stand). The parliamentary party still retains some sway, since candidates require 35 signatures from their fellow MPs to make it onto the ballot. Corbyn’s candidacy (and here’s where the storm becomes rather perfect) only received the requisite signatures minutes before the deadline, propelled in no small part by MPs who wanted “a proper debate” amongst leadership contenders from across the party’s ideological spectrum.

They might have wanted a proper debate, but it might feel like what they’ve got instead is a pulmonary embolism. Not merely the new, more egalitarian voting system, but also the party’s rather cheap membership (starting at £3 for the right to vote in the leadership election) has suddenly given a whole lot of people their first opportunity to elect a party leader. And who are they choosing? If the polls are to be believed (though we’ve heard that one before), the curmudgeonly Corbyn – who sits way out left of the Labour mainstream.

Or does he? It turns out that on an issue-by-issue basis, Corbyn’s policies – including rent controls, the renationalisation of the railways, and far higher rates of income tax on the super-rich – poll pretty well with a British population sick of the exorbitant cost of living and the privatisation of everything short of your grandma. Yet the most significant aspect of Corbyn’s rise isn’t the nitty-gritty of policy alignment but the distinctiveness of his character and his campaign. Corbyn carries the perception, not without founding, that he knows what he thinks and says so. There are certainly aspects of his personal character that appeals – he was the one of the lowest-claiming MPs during a decade dogged by the expenses scandal, and shares the quirk of his Hellenic comrades of getting through life without wearing a tie. More broadly, he seems to represents the antithesis of the Brylcreem Boys who have led mainstream British parties for the best part of two decades. Educated at London Metropolitan University in contrast to his Oxbridge-alumni rivals; free of the centrist excesses of the Labour era, not merely the Iraq invasion but also on university tuition fees; free enough, even during the current campaign, to vote against the Tory Government’s welfare bill while his rivals performed various volte faces. (Note to Andy Burnham: nobody ever won an election by abstaining.) Throw into the mix the British public’s perennial affinity for an underdog and you have a candidate that genuinely stands out from the rest.

Win or lose, Corbyn’s success adds credence to the conclusion that Britain is in the midst of its first prime ministerial primary. It certainly bears many of the hallmarks of the American equivalent, including TV debates and mass(-ish) rallies – phenomena not exactly new to UK politics but still quite foreign-feeling. But the biggest change is certainly Labour’s new voting system and lower barriers to membership, which are far closer to arrangements in America which – although varying state-by-state – generally allow voters some degree of flexibility in terms of which party to vote for from year to year. We even have the first evidence, albeit anecdotal, of mischievous Tory sympathisers “spiking the football” and backing Corbyn in the hope of keeping a newly leftward Labour party out of office.

Getting more ordinary people engaged in the political process is one of those unequivocally Good Things which all parties should aspire to, and though the scale of participation in the Labour leadership contest is an order of magnitude smaller than the US primaries, the excitement (and incredulity) whipped up by the process will – like the SNP’s post-referendum successes – not be quickly forgotten. But the primary system undoubtedly comes with a flip-side, perhaps best characterised at the moment by vole-ish and vile billionaire Donald Trump. Though at an early stage of the presidential race (absurdly early, when you consider that the new President will not be sworn in until January 2017), Trump tops polls of the Republican party, much to the barely-concealed despair of the Republican Party, which is rather redolent of the hand-wringing of many mainstream Labour commentators who cut their teeth in the Blair era. The reason for discomfort in both cases is the perception that these front-runners, though popular with the party faithful, would be unelectable in a general election due to the extremity of their views.

The worrying thing for Labour grandees is that while the US primary process is so gruelling that a more moderate candidate eventually wins out through sheer attrition – Mitt Romney saw off a fully-stocked carnival float of putative front-runners before winning in 2012, and John Kerry overcame initial excitement over Howard Dean to pull through in 2004 – there are no such safeguards in the nascent Labour primary system. The one-off election is only weeks away, and Corbyn really could win.

The key question, then, is which model Corbyn’s candidacy most resembles: the Trump campaign, building up a head of steam by being the most distinctive and populist before his sheer unelectability brings prudent voters to their senses, or the Obama campaign, turning initial excitement and energy into a far broader, more plausible programme for leadership of party and ultimately country?

It’s too soon to tell. The safe money is still on the former case – Corbyn is the Trump of the British left wing, who, even if he pulls off a remarkable victory in the leadership contest, would be felled soon after by a coup or at worst a shattering but inevitable general election defeat. But part of me – I suppose the romantic part, which yearns for the era of great debates between eloquent exponents of distinctive ideas (if such an era ever actually existed in real life) – sometimes daydreams that it might be the latter. Perhaps Britain’s first prime ministerial primary will see a stunning victory for someone who stands up for what they believe in, rather than what their special advisers tell them to say (just as they themselves did for their triangulating forefathers). That would surely be change that Britons could believe in.

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