You can disagree with Corbyn's strategy but don't dismiss it as absurd, says senior academic
The choice between Corbyn and Smith is a choice between parliamentary democracy and mass agitation to gain power, says Professor Richard Toye of Exeter University.
The battle for the Labour leadership has been as heart-felt and vitriolic as any British political conflict within living memory, and the apparently inevitable victory of Jeremy Corbyn seems unlikely to put the bitterness to rest. Because the supporters of both Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith are so dismissive of the credibility and integrity of their opponents, it has been easy to miss a striking and important fact – that is, the two sides have a genuine disagreement on an important issue of principle. That issue is the question is Parliament, and the place that it plays in left-wing political struggle.
On the surface, the argument has been about other things. To his supporters, Corbyn is an authentically principled man with real mass appeal. To his detractors, Corbyn is an unrealistic ideologue, an ineffective leader, and above all, unelectable. And whereas Smith’s backers see their candidate as a moderate and capable figure with the ability to reach out to the middle ground, his critics present this former pharmaceuticals lobbyist as the promoter of a failed ‘Tory lite’ strategy which is seen as the legacy of the now-reviled Tony Blair. When Smith says he is ‘just as radical’ as the man he is trying to displace, they give a hollow laugh.
In fact, viewed in pure policy terms, Smith’s claims have a measure of plausibility. He casts himself explicitly as a socialist, and his pledges include repealing the Trade Union Act, restoring the 50p rate of income tax, and substantial increases in public spending. Yet there is a crucial way in which Corbyn’s radicalism is far greater. This is because he is following the path laid down by Miliband. Not Ed Miliband, of course, but his father Ralph, whose 1961 book Parliamentary Socialism presented a Marxist-influenced critique of the Labour’s long-established established strategy. In the analysis of Miliband senior, the party had condemned itself to futility by committing itself to securing power via the parliamentary route – an inevitably doomed attempt to ameliorate capitalism by using the institutions of capitalism itself. At best, the combination of electoralism/parliamentarism would lead to small-scale reforms, never to fundamental change of the system.
There is an obvious response to this line of argument, which Smith would surely endorse. It is that previous Labour Governments have in the past succeeded in making changes that have improved the lives of millions of people and that it was only the capture of parliament that allowed them to do so. No Commons majority in 1945, no NHS. The later victories of Harold Wilson and Tony Blair may inspire less enthusiasm today, but both had real achievements to their name. Even now – given that the Conservatives have a fairly slim majority themselves – a truly effective parliamentary Opposition could help mitigate some of the worst consequences of post-Brexit Tory policy.
For someone who has spent over thirty years as a member of the House of Commons, Corbyn, however, shows remarkably little parliamentary leadership ability. And though he may protest otherwise, it seems clear that he is indeed unelectable: there is no rational interpretation of electoral and polling evidence that suggests that he will become Prime Minister in 2020. For many people (including 80% of his MPs) these facts are enough to prove that he should not be leader. Yet, for Corbyn himself, they are almost irrelevant. He can point to a huge upsurge in Labour membership, and the creation of a genuine, extra-parliamentary mass movement. If, as he appears to believe, societal transformation can be achieved through this type of popular agitation, the fact that he is ‘unelectable’ is actually irrelevant.
This goes against all the conventional wisdom. Yet the career of Nigel Farage, sometime leader of a minority party, who has never succeeded in being elected to the Commons, is testament to the impact that an ‘extremist’ figure holding apparently fringe views can have on the whole direction of the country. It is possible to sincerely disagree with Corbyn’s strategy. It may indeed be very dangerous. But it would be wrong to dismiss it as absurd.
Professor Richard Toye, is Professor of History at Exeter University. He is the author of three books on Churchill.