Jeremy Corbyn: the accidental Labour leader?

Sorry I’m late, my unstoppable leftist juggernaut got a puncture on the Stroud Green Road. EPA/Andy Rain

Unless something unexpected happens in the very near future, Jeremy Corbyn is set to become the leader of the Labour Party on September 12. Most attention has thus far been focused on the panic within party ranks, the peculiarity of the selection system, and Corbyn’s past utterances. But what type of leader will Corbyn be? A recent question-and-answer session with the public held at my own institution, the University of Essex, offered an opportunity to gauge the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

Corbyn’s understated style was exemplified by his entrance to the 500-seat auditorium in the Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall. He slipped in unannounced and it took a while for the almost full auditorium to notice him. When it did, there was a loud round of applause – the first of many during the afternoon – and a few whoops from the back, although there was little other evidence of the Corbyn-mania that has seized some other public meetings.

Corbyn proceeded to talk for 20 minutes in the same understated way. He began saying how proud he was that 560,000 people had signed up to vote in the leadership contest – although he did not mention entryism or the shambles of the registered-supporters provision. He referred to the abuse he received from opponents and the press and promised, “we don’t give it out, we don’t reply”, drawing more applause. It is hard to imagine this mild-mannered man resorting to personal abuse, although the same cannot be said of some of his supporters, who routinely denounce their internal opponents as “Tories” on social media.

The style

Corbyn’s speaking style is clear and fluent, but not very dynamic. Part of his appeal is that he seems modest – which will make it hard for the Conservative press to demonise him in the way it did Arthur Scargill. He lacks Alexis Tsipras’s charisma and dynamism, but also his opportunism and political adventurism. Corbyn does not seem to be in this race for the power or the glory. He has claimed that he stood for the leadership because it was “his turn” to be the left’s traditional also-ran.

And that’s how this North London MP came to be here: on the verge of becoming Labour’s accidental leader. He has been swept along on a left-wing tide that no-one saw coming – least of all the candidate himself. Several times during his afternoon in Colchester, one had the impression that the audience was willing him to deliver a passionate defence of his positions or a blistering attack on his opponents. But it never came. His responses were polite, low-key, worthy and slightly rambling.

The substance

During his Essex visit, Corbyn said Labour had not sufficiently opposed austerity and ended up not offering a clear alternative to the Conservatives. His left-wing positions are by now firmly established, and he confirmed his opposition to the private finance initiative, his desire to abolish tuition fees and his determination to re-introduce the 50% top rate of income tax. He also attacked the demonisation of unpopular groups in the media, such as welfare recipients and refugees.

Friends on the left. Reuters/Toby Melville

The fact that Corbyn is extremely left-wing – despite not looking like an archetypal extremist – is what has caused panic within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He is not a rabble-rouser or a crowd-pleaser in the populist left-wing style, but he does subscribe to a roll-call of Bennite positions. He opposes NATO and the EU, he favours unilateral nuclear disarmament, a large welfare state, tax-and-spend (and borrow), nationalisation and immigration. He shows no sign of performing a U-turn – another way in which he contrasts with Tsipras.

The problem

There are certain established beliefs about modern British elections. Major parties can win only from the ideological centre-ground. They must be trusted to manage the economy. Their leaders must be seen as credible prime ministers.

A Corbyn-led Labour Party would need to win in spite of these requirements. It would be a left-wing movement, campaigning against cuts in a country where most voters believe cuts are essential, under a leader who doesn’t look or sound prime-ministerial – he doesn’t even look like an opposition leader.

Corbyn also faces an enormous task dealing with his own parliamentary party. He may claim a large mandate from the many thousands of people who qualify to vote in the leadership election but he has very little support among MPs.

In fact, it is likely that most of the parliamentary party will vote against Corbyn in the ballot. How can a leader with so little support among MPs – the people he must work with at Westminster on a day-to-day basis – ever be able to lead his party effectively?

There is already talk within the parliamentary party of plots, resistance and splits. Any leader would need strength and ruthlessness to be effective in this environment. But Corbyn has spent 32 years on the back benches, not running anything, while rebelling hundreds of times against his own party. How will he force others to be loyal now? And if he can’t, how will he survive?

He may rely on others to enforce discipline: Ken Livingstone’s old backroom team from his London mayoral days; constituency parties threatening to de-select rebellious MPs; the major union leaders moving back into frontline Labour politics. But with all this in motion, relations between Corbyn and his MPs could become extremely acrimonious. And if that persists, it is hard to see how Labour could function effectively as a parliamentary force.

At the end of the session, Corbyn posed for selfies and chatted amiably with supporters. These groups of idealistic youngsters, anti-austerity trade unionists, and returning ex-members, can sense that victory is within grasp. But are they prepared for the convulsions that lie ahead once their man is elected?