The Labour establishment have spent the majority of the party’s leadership contest thus far engaged in a mud-slinging operation targeted at one of the four candidates, Jeremy Corbyn. I have explained in a previous article that Corbyn’s explicit social-democratic platform is the only way of restoring the Labour Party to its former position as the champion of ordinary people. However, it goes further than that: Corbyn is possibly the only candidate who can make Labour electable again.
This goes against the received wisdom of the party’s neoliberal establishment, but that wisdom is fundamentally flawed. The Labour grandees have identified that the Tory Party has won more votes than them at the two preceding elections, and argue that therefore the message put forward by the Conservatives – austerity, austerity, austerity – is the position held by the majority of voters. Left-wing policies are not wanted, otherwise the people would have already endorsed them.
The thing is, whilst this intuitively makes sense, it ignores the reality of our political system. In a representative democracy organised along party political lines, voters are not generally able to select their favoured policy positions on individual issues. Rather, they choose a package of policies, and this choice is restricted to the parties actually running in the election.
The positions of the UK political parties at the time of the 2015 General Election are summarised on this Political Compass graphic. As is clear, the majority of the main UK political parties fall into the upper-right quadrant, meaning they are economically right of centre and more authoritarian than liberal in nature. The only significant parties on the left are the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and the Green Party. This means the choices of voters who disagree with the right-wing policies of the major parties are greatly restricted.
The chart shows quite clearly that the Labour Party put forward a right-wing policy package in 2015, albeit one slightly more moderate than the Conservatives’. Therefore, the fact that the Conservatives won the last election does not prove that left-wing policies are unwanted by the electorate. All it really proves is that the part of the electorate willing to endorse a right-wing policy platform is more willing to endorse a fully neoliberal agenda than a diluted one, something which makes reasonable sense.
The Labour Party’s failure to advocate left-wing policies means that their failure to be elected does not mean that the public have shifted to the right. Instead, with Labour’s defection to the neoliberal movement, many on the left felt Labour no longer represented them. Some of these moved their support to other parties: this is why the SNP now control the Scottish Parliament and hold 46 of Scotland’s 49 Westminster seats; this is also why the Green Party has seen a successive increase in support at every General Election since 1997, to an all-time high of 3.8% in 2015.
Others have given up voting altogether, disillusioned by Labour’s leap to the right. This graph demonstrates a nose-dive in turnout immediately following the takeover of the Labour Party by the right-wing New Labour movement in 1994. At the most recent election, more than a third of people did not vote, and it is almost certain that a significant percentage of these did not do so because they felt that no political party represented them, particularly since the young, the unemployed and ethnic minorities are all less likely to vote than the average.
Faced with all this, it is true that Labour faces a crisis of electability, but it is not because Jeremy Corbyn threatens to move the party to the left. Without such a return to its roots, Labour faces a continual slide in popular support as its traditional grassroots base defect to other organisations or are consumed by apathy and cease voting altogether.
With Kendall as leader, Labour might poach a few Tory voters uneasy with the scale of the cuts. With Cooper or Burnham, it might just hold its current position as a second-rate neoliberal party with a slightly warmer, fuzzier feel than the Conservatives. With Corbyn, however, it regains access to the 1.45 million people who voted SNP, the 1.16 million who voted Green and – most crucially of all – the staggering 15.64 million who did not vote at all.
In short, with Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has a chance to win again.