Thursday, 17 September 2015

Fine words, Jeremy, but they will all be for nothing if they don't deliver you power - my Catholic Universe column

It’s over. After four interminably long, and at times excruciating, months the Labour Party’s self-selecting electorate have chosen a new leader and to say that to the political establishment the result is a shock is something of an understatement.

Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t just narrowly squeaked into the party’s top spot he has stormed it. With the best part of 60% of first preference votes cast for Mr Corbyn he received a massive 40% more than Andy Burnham, the aspiring candidate way back in second place.

Jeremy’s victory is decisive, clear and more importantly given talk of insurgents unquestionable. He and his campaign team should be congratulated for the remarkable job they have done at taking such a prized crown.

For the vast majority of apolitical observers the contest has been an interesting summer sideshow but for those who eat, sleep and breath politics from every part of the political spectrum the result is either the astonishing birth of a new type of debate or a cataclysmic example of shooting oneself in the foot in an effort to make a once great political party all but irrelevant.

For me at least as a self-identified left of centre moderate, one of the less than five per cent who supported Liz Kendal, the result is an abdication of responsibility designed to let down the poorest and socially excluded. The ones who Labour claim to seek to represent.

Let me explain. Mr Corbyn  is an indefatigable campaigner who over his long career in politics, let no one suggest he is not a ‘career’ politician, has spoken up for causes. Many of the campaigns he has been involved with, such as identifying and protesting against the horrors of South African apartheid, have been thoroughly worthwhile and should be applauded from the highest rooftop. Some of his campaigns and comments attached to them have been more than a little questionable.

At one time or another Mr Corbyn has described terrorist groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah as ‘friends’, he has claimed that the shooting of Osama Bin Laden to be a tragedy comparable with 9/11 and he called for Argentina to share governance of the Falkland Islands in direct opposition to the views of the islanders themselves and many brave servicemen who fought to keep them British.

Mr Corbyn is on record as wanting withdrawal from NATO, scrapping of Trident and the abolishment of the monarchy. Time and time again Jeremy has shown himself to be the darling of hard left political factions but significantly out of step with the views of the wider public.

Every political party needs campaigners, people on the puritanical edge of their ideology who can espouse ideas and act as conscience to the mainstream. The difficulty is that those who fill such roles are often wrong and perhaps more commonly their ideas are fairly reprehensible to the electorate in general. You only have to meet some on the far right of the Conservative party to evidence that assertion.

It is the first time ever that such an idealist campaigner has led a mainstream political party and there is a better than fair chance that the experiment will be disastrous.

Those on the left of politics often cite Clement Atlee as being a transformative Prime Minister leading a nation changing government. Indeed he was. The difficulty is that to become that type of leader required the nation and the world to go through six years of horror before such change was being cried out for.

Since Atlee only two Labour politicians have been elected as Prime Minister; Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. It is fair to say that neither of them were comfortable on the extreme wings of their party. It is probably also fair to suggest that right now far from being a leader who introduced many positive and progressive changes to our country Mr Blair is despised amongst great swathes of those voting for Mr Corbyn. In modern times there is absolutely no evidence that the far left win elections, quite the contrary – they lose them.

Following on from Labour’s shocking defeat in the General Election on May 7th, many would describe it as the worst ever for the party, a number of studies have been carried out by respected centrist think tanks and politicians asking why did things go so badly wrong?

The reasons given by respondents have been varied but two predominant themes keep recurring.

Firstly not enough people saw Ed Miliband as Prime Ministerial material, secondly Labour wasn’t trusted on the economy.

Moving forward we know that if Labour wants to become once more a party of government it must address both of those issues.

Realistically those with a vote in the leadership election needed to be asking themselves if Mr Corbyn was the person to answer them.

I’m not certain how many ordinary voters will see Mr Corbyn’s suggestions of higher taxation, anti-austerity and printing money as economic competence but I am prepared to suggest that far more will not than do.

I’m not certain how many people who, come polling day in 2020, will be able to picture Mr Corbyn on equal terms with the likes of Vladimir Putin or whoever the future President of the United States may be. I’m not sure I can.

Sadly, it seems to me at least, that many Labour members chose to take our defeat the wrong way. Despite the evidence of this and previous elections rather than questioning where things went wrong far too many slipped into a comfort blanket of suggesting we somehow weren’t pure enough, that next time if we shout louder we will be more successful.

Of course I could be wrong. The electorate in general may well be calling out for a new kind of politics. Mr Corbyn certainly falls into the same category of straight talking, anti-establishment figures as does Nigel Farage.

The only problem is that when it really matters, as it did for Mr Farage in his prime target seat of Thanet South during the General Election campaign, voters tend to say competence is more important than shooting from the hip.

Since the results of the leadership election were announced I have been revisiting in my mind Mr Corbyn’s victory. I must confess it was even on my mind a little during Sunday mass.

As I listened to the readings it struck me what my main problem was with the result of Labour’s leadership election.

Sunday’s second reading from the letter of St James said ‘If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, ‘I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty’ without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that?’

Mr Corbyn’s victory has been inspirational, he has resonated with many activists, but unless he can be seen as a truly far reaching electoral force who can turn his rhetoric into votes then he won’t improve the lives of those living on the edge. His fine words will mean nothing.


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