Few political leaders can have made such an immediate impact as Jeremy Corbyn. Much of that impact has generated bemusement and hostility. His actions suggest a man who has quite different aims from a conventional leader. In his speeches since he has been elected, he has not mentioned Labour’s election defeat. He has not courted the media. He has not made an appeal to floating voters. And as I have previously noted, he has shown no interest in the formal aspect of his role.
A man with a plan
So what is Jeremy Corbyn trying to do? Good question. The best way of approaching this is to judge him by what he actually has done. And what he has done in the main is to focus on the party machinery. He does not yet have a majority in the shadow Cabinet or in the wider Parliamentary party. But his shadow Cabinet is dominated by one appointment: that of John McDonnell as shadow Chancellor and he has taken control of the NEC.
And, of course, he has a firm grip on the membership and supporters, having just been elected with nearly 60% of the votes cast. To cement that, he is establishing Momentum, which seems to have the hallmarks of a party within a party.
To date, he has shown a fair degree of flexibility on policy. He has allowed shadow Cabinet members to cajole him for now into new policy positions on the EU, NATO and whether to recommission Trident. He has not concealed his personal views but has put stress on the primacy of the Labour membership when setting policy. Till then, he is happy to have a heated debate, as Mrs Merton would say. In his eyes, the Labour membership has primacy over wider matters. He has stated that he is not in favour of deselecting MPs but recognises that the members have the right to overrule him on that.
So he has chosen to date to be vaguely assuring to MPs about the unlikelihood of deselection. But on this front he has help from an unlikely quarter. As a result of the boundary changes that are due in this Parliament, the number of MPs is set to reduce from 650 to 600. That will lead to many constituencies, perhaps a majority, being redrawn. Reselections will be inevitable. At that point, Jeremy Corbyn can marshal his support in the membership to create a more compliant bank of MPs.
So let’s take stock. Right now, Jeremy Corbyn has the leadership. In the most influential supporting position he has a man on whom he can rely unconditionally. He has control of the body which runs the party and which can change the way in which policy is set. He is not yet in a position to impose his policy preferences on his shadow Cabinet and the large numbers of MPs who oppose him, but he is in a position where he can change that in the near future. He can reasonably expect in the natural course of events that he will be able to reshape the Parliamentary party much more to his liking. From that point on he will be in a position to take full control of the Labour party and refashion it and its policies in his image.
He cannot act fully in accordance with his wishes now because he does not yet have the power to do so. He first needs to diminish the importance of the shadow Cabinet and the Parliamentary party in policy-making then reshape both, and that will take time. But Generals January and February are on his side.
So judging from his actions to date, the conclusion I draw is that Jeremy Corbyn’s main priority is to take full control of the party for the hard left not just for the next few years but for the foreseeable future. Nothing in his past or present actions suggest that he is a man who is personally ambitious but he has shown himself to be a man with long term dedication to the causes that he believes in. All of his actions are consistent with that.
The going is soft
What are the risks to his strategy? There seem to be two main risks. First, that he is ousted before he is able to complete his plan. That risk does not look particularly high. The right of the party are disorganised, confused and in disagreement about what to do next. They do not dare challenge his huge party mandate immediately. He faces two foreseeable hurdles.
First, he needs not to do so badly in the round of elections next May that he is challenged. There are elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London Mayor and local elections in England. Labour is likely to lose a lot of council seats in England (the last round of elections was in 2012 when Labour were riding high in the polls) and there is no sign in the polls yet of any revival in Labour fortunes in Scotland. He can probably shrug both of these off if they occur as having been priced in since well before he became Labour leader. He will have more difficulties if Labour lose their overall majority in Wales and Sadiq Khan fails to become Mayor of London. Nevertheless after only six months the Labour right will probably feel that it is too soon to strike, too obviously contemptuous of the party electorate.
Secondly, he will have another electoral challenge in May 2017 with another round of local elections. This is probably the point of maximum danger for him but it looks likely that the EU referendum will be the dominant political topic of the time. He may well be saved by the problems that the Conservatives will be facing at that time.
There is always the possibility of a personal scandal and given the copious number of articles he has written, speeches he has given and soirees that he has attended over the last 30 years, we can expect to be alternately regaled and scandalised by his history in the coming months and years. He has already survived revelations that would have sunk almost any other politician (though at who knows what cost to Labour’s electability) owing to his support base’s complete lack of interest in matters that appal a large cross-section of voters. That support base is likely to remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn for so long as he is perceived to embody their dreams.
So Jeremy Corbyn must keep his support base happy. He is more likely to be in danger if he compromises excessively with the right of the party than if he stays true to his principles.
Still, there remains a risk that he may be forced out of office, particularly given his non-existent support in much of the Parliamentary party and even the shadow Cabinet. So he has put in place an insurance policy by making John McDonnell shadow Chancellor. If Jeremy Corbyn is taken down, there is a ready-made candidate of the hard left with sufficient stature to gain the support of the Corbynistas. He will be aware that John McDonnell is disliked even more intensely by much of the Parliamentary party than he is. This means that anyone seeking to defenestrate Jeremy Corbyn has to risk a still worse outcome.
The alert will note that I have not mentioned any possibility of Labour forming the next government. That is intentional. Make no mistake, Jeremy Corbyn would love to govern Britain with a hard left agenda. But I’m sure that he realises that his chances of doing that in one shot are relatively low. Rather than pull the handle of the fruit machine once for the hard left and then see the party move right again after a likely defeat, he sensibly is seeking to make Labour a hard left party so that the principles that he holds so dear will get repeated opportunities.
As a matter of common sense, the Conservatives will not stay in government forever. Sooner or later they will become complacent, miss a major brewing problem that explodes, dissolve into internal faction-fighting or simply run out of ideas. If the main opposition party can be kept hard left, the chances of a future hard left government rise sharply.
Jeremy Corbyn has been lucky once, surfing a wave of insurgency that no one had guessed was brewing. He is looking to make Labour a hard left party off the back of that luck and has every chance of succeeding. And then the hard left can wait, making their case until circumstances mean that the public look elsewhere from the Conservatives and, they hope, to them, whether that be in 2020, 2025 or 2030. Once the hard left reach government, they will need no further luck.