Let Corbyn be Corbyn. Just now, he is painful to watch. Pretending to be the next prime minister does not work, nor even pretending to be Labour leader. Watching Jeremy Corbyn as “not Theresa May” is Michael Foot for slow learners.
Two weeks ago Corbyn gave a storming opening speech to his London faithful in Church House, Westminster. It was pure Bernie Sanders. He railed against the rich, the few and an establishment who “wrote their own rules”. He derided the “rigged system”, whatever that was, and the Tory press. He invoked Keir Hardie. His performance was promise-rich and policy-free: irresponsible, wild and wholly at one with his audience.
Since then the rats have gone to work. By this week Corbyn was an echo chamber of “fully costed programmes”, “nailed” Tory lies and 10,000 police. His shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, was babbling arithmetic. His shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, was having a zero-sum moment. Corbyn was stuck between a microphone and a brick wall, having to drone support for colleagues. It was politics as trainspotting.
I doubt if voters give a damn how much a policeman costs or how much corporation tax equals how many doctors. We face the prospect of a week of party manifestos full of reckless promises unbelieved by electors yet shackling future chancellors. They should be vetted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, and carry a health warning: “as plausible as resources permit”. Manifestos are the fake news of elections.
The one screaming lesson of the new politics is not that personality matters – we know that – but that it obliterates party. Professional politicians hate the idea, because it renders their election labours superfluous. The Oxford University psephologist David Butler once tried to persuade the big parties not to campaign in selected constituencies, to see whether it made any difference. None dared. Both stuck to nurse for fear of worse.
Tony Blair won elections for Labour by being himself, by being “not Labour”. Labour lost when it presented implausible leaders such as Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. The Tories likewise lost with weak ones – William Hague and Michael Howard – and did not even risk Iain Duncan Smith.
This is now reinforced by the collapse of traditional parties. The share of the vote of winning parties across Europe has plummeted. In Britain Labour and the Tories took 97% in the 1950s, and it’s barely 60% today. As Ukip and Brexit have shown, sentences beginning “I always vote … ” are virtually defunct. In the recent French election, traditional party support disintegrated. Half the vote went to explicitly anti-establishment candidates, and Emmanuel Macron has no party at all. In November, an estimated 10% of Bernie Sanders’ primary supporters switched to Donald Trump, apparently because they liked his anti-establishment stance.
Too bored for the election? That’s exactly what they want
This is the familiar narrative of the new politics. Voters like individuality, authenticity, directness. In British terms, they warmed (for a while) to Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond: politicians who seemed plain-speaking, uncliched, sincere, funny – even if in reality they were not. As the US social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, voters no longer seek a champion of their interest but a mix of qualities. One thing they do like is someone with whom they could share a barbeque or an elevator. It’s the “my kinda guy” test.
In offering Corbyn to the electorate, the Labour party members chose a rebellious leftwinger, a nuclear disarmer and antiwar campaigner. They chose a bearded, cardigan-wearing, cycling-helmeted Islingtonite with a deep hatred of money, power and privilege. He was never going to bond with his parliamentary colleagues. He was never going to unite the Labour party, a task akin to repairing the Holy Roman Empire. They still chose him.
It was just conceivable, when the snap election was declared last month, that Corbyn might have broken ranks and supported local electoral pacts against the Tories. The case for such a progressive alliance, as set out in The Alternative, by the Greens’ Caroline Lucas and others, is unanswerable. In 2015, 49% of voters went for broadly progressive parties, including Labour, the Lib Dems and nationalists. But at elections they fight each other as rivals.
As a result, 40 to 50 seats that might have gone to a single leftwing candidate went Tory. Then, as now, Westminster tribalism won. Machismo required Labour “to contest every seat in the land”. That is apparently more important than denying the Tories a strong majority – let alone winning elections.
There remained one plausible strategy for Corbyn, and that was to do a Sanders-Trump, and “let Jeremy be Jeremy”. In this vision it was an advantage that he had little hope of winning. Voters of a liberal or progressive outlook could abandon realpolitik and “vote their beliefs”. If the political scientist Paul Collier is correct, and to be leftwing is “an easy way of feeling morally superior”, then why not pander to morality?
Corbyn should forget about what he would do in power or what it says in his manifesto. Go for broke. Invite a vote for moral outrage, nuclear disarmament and an end to neo-imperial wars. Attack chief executive salaries, crazy energy subsidies and vanity infrastructure projects. Promote universal incomes, prison reform and drug legalisation. We can all draw up our list – sensible or not – but radical ideas seldom get mentioned at elections for fear of frightening the centrist horses. We just get statistics on police and nurses and schools.
My impression is that Corbyn is passionate and sincere about things he believes in. It is the Blairite retreads in his own party that censor his passion. I don’t care what Labour would do “if in power”, because even if it got there it would be unlikely to do it. But I would like to know what drives its leader, what he cares about, what would be his response to events. I would like him to think the unthinkable.
Remember the Trump supporter who disagreed with everything Trump said but explained: “He’s just my kind of guy.” Like it or jeer, these are the people who now win elections. Corbyn should let rip, and show us his kind of guy.