There are two widely shared assumptions about the stunning victory of Jeremy Corbyn, the far left backbench MP, in the UK Labour Party leadership election. One is that George Osborne, chancellor (finance minister) for the past five years, is a shoo-in to be the next British prime minister in 2020. The other is that #Brexit is now more likely. Both are wrong.
Certainly, it’s now commonplace to argue that Corbyn, a backbencher for 32 years with no experience of nor obvious desire for office or responsibility, is unelectable – even though he won with just south of 60% of the vote. It’s true that some of his foreign policy positions – on Nato, terrorism, Russia – are unpalatable to most Brits (if they even care) but those on the economy, equality and even the environment command support.
Who knows what will happen by 2020? By then we’ll have had, inter alia, the Scottish elections (2016), the UK’s EU referendum poll (2016 or 2017), the US Presidential (2016), the French and German general elections (2017) – and, maybe, the collapse of Schengen and/or the break-up of the Eurozone. Some doomsday/dismal economists think we may be in or have gone through another global recession. And, in an entirely narrow UK context, Scotland may have voted Yes to independence this time and David Cameron certainly won’t be PM (because he has said so).
Osborne is far from universally respected, let alone liked, for his handling of the UK economy. He gives a wholly new meaning to the epithet ‘smug.’ His Treasury may command probably unprecedented power over the rest of Westminster and he may have placed all his subalterns in very useful Cabinet roles but the UK economy is far from healthy – over-reliant still on debt and the financial sector. Osborne, a millionaire from birth, epitomises the much-loathed upper middle class rich with his banking friends (and Conservative donors). He was roundly booed when presenting medals at the 2012 London Olympics. Tory MPs on current form won’t elect him their new leader in, say, 2019.
There is a growing backlash in the UK as in the rest of Europe against austerity and inequality – and Corbyn’s campaign, attracting tens of thousands of new people to politics, rode on this. Let’s not forget, too, that the result of the 2015 general election was hardly a ringing endorsement of Cameron/Osborne and the Tories; they have a Commons majority of 12 (Mrs T’s biggest was 144, Tony Blair’s 179). A messy referendum, threatened disunity of the UK via Scotland – and, above all, prolonged economic woes: it’s the Conservatives who become unelectable (maybe).
On Europe/EU Corbyn is all over the place. We know he voted No (to the then EEC) in the 1975 referendum and views “Brussels” as epicentre of the capitalist class’s war on the European working class. During his leadership bid he pivoted here and there on how he and Labour would vote now; Hilary Benn, foreign affairs spokesman, and Tom Watson, his deputy, clearly side with the putative Yes campaign. If Corbyn actively campaigned for No (as he threatened at his first meeting with his backbenchers) he would split his party, both at Westminster and elsewhere and might not survive.
True, some advisers see Left opposition to the EU as a vital tool to win back support from among the 4m who voted for the anti-EU/anti-immigrant UKIP. (He at least has turned down Nigel Farage’s overtures). The Eurogroup’s brutal treatment of Greece under Syriza, Corbyn’s allies, still stirs up resentment. The EU’s mishandling of the refugee crisis may be a further nail in the coffin of its credibility. Its overwhelming backing for TTIP goes down badly with the viscerally anti-American Corbyn and his supporters. Trade unions and Corbyn fear the EU will accede to Cameron’s demands on labour laws/free movement, however remote that may appear now. But, in the end, as Philip Stephens argues, he may offer Labour a free vote.
It all really depends on what Cameron cobbles together in his renegotiation discussions with the EU-27, most obviously Mutti Merkel’s Germany, and whether he can persuade his party – pace the 100 or so MP “rebels” – to endorse his deal. The new Conservative mantra in the wake of Corbyn’s victory is “stability” – and staying in the EU, however flawed an enterprise it is, represents just that. But it may well be that Osborne secures no collateral benefit from that.
Cameron will eventually depart and, by then, Corbyn, an extraordinarily diligent constituency MP (he was mine for many years and I was active in his local party), may have returned to the back benches. Delivering a “new politics” is tougher than he thinks – look how he messed up his shadow cabinet by ignoring women for the top jobs. Unlike Merkel or even Cameron he is no Machtmensch. If he doesn’t weary of the inevitable compromises of office, his party will get tired – and rid – of him.