I have known Jeremy Corbyn since the middle 1970’s when he was engaged in his first great project which ended with downfall of the Labour Government in 1979. Jeremy went into the House of Commons in 1983 representing Islington North.
I have memories of Islington North, I lived there briefly in the 1960’s and was never able to join the Labour Party it was a complete closed shop. What happened over the years though was that the closed shop became increasingly rotten and when the Labour Party eventually intervened a flood of new members went into the constituency and they were determined to choose someone who was not from the old basically Roman Catholic right wing of the Labour Party.
Jeremy Corbyn lived just over the border, indeed a hundred yards outside the constituency, he therefore was able to bridge the various tensions within the constituency that existed among the various shades of left wingers.
Since he got into Parliament in 1983 it is quite fair to say that Jeremy has never sought political preferment or office, he has never either in opposition or in government held even the lowliest shadow or ministerial post. What he has been consistent on throughout all of his years in politics is support for the underdog and often support for unpopular causes. It was Jeremy for instance who supported the people wrongly imprisoned for IRA bombings, he has been prominent in the defence of human rights all over the World and at a local level is well known for how assiduous he is. It is fair to say though that he never had any ambitions to be anything other than a good constituency MP but then time and circumstance propelled him forward.
I don’t intend to recite the detail of his rise but let us say that some people in the Labour Party felt that the left should be allowed their candidate in order to show how little support they had, indeed Jeremy got thirty-five signatures of whom around a dozen then publicly announced that they would not vote for him. However, he was on the ballot paper and from then on the will of the people took over.
Firstly, people flooded into the Labour Party but he also hit a cord with those who were already there, indeed when the votes were counted Jeremy had a clear majority of people who had been in the party prior to the election starting, those who joined as registered supporters during the selection and the trade union vote. With four candidates in the field Jeremy took almost sixty per cent of the votes on the first ballot making second preferences irrelevant.
This was a major shake-up for the British political system, British politics has been conducted traditionally within the House of Commons and the House of Lords and their own rather archaic rules. It is fair to say that the people most shaken by the result were the Parliamentary Labour Party, not only did they never support Jeremy but they deeply resented what they saw as his crowd pleasing tactics in supporting again what they saw as all sorts of fringe causes while they got on with the heavy lifting of being a responsible opposition and in years gone by a government. That is why for his first year Jeremy faced nothing but trouble, it culminated in June last year with mass resignations from his Front Bench followed by a vote of censure followed by a leadership challenge where the challengers resolved to put forward just one candidate and ended up with the less than colourful Owen Jones. Jeremy went on to win the rerun of the leadership election by an even bigger majority.
Many Labour MPs would argue that although he has now won the leadership he has no chance of winning a general election, this seems to be the view of everybody in the “commentariat” in Britain but having seen the BREXIT result, not to mention the Trump victory, I don’t think we should be quite so complacent.
Jeremy appeals to the basic decent and not very political strand in British political life, in him they see someone who is genuine, who speaks his mind and who like them is outside the magic circle of power. His great appeal was not that he knew how to run a government but that he knew what was wrong with the political machine. His devotion to his vegetable allotment marked him out as being an ordinary regular type of person.
Today the political class seems pretty much agreed that there is no opposition in Britain, this to an extent is a fair assessment, Labour was wiped out in Scotland, where it now holds just one seat and is far short of the Conservative Party in its number of seats. The prospect of Labour winning an outright majority under any leader is almost non-existent.
Another factory is though that politics in Britain tends to go in fifteen to twenty year cycles, basically we had 1951 to 64, 64 to 79, 79 to 97 and 97 to 2010, purists will object that there was a Heath Government in the middle of the 64 to 79 period but it wasn’t really a Health Government it was a continuation of an interventionist strategy under a slightly different political direction. As such it would always be difficult for any opposition to win in 2020 and indeed the saner voices in the British Labour Party are now saying lets have an election, let Jeremy be heavily defeated and then the Labour Party will return to sanity because it was never going to win the next election anyway.
This has a certain superficial attraction about it but what it does mean is that the present Conservative Government is existing with virtually no opposition at all, the Scottish Nationalists are interested only in Scotland, the Liberals have all but been wiped out, the Labour stars of yesteryear are either chairing Select Committees or have opted out of the whole process, one of two of them having retired from parliament altogether. The latest retirement being the improbably named The Honourable Tristram Julian Hunt who has just left Parliament as Member for Stoke on Trent to become the Director of The Victoria and Albert Museum. The opposition Front Bench certainly contains some people of undoubted ministerial ability but there are areas where one looks at it and you have the feeling that it is definitely the second eleven that are into bat.
In a system of proportional representation, such as is practised in New Zealand, the Jeremy Corbyn party would certainly be represented in parliament but it would never get near to the levers of government on its own. Under the British system it is just an outside possibility that if things go wrong over BREXIT the Corbyn tendency could sweep to power and even if it didn’t sweep to power if they picked up say forty or fifty seats at the next general election it would then not be that easy to get rid of the leader. The final factor of course is that the new MPs selected in the period between now and the next election are more likely to come from the Corbyn faction than from elsewhere if only because his accession to the leadership has led to a considerable increase in party membership which means that there are more Corbyn supporters sitting on the selection committees.
So in conclusion the impact of Corbyn should not be under estimated he is basically a thoroughly decent person and part of the challenge is whether a thoroughly decent person can win in what traditionally has been a thoroughly grubby race.
"View from the House of Lords" is written by Lord Richard Balfe of Dulwich, the Conservative Party Envoy to the Trades Union and Cooperative Movement, who was appointed to the House of Lords in 2013. He served as a Labour Member of the European Parliament for more than twenty years. Lord Balfe takes a keen interest in New Zealand affairs and has been a regular visitor.