When Theresa May surveys the political obstacles ahead of her, the figure of Jeremy Corbyn does not loom large. A prime minister only has time to worry about a limited number of hazards and withdrawal from the European Union brings a unique hierarchy of problems. The Labour party ranks well below Tory backbenchers, continental diplomacy, the supreme court and a Europhile civil service. Were it not for the weekly requirement to answer questions from the opposition leader in the Commons, May might forget about him altogether.
Fear of irrelevance provoked Corbyn into a flurry of activity on Tuesday – a dense schedule of broadcast interviews in the morning and a speech in the afternoon, all choreographed to monopolise the news cycle. That mission was accomplished. Anyone chancing across an afternoon bulletin would learn that the Labour leader thinks there should be some kind of cap on wages (but not how high the ceiling on earnings should be). Most would also glean that Corbyn had said something about immigration and Brexit – perhaps that Labour is no longer “wedded” to free movement of people but rejects the idea that numbers must come down.
The dearth of detail and confusion about what had actually been announced provoked ridicule in Westminster, but Corbyn’s team are relaxed about that. Their strategic plan for the new year factors in certainty that anything the Labour leader says will be savaged by pundits and disowned by some of his own MPs. The theory is that Corbyn can pull off a kind of jujitsu on his opponents, deflecting their own power against them; recasting the ferocity of an attack as proof of the target’s virtue.
If the combined forces of a corrupt establishment are so hostile to the Labourleader, he must be doing something right, or so the argument goes. And if the product of a day’s media frenzy is people arguing about something Corbyn has planted on the agenda – grotesque disparities between the pay of bosses and their staff, for example – it counts as terrain seized from the enemy. Better to be pilloried than ignored.
This concept flows from observation of the Vote Leave campaign and Donald Trump’s White House bid, both of which succeeded by making a virtue of notoriety. Both were denounced for lurching wildly beyond the bounds of acceptable argument. Both times the attack mistakenly presumed public respect for political orthodoxies and protocols as policed by elite institutions and experts. Corbyn’s strategists posit that this dynamic can be replicated to generate anti-establishment momentum behind radical left causes – chiefly the taming of megalithic corporate power, which many Conservatives also identify as an incoming populist tide. There is a difference between seeing the wave and surfing it. There are many problems with the idea that Corbyn might replicate a Trumpesque subversion of conventional political wisdom. One is stylistic. Setting policy aside, Corbyn’s triumph in Labour leadership contests – a model that he would like to scale up for a wider audience – depended on a modest persona. He was the accidental hero who plucked the sword from the stone that had entombed Blairism. Admirers of Corbyn’s mild manners feel protective of him when he is attacked. They rally to his meekness, which is a different impulse to nationalistic admiration for swaggering braggarts.
The bigger problem is that Britain has already cast its vote for radical change and the verdict was Brexit. It is too late to tell people they boarded the wrong train, ask them to unload their anger and point them to a different platform. In fairness to Corbyn, his speech on Tuesday recognised this point. He tried to position Labour as a party that can be enthusiastic about Brexit as long as the terms are unlike those dictated by Tory libertarians, with their axe poised over employment protections, and Ukip nativists beating the drum for a lower foreigner count.
The hard part is describing a left-friendly Brexit in terms that fire the imagination. Outside the EU it would be easier to push the state into parts of the economy where government subsidy is currently prohibited (abridged).
The writer is a columnist.
Source: The Guardian