Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, and the centre ground

That Jeremy Corbyn has won the Labour party leadership contest and was elected the new leader may not be surprising to those who had followed the events over the past few months, but the margin of his victory has come across as a great surprise and indeed astounding: it has certainly surprised me. The result was clear and decisive, and Mr Corbyn’s position as the party leader is strong, even if very few members of the Parliamentary Labour Party had supported him in the campaign. Mr Corbyn has a clear mandate from the party members and supporters, and it would be very difficult for a bunch of MPs to instigate a coup and dislodge him, unless Mr Corbyn loses a lot of rank-and-file Labour support in a very clear manner.

Predicting the future particularly in politics is a fool’s errand, but it is quite likely that Mr Corbyn will continue to enjoy support among those who have supported him to victory in the leadership contest. It is however questionable how far Mr Corbyn can reach out to others within his own party – primarily among the Labour MPs – and beyond Labour to the electorate in order to win the next general election. Mr Corbyn will have to decide at some point soon how flexible and dexterous he wishes to be in positioning himself as the next prime minister in waiting: the job of the Leader of the Opposition in the current Westminster set-up is ultimately about winning the next general election, becoming the next prime minister, and forming the next government. For Labour to win the next general election, it needs to take seats off the Conservatives, not merely winning back seats lost to the SNP.

It does seem as if Labour has lurched leftwards in electing Mr Corbyn as its leader and vacated the centre ground. In an electoral system where seats in the parliament are won on the first-past-the-post system, it is necessary to gain support from a broad spectrum of the electorate, and there are more votes in the centre than in the fringes. While the centre ground is a useful concept, it is also an amorphous thing which constantly shifts, because the accepted political, social, and cultural norms change over time. It may even be on the move: it may not be Labour led by Mr Corbyn that has abandoned the centre ground, but the centre ground has moved leftwards or is moving leftwards. If the Conservative narrative fails to convince the British electorate, that they have the best policies to bring prosperity to the country, then it is possible that the fundamental assumptions and paradigms that underpin their policies – read ‘austerity’ – will be questioned, and cease to enjoy the support among the voters. If on the other hand the centre ground has not shifted and will not do so, and Labour has vacated it, then it may be asked who is going to occupy that ground? Will the Conservatives see this as an opportunity to seize the centre ground, instead of nervously looking at the UKIP-leaning right of the party, or can the Liberal Democrats (remember them?) claim it?

One thing is for sure: British politics over the next few years is not going to be dull. There are serious constitutional issues such as the proper form of devolution and the British membership of the European Union that will demand debate. Mr Corbyn will be at the centre of political debates, and it will be interesting to see which direction he and Labour will travel.