Labour has moved outside the ‘zone of acceptability’, Prospect, 14 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has to be seen not only as a major advance for a Labour left that once looked entirely moribund. More worryingly for some, it also presents a huge opportunity to influence mainstream politics for much a harder, previously non-Labour left whose adherents, until this summer anyway, seemed destined to end their days fighting each other and trying to leverage widespread public misgivings over Britain’s overseas military adventures into significant support for a radical alternative on domestic and foreign policy, the last gasp of which looked like being George Galloway’s Respect.

The power of populism

Corbyn’s victory can also be set in an international context. Most obviously parallels can be drawn, both ideologically and in terms of their respective capacities to inspire new and previously disconnected people into electoral politics, with hybrid movement/parties such as Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos.

But there are also less comfortable comparisons that can be made with parties supposedly located on the other side of the ideological fence—the radical right parties that have been shaking up politics-as-usual for some time in France, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, to name just a few of the countries in which they’ve made their mark.

What both sides of the divide share, of course, is populism: their pitch to the electorate is essentially a claim to represent “the people” and to sweep aside “the elites” who have sold them out—be it to “neoliberalism” (if they’re on the left) or “cosmopolitanism” (if they’re on the right). The same populist message is currently being pumped out across the Atlantic too, be it from the so-called socialist Bernie Sanders or the hyper-capitalist Donald Trump.

Lessons of the past

Whether that approach can actually work for a mainstream political party is less obvious—it would be a surprise if, in the end, the Democrats go for Sanders or the Republicans for Trump. But, for good or ill, we have something of a domestic case study here in Britain.

Between 1997 and 2005, the Conservative Party spent much of its time trying to press all sorts of populist buttons—to no great effect, electorally speaking. Its experience is worth thinking about for anyone interested in how Labour might fare over the next five years.

To do that, it helps to conceive of politics as a combination of ideas, institutions, interests, and individuals. A party is successful when all four factors play positively together, but it hits rock bottom when they all point in the wrong direction—which was what happened to the Tories when they played with populism over a decade ago and looks like happening to Labour now.

The zone of acceptability

Like the Tories during their wilderness years, Labour looks as if it’s about to strand itself outside the so-called “zone of acceptability”—a policy range stretching from centre-right to centre-left, not too conservative but not too liberal. Without being located there or thereabouts a party is unlikely to be given the benefit of the doubt by sufficient voters to win a majority.

Unfortunately, Labour’s new leader and those around him hold views on the economy, on migration and multiculturalism, on welfare, defence and foreign policy that are nowhere near those of the average voter. Worse, they believe that voters only think the way they do because they’ve been duped into some sort of false consciousness by a media whose narrative previous leaders have been far too timid to challenge, thereby allowing the country’s ideological centre of gravity to be dragged in the wrong direction. That’s apparently all going to change now: the truth is out there, the public can be made to see it, and anyone in the party who thinks differently needs to realise that they’re no longer in control.

A top-down institution

The Labour Party might still possess a modicum of democracy when it comes to decision- and policy-making. However, it is, like the Conservative Party, fundamentally a top-down organisation whose direction and day-to-day positioning is largely determined by the leadership.

There are, of course, some differences. Strictly speaking, the PLP can make things more awkward for a Labour leader than the 1922 Committee can make them for his Conservative counterpart, while Conference is supposedly sovereign rather than simply advisory.

Still, just how many dissidents at Westminster will actually speak up rather than sit back and give Corbyn enough rope to hang himself? As for Conference, a bunch of Labour activists gathered together for a few days are no more likely than their Tory equivalents to insist that their leadership cleaves to the pragmatic centre rather than heading for the ideological hills.

Moreover, whereas the Tory press, after comprehensively undermining John Major, only encouraged William Hague, IDS and Michael Howard to be more Thatcherite than Thatcher, the papers that tend to back Labour—principally The Mirror and The Guardian—are more likely to urge caution and what the party’s moderates would see as sanity.

Vested interests

To say that Labour exists to fight the trade unions’ corner, while the Conservatives exist to protect the interests of property and capital is clearly simplistic—but not that simplistic when it comes to thinking about how the two parties are funded.

And in the end, money does talk. Iain Duncan Smith, who was the Conservative Party leader from September 2001 to November 2003, was ultimately undermined by his own MPs but they didn’t act until the party’s biggest donors decided that he would have to go and used the media to get their message across. Corbyn, on the other hand, currently seems quids-in with the leaders of Labour’s biggest unions, some of whose views either match his own or are even further to the left.

There have been times, in the past at least, when the unions acted as a restraining force; but this doesn’t look like one of them. Although we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that, should the party begin to poll a vote share in or around 20-25 per cent, those trade union leaders might change their minds, deciding they’d prefer at least the chance of a Labour government.

The big problem for Labour, however, is that it’s relatively difficult to dump its leader—if the party’s rulebook is followed to the letter. Unlike their Conservative opposite numbers at Westminster, Labour MPs can’t simply collect enough signatures to trigger a vote of no confidence. That means that whoever is in the post often stays there, irrespective of how badly he’s doing—just look at previous leaders who have led the party to significant election defeats such as Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.

The cult of personality

Which brings us to the last of the four factors. A big reason the Tories spent a decade-and-a-half in the wilderness from the mid-90s to the early-00s was that those they chose to lead them weren’t up to the job: they were all ideologically blinkered, and only Howard was really capable of setting and sticking to a course (albeit the wrong one). IDS fared particularly badly because he wasn’t regarded as clever enough, or as a good enough performer in the Commons, to make up for the fact that his own record as a parliamentary rebel made it impossible for him to convince his own troops to observe the most basic discipline on the airwaves, in print, and in parliament. IDS lasted just 777 days in the job. But even that was long enough to pretty much ensure the next election was lost. Can Corbyn do any better? I doubt it.

Originally published at



About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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