TO win, Jeremy Corbyn would have to succeed with a ‘scarcely believable’ first round knockout, so these pages suggested back in July. I shan’t feel embarrassed for too long, because we were all wrong – you, me, them, everybody. If you picked the winner of the Labour leadership contest from the sound of the starting gun, then your witchcraft must be thrown in the river at daybreak. While it’s all a lesson on sweeping predictions, let’s be honest, what has happened today was, not very long ago, scarcely believable.
In fact, it still feels like we should rub our eyes and make sure it actually did happen. It still feels like a Simon Pegg film or something from Richard Curtis, a Paddington, where an unassuming nice guy in a BHS shirt is thrown onto the main stage and wins the day against the odds. Or an Ealing Comedy, where the little guys, guys in mismatched shirts and shorts just like Corbyn’s, beat the establishment with a nod and a wink. Everybody leaves the cinema at the end, back to the real world where politicians wear ties and try not to upset the Daily Mail.
But it’s not a film, there Jeremy Corbyn was standing before us at lunchtime, rolling out a victory speech as the leader of the Labour Party, three turns on from Blair. Of course, in the last few weeks we have been conditioned to imagine that it could happen, and then to finally understand that it was very likely to happen as the final reckoning approached, but I’m still sticking to ‘scarcely believable’ for how you’d have felt if three months ago someone suggested he would actually win. For he has won here, without any real media backing, with Polly Toynbee and other apparent influentials urging members to vote for someone else, and then one Labour grandee after another insisting with a foghorn lack of subtlety that ‘this Corbyn madness must stop’.
Alastair Campbell said it himself when he opened up for a 4,000 word manual on not voting Corbyn published on his blog, almost comically warning himself in public at the start of the piece that interventions from New Labour spirits might make things worse. But he and others couldn’t resist doing just that, and it all played into the Corbyn surge. Tony Blair’s ‘heart transplant’ phrase was an uncharacteristically clumsy warning. The note in the margin here is whether the spin room know-it-alls, the columnists, the politicians of the past, and a few newspaper leader writers have reason to wonder if anybody is listening to them. Candidates are now beginning to win things without the familiar endorsements. Look at Tessa Jowell, endorsed by the Standard one moment, beaten by Sadiq Khan the next. In Corbyn’s game, 16,000 volunteers were amassed to win it from the ground up.
His victory is emphatic, but we still have a licence to wonder what would have happened if somebody more inspiring than the other three candidates had stood against him. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall may have some searching thoughts, having been unable to counter a challenge from a man who kicked this gig off with comments about not actually wanting to win.
Their hesitancy, seen worst in Burnham and Cooper at least, allowed Corbyn to transfer the debate he was supposed to in there to broaden, into a referendum on his prospectus alone. It was soon no longer about who should lead the party, and more singularly about whether Corbyn should win or not. He began dominating hustings, and the newspapers. The bad publicity was good publicity, because by being everywhere he suddenly wasn’t just a backbencher with bike clips; he was installed as a central part in the daily, nightly news narrative.
Kendall realised the game was up as the private polling continuously went against her. Burnham started making jokes about how he was once the ‘frontrunner’, but so long ago that he couldn’t remember, no doubt lamenting the moment he bared his indecisiveness in public on the welfare bill vote. Back then, he wanted to follow party discipline like a good lad and abstain as Harriet Harman ordered, but he also let it be known in the briefings that he almost, almost, rebelled and voted against it. Thing is, you can’t really take credit for almost doing something, for almost rebelling; in the same way Spurs had nothing to show for almost signing Rivaldo. The apparent dithering contrasted badly with Corbyn’s clarity of thought and action. How many times have you heard people say that they don’t agree with Corbyn’s full brochure, but at least he says what he thinks, and yada yada yada… that’s what we want from our politicians. Scrapes like the women only train carriage farce seem to have had no effect at all. The punch from Panorama on Monday left no mark.
Then there was Cooper, who at one time I thought the Corbyn no-nos might coalesce around, rather than splitting their votes around three. She played it like a 5,000 metre runner, waiting for a pack which had gone off too early to tire. But by the time she found her own sprinting legs and did more than wince at the Corbynomics, her race had already been run and Corbyn had vanished into the distance. She berated his fiscal policies on a Sky News debate close to the end, making some not unreasonable points about how it would all work in reality, and her ratings promptly went down in front of our eyes. Her campaign had for too long seemed happier to say not much at all, rather than make a mistake. She couldn’t then rev it up at the last moment.
In a way the caution is understandable, these candidates feel they have wagered their political careers on this contest; Burnham would be as an unlikely winner as Corbyn if he won the leadership on a third run some time in the future, while you can’t help but feel this was Cooper’s big chance. The low risk, bleached campaign clearly did not play well, we now know, against the man from Islington North.
And so Corbyn has actually won. It was scarcely believable, but he’s won.
Tomorrow, it’ll be time to look at what this all means for Camden: how Corbyn’s win reflects on our local politicians, and how the voters will view Tulip Siddiq’s nomination decision.