Jeremy Corbyn could be good for Britain

It’s said that history doesn’t remember the runner-up. What is striking about Jeremy Corbyn’s second run at the Labour leadership is just how much the British press do not want to acknowledge that he has done for the Labour Party what Alex Salmond did for the SNP and Nigel Farage did for UKIP.

Thousands of supporters turned up to Corbyn’s Sunderland rally last week, and thousands more before that to a rally in Liverpool. At least 60,000 people have joined the Labour  Party since the UK’s Brexit vote and 130,000 new members have joined since January 2016. The number is presumed to be so in favour of Corbyn that the Labour National Executive Committee tried to enforce a minimum membership period before new members were eligible to vote in the leadership contest. They were challenged in the courts by new Labour members and the NEC had their right to stipulate voting rules upheld in the Court of Appeals.

Neither Salmond or Farage ran campaigns without personal attacks or incident. Both men were accused of being one-trick firebrands and both men had to fight seemingly ridiculous odds to demonstrate that once niche issues – Scottish independence and Britain leaving the UK – were now mainstream talking points and political possibilities. Yet both men ended their tenure as leaders with impressive accomplishments which cannot be denied, whatever one thinks of their style or politics. 

So why does Corbyn not get the national recognition he merits? The most obvious reason is that he is a walking caricature of a sexagenarian, old-school, metropolitan socialist. He was widely derided by the press for being the anti-Labour establishment choice; a knee-jerk reaction to two decades of passive Labour rhetoric that never quite walked the walk of what those parliamentary majorities were capable of.

Yet, with the obliteration of his parliamentary support, there has never been a starker tension between elected representatives and the members who put them there. Corbyn, however, remains entrenched and is fighting to the last man. If the mocking of his appearance, style and politics have failed to produce a media coup of yet another Labour leader, it has certainly demonstrated an intransigence that’s moved beyond arrogance.

But is Corbyn using his unprecedented support for all it’s capable of? Is part of his problem with resonating in the public mind and gaining legitimacy across the board his lack of a single issue which he is building an army to fight?

Membership of UK political parties / House of Commons Library
Membership of UK political parties / House of Commons Library

‘Army’ is not as hyperbolic as it sounds. Corbyn’s Labour Party sits with 515,000 members as of July 2016 compared to the Conservatives’ 149,800. Even the SNP, once on a rollicking rollercoaster of success north and south of the border stands at third with 120,000 people.

Corbyn’s problem is that his politics, style and disposition are not only a caricature of an old Left politician but that he’s a caricature of an old English, left-wing politician. The issues he speaks about most regularly are, as he rightly points out, ones that affect ‘normal’ people every day. They also happen to be innately English in their constitutional control; health, crime, the provision of tax and fairness in society. If he ascended to the premiership tomorrow it would be impossible for Corbyn to legislate on behalf of the entirety of the United Kingdom because of devolution.

This is the silver bullet for what he’s capable of: Corbyn has an opportunity to not shy away from planting his flag as an English politician, concerned with English issues. His language, already focussing predominantly on English issues, has the potential to spark an English renaissance in the post-devolution, post-Scottish referendum, post-Brexit referendum world.

Since 1997, English national identity has been progressively neglected. Constitutional settlements have meant that the Welsh and particularly the Scots have had their own budgets grants that they can commit to priorities like free higher education and prescription costs which are not in place in England. Immigration, budget cuts and policy changes have a wider effect on England because it has a larger population. The St George’s flag has become more associated with a nasty, racist nationalism and hooliganism than with pride of one’s country. 

To put the boot in, England has no parliament. The Westminster Parliament is a hotchpotch of conflicting identities which, while once sitting in unison, is now complicated by the legitimacy of some members from different nations voting on issues that do not directly affect their constituency (the SNP opposed their proposed exclusion from the so-called English Votes for English Laws because any vote could have a knock-on impact on Scotland).

If Alex Salmond’s single-issue was Scottish Independence, if UKIP’s mass appeal was founded on Britain leaving the EU, then it follows Jeremy Corbyn has a remarkable opportunity to usher in a federal Britain and, at long last, an English Parliament devoid of the distracting constitutional squabbles which are unlikely to leave Westminster any time soon.

Corbyn has regularly been accused of failing to present a viable alternative to the Conservatives. He’s been accused of failing to defend the EU or, at worse, deliberately sabotaging the Remain campaign with his perceived lacklustre participation. He’s also been accused of being anachronistic and overly polite when his job necessitates a cut and thrust to hold the government to account. 

Yet, he has the remarkable potential to play kingmaker and capture the feelings and sentiment of a country that has no expression for its own identity. What seems apparent is that the EU referendum was an anti-establishment vote. The overwhelming English turnout to leave the EU, compared to Scotland, could be taken as a rejection of a federated EU and devolved UK that has not been giving attention to English voters for a long time.

Jeremy Corbyn may well be the kingmaker of whether or not the UK survives as it is in these uncertain times. He needs to seize the momentum and do for Labour what Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage accomplished so well for their own parties.

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