Member-elected leaders like Jeremy Corbyn can see beyond the caucus wall


Jeremy Corbyn is heartily and personally loathed by almost all of his senior colleagues in the British Labour Party. It was only a year ago that the parliamentary caucus voted no confidence in him by 172 votes to 40. Earlier, two-thirds of his frontbench chose to resign rather than work with him. When Theresa May called an early election in April, the political pundits and Corbyn’s colleagues predicted the percentage of Labour’s vote would be in the low 20s, and the party was in for a pummeling. Instead, there was a 9 per cent swing to Labor, and May must govern, if she can, with a minority in the House of Commons.

Most of the commentary, including by people who got it entirely wrong, explained the swing to Labour as populism, and the electorate’s weariness with professional insider politicians who consistently failed to deliver. They link it with apparently perverse, or at least unexpected, votes in Spain, Italy and Austria, with the rise of anti-political movements, right or left wing, and mention folk like Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson. They may be right, but they can hardly be surprised if their considered opinions lack authority, given how badly they were off the mark.


‘Let us come together’: Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May calls for unity as parliament is reconvened for the first time since last week’s general election.

True, many also acknowledged that Corbyn, like new French President Emmanuel Macron and United States senator Bernard Sanders, has a quality of authenticity that is highly attractive compared with the professional but plastic insincerities of so many modern political leaders.

But there is another aspect of Corbyn that is worth a mention in the Australian context. Corbyn is not beholden to his parliamentary colleagues.

The British Labour leader is chosen by vote among all the party’s members. Corbyn was chosen twice, each time getting the support of about 60 per cent of members. He was a virtual nobody in the formal councils of the party when first elected to the leadership after Labour received a drubbing under Ed Miliband at the 2015 election, which David Cameron won easily. He was not a minister in the Tony Blair or Gordon Brown governments, and was regarded by those prime ministers, as well as by the party hierarchy and the suits, as a left-wing ratbag and dreamer – definitely not officer material.

But Corbyn had a constituency among the party’s grassroots, including among long-time party members who never had any enthusiasm for Blair’s third way or his disastrous and mendacious championing of intervention in Iraq. Corbyn’s was an old-fashioned emotional socialism – more Methodist than Marxist, with a wispy beard, largely pacifist sentiment, full of class consciousness, a certain chip on the shoulder, and a feeling that Labour should continue to reflect the same values it always had. An untried, but slightly charismatic, nutter.

Here’s from a somewhat bemused New Yorker profile, trying to explain him to sophisticates:

His politics rebel against a Britain that is eager to join foreign wars and pallid in the face of social inequality. ‘There has to be some kind of a reckoning,’ Corbyn told me recently. ‘You actually have to run an economy for the benefit of people, not run for the benefit of hedge-fund managers.’

Corbyn believes in grassroots policymaking … his plans include renationaliSing Britain’s railways and giving up its nuclear weapons. He wants to raise taxes on the rich, strengthen trade unions, and replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber. If Labour is re-elected in the next general election, in 2020, Corbyn envisages broad public involvement – in the form of cooperatives or government control – in the nation’s largely privatised energy and housing markets. He has mused in the past about abolishing the British Army. Universities will be free …

Until last year, he was best known as a figure of perpetual protest, an old-fashioned lefty who opposed military interventions around the world and the inherent cruelty of capitalism. And yet when Corbyn speaks of himself and his political vision, it is often in terms that are deliberately oblique. He likes to answer questions with questions. ‘Do I feel happiest with the people and their demands and their campaigns and their successes and their defeats?’ Corbyn said: ‘Yes, I do. I can’t deny that.’

Corbyn lives in a narrow three-story house in Islington North … and he buys his undershirts at the local street market. He is slight, with a white beard, shoulders that taper gently from left to right, and a front tooth that snags when he smiles. He travels by bicycle or train … Corbyn grows fruit and vegetables on a small allotment a few miles from his house, and one unkind reference that I heard in Westminster compared him to Chauncey Gardiner, the character played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 film Being There.

Most people so described in Australia would be thought of as members of the Greens, or the old Australian Democrats, or as among the nuttier type of nuisance Senate independents. In office, Corbyn has consistently disappointed his colleagues but, even more annoyingly, was unable to be bypassed, ignored or undercut by their own, ever more clever, appreciation of the public temper and public mind.

When, finally, they had had enough, and an overwhelming vote of the parliamentary party was able to force a fresh ballot for the leadership, the party’s national leadership needed to intervene even to get Corbyn a place on the ballot paper. To get on, one needed the support of a certain number of elected members. He didn’t have it. The leadership decided that a deposed leader could run without it.

But that was about the only favour he got. There were moves against stacking. One needed to have been a member of the party for at least six months (which is to say, for about three months before the ballot was conducted) to be eligible to vote. Union members got no automatic vote but needed to pay their £25 sub like everyone else. Union chieftains had only one vote, the same as any other members.

It was clear Corbyn continued to enjoy significant grassroots support even after the party’s great and good patiently explained to them that he was a joke, an embarrassment and someone incapable of gaining or exercising power. It was a first-past-the-post ballot, so all but one of his rivals withdrew so they would not divide the opposition to him. Corbyn campaigned hard but did not pander to his colleagues or his critics. When the leadership election was over, he had won with a slightly higher proportion of votes than he achieved the first time.

A membership endorsement could give Turnbull authority, legitimacy and self-confidence.

Labour was caught on the hop by May’s calling of an election years earlier than she needed to. Labour had not really sorted out its Brexit position, nor the sort of economic policies that could survive shrieks from the London financial establishment.

The party’s machinery had failed to lock in behind Corbyn after his re-election, and many were disloyally telling anyone who listened that, after the inevitable debacle, Labour would need to split and be remade, mostly to get the old left out.

Corbyn formed his own campaigning teams, not least from among volunteers for Sanders in the US primaries. They knew social media and grassroots doorknocking. His stunning success – even if it fell significantly short of victory – was particularly because of his power to enthuse younger voters both to support Labour and to get out and vote. Corbyn is said to have received the support of 62 per cent of the under-40 vote – a great platform for a future victory if Labour can maintain its rage.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Here in Australia, Bill Shorten leads the Labor Party, and thus the opposition, by a somewhat less straightforward system of engaging party members. It’s a system imposed by Kevin Rudd after the destabilising days of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, caused in part by Shorten’s treachery.

A plebiscite of party members after the last election saw Shorten lose to Anthony Albanese, but that counted for only 50 per cent of the process. The other half came from an election from his party colleagues, most of whom were heavily leant on by the union chieftains who control party preselections. Shorten was enough ahead of the caucus vote to overcome his deficit in the popular vote.

Shorten is, of course, himself a former union chieftain and numbers man. His authority turns on that power, rather than on popularity with members. In this sense, he is the opposite of Corbyn, who is apart from and opposed to the party’s own centres of power. He is, as well, in almost every respect, different in style, personality, ideas and ideals from Corbyn. If he can use mechanical rhetoric to evoke a long link back to worker struggle, he is never less convincing than when he gets out the onion, puts a fake tremor of emotion into his voice, or pretends he actually believes in anything.

But if the Shorten-Corbyn analogy is far from clear, imagine what could happen if the Australian Liberal Party resolved its leadership questions by a ballot of members rather than by caucus vote.

Imagine, for example, the situation if Turnbull was not constantly looking behind, but had at least some chance to prove himself by gaining, holding and using popular support. Turnbull always enjoyed more support in the broader electorate than in his own party, or own caucus. Indeed, his steadily declining popularity is a result of disappointment in his caution and failure to follow his own instincts.

Right now, perhaps, Turnbull would not necessarily win an election for the leadership by party members. The broad-based Liberal Party, like the ALP, has become hollowed out by years of factional warfare, a reduced role in policymaking for party sub-branches and members, and the takeover of the party by suits, pollsters and “professionals”.

It is not purely by accident that the elected representatives of the federal Liberal Party lean to being conservative on economic and moral issues, even if, in recent times, the more moderate and liberal side of an umbrella party has won some state-level battles.

But it could well be that even the prospect of having national leadership ballots among members could stimulate more joining, more activity by middle-of-the-road folk, and, perhaps, more open debate about the qualities, either in a leader or in the party, that were likely to have it win and hold on to power. That’s quite apart from the fact that Turnbull has already shown, in his original preselection, he has the capacity to enthuse people to join and vote for him (or, put another way, will manipulate party rules shamelessly and ruthlessly in pursuit of his ambitions).

The fact he might be at more advantage than a conservative rival might suggest that neither his rivals, nor the established party, would support any change in the form of leadership election. But it is interesting to reflect that his open enemies – such as Tony Abbott – still pretend the reason they are impelled to oppose him is they believe they, not he, represent the feeling within the party, and the electorate, and the policies likely to continue to produce right-of-centre governments. If that were true, they should like nothing more than membership contests.

It is hard to see a Theresa May being liberated, and “able to be herself”, by having her party leadership confirmed by a ballot among her party faithful. I would be surprised, however, if Boris Johnson could defeat her in a membership ballot. Here in Australia, Turnbull would probably be a more successful leader, provided he was governing with a conventionally chosen cabinet, if he were more focused on what voters want and need, and less focused on appeasing his own backbench.

The only test of whether membership election would be a good idea would be whether it would improve the party’s chances of holding on to power after the next election, whenever that is. As things stand, re-election is only a slim chance not least because the party is back to taws on climate change and energy policy.

It may even be that a bitter and divisive leadership ballot in mid-term would clear the air and give the winner – almost certainly Turnbull – the authority, legitimacy and self-confidence he has always seemed to lack.

Jack Waterford is a former Canberra Times editor. jwaterfordcanberra@gmail.com

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