Corbyn and Clegg

I was watching Corbyn’s interview on Sky News this morning where he summarised why he was campaigning to support UK’s continued membership of the EU. You can see it for yourself here:

Corbyn has decided to campaign for In on the basis that he wants to take part in future work to improve conditions for all workers across Europe. An admirable goal, and one I support, but it does lend itself to the charge that we will see dramatic increases of government spending to improve the lives of foreigners. It’s the sort of statement that any Brexit campaigner would enjoy. “Vote out lest Labour spend billions.”

And this, I think, sums up one of Corbyn’s major problems. He’s acting as though he is the leader of a 3rd or 4th party, rather than leader of the opposition. Third or fourth party leaders need to be bold. They need to speak out with radical new ideas and options, battling the status quo. Every time you appear on TV, you have to be memorable, as the coverage you get is so tiny in comparison to that of the more mainstream parties. Corbyn is actually good at this kind of politics: his interventions are memorable. He gives a voice to those who want to see a radical alternative. He is behaving as an excellent leader of a 3rd or 4th party. And if you are a minor party this approach can work: you can get 20% of the vote behaving this way, and probably a bit more when you throw in tribal loyalty. But 20-odd percent of the vote is not a majority.

Compare this to Nick Clegg. Leaving aside policies, and whether or not they would have him, he would have made an excellent leader of Labour or the Tories: he behaved as though he was the leader of a party with 100s of parliamentary seats. The language he used — of compromise, of negotiation, of piecewise progress — is that of a major leader. His slogan of “stronger economy, fairer society”, his approach to Europe — that it will look broadly the same in 10 years time — is that of a belief in incremental improvements building on a broadly acceptable status quo. In other words, he offered a strong and decent hand managing the country, providing an option that eschews potentially dangerous changes. In short, he offered exactly what the country wants from a Prime Minister. But this is not what third and fourth parties are associated with. They simply don’t get enough coverage on the big issues, and they aren’t viewed as government material by the country. It’s very rare to turn that around quickly, and so adopting an approach which appears to accept the status quo just annoys your supporter base without winning new voters. I’m rare in that I believe the status quo is broken, but I am also prepared to accept incremental improvements towards a more liberal world (I’d love wholesale change, but I won’t let the best be the enemy of the good). Most people who support third parties are different. Be they on the left or the right, most supporters of third parties would see this approach as selling out. Such an approach destroys the raison d’etre of third parties without gaining significant levels of new support.

Corbyn is running a very real risk — and not just in undermining the In campaign. In behaving as a third party leader voters may come to view Labour as just another party. This nearly happened before, under Michael Foot, where the Alliance surged in the opinion polls to over 50%. Now, I’m not saying any one party would gain much from a Labour collapse: the situation in the 80s with the Alliance is not present now; there’s no party that will just instantly pick up Labour voters. Changes in a party’s status take place slowly over time: it took over 20 years to go from the insane MacDonald-Gladstone pact of 1903 where the Liberals legitimised support of Labour* to the first Labour government. But Labour should be wary now. They are not viewed as a natural party of government (there have only been 6 Labour Prime Ministers) and Corbyn is slowly removing his party’s legitimate claim to be one of the 2 big parties. He’s offering risks to an electorate who favour gradual change. If they’re not careful, Labour may end up being viewed as equivalent to the Greens, the Lib Dems or UKIP — just another option. Regardless of Corbyn’s good intentions, and his wonderful ideals, there’s a lot to lose. The referendum is only the beginning.

*Under the pact, Liberals stood aside in certain seats to not split the anti-Tory vote. In the 1906 election Labour went from 2 seats to 29 seats. Completely unrelated, I am in favour of an anti-Tory electoral pact in 2020. ;)

(Note: I accept this analysis only holds in a FPTP system.)