If you’re not a Labour Party member, you’re either howling with delight or baffled at the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition party.
In order to win the next UK election, Labour must win 106 extra seats, almost all of which are currently held by Conservatives in the South of England. Yet the party has overwhelmingly elected a socialist who will delight the North, where Labour’s core remains. This bearded leftist from Islington is the real-life caricature of everything Conservatives suspect about the Labour Party: That it’s full of anti-semitic militants who love terrorists, don’t understand business, and will bankrupt the country by nationalising everything.
He even refuses to appear on television. Yesterday, he appeared in the House of Commons for the first time as party leader and refused to say anything.
This is bizarre.
So, if you’re a conservative, you’re probably pretty happy right now. Labour has never looked less like forming a government since Michael Foot was leader in 1980.
Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron released a video of Corbyn saying scary things yesterday, along with a Facebook post that claimed Corbyn was “a threat to our national security.”
But … underestimate Corbyn at your peril.
If I were a conservative, I’d be quite worried right now.
Corbyn has succeeded in his bid to become leader precisely because everyone underestimated him. Most MPs didn’t even think he would make it onto the ballot, let alone win. Ladbrokes had his odds of winning at 100-1 at the start of the campaign.
Corbyn is playing a completely different game to every other politician in the UK, and it’s working. And — crucially — it is not a game that Cameron is able to match Corbyn at.
Consider Corbyn’s hatred of the media. This is a massive clue as to how Corbyn is going to conduct himself as leader. He used his victory speech to repeatedly attack the newspapers and the BBC, and the way reporters behaved while covering him:
“I… say a huge thank you to all of my widest family, all of them. Because they have been through the most appalling levels of abuse from some of our media over the past three months.”
“It’s been intrusive, it’s been abusive, it’s been simply wrong.”
He declined to appear on the BBC or Sky TV, normally the first stop for a politician’s victory lap. Instead, he gave an exclusive to The Huffington Post, in which he described his media strategy. It’s worth quoting at length:
… he said that much of the media and even MPs in his own party were out of touch with most voters’ daily lives — and predicted that social media would play a key role in the 2020 election.
“I think the role of electronic and social media is absolutely massive. The way of doing politics is seen as very out of date,” he said.
“MPs are a bit cut off. But if I may say so, some of the editorial rooms in some of our broadsheet newspapers are even more cut off. They simply do not understand what’s going on out there. They just don’t get it.
“The majority of people don’t buy a newspaper, they read bits online and self-inform online and so we have to reach out in a different way.
“And our campaign has been very much social media orientated. My personal Twitter account now has 104,000 followers, our Facebook is 124,000 likes.
“So those kind of numbers are enormous and of course the re-tweeting and re-sending makes it massive.”
Mr Corbyn praised The HuffPost UK, many of whose readers have joined his campaign, for its coverage of the leadership contest.
“I’d like to thank The Huffington Post for the responsible way in which you’ve reported this campaign.”
TLDR: I don’t need the BBC or Sky or the Mail or The Guardian. I’m going to go around them and talk directly to the voters who are interested.
This is the strategy that delivered his massive victory, and added 115,000 people as Labour Party members during his campaign.
Can you imagine Cameron deciding not to speak in Parliament, or refusing to talk to the BBC? It is not possible for him to do that.
So on the one hand you have fake hyperbole coming from the right-wing press (this was the Mail’s headline today). And from Corbyn, you have the exact opposite: He only talks about facts and policies, he never makes it personal. He refuses to engage with a media that simply wants to entrap him with the kind of soundbites that can be used later in Tory Party YouTube videos. And he tells it like it is, or at least how he sees it.
It’s enormously refreshing, even if you don’t agree with him.
And voters love that kind of thing. One of the reasons Donald Trump has become the Republican frontrunner in the US is because he says what he thinks, and he doesn’t care if you disagree. Trump may be an idiot, but he’s an authentic idiot. Corbyn may be far to the left of most British people, but his beliefs and behaviour are authentic in a way that Cameron’s aren’t. (Cameron would never leave the house dressed in black shorts and calf-length black socks, for instance, the way Corbyn did the other day.)
Even if you agree that Corbyn is more genuine and honest than Cameron, what about his politics? His democratic socialism just isn’t going to play in the South, right?
The problem for Cameron is that inequality is helping Corbyn right now. The UK’s economic recovery may be well underway, but it’s based on rubbish low-skilled, low-paid jobs, according to the Bank of England and analysts at Credit Suisse.
At the same time, huge swathes of the South are unaffordable for poor people to live in. It is simply not possible for anyone on low, average or even moderately above-average wages to move into Zone 1 or Zone 2 of London right now. Even Zone 3 is cripplingly expensive. Forget about Brighton or Oxford or Oxted or … all of Sussex. Mortgages are being offered at 10 times the value of the applicant’s income — and that’s crazy.
So even if you’re a middle-England Conservative, if you’re not staggeringly rich then Britain isn’t much fun right now.
Cameron isn’t saying anything about inequality — but here’s Corbyn, talking about it all the time. (And while Labour lost the last election the result came from a first-past-the-post distortion: Left wing parties actually gained 2.6 million votes in total across the UK.)
So sure, Corbyn might be the Michael Foot of 2015.
But the Tories ought to be afraid of a man who isn’t afraid to talk about inequality, and can find 250,000 votes without talking to the media.
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