After a unified party conference the Labour Party is framing itself as a legitimate government-in-waiting. And yet the lack of credible dissent against Jeremy Corbyn will not dissuade those who refute the suggestion that Labour is on the cusp of electoral success and those who believe the ‘dear leader’ popularity of one figure will do little to for the party in the long run.
The soundtrack of the conference was the ubiquitous ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant and vast amounts of Corbyn’s speech time was taken up by pausing for applause. In little over two years Corbyn has gone from a little-known backbencher to a popular cultural icon and, were an election to be called tomorrow, the Labour leader would surely boast name recognition to rival that of Trump ahead of the 2016 US election. So, what’s the problem?
First, whilst we are seeing a gradual presidentialisation of the party system, and whilst it may create an ideological identity for Labour as long as Corbyn is leader, it won’t necessarily benefit the party in the long term. Whilst it isn’t good for party democracy as a whole, if it is Corbyn who is the primary appeal for those voting Labour, then the party needs to harness it, not resent it. Corbyn is not going to be around forever and unless the party is able to shift this appeal onto another candidate (or better, on to the policy platform) we may face a problem akin to the Democrats after Clinton’s unexpected loss, without a clear voice or an obvious candidate. It’s also plausible that the Conservatives will simply run down the clock on Corbyn’s leadership, which realistically will seem less practical in five years time, and could well see 68-year-old Corbyn become the most popular party leader to never become Prime Minister.
Much of Labour’s strategy needs to focus on pushing for an early election and harnessing its current momentum. Whilst Corbyn might be flavour of the month now, we only need to compare this with his position at the previous conference to remember how long a year can be in politics. Corbyn’s popularity echoes that of Tony Blair in his early years as leader, and both men understood the increasingly presidential makeup of elections. Labour’s traditional working class vote cannot be relied upon to vote Labour. This isn’t due to any one person and it seems far more likely that the class system, which is becoming increasingly fractured, is no longer able to apply a complete ideology to an entire demographic in the way it once could.
Despite this, the Corbyn factor is a major electoral appeal, especially amongst younger voters. Yet the supplementary attractions without Corbyn are equally essential if the party is to assemble a broad coalition of votes to enable it to form a government. Otherwise, it seems unlikely that there is a big enough pool of voters that can be attracted purely by Corbyn, and unless something changes, Labour will have hit an electoral ceiling.
In terms of intra-party elections, we are seeing other candidates coronated by Corbyn’s endorsement – or the endorsement of his supporters, a problem that is affecting local delegates and looks set to affect the upcoming Scottish leadership election. Due to Corbyn’s popularity amongst members and his supporters’ ability to mobilise in favour of other left-wing candidates, the party, in the mid-term, will be fundamentally reshaped in Corbyn’s image. An irony of this is that the emphatic support and mobilisation within the Corbyn movement was kindled by the need to ensure the embattled leadership would remain in place during its two tempestuous first years.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that the leader of the Labour Party is extremely popular amongst members. It shows that a previously disregarded element of the Labour movement is ready to re-engage and fight for a Labour government. A return to grassroots campaigning, enhanced party democracy and greater engagement with the membership will help the Labour Party remain on an election footing. Regardless of the future ideological bent of the leadership, this aspect of the Corbyn years will surely endure in perpetuity.
Corbyn will continue to grow into the role and is looking increasingly prime-ministerial. The professionalisation of the image of the party over the last year shows that stage management, grassroots campaigning and a left-wing policy platform can co-exist and, as a result, Labour is looking more united than it is has been, not just since before Corbyn, but for decades.