Something which no one anticipated has happened – there has been a major shake up in the Labour leadership contest, and it looks likely that Jeremy Corbyn will win a landslide victory. This has come as a shock to everyone, including Corbyn himself, but on some level it was inevitable. The surge in support for the Greens, the SNP and UKIP over the last parliament shows that voters are fed up with carefully-tailored, spin-doctor-managed politicians who talk a lot and say nothing of value.
Corbyn's success is partly because the other Labour leadership candidates are all so hopeless. However, Corbyn's success is also partly because he has a narrative that members have engaged with, a narrative that Labour can return to its traditional socialist values rather than drift to the right.
Having a successful narrative is essential to politics. Labour lost the election because the electorate did not trust them with the economy. This could be more accurately phrased as the electorate bought the Conservatives’ narrative that Labour over-spending caused the recession and the Tories are sorting the problem out. This is why, despite Labour's spending lock and commitment to austerity, voters still felt they were not economically credible.
Corbyn has given the party hope that politics can change society for the better. His narrative of what is wrong with the country has engaged people with Labour politics on a scale not seen since the halcyon days of Blair. I greatly admire the way in which Corbyn has engaged so many people alienated by politics in general and the Labour Party in particular.
Corbyn's narrative is a radical departure from what senior Labour Party figures have been saying for a long time, and it conflicts directly with the narrative which both the Blarities and the Conservatives are putting forward as to why Labour lost the general election. This is one reason why so many Labour bigwigs have lined up to warn party members not to support him in the leadership election.
A narrative of a return to socialist values speaks to a lot of people about what they think is wrong with society – namely, that there is too much focus on wealth creation and not enough on inequality, and there is too much privatisation driven by ideology and not enough public ownership. It appeals to people who think there are too many benefit cuts and too much blaming the poor for being poor. We are becoming a less caring, meaner and more selfish society under the Tory government, and a narrative that is counter to this is engaging many people.
Corbyn is the only candidate saying we should not blame all of our social problems on immigrants and benefit claimants. Corbyn is the only candidate saying we need to tackle our environmental problems and invest in infrastructure. Corbyn’s narrative is based on values Labour should remember and that the Blarities have tried their hardest to forget. It is a narrative that has changed the leadership election and could become the narrative of the Labour party as a whole.
This new narrative does not fix all of the Labour Party's problems. The main issue with it is that it is a fundamentally backwards-looking narrative. Corbyn's policies are traditional old Labour socialism: nationalisation, higher taxes, more spending, re-opening the coalmines, and withdrawal from NATO. All of these, apart from the last one, are policies I support but they need to be accompanied by a narrative that looks to the future and not the past.
What the left needs right now is powerful narrative about the sort of society we want to create in the future. Ideas like redistribution, basic income, and solutions to the crises being faced in health, education and housing. The left needs to think about how capitalism will change, how to protect the environment and how to protect a minimum standard of living in a world where machines now threaten to take away middle class jobs. The left needs a narrative that brings old Labour values into a current context.
None of the other Labour leadership candidates have any form of narrative, which is one reason why Corbyn is so far ahead in the polls. The other candidates have no means to explain what is wrong with society and how they could change it for the better. Corbyn's narrative of going back to the past is better than the empty sound bites that the other candidates offer.
However, Corbyn’s narrative could cost Labour the 2020 election. Labour wins big when it has a vision for the future and is forward looking. What Labour needs right now is a "white heat of technology" moment, a narrative which describes current circumstances and how society will progress under a Labour government. Corbyn is not offering this.
There is another issue with the Corbyn campaign, and that is the messenger and not the message. Corbyn has supported a number of unpopular causes over the years, including the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. Many of the groups he has supported have become legitimate political forces, such as the ANC, but some are still considered enemies of Britain by many voters. Regardless of how good his narrative is, it could fall on deaf ears because of his history and the hammering that he will get in the right wing press, In the end, Corbyn could alienate as many people from the Labour Party as he attracts.
Corbyn's opponents argue that his leadership could be a train wreck. The combination of a backward-looking narrative and a messenger who will be painted as a sympathizer of terrorists could alienate moderate voters and drive them straight to the Tories. If the Tories win in 2020, they will continue their plan to demolish the welfare state and privatize the NHS with a zeal we cannot imagine right now. The people who need an effective opposition the most will be the ones who lose out.
That is one possible train wreck narrative of the future. The other is the train wreck of signing up to the Tory narrative or of having no narrative – these are functionally the same, and are what the other candidates offer. Labour cannot help the people most hurt by the Conservative government by agreeing with benefit cuts, austerity and the mass transfer of assets from the poor to the rich. The Tories have the demographics locked down who support austerity and controls on immigration, and if Labour agrees with them it only makes the Tories look more credible to these people. The Tories could not win under Blair by matching his narrative of spending and Labour cannot win by agreeing with the Tory narrative – it needs to present an alternative.
I do not know which of these two outcomes is more likely. So far, Corbyn's narrative has worked very effectively for him. In just eight weeks he has gone from a no hope candidate to almost certain victory. Will he be able to repeat this on a larger scale over the next five years?
Personally, I feel that the greater trap is not having a narrative or accepting the Tory narrative, which is what cost Ed Miliband the election. A lot of voters want change from the direction the country has gone in over the last 30 years, and Corbyn's message of a return to traditional socialist values seems to be working.
The other candidates’ complete lack of a challenging narrative is a major problem. It will hand electoral victory to the Tories. Over Blair, Brown and Miliband years I have seen too many people of principal alienated by a Labour Party that is walked over by big business and the rich, while failing to stand up for the most disadvantaged people in society. Corbyn is offering a narrative that can change this. Will it be strong enough to counter the muck the right wing press will throw at him? That remains to be seen.
Maybe Corbyn can use his narrative to shift the support of the electorate in his favour. I hope he can. Make no mistake, the chances of a train wreck are high if he fails - but the chances of a train wreck are also high if we do not let him try.