Monday, 14 September 2015

Now he's won Jeremy Corbyn must turn a fantasy into a meaningful challenge.

In the end they didn't so much count the votes as weigh them. On Saturday a once unimaginable outcome became an inevitability when Jeremy Corbyn was crowned as the new leader of the Labour Party.

Cue wild celebrations from his supporters, dire warnings from the press that he is about to drag the country back to the dark days of the seventies and a string of high profile resignations from the shadow cabinet. Yvette Cooper, Tristram Hunt and Chukka Umunna all too their respective balls home within hours of the result being announced.

This surprising win for the candidate who was only let into the race to make up the numbers presents both opportunities and pitfalls.

The biggest of these is a potential split between the keepers of the Blairite flame and the newly triumphant left wingers. Jeremy Corbyn promised during the campaign to reach out to all wings of the party, he must honour that promise now; this is no time for settling scores.

Humble pie is going to have to be on the menu at the victory banquet and at the gloomy gathering of New Labour types who think the sky fell in on their heads on Saturday morning. The Blairites have to accept the hand of reconciliation if it is offered to them, along with a portion of the blame for not connecting with the party's core vote or anyone else. For their part the left have to resist the urge to 'get even' with the people who have spent the past twenty years telling them to keep quiet.

Two big political set-pieces also loom for the new Labour leader, the first is his d├ębut at prime minister's questions on Wednesday. Corbyn has expressed a wish to share the duty of attending the weekly shouting match with other shadow cabinet members. Good luck with that, the glacial pace at which parliamentary procedure changes means that even if such an idea were to be implemented Mr Corbyn would probably be long gone.

He needs to play to his strengths, meaning adopting the quietly reasonable approach he has against his opponents in the leadership race. Getting drawn into the playground machismo of the event wouldn't suit Corbyn's style, anyway not responding to his inevitable provocations might just wrong foot citizen Dave.

If PMQ's is a hurdle making his first conference speech as party leader is an assault course daunting enough to scare a commando. Normally leaders spend months preparing to address conference and even then, as the efforts of Ed Milliband demonstrate often get it wrong. Jeremy Corbyn is going to have to deal with the equivalent of an understudy being given ten minutes to scan the text before going on as Hamlet.

Again the best course is for him to stick to the tried and tested routine, namely being himself. What you see is really what you get with Jeremy Corbyn, he is an affable, erudite man for whom 'spin' is just a cycle on the washing machine; trying to out slick David Cameron on the conference platform would be a disaster.

The biggest challenge facing Corbyn though is how to handle the compromises that are an inevitable part of leadership. There is a political naivety to much of his supporter base, they may struggle to tell the difference between sensible expediency and outright betrayal.

On the big decisions like renationalising the railways and ditching Trident he should stand firm since they are either positions taken on points of principle or policies that resonate strongly with the public. Making some smaller concessions early on might be no bad thing though, sensibly handled it would send out a message that he is a reasonable man and may help draw the right of the party back into the fold.

Where there are pitfalls there are also opportunities and the Corbyn camp shouldn't lose sight of these in the tough times to come.

His campaign for the party leadership played, in part, on one of the most potent stories in the British myth kitty, that of the underdog who wins against the odds. Jeremy Corbyn could seek to position Labour as the natural home of all those who oppose entrenched privilege and the complacency of the political elite.

The influx of new members means that Labour's branch and constituency party network is viable for the first time in years. This presents a golden opportunity to revive the party's internal democracy and to demonstrate how a more inclusive form of politics could be made to work in practice, something new deputy leader Tom Watson spoke about during his own campaign.

At the age of sixty six Jeremy Corbyn must realise that his own chance of being prime minister is slim at best, the trust placed in him and the unprecedented energy that has built up behind his campaign mean he could do something remarkable. He could recognise that his role is to prepare the way for whoever comes next.

If he can revitalise the moribund grass-roots of the Labour Party and demonstrate that left doesn't have to be the political irrelevance then even though he may never get into Downing Street someone like Tom Watson or Lisa Nandy just might.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn at leader of the Labour Party could be where it all begins or the moment when everything crashes into the buffers. At this stage of the game there is still everything to play for, but his remarkable campaign suggests that sometimes surprising things happen even in the cynical word of politics.

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