THE election of an obscure, hard-left radical to give birth to a new era in politics is not completely unfamiliar to our readers. “For he that is mighty hath magnified me . . . He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Further comparisons between Christ’s mother and Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, might be a little stretched, but there is a common theme in their manifestos: the poor. It has been thought until now that criticism of the political class, divorced from the effects of austerity measures, was directed largely at Conservatives. The rejection of the centre-left candidates in the Labour leadership election suggests that the taint of Westminster politics has extended much further.
The Blairite approach — that there was no value in a principled set of policies if you were not elected to put them into practice — made sense, but only up to a point. Capturing the middle ground has since been the mantra of all the political parties at election time. Three side-effects of this have become apparent, however. The first is human: the desire for power corrupts just as surely as the exercise of it. Promote a generation of politicians who lack experience of the world outside Westminster, and whose primary goal is electoral success, and there is little wonder that principles take second place to presentation. Second, as a result of this desire to be chosen to govern, no party has been willing to challenge the self-interest of the electorate — or, put more positively, encourage voters to aspire to a cause greater than the protection of their personal wealth. Thus the bulk of the electorate has become self-indulgent and complacent; the rest, disillusioned and disenfranchised. Third, once in opposition, the failed party has had very little traction, having previously made its policies as similar as possible to the party in government. The effect of the Coalition was to bring the parties even closer than normal: moderation, pragmatism, and compromise all have their place, but at times they come close to collusion. A combination of faceless politicians and policies that ran parallel to those of the Conservatives — especially without any credible answer to the arrogance of the banking system — were key factors in Labour’s election defeat in May.
As the Bishop of Manchester says, there is an opportunity now to hold the sort of debate that the Bishops called for in their pastoral letter in the spring — one in which society turns its attention to the disadvantaged among the Queen’s citizens (rather than, say, to her anthem). The danger, of course, is that such a debate will be derailed by personal abuse, fomented by other sections of the media. Mr Corbyn’s charm (Comment, page 18) is going to be much in demand, if he is to gain room to manoeuvre. As a constituency MP of long standing, he will be adept at kissing babies. It remains to be seen how far he is prepared to extend the practice to unite his party and mould it into an effective opposition.