Can Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of hope be a path to power?

In an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn, Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, challenges the Labour leader to change to build on his party’s election resurgence.

What can I say? Well done! What a joy it has been to watch all your detractors feasting on Corbyn-flavoured humble pie. In the General Election of June 2017, you gained votes, you gained seats and you gained popularity… the trouble is, you didn’t gain power. You nearly did, and the results of June 8 could fairly be described as a “glorious defeat”.

But without wanting to detract from the party’s overall achievement, it does suggest the need to think about the future of Labour. So, in the spirit of good comradeship and positive planning, let me offer you just a couple of ideas which might help you secure a glorious victory instead. For the simple fact remains that you came quite a long way short of the line in terms of forming a government.

The Tories increased their share of the vote – you squeezed the minor parties rather than the big bad wolf. Killing (political) wolves is a tricky business, but you did reconnect with estranged sections of the public. The question now is how you build upon this achievement to construct a social coalition with the breadth and depth necessary to actually win a majority.

The answer is to seize the initiative, show a little political imagination and put a bit of meat on “that vision thing”. What do I mean? Come on, Jezza, you know what I mean… You campaigned in poetry and managed to build a social movement. You offered a positive vision of hope and social value in an age otherwise defined by fear. You demonstrated emotional intelligence when certain other leaders completely flunked out.

But campaigning in poetry and cultivating folk-hero-like status can only take a political party so far. My concern is what happens when the “Good Ship Jeremy” hits the procrustean rocks of political reality?

But before you set the internet trolls upon me, or accuse me of being just another cynical Daily Mail reader, let me explain. Asking this question is not a slight, it is a positive invitation. A call-to-arms to develop the governing capacity and credibility of Labour. This is where the political imagination matters.

Your detractors have generally painted a picture of you as a campaign politician of a fairly traditional, bumbling, amateurish type (no offence). So now is the time not to come out fighting, but to come out thinking. For it is in the marketplace of ideas that a rejuvenated Labour has the opportunity to control the political agenda.

In the election, you won over younger voters, Remainers and a large chunk of the white working class. But now is the time to drive forwards, head on, with a broader social vision. Whether you like it or not, you need to expand your electoral base and you can only do that by taking control of how we see the challenges facing the United Kingdom.

Take the subject of anti-austerity, for example. This was an issue that you held up like a lightning rod, and through it channelled frustration and anger into the ballot boxes. But how will you redefine anti-austerity into a topic that still has such resonance, such motivating energy, in five years’ time? How will you outsmart a Conservative Party that is already readjusting its position on austerity and is likely to have a different leader quite soon?

You offered a lifeline to large sections of the white working classes that feel unloved and left behind. You promised to keep the wolf from their door but what are your plans in terms of mitigating the consequences of artificial intelligence or digital technology upon their already precarious economic existence? What are your plans to counterbalance global economic and social forces while, at the same time, being honest about your inability to reverse globalisation?

After an election defined by terrorist attacks, how do you intend to offer a credible position on anti-terrorism, security and intelligence?

You promised an end to student debt and tuition fees for the young, and a statutory triple-lock on pensions for the old – lollipops for babies and apple pie all round, not to mention the re-nationalisation of almost everything. But given the Labour Party’s reputation for economic illiteracy – whether deserved or not – why not confound your critics, re-energise your supporters and win new friends by better targeting or phasing your plans in a more detailed and strategic manner?

Above all, the critical insight you really need to harness from the recent election is that the political game has altered. It is now a generation game in which age has overtaken class as the defining element of political behaviour. Think about setting the terms of this new “generation game” – for this is where your natural advantage now lies. In policy terms, do the opposite of what your political opponents expect you to do.

Outmanoeuvre them, outflank them. Trespass across traditional political and professional boundaries. Build a broader parliamentary base, be less populist and slightly more political. But most of all, control the ideas. Set the rules of the new generation game, and seize the political imagination.

All the best,

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

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