Corbyn in 2025: worth a flutter?

You’d have been quite the Mystic Meg to predict Leicester City winning the Premiership, the vote for Brexit, and a Donald Trump presidency. But if you did I hope you put a fiver on that treble with Coral last year, because you’d be up by about £15.1m.

Jeremy Corbyn might not be a fan of Trump – the Labour leader would have loved a Bernie Sanders presidency – but the billionaire’s victory must put a spring in his step. Every time one of Corbyn’s many, many rebellious and critical MPs jabs a finger in his direction shouting, “Jeremy, you just can’t win a general election”, he can squint his eyes, raise his head and offer a little condescending smile. “If Trump can do it, so can I.”

Indeed, Corbyn hinted just that in an interview I conducted with him for the US edition of TIME magazine in October. Asked if his rise to leadership was part of a global anti-establishment phenomenon, he answered: “It’s not about me personally, it’s about a rejection of the neoliberal consensus by a lot of people all over the world. Europe and the U.S. were the last to wake up to this.” 

Now, Corbyn did also go on to say: “Parallels are too often drawn between Trump and what is happening in our country”. 

But don’t expect his supporters to be parroting that particular line any time soon – shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has just drawn that very “parallel”. 

“I think it's right there are hundreds and thousands energised by Jeremy Corbyn being the leader of the Labour party, so there are some similarities [to Trump’s support and huge rallies],” Thornberry said yesterday.

Trump, Corbyn’s supporters argue, is evidence he will be Britain’s next Prime Minister less than four years from now. 

This is a satisfying conclusion for them. But I’m not sure if it is quite right.

It would be foolish to be sure of any political conclusions, particularly orthodox ones, between now and the 2020 election (assuming May doesn’t use Parliament to call an early poll).

But much of the evidence remains grim for Corbyn. Opinion polls had Labour down on the Conservatives by as much as 18% last month.

As former leader Lord Kinnock so often says of Corbyn’s poll ratings, “no-one’s come back from here”. Kinnock, remember, held a 16% opinion poll lead over the Conservatives before Margaret Thatcher was toppled in 1990, but Major won a 21 seat majority in 1992.

Obviously, the change of leader to John Major made a huge difference to Kinnock. Thatcher was, arguably, Labour’s greatest asset by the end of the 1980s.

May has hugely boosted the Conservatives. The parties were, after all, neck and neck on around 36% in March when David Cameron was still in charge.

But Kinnock had less than 18 months to reel in Major. Corbyn has nearly four years for the public to grow tired of their Prime Minister during what will be tiresome feuds over the EU negotiations. Conservative splits over the EU did not end with the referendum, there is still more pain to come – and a number of former Cameron-supporting ministers who are furious May has sent them to the backbenches.

Indeed, one senior Conservative Brexiteer told me at the start of the week that Corbyn is far more dangerous to the Government than has been portrayed. The right winger said: “If you look at his policies, they are, if you are left wing, sensible ideas that Labour voters and supporters can rally around. His only problem is with the MPs sitting behind him.” 

And those MPs have been chastened by a second brutal leadership loss in 12 months. There’s been far less backstabbing briefing to the press, which is why there have been fewer headlines on the knives being out for Corbyn.

This is something many Corbyn supporters have never understood: the media isn’t out to get their hero, but very senior Labour figures were, and it was our duty to report what was going on. When Labour MPs aren’t plotting, there will be – and has been – less media coverage that he would perceive as being against him.

It would be naïve to think those MPs won’t brief against Corbyn again. But they essentially have two options. The first is the Alan Johnson choice: stand someone against Corbyn every year until someone finally beats him.

The second is the Lucy Powell argument, that you let Corbyn run to the general election, but, if he loses, and loses heavily, the project of the hard left Socialist Campaign Group is sent away for 30 or 40 years.

I think the first option would tear apart the Labour Party and I can’t see MPs who have dedicated their lives to the party they cherish risking that. Possibly there could be one more stab in 2019 if the polls are still dire, but I think even that is unlikely, given Corbyn’s fanatical support would mean he’d still win and he’d be able to blame a subsequent general election defeat on turmoil caused by his critics.

The Powell option is far likelier. But this risks three outcomes that are all unpalatable for most Labour MPs: a hideously heavy defeat that will see dozens lose their seats; a similar or slightly better result than last time, which could see Corbyn’s position protected by his zealous army of fans; or a Corbyn win, meaning they might have to back policies they can’t stand, from a £500bn National Investment Bank they don't believe the country can afford to unilateral nuclear disarmament. 

That second outcome is the interesting one.

Corbyn is right, there are differences between his situation and Trump’s. For one, some of that pent up vote against the political establishment has been sated by Brexit. In her speeches, it is also clear that May is carefully targeting that lower income group – not the very poorest and unemployed – that feel they have worked hard for little reward.

These aren’t all dedicated Labour supporters, but it was a group that even some of Cameron’s closest advisers admit they failed to focus on during years of welfare reform designed to get the most vulnerable back into work. They are the anti-Establishment. 

Hillary Clinton neglected the Rustbelt states, which helped take Trump to victory. May is not going to make the equivalent mistake in the UK.

But we underestimate Corbyn at our peril. He has had political victories. He was the first senior politician to call on the Government to withdraw the Ministry of Justice’s prison training programme in Saudi Arabia, which duly happened.

Labour forced Conservatives to row back on tax credits. Indeed, Corbyn has rallied even critical MPs around to fighting welfare reforms that they briefly backed before he became leader.

Also, political compromise was brokered with the Government over the Trade Union Bill, which, in its initial form, would have been devastating to Labour’s funding. This was really a success for Labour’s leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Angela Smith, but Corbyn inevitably gets the credit.

With all that in mind, it is conceivable that Labour does roughly the same as last time, particularly if Corbyn can reassert his Euroscepticism. He ditched this for the EU referendum campaign, but few think he is sorry to leave the bloc (a remarkably similar position to May).

The reason victory is unlikely is that Scotland must be gone for a generation at least and, like Kinnock in 1987, the gap to the Conservatives is simply too big to make up in one election. This is, to borrow Kinnock’s phrasing again, “a two innings match”. 

But if, four years from now, there is still an anti-establishment anger, Corbyn might well be the sort of unconventional figure who whips up huge rallies beyond his core base at the time of an election.

If he can eat into that Conservative lead, he might just be set up for a 2025 victory, particularly if he his bolstered by a new intake of MPs who share his ideals. 

If you think that unlikely given Corbyn will be 75 at that time, note that Trump is 70 and Sanders wasn’t too far off beating a now 69-year-old Clinton. Sanders too would have been 75 had he reached the White House. As I argued on this site in September, the era of 40-something leaders has, for now, come to an end.

If you fancy a flutter with potentially big rewards, get down the bookies and place a fiver on Corbyn becoming prime minister in eight-and-a-half years.

It’s an unlikely proposition, so you’ll get great odds. But there have, after all, been bigger shocks of late. 

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