With four days to go until the result of Labour’s leadership election, a call from the Sunday Times. Would I like to write a piece, along the lines of the opening chapter of my 1980s novel A Very British Coup, about the first 100 days of a Corbyn government? Anything up to 3,000 words, he says. I am sceptical that the sense of humour of the censors at Murdoch HQ will stretch to the prospect of a Corbyn government, however fanciful. Especially since any such government is likely to be interested in breaking up the concentration of media ownership. What they are really looking for, I suspect, is tale of chaos, mayhem and a breakdown of the social order. Nevertheless he is bursting with enthusiasm. After nailing down terms I decide to give it a go. I tap out the first 700 words and send it over to check that we are on the same wavelength. The response is encouraging, ‘Thank you for a rip-roaring start to the Corbyn 2020 victory. It’s great fun and made me laugh.’ I duly knock out the remaining 2,000 words. Erring on the side of caution I avoid any reference to Murdoch, but I cannot resist including a Media Diversity Bill in the first Queen’s Speech and the appointment of Tom Watson as Culture Secretary and Vince Cable as director-general of Ofcom.
My piece is dispatched. No response. After 24 hours I email a request for an acknowledgement. Back comes a single word: ‘Thanks.’ Two more days pass. Then, on Saturday afternoon, comes the following: ‘I am afraid we are not going to be able to run your Corbyn landslide piece…sorry.’ Next day’s Sunday Times headline reads ‘Corbyn sparks Labour civil war.’ They are nothing if not predictable. All is not lost, however. On last Thursday came an email from my publisher saying there has been a spike in demand for A Very British Coup and he is ordering a reprint. And this Tuesday the Guardian put my ‘Corbyn’s first 100 days’ piece on the front of its G2 supplement.
Seriously, though, what are we to make of the Corbyn victory? To be sure it is a high-risk strategy, but I am not going to join those former colleagues touring the studios doing him down. He has won an overwhelming victory and deserves a chance to set out his stall. No politician can expect a long honeymoon in this age of digital mayhem, but I do think he is entitled to more than 24 hours. In that spirit I have a suggestion. If Labour is to regain seats in the home counties, it badly needs a Lib Dem revival. If I were Labour leader in these difficult times, I would be talking to the leaders of the Liberal Democrats (and the Greens) about an electoral pact not to compete against each other in seats where the runner-up has a chance of defeating the Tory incumbent. Tribalists on all sides would throw a wobbly, but there is a precedent. In 1906 the Liberal chief whip, Herbert Gladstone, reached just such an agreement with Ramsay MacDonald, then secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, which resulted in the election of the first 29 Labour MPs. The rest is history.
One of the great Tory propaganda successes of recent years, which Labour never managed to rebut, was the pretence that the financial meltdown in the autumn of 2008 was somehow almost uniquely British and mainly the fault of Labour profligacy. In five years of coalition government, scarcely a week passed without George Osborne or one of his acolytes parroting the same handful of mendacious slogans about ‘Gordon Brown’s debt’, ‘the mess that Labour left us’ or ‘the chaos we inherited’. Some Lib Dem ministers, notably Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, were at it too. The one member of the coalition who I never heard resort to such chicanery was Cable, who in the years before the meltdown, did more than any other politician to alert the public to the coming crisis. I was, therefore, interested to read on page 287 of Cable’s new book, After the Storm, published this week, the following: ‘It is not true that the Labour government grossly mismanaged the public finances in the run-up to the 2008 crisis. There was a small structural deficit, but the Conservative narrative of spendthrift incompetents is simply wrong.’ The main threat to the economic stability, he adds, is household rather than public-sector debt.
Contrary to what one might expect, Jeremy Corbyn has admirers in the higher reaches of the Conservative party. I recently received this email from a prominent Tory: ‘I don’t know why — it has nothing to do with my Conservative politics — but I feel a spring in my step at the prospect of Jeremy’s elevation. As a member of the Establishment, I like to see a little frisson disturbing the champagne and canapés… Authenticity matters in politics today — Boris, Sturgeon, Farage — so I raise my glass to Comrade Corbyn, and not because I am a Tory.’
Chris Mullin was the MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010.