Initially viewed by the right-wing establishment as a lefty dinosaur, Jeremy Corbyn’s unique appeal to both disgruntled former Labour voters and disengaged non-voters could deliver a Labour win in 2020 – especially when competing against a slim Tory majority.
Amongst all the criticism being thrown at Jeremy Corbyn by his detractors, the claim that he is ‘unelectable’ is perhaps the most significant one. The argument being that, while his politics and approach might go down well with the broad left (who have propelled him to the front of the pack in the Labour leadership contest), their numbers are still insignificant when compared to the voting population of Britain.
We are told that when ‘white van man’ and the rest of middle England are presented with this ‘scruffy socialist’ they’ll run a mile – straight into the waiting arms of the Conservatives.
It’s certainly true that Corbyn looks and sounds completely different to the politicians we’re used to seeing fronting a mainstream political party in Britain. And yet, we’re constantly reminded that the electorate are fed-up with career politicians, who all look and sound the same and speak in corporate jargon. Indeed, much of UKIP’s success has been down to Nigel Farage’s public persona – the ‘normal bloke down the pub’ image that he has successfully constructed (regardless of the fact that he’s actually a privately educated banker).
The main problem is that the media and the political establishment are still behaving as if the 2015 election was ‘business as usual’ for British politics – where Labour and the Tories compete to decide who will form a majority government. But that wasn’t the case – regardless of how much the Tories would like to believe that they won a landslide majority victory thanks to a resurgent wave of British Conservatism.
In reality, neither of those things happened in 2015. The Tories won a narrow majority of 12 seats, thanks primarily to the collapse of the Lib Dem vote (27 of the seats the Tories gained in 2015 came from the Lib Dems). Meanwhile Labour haemorrhaged seats in Scotland due to the SNP’s landmark victory.
The Lib Dem collapse and the SNP’s surge were the real stories of the 2015 election – take those two things out of the equation and you have an election result remarkably similar to the 2010 election (with a couple of losses for the Toires and a couple of gained seats for Labour). Meanwhile, two of the smaller parties received more votes than ever – UKIP got nearly 4 million votes and the Greens took over a million. Conversely, the Tories managed to win a Commons majority by getting only 24% of the electorate to vote for them.
If the 2015 election proved one thing, it’s that a significant number of the British electorate are more willing than ever to vote for an alternative – which, in 2015, manifested itself as support for UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.
Of course under first-past-the-post, it’s still incredibly difficult for these small parties to turn their votes into seats in parliament (UKIP’s millions of votes translated to a single seat). But if that outsider/man-of-the-people alternative suddenly finds itself as the leader of the opposition – the story is dramatically different.
Under Corbyn, Labour could win back disgruntled former Labour voters from the Greens, SNP and UKIP – people who abandoned Labour because it had become nothing but a watered down version of the Tories. That alone could net them a couple million more votes – enough to put Labour level with the Tories (who polled 11 million votes compared to Labour’s 9 million in 2015).
But winning back disgruntled former voters from smaller parties isn’t the only prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour party. He is also the is only the leader in years who stands a chance of engaging some of the 33% of the electorate who didn’t vote – those famously disengaged from politics.
This is both Corbyn’s secret weapon and the Tories biggest threat. If just a fifth of the people who didn’t vote in 2015 could be persuaded to vote Labour, that would be enough to not just draw level with the Tories but decisively beat them. Meanwhile, traditional Tory election strategy continues to deliberately ignore non-voters. Tory strategy operates on shoring up their vote with the key groups who traditionally come out and vote in large numbers while ignoring those who don’t.
With his appeal to both disgruntled former-Labour voters who left to smaller parties and traditionally disengaged non-voters, Corbyn finds himself in a unique position – a Labour leader who may be able to beat the Tories without having to pander to middle-England (at least not as much as previous Labour leaders).
That’s precisely why the right-wing establishment have now stopped treating Corbyn as a joke and are instead viewing him as a genuine threat. Undoubtedly their attack on him (should he become Labour leader) will be unparalleled – they will attempt to portray him as a Socialist terrorist, determined to burn Britain to the ground. And yet, the establishment’s war of words may end up falling on deaf ears, as (for once) the people with biggest say in the outcome of the 2020 election may not be the ones reading the Daily Mail, The Sun or The Telegraph – and for Corbyn that could be decisive.