In any free society, politics is about formulating choices for the electorate. Those choices are critical in informing a public debate. To have choices, however, opposition politicians need to articulate policies that offer clear alternatives to social and economic decisions put forward by the government. Thus, opposition parties require strong leaders with particular skills in public debate. At the end of the day, politics is about shaping and influencing a public discussion about the things that matter to people. Ed Miliband failed to convince the British electorate of the cogency of his narrative. Yet, whilst he often looked awkward in interviews, he had in fact launched a whole raft of policy reviews which fed into his party's manifesto in 2015.
Jeremy Corbyn's leadership has been nothing short of disastrous so far, but his supporters have been very vocal (if not always exhibiting the required civility on social media) and he is clearly settling into his role as leader of the opposition. Regardless of what people say about his strange beliefs in socialism (flashback: that's the thing that was wholeheartedly rejected by the people in Eastern Europe in 1989 after a thorough 40 year plus first hand experience of it), the main stumbling bloc for Labour is not Corbyn's whacky beliefs, sometimes bordering on conspiracy theories, but his lack of skills that are necessary to be effective in the public debate of any free society. In fact, his debating skills are so poor that he appears to have decided not to engage in any public debates with opponents anymore. His response mode in television interviews is wooden and gaff prone. Even friends of Corbyn say that they have never seen him discussing anything, even in private. The recent debate on airstrikes in Syria showed why he is wary of engaging in public discussions. His response to the Prime Minister at the dispatch box was so poor that news programmes struggled to find any section for their evening news bulletins worthy of broadcast. Most TV programmes focused instead on the passionate and articulate reply of the Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party member of parliament.
The second domain of critical importance to any opposition party is to develop a list of policy choices that speak to the country's priorities and shape the public's choices and preferences. So far, under Corbyn's leadership, the country has drawn a blank in this category as well. There has been a stunning silence from the Corbyn team on issues such as economic policy, transport policy, devolution or even gender equality. I only mention devolution because it is shaping up to be of key importance in England with the devolution of powers to Manchester, Cornwall and Sheffield (including their NHS and social care budget) and the upcoming elections in Wales and Scotland in May 2016. It seems that the Corbyn team is still trapped in a London bubble dominated by issues that matter to an urban well-to-do elite, whilst digging up some random ideas about state ownership and the evil character of bankers. All this does not appear to add up to a coherent policy programme that may improve people's lives.
The last aspect in which Corbyn scores poorly is building cross-party alliances for practical campaigns. His largely ineffective backbench existence of more than 30 years contrasts badly with the extraordinary activism of MPs such as Stella Creasy who, when coming to parliament in 2010, started instantly to build a strong cross-party campaign against loan sharks. Creasy reached out to the media and, ultimately, forced the issue onto the government agenda. In contrast, for more than three decades of sitting on the green benches, Corbyn has not once managed to organise a campaign that captured anybody's imagination. He appears to have been busy nurturing his prejudices about 'the capitalist system' whilst cultivating an image of a 'man of principle'. It is his ineffectiveness as a politician to create alliances that should worry Labour Party members.
And if Corbyn fails to either effectively influence the public debate or develop policies relevant to practical issues, Labour will find itself increasingly marginalised and without any answer to the Conservative transformation of British society.
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