EU Referendum: can the union, the Conservative Party and the voters survive?

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I tuned in to BBC Parliament, to watch the Prime Minister’s statement and subsequent questions but had to abandon it after two hours, fearing a loss of the will to live. To judge by the theatrical sighs from The Chair, Mr Speaker Bercow was feeling much the same. While it is no doubt an inflexible rule of the Internet that one should never express any sympathy for politicians, especially ministers, one could not help but feel for David Cameron having to repeat time and again his fundamental arguments to backbenchers who seemed not to register or care about the basically simple points he had made. And it must be even worse for the rest of the government Front Bench. They have to sit there saying nothing, not nodding off, not fiddling with their phones, when they no doubt have a pile of work back at the office. It must be agony. No wonder they all looked like their Steve Bell caricatures.  In a normal workplace this would be regarded as risibly inefficient.

No contest on the arguments. The PM was at his most articulate and amiable. Most of the “Leave” crew (or “Outers” as they now seem to be called) were as ancient as they were grumpy, and many muffed what might possibly have been sound, or at least intelligible, points. One managed the masterstroke of talking up the Leave campaign by listing who had been at the Leave launch – and surely many people would have seen the list and thought: “here’s an organisation which has managed to bring together all the British politicians you would absolutely not want to trust.”

But half the parliamentary Conservative Party supports it.

Can the Conservative Party survive this next few months? It’s not an organism prone to splitting – was the last time the Repeal of the Corn Laws? – but you can’t help but wonder.

Jeremy Corbyn, incidentally, was terrible. Petulant, long-winded, muddled. His backbenchers oozed a contemptuous silence. Tim Farron was grim too – you can’t make an impassioned plea if you gabble and keep your hand in your pocket.

Months of this stuff will be agonising for us all. The polls won’t help to tell us what’s really going on, for four reasons: (1) No one trusts them after the General Election debacle; (2) this is reinforced by the fact that telephone and online polls are showing big differences in results; (3) as UK Polling Report has pointed out, Northern Ireland isn’t included in opinion polls but the nationalist community is very heavily pro-EU, and turnout is always high there, so NI could swing a close vote; (4) the polls don’t cover expatriates but they have votes too, and it would be a surprise if the expats in Europe were “Outers”. But maybe, just maybe, it will, like the Scottish referendum, all eventually turn into a grown-up debate about what the UK as a nation (or a union of nations) wants to be.

The Institute of Corbyn Studies – 2nd bulletin

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Jeremy Corbyn’s first reshuffle of his shadow cabinet proved to be a bit of a PR nightmare, managing to dominate the news for several days without in the end making much difference to the composition of the Front Bench team, other than by provoking resignations. For the future management of his team the Leader might want to consider a couple of fundamental changes.

First, does all the off-the-record briefing from “sources” and “the Leader’s office” really do any good? It feeds media speculation – indeed, it’s designed to do just that – but when things don’t turn out as briefed the Leader ends up looking as if he has all the tactical ability of the Grand Old Duke of York.

Good HR practice is precisely the opposite of what happened here: in well-run organisations the performance management and appointment process is well-known but what is happening to individuals is confidential until it’s happened. So why not set up exactly that kind of system. Regular 6-monthly performance reviews with the individual members of the Front Bench team with the understanding that those who are not up to scratch get dropped and others get moved around for career development purposes?

Secondly, hasn’t the whole idea of a shadow cabinet become ossified? Nowadays each Cabinet Minister and their teams have exact shadows on the Labour Front Bench. This is reaching surreal levels – what exactly does the Shadow Minister Without Portfolio do, for instance? Shadow ministers are, in constitutional history, comparatively recent, dating back only to 1955. Other parliamentary systems organise opposition in other ways. But at the very least why should Labour slavishly follow the Government Minister’s job titles? Why not devise their own, and organise the Front Bench around Labour’s priorities? Emily Thornberry could become Director of Defence Policy, Maria Eagle Head of the “Save the BBC” Campaign, Pat Glass Leader of the “IN Europe” campaign, Owen Smith Director of Economic Justice Policy, and so on.

The Institute of Corbyn Studies

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The Institute of Corbyn Studies does not exist, but it should, so extensive has the impact of Jeremy Corbyn been. It’s not just policy differences, it’s internal Labour Party politics, parliamentary style, the relationship between politicians and the public, economics,  language (Corbynomics; Corbynistas), and visual styles –  the obsession with Jeremey Corbyn’s apparently artless approach to the way he looks. To all these established academic and journalistic specialisations we might also add a group we haven’t actually heard from: the business school academics. How is Jeremy Corbyn shaping up as a manager and leader, irrespective of his politics and economics?

Corbyn has had so far markedly different impacts on the PLP (dismay), the broader Labour Movement (enthusiasm) and the voting public (indifference). Viewed in organisational terms, being in the PLP must be a bit like being an employee who suddenly has an outside manager parachuted in from head office – someone who enjoys favour elsewhere in the organisation but who is new to management, and has been put in place over the heads of many more experienced old hands. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there, if we’ve ever worked in a large organisation. So what do the management gurus advise? After all, there’s not much point in having Nobel Prizewinners as your economic advisers if you can’t get your colleagues to do what you want.

There are hundreds of books and articles on this. I’ve picked the top three that came up on a Google search.

Forbes.Com offers this analysis of a new manager’s position:

“Your first management job is a big win – a sign that you’ve done something right in your career. It’s also the first time that your success is completely tied to the performance of other people.

Those other people are your former peers, maybe even your current friends, and everyone feels a little weird now that you’re the boss.

Some of those other people have more experience and longer tenure at the company. At least one of them probably wanted the promotion, too – and isn’t too happy to be working for you.

Most likely, a few of your direct reports are much older than you. And I guarantee your team won’t be made up of people who think exactly like you, work just like you and act completely like you.” 

Sounds familiar? The three top tips boil down to working one-to-one with all those who report directly to you – understanding them as individuals, mentoring them and accepting that you can’t control what they think or feel.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ccl/2013/05/10/3-tips-for-surviving-as-a-first-time-manager/

Some of the same messages are in “Your office coach” but there are 12 tips. Here are the really relevant ones:

  1. Don’t let the position go to your head.
  2. 2. But don’t be afraid to act like a manager.
    … “You must be able to provide direction to your employees, give them feedback, help resolve problems, and address performance issues.”
  3.  Learn about the organizational culture.
    … “Even if you have been with your organization for a long time, you are now at a different level and need to learn about the management culture.”

5.  Learn from your role models.
6. Get to know people and let them get to know you.
7. Understand individual differences.
…”You now have to manage a group of people who have different styles of working, communicating, and making decisions. This is where you learn that not everyone does things the way you do. But as long as the results are okay, so is their work style.”

8.  Discuss your role with your staff.
… “Acknowledge that everyone is having to adjust, which may be a little uncomfortable for a while. Talk about your goals for the department and the way that you like to work.”

9.Compare your leadership style with your predecessor.
… “Encourage open discussion of similarities and differences in leadership style.”

10. Talk with any staff member who applied for the job.
11. Identify the most important goals of the department.
12. Manage your stress!

http://www.yourofficecoach.com/topics/lessons_in_leadership/new_managers/twelve_tips_for_new_managers.aspx

Bloomberg.com offers 20 tips, many illustrated with unintentionally hilarious photographs. Many of the same messages, but also including the importance of consistency, the use of delegation and the value of early and memorable gestures.

http://www.bloomberg.com/ss/10/10/1008_first_time_managers/21.htm

So how is the new Leader doing? Well, not bad by these standards, as far as we can tell. He hasn’t chucked his weight around, his closest colleagues do seem to respect him personally, he has made an immediate impact with gestures like the new PMQ style, he is nothing if not consistent, and he is not micro-managing shadow ministers. Hopefully he is also getting advice from the likes of Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, not on what policies he should adopt, but on how he should do his job. Lots of pundits and opponents thought he would be gone by now: maybe his management style is carrying him through and will, like all successful managers, lead only to his doing better and better. It may not be what he and his supporters meant by a new politics, but it may prove to be the reality.

Corbyn: the Thirty-five Percent Solution

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To be a success a British political party leader has to command support at three levels: among their parliamentary colleagues, among the wider party membership and among the electorate as a whole. Viewed as concentric circles, the inner and outer circles – parliament and electorate – are more important than the middle circle- the wider party – because in the end the key decisions are made in Parliament and in elections.

Obviously a parliamentary party cannot operate without the wider party. It provides money and local support. But as campaigns become more national in nature, and the big money, which is more and more necessary, comes from big donors the role of the wider party diminishes. This is shown most vividly in the Conservative Party, which relies very heavily on wealthy donors and has a shrinking and ageing membership, but which still wins elections.

Within the wider party there is a further concentric circle outside the parliamentary party but within the wider party: holders of elected office other than MPs. In the past this just meant councillors, but nowadays it includes more powerful figures such as MSPs, AMs and elected mayors. The Mayor of London and the party leader in Scotland are now major players in their own right. As the wider party has declined in importance the significance of his circle is increasing with the various forms of devolution.

How much support in each of these four circles do national party leaders need in order to be effective? They don’t have to have over 50% support in any of them, they just have to be the biggest figure in each. This suggests a figure of at least 35% in each circle, provided that the other 65% don’t coalesce round a single opponent. 35% of the vote can give a leader an absolute majority in the House of Commons as the Conservatives have just shown. No one quite knows how popular David Cameron is with his troops in and out of parliament, just as Tony Blair’s popularity in his own party was never very clear. Winning General Elections trumps everything else. But neither Cameron nor Gordon Brown ever had a single obvious opponent, and while Brown was Blair’s obvious rival he was also the anointed successor and locked into the success or failure of the Blair-led administrations.

But when you’re in opposition you don’t have the electorate’s 35% to lean on. Jeremy Corbyn’s problem is that while he can claim well over 50% of the membership, including the supporters who paid £3 to vote (“the £3 supporter” must have joined the lexicon of obscure British political categories, along with “the 40-shilling freeholder”), Labour’s electoral support is under 30% and well under 35% of the parliamentary party support him. In fact he probably has the lowest level of support among his parliamentary colleagues of any leader of a modern British political party. His only advantage is that there is no single alternative.

We don’t know what the non-Westminster electees think of him. Corbyn claimed a lot of support among councillors, but by no means a majority, but none of the really prominent regional leaders endorsed him. This is what makes the local and Scottish elections in 2016 so important. At the moment Corbyn gets credit for any successes Labour manages to engineer in parliament, such as on tax credits, as he is the leader, even though any leader would probably have got the same result. (For all Labour’s talk of being as fiscally responsible as the Tories in the past the temptation to defeat the government is always too great for an opposition. Certainly the Tories’ record in opposition shows that they rarely missed an opportunity to find a plausible way of making common cause with left-wing Labour rebels. ) But if Labour fails in 2016, particularly in London, Corbyn will get the blame.

But where’s Corbyn now at generally? Even those who opposed his leadership candidacy thought he might at least improve the Labour Party’s fortunes by being a real break with the past and by motivating young non-voters to enter the political process and vote Labour. The two main worries were that his extreme policy positions on a range of issues would turn some existing or possible Labour voters off, and that the Party would return to the debilitating internecine warfare of the past. It’s still early days but so far there is no real evidence that any of this is happening. He may turn out not to be Marmite – you love him or hate him – but margarine: bland, causing indifference. Can he make a favourable impact on the wider electorate, and get to that magic 35%? So far he hasn’t, but at least he hasn’t made the mistake of polishing up his image. He is still the epitome of what you see is what you get. My next Corbyn-related blog (I do write about other things!) will look at how he can tackle and is tackling the two inner circles, to get to 35% there.

Tax Credits and the House of Lords: a constitutional outrage or a curious attack of democracy?

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House-of-LordsThe House of Lords tonight torpedoed the government’s tax credits cuts. As is the way with hot issues in the House of Lords the debate involved both debate on the merits and debate about  whether the House would be acting unconstitutionally in defeating the government. Generally, as far as I could see, opponents of the cuts argued the merits (or lack thereof) of the cuts whereas supporters argued the constitutional issues.

This rather resembles the old legal adage (or joke) that if the law is against you argue the facts, and if the facts are against you argue the law. (Happily, this being the House of Lords at its best behaved, we were spared the third limb of the adage, which is if both the law and the facts are against you, abuse the other side’s lawyer.)

Is there actually a major constitutional issue here? No. taxation and public expenditure are supposedly exclusively for the House of Commons but in reality (something which quite often breaks through in  Westminster, contrary to common belief) practically everything which the House of Lords debates has some taxation or public expenditure implications. It’s all a matter of politics and degree. If the House of Lords could not debate and vote on anything which had expenditure implications there really would not be much it could debate about. The constitution here is very unclear. (For a much more nuanced analysis see Professor Meg Russell’s superb contributions to the UCL Constitution Unit’s blog – http://constitution-unit.com/?s=meg+russell&submit=Search )

Meanwhile the one issue the Lords were much more polite, or restrained, or cunning, to raise was the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons. Of course the House of Lords has no democratic legitimacy arising from election as it’s not elected, whereas the House of Commons is. But, surely, the point of elections is to ensure that state power represents  the people. On that basis, and on the results of the last General Election, the House of Lords has a case for saying it is more representative (even if unelected) of the opinion of the British people than the House of Commons is.

It’s not straightforward to compare the two Houses. The Lords have crossbenschers and Bishops, which the Commons don’t.  Conversely the Commons have MPs whose parties won’t take up places in the Lords even if offered – SNP and Sinn Fein in particular. However, excluding those elements, and Northern Ireland, because its politics are completely different to the rest of the UK, you can compare at least the three traditional major parties: Conservative, Labour and LibDem. (The other significant UK-wide parties – UKIP and the Greens – are so under-represented in both Houses that they are ignored for the purposes of this analysis.)

Working on the basis of the last Election and the current Parliament as it now stands, and just counting Lords who take the Whip from one of the three traditional major parties,  the Tories had 37% of the vote,  53% of the Commons and 43% of the Lords. Labour had 30% of the vote, 37% of the Commons, and 36% of the Lords. The Lib Dems had 8% of the vote, 1% of the Commons and 19% of the Lords.  No party was proportionally represented in either House but on these figures the Lords surely does better as a representative chamber. So why shouldn’t it thumb its nose at the Commons?

Perhaps the grandees of the Commons and the Government, getting on their high horse about the Lords defying the Commons (as did assorted No10 flunkies in the Blair regime), should remember what Alexander Hamilton said about the US House of Representatives during the constitutional convention: “Here, Sir, the people govern.”

Was Jeremy Corbyn’s First Week really a shambles?

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Jeremy-corbynIt all depends what constitutes a “shambles.” In his first five days as Leader of the Party and the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn managed to appoint a perfectly credible shadow cabinet despite a lot of experienced Labour  figures flouncing off to the back benches, mount a vigorous attack on the government’s Trade Union Bill  (an attack which may attract enough support from Tory libertarians to defeat the government on some issues), mount a further attack on the government’s mean-spirited changes to tax credits, and to change the rules of engagement on Prime Minister’s Questions in a way which has won applause from Tories as well as Labour. And he has garnered some favourable media coverage from  the more independent-minded right-wing commentators as well as his natural supporters.

Not bad for Week One, you might think.

The “shambles” tag, apart from the tendency of the right-wing press to dub everything a shambles, often before it has even happened, seems to have come from Corbyn’s failure to turn up to an interview on the Today programme, not singing God Save The Queen, not arranging for a photocall at a constituency engagement at a mental health facility (what could be more sick than a photocall at a mental health unit?), and his snubbing a Sky News reporter who attempted to doorstep him.

Balancing these two sets of activity it is hard to resist the conclusion that the “shambles” accusation is a product of the London media’s overweening self-importance. Maybe it’s time they all learned the basic lesson of maturity: it’s not all about you.

Meanwhile the right-wing press has become increasingly desperate in finding anti-Corbyn stories. His then-girlfriend 35 years ago said something horrid to his ex-wife. His great-great-grandfather was a nasty piece of work. Please. As President Obama observed a few years back, it is time to put away childish things. Still, at least, I suspect, everyone knows who leads the Labour Party now.

The most alarming Corbyn story of the week is surely the one which for some reason the Sunday Times buried in a story about dissent over Syria in the shadow cabinet: quotes from an unnamed “serving general” to the effect that there might be a military coup if Corbyn became Prime Minister. What? Since when has dissension in the Labour Party been a bigger story than the threat of a military coup? Possibly the ST didn’t believe its own reporter’s story. But, really, someone- the general or the reporter – has been drinking the Kool-Aid.

Is it all, as promised, a new kind of politics?  Check back in a few weeks. I suspect not. In the end an utterly inexperienced leader’s attempts to lead a hostile Parliamentary Labour Party, and the realities of parliamentary trench warfare with a government with a small majority (and so susceptible to defeat if broad coalitions can be built), will determine what Corbyn and his allies actually do.

High Court powers without judicial control: coming soon to a landlord near you?

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The Immigration Bill currently before Parliament (here) contains changes to housing law to facilitate the rapid eviction from residential tenancies of people who because of their immigration status do not have a right to rent. Housing lawyers and professionals are already busy dissecting this legislation, which they view as being as ill-thought out as it is nasty. See the posts and comments (including mine) on Nearly Legal here. But one provision seems to be there to allow in effect a private landlord to invoke the powers of the High Court to evict a tenant without ever having to take the case anywhere near a judge. This would be, to say the least, a startling constitutional innovation.

Here’s how the new process is supposed to work. The Secretary of State serves a notice on the landlord to the effect that a tenant does not have the right to rent. The landlord can then serve a notice on the tenant terminating the tenancy with effect from a specified date. The Bill then says that the landlord’s notice “is enforceable as if it were an order of the High Court” (s33D(6)). What does this mean? I have argued on Nearly Legal that it is in this context pretty well meaningless. What exactly is there that can be enforced? The notice is just a notice. All it can do under the Bill is to tell the tenant that the tenancy agreement is at an end from a specified date. It doesn’t order the tenant to do anything in particular. The sub-section does not give the landlord power to order the tenant to leave, or to surrender the keys or anything else the landlord might want the tenant to do.

But what is the sub-section meant to do? After all, the drafters of Parliamentary Bills do not insert pointless or ineffective provisions unless the policy-makers absolutely require them to. Presumably it is in some way meant to carry out the Prime Minister’s public remarks to the effect that evictions of this kind won’t necessarily have to go through the courts. But is it really meant to imply that a landlord can serve a notice of this kind and then call on the Tipstaff or High Court Enforcement Officers to forcibly evict the tenant without any form of appeal to or supervision by a judge?

It is not unprecedented for the powers of a High Court judge to be conferred on someone who is not a judge of any kind (see for instance the Inquiries Act 2005 here) but to give High Court powers to a private individual, the only condition precedent being a notice from a secretary of state, would seem to be an extraordinary breach in the conventions governing the independence and authority of the courts.

The Bill must have been cleared round all government departments including the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps Michael Gove should remind himself of the oath he took back in May to respect the rule of law and defend the independence of the judiciary.

The Tories are shifting their ground on buy-to-let and the private rental sector: why and how?

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Over the years, and under successive governments, the private rental sector (PRS) has become a more and more liberalised market. Rent controls are virtually gone and the assured shorthold tenancy, now the norm in the PRS, is assured only in the sense that landlords are assured of regaining possession if they want it. With social housing very limited and house prices rising well beyond the capacity of a large proportion of working families to buy, the PRS has become increasingly important and highly profitable.

On the whole governments have treated this rise with indifference; leaving the sector to the free market fits both Blairite and Conservative ideological inclinations. The ideology often quietly reinforces self-interest (always the best type of ideology); many Conservative MPs are in the buy-to-let business.

So in some ways indications that the government may be shifting its stance on the PRS come as a bit of a surprise. There have been three  pointers: the creation of a workable system for discouraging, if not wholly preventing, retaliatory evictions; the restriction in tax relief for buy-to-let landlords in George Osborne’s latest Budget; and the recent proposals to crack down on “rogue” landlords. (The government’s “technical discussion paper” is here: Discussion_paper_FINAL. My comments on the paper are here:A response to Tackling rogue landlords and improving the private rental sector)

But looking up from the legal detail, what is going on here politically? Why the quiet shift? I suggest a number of factors are at work. The first is the gradual worsening of the housing crisis and the inability of the PRS market to solve it. Soaring rents and the fact that the PRS simply does not build more homes but buys up homes which would otherwise be owner-occupied means the risk of homelessness is increasing. Even the most fanatical right-wing government cannot survive the spectacle of British families literally unable to find somewhere to live, and this government is far from being fanatical. This risk is being heightened by the government’s own social security reforms, particularly the benefit cap and the restrictions on increasing local housing allowance in line with actual rents. Despite these measures the cost to the taxpayer through housing benefit is being driven up.

Thirdly, unaffordable housing threatens the ability of London and other cities to sustain growth. Cities won’t be able to get the workers they need, and talent will drain away to places (including overseas) where people can afford to live. Exactly the same problem arose over public transport in London and we all know how much public money is now being poured into that, whether through infrastructure or Tube drivers’ wages.

And potentially the most significant factor, but the one which is least mentioned publicly, is the long-term effect on the Tory vote. At present the Tories depend heavily on prosperous older people, who are likely to vote and whose interests are assiduously protected. The problem for the Tories is that they have to replace this vote over time with people who are young or middle-aged now. In the past they could rely on increasing prosperity, the natural inclination of many to become more conservative as they grow older and the occasional spectacular giveaway such as the right to buy a council house, to replace Tory votes. But Generation Rent may not see it that way. Just as families who were hit by mass unemployment in the Thatcher era have passed their hostility to the Tories on, so the young working people of today, who work harder and have more qualifications than any generation before them, but cannot afford to buy a house and have to pay crippling rents in the PRS, may well never forget or forgive if the Tory governments of 2010-2020 ignore their plight. These policy changes may well be the start of an attempt to defuse that resentment for the longer term.

The changes have become politically possible for a couple of other reasons. The first is immigration. As part of the “rogue landlords” package is an attempt to crack down on landlords who let to illegal immigrants. The Home Office would normally affect a lofty indifference to the PRS but the crackdown can be seen as another part of the We Must Be Seen To Be Doing Something approach to immigration.

The second element which makes political action possible is a consequence of the shocking news that 40% of ex-council flats are now in the PRS. This enables keepers of the Tory flame to say This Is Not What Margaret Thatcher Intended. This is of course true: her aim was to increase owner-occupation and break the supposed power of (Labour) councils over their tenants, not to create a new landlord class.

Thirdly, the spin machine has found a way to demonise, always a necessary step to a policy shift. The attack is not on landlords but on “rogue” landlords. Of course you can’t really differentiate in this way, any more than you can really classify all benefit claimants as “good” or “bad”. But that’s the way the political/media machine works.

DWP leaflets: file under “Fiction”

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It is tiresome for civil servants and Ministers grappling with the tough realities of government to have a chorus of the retired telling them how much better things were handled in the past. It is incumbent on those of us who can sit back and not have to make any decisions to exercise restraint. But sometimes a story about the way we are governed nowadays hits the media and you just have to say: what? Did they really do that? Can they just walk away unscathed?

The latest is the news yesterday that the DWP has had to admit that in a leaflet about benefits which apparently contained real quotes from real claimants they had actually made up the quotes and invented fictitious claimants. Well done to Welfare Weekly (http://www.welfareweekly.com/) for extracting this admission via a Freedom of Information request. Here’s the Guardian’s account: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/18/dwp-admits-making-up-positive-quotes-from-benefits-claimants-for-leaflet.

While most of government has been paying at least lip-service to the idea of evidence-based policy-making the DWP has for the past few years run into trouble more than once for playing fast-and-loose with evidence. They now seem to have reached the ultimate opposite and made the standard Whitehall joke come true: they really have gone in for policy-based evidence-making.

Almost needless to say, no one accepts responsibility for this egregious piece of work. Ministers as usual say that they knew nothing about it. The Director of Communications denies any knowledge of it. The Permanent Secretary’s head is well below the parapet, as is normal at that level. To add to the bogus claimants we also have the unidentifiable authors.

There is a serious point here about integrity in government. Senior officials are supposed to defend and preserve the integrity of government communications. It’s in the public interest that government communications are to be trusted. If ordered to do something by Ministers and it’s not an illegal order civil servants have to obey but this isn’t that kind of situation. It would be reassuring if the Permanent Secretary at DWP, the Executive Director of Government Communications in the Prime Minister’s Office or even the magnificently titled Director General of Propriety and Ethics in the Cabinet Office had something to say on this, but don’t hold your breath.

Just recently, Lord Sumption, Supreme Court Justice, said this to an interviewer:

“He referred to the steadfast gatekeeping of civil servants, who underpin the system. … “There’s no code that tells you what to do,” says Sumption. “This is the way that public service works, it’s the way that it has always worked. There’s a sense of carrying on and a tradition.” He cautioned, “It’s a fragile political culture. If we ever lost it, we would find it very difficult to recreate.”

True enough and maybe we are closer to the brink than he thinks.

Can Labour win a General Election with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader?

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The answer to this question seems to be obvious to just about any commentator. So why on earth are Labour members and supporters seriously contemplating electing Jeremy Corbyn as Leader? This is, after all, a man who has, despite his long political career, never held any form of executive office, has no known leadership skills, abides by party discipline only when it suits him and will be over 70 by the time of the next General Election. All previous experience suggests he will be regarded by the electorate as entirely unsuitable to be Prime Minister and will serve only to drag Labour down.

So that’s why Corbyn is a disaster. The problem is: what’s the alternative? The argument is that a serial rebel, far left leader can’t lead Labour to victory. But it doesn’t follow that someone who’s the opposite of a left-wing rebel can win. Is the argument that a centrist or right-wing leader stands a better chance of winning an election – in fact is the only leader who can win an election – borne out by history? Answer: no, not really.

Since 1945 Labour has had 9 leaders who fought General Elections. Three (Attlee, Wilson, Blair) won elections. Their actual success rate was: Attlee won 2, lost 2; Wilson won 4 lost 1 (but only one victory – 1966 -was decisive; Blair won 3, lost 0. Six leaders (Gaitskell, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Brown, Miliband) never won an election. Of the winners Attlee and Wilson were generally regarded as broadly on the left of the party, at least by comparison with their intra-party opponents (or “enemies” to use the more common Labour Party term), though there is not much in common between them and Corbyn. Of the losers, Gaitskell and Callaghan were on the right, Foot and Kinnock on the left, and really you would be hard-put to locate Brown and Miliband any discernible distance from the centre.

So the historical record, for what it’s worth, doesn’t bear out the proposition that lefties can’t win. Or, rather, the proposition rests on the slender shoulders of Tony Blair.

What history suggests is that Labour victories are not determined by the relative position of the Leader on the left-right spectrum but by relative perceptions of Labour and Conservative. If the Tories are perceived as played-out, out-of-touch, exhausted or split over things that don’t matter then Labour, whoever their Leader is, stand a chance. If the Tories look vigorous, in touch and united then Labour has a big problem. It is understandable that Labour supporters and members see the attraction of a leader who at least believes what they really believe, has some fire in his belly and is untainted by the past. At best he might be a game-changer, shifting British politics firmly leftwards by his energy and sincerity, as well as by espousing supposedly leftish policies which are in fact generally popular, such as nationalising the railways. At worst, Labour is doomed in 2020 anyway by a fatal combination of Tory vigour and political astuteness, economic and demographic change and Scots nationalism, so it may as well go down fighting.