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Mr Corbyn's Agenda

14/08/2015 10:52 BST | Updated 13/08/2016 10:59 BST

"Unelectable", "inexperienced", "would lead the party over a precipice", the efforts of the Labour establishment to discredit Jeremy Corbyn's leadership bid utilise all the obvious political adjectives. In the end, though, it is the first one, "unelectable", which gets the most use because electability has come to mean everything in party politics. If the package isn't attractive to the public, then it's the wrong package. That is how the spin doctors talked in the recent election campaign and the conventional wisdom is that the Labour Party made a mistake in choosing their policies because they should have realised that they were not popular enough. That is one way of looking at things.

If you listen to those who support Mr Corbyn, and in particular to his trade union supporters, the approach is quite different. For them the most important thing is that the party should adopt the right principles and that those principles should be offered to the electorate. If elections are lost, well that is simply the price you pay for democracy, but the hope is that voters will ultimately be convinced.

This goes right to heart of what politics are for. Is the aim simply to govern on a basis of compromised principles or is it to take particular ideas and, by continual pressure, persuade the electorate? The answer depends on who you are. Some politicians will be attracted by the first approach, arguing that the game is about providing good government. Others, let's call them "conviction politicians," see their politics as a mechanism for pursuing much-needed reforms.

Generally the British public does not much care for conviction politicians and is attracted by a more managerial approach. We like big tents, one nation and incremental changes to the status quo. Those who follow theories are generally distrusted and change normally takes place on a slow, pragmatic basis with rather more concern than is healthy for vested interest. That is not always the case, though, and I remember attending a meeting in the City in 1975, a day or so after Mrs Thatcher had been elected leader of the Conservative Party. People did not know much about her at that stage save that she had previously served in Mr Heath's Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education and Science where she had attracted the label "Thatcher the milk snatcher" because of the withdrawal of free school milk for children over the age of seven.

There was an important public figure present at the meeting and he was asked what he thought of the new appointment. He was dismissive. In his view she was too young and inexperienced, clearly not up to the job but appointed through some sort of psephological accident. Still, he thought it would all be all right. He explained how she would be a mere figurehead with the heavyweights of the Conservative party guiding her every step.

As we all now know, Margaret Thatcher was a conviction politician and, although often more pragmatic than she is given credit for, believed passionately that the country should rollback socialism, push power away from the state and embrace a free-market economy. This was radical stuff back in the 1970s. Then the perceived wisdom was that the world was moving slowly to the left and that the real political issues surrounded how fast it moved and how one implemented the changes. Conservative principles were thus reactionary - not in a pejorative sense but because their essence was resistance to an inevitable tide.

Mrs Thatcher's victory in 1979 was remarkable in two ways. For one thing, it punctured this general perception of inevitable progress towards the left. For another, the British public overcame their innate resistance to conviction politicians because they had a sense that something had gone badly wrong with the old order and had become sufficiently exasperated to try something quite different.

If you look at where we are now you can find the same sense that something has gone wrong. One by one the institutions which support our society have been examined and have been found wanting. The press have hacked email accounts. MPs have overclaimed their expenses. Public figures have been involved in child abuse. The banks have been involved in fraud and have let down their customers. Immigration policies have become confused. Policies for integrating minorities have created terrorists.

Problems of this sort are not new and if you look back over the history of the UK, and indeed its sister nations, you will see that things go wrong fairly regularly. Take the South Sea bubble if you would like something spectacular, or, if you would prefer something more recent, the scandals which hit the Lloyd's insurance market. Take the decision to attack the Zulus or to send troops to Suez. Take 100 other things if you like; there are plenty of examples. The point is though that periodically you get to a stage where the general approach becomes threadbare and the public throws off its innate conservatism to vote for fundamental change. That is where we were when we elected Mrs Thatcher in 1979. It is where we were when Atlee won the election in 1945. It is probably also where we were when Tony Blair was elected in 1997. It may well be where we are getting to now.

Apart from a feeling of decay, there are other causes for concern. Although Britain seems to have recovered fairly well from the 2008 downturn, there are fundamentals which seem to be out of balance. The property market makes it difficult to meet the aspirations of the young. The dismantling of the pension system has made it difficult for people to provide for a comfortable old age. The over politicisation of the health system impedes its modernisation. There are sufficient doubts over the effectiveness of state education to keep rolls at private schools at a high level.

When things get into this state the public will begin to look for a change of emphasis and that is something which Mr Corbyn's policies certainly offer. It is possible then that a bit of extra drift or a few more national scandals could result in the electorate overlooking things which they would normally find objectionable - his sympathy for the IRA for example, Corbynomics for another, his dislike of NATO and its operations for a third and lots of other political baggage beside. That is particularly likely if, by the time the next election occurs, he has temporised his public stance and claims that his more extremist views are entirely historic. Kenneth Clarke has warned that Mr Corbyn should be taken seriously and he is right.

Turning to the other side of the political divide, the government seem to be well aware that they need to reform if they are to survive and their program is correspondingly far-reaching. Tax avoidance has been more or less stamped out. Tax evasion has been cut back. Planning laws are being revised to give the young the prospect of owning their own homes. Attacks are to be made on coasting schools. The energetic Mr Gove is tackling prison reform. Mr Duncan Smith will be completing his work on welfare. Everywhere it will be hustle and bustle and that is before we worry about migration, membership of the EU and how to combat radicalisation.

With a majority of only twelve, the government is going to have its work cut out getting through all this. There will be Tory MPs who oppose reform tactically in an attempt to extract advantages for their constituents. Some of the initiatives will go wrong. Some, hopefully including withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights, will be lost in the frenzy. Still the only way is through and the place of this administration in history will depend upon how different Britain looks in 2020 from the way it looks now.

There is a political dimension to this too. If Mr Corbyn becomes leader of the Labour Party, by seizing the reformist agenda the government will shoot his fox. After all, his hope of power depends on a high level of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a feeling that nothing much is being done about it. If the Tories are seen to be fighting for reform that hope dies. Where then does that leave his leadership of his party? Suppose the government sells its reforms to the public and Mr Corbyn is frozen out of power. What will he and his supporters have achieved? A platform for his ideas and nothing else?

It is at this point that you should look back to what motivates them. If their real object is to advocate a particular philosophy and to inject new ideas into the public mind, they might well say that they had met with success. As Labour discovered with the minimum wage, reformers will grab ideas wherever they come from and there is certainly room for a resurgence of cooperative structures to challenge those which are driven by profit. If Mr Corbyn and his friends could develop these ideas and insinuate them into the public mind they could make a huge contribution to the well-being of the nation even if they never get elected to power.