Accustomed to muttering about the darkness of the times, I sometimes forget how bizarre they are: the speed of events under the self-styled “stable” Conservatives gives everything a psychedelic feel. We have a Tory PM standing with a message that best resembles the BNP manifesto circa 2005, and a Labour challenger launching with a line on primary school class sizes that was on Tony Blair’s pledge card in 1997, plus a promise of more bank holidays that is far less disruptive to business than Blair’s idea of a national minimum wage. Yet Corbyn is the unelectable one.
Interviewers pretzel-twist themselves trying to make the case that he is too radical, as if only dangerous Trots want to adequately educate children, and the normal view of the country were that taxation is a conspiracy and employers should call all the shots. Corbyn and his lieutenants respond with jibes about the biased media of a rigged system, unable to answer spontaneously in the certainty that they’ll be attacked and misrepresented.
I have a kinder reading of this situation, on both sides. Interviewers are subconsciously trying to resolve the dissonance between popular policies and dire poll ratings. If Corbyn is trailing May like a marathon-runner dressed as a chicken behind Paula Radcliffe, then he must be crazy; otherwise the electorate is. And everyone knows voters can’t be crazy. Sanity is defined by majorities.
Yet the polls aren’t about policies: they’re about stories And the story of Corbyn is that he has a lifelong passion for the programme but loathes the pomp of high office. You could make him prime minister, but who would do that to the poor guy?
I have no great respect for the cult of leadership. All those qualities – charisma, decisiveness, assurance – are usually roundabout ways of saying “male” and “posh”. Leaderliness is always proclaimed of a person once they become leader, in a sudden ecstasy of submission. David Cameron, who before his time in office was a ham-faced blusterer, and since his resignation has been correctly identified as a lightweight and an incompetent, spent from 2010 to June 2016 a natural leader, his masterful bearing remarked upon after every speech, his opponent unleaderly by definition.
Yet the suggestion that leadership is best provided by the person who hates the very idea of it is little better. At the end of the 11th century St Anselm had to be dragged by monks, weeping down the aisle, to become the archbishop of Canterbury. This inverse egotism of self-mortification – “only I can not want this job enough to be the right person to do it” – has been the left’s speciality since well before the left existed.
Corbyn doesn’t want to be the person at the Cenotaph in front of the union flag; he doesn’t want to meet the Queen, or find common ground with Nicola Sturgeon, or admit that the chasm between his agenda and the Greens’ is really no more than a crack in the pavement, one that any two Conservatives would step jauntily over. He doesn’t want to wear a tie or have a cup of tea with Tim Farron or stand in front of cameras with all the other world leaders. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want any of those things either. But no electorate is going to drag him down that aisle: in a modern democracy, you just can’t get the monks.
No amount of spinning or grooming or looking Zen on Andrew Marr will make him look any way other than how he always has, an outsider by choice; more than choice, vocation. The progressive case will move faster when his allies and near-allies stop trying to tease failure from his policies and his speeches. There is nothing wrong with the direction or the analysis; no left-leaning party would lead on anything other than saving the NHS, building social housing and reducing inequality. Yet, at the same time, expecting undecideds to be won over by his very particular brand of contrarianism isn’t realistic.
It is only from a distance that leadership looks like the be-all-and-end-all. The closer people get to their own sovereignty – not in the Ukip sense, “a rousing word that sounds a little bit regal”, but the literal sense, the lowest point at which you can exert your power meaningfully on a state process – the more they talk about alliances and agendas; and the less they talk about a single saviour galloping in to mend politics. All over the country, local members of different progressive parties are making deals to maximise their chances, whether it’s the Greens in Ealing Central and Acton stepping aside for Rupa Huq or all the progressives (so far) making way so that Sophie Walker from the Women’s Equality party can take on the odious Philip Davies MP.
This kind of discussion is happening everywhere, particularly in the south west, somewhat in the south east, but also Leeds, Hull, really, across the country. Not everyone is doing it because they doubt Corbyn’s leadership abilities. A good few are convinced he should be prime minister and are just trying to break open some options while they wait for the rest of the country to realise. Still, unavoidably, when you talk about a progressive alliance, you are giving up on a politics that is defined by a single personality.
And this is giving up a lot: not just a prevailing understanding of the world so far, a string of personalities intersecting with each other, and with fortune. Inevitably, you give up on the idea of a single, dominant leftwing party whose elemental power is all sitting there, stored in a rock, waiting for the right person to pull a sword out of it. It’s unnerving and obscurely unglamorous to rethink the left as a set of movements coming together and springing apart, more like line dance than a battalion. But it’s the only way politics will be transformed.
The electorate isn’t tribal any more. A Scottish unionist who has never voted anything but Labour is now more likely to vote Conservative. A centrist French anti-fascist is more likely to vote hard than soft socialist. Everything is more fungible except the rigid centre – if it cannot catch up, it will look ever more hamstrung and perverse.
If you oppose hard Brexit, if you can’t stomach unending Tory dominance, if you want authentic politics and can no longer bear to watch the humourless, camp, keep-calm-and-carry-on bilge that is currently suffocating it, you are already part of a progressive alliance. The question is whether you’re an active player or a sleeping partner.