It was an enormous shock to Westminster watchers when veteran MP Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party. Few people could have been more shocked than the new leader himself, who had started out as a rank outsider before unexpectedly taking the contest by storm.
The Labour Left has been in seemingly terminal decline for years, reduced to a handful of ageing MPs, and the assumption was that Corbyn would trail in a distant last place, as Diane Abbott had in 2010.
He himself was mainly standing to broaden the debate.
But events proved everyone wrong, and now MPs and journalists are having to get used to the leadership of a quietly spoken backbencher from the party’s ideological fringe, who then surprised everyone again by appointing as his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, possibly the only MP further Left than himself.
Until very recently, observers had paid little attention to either man, precisely because they were so far from the centre of power. While Corbyn and McDonnell have been close collaborators for decades, and very much come as a package deal, they do differ in style. Corbyn, despite his image as an extremist, is a mild-mannered figure who genuinely dislikes conflict. McDonnell is spikier, more combative, and given to forthright language that’s often got him in trouble in the past. Much of the difference is simply a matter of personalities, but it’s tempting to explain it by their backgrounds.
Neither man is a religious believer, and McDonnell has in the past said he would rather not be included in the lists of Catholic MPs that are sometimes produced. This is at least honest, as probably half the MPs on those lists are nominal Catholics who have barely set foot inside a church in their adult lives. But McDonnell is Liverpool Irish by background, and that influence is still strong within him. His speeches often sound like the sermons of an old-school Jansenist priest excoriating the sinners in his congregation. And the single most contentious point of his record, his friendliness towards Sinn Féin, has certainly been influenced by his background.
Corbyn’s style is very different. Though he is by nature a private man, he has spoken about being raised in a strongly Christian family. His legendary puritanism – having the lowest expenses claims in Parliament, buying his vests from market stalls – very much fits in with the old Nonconformist tradition and is authentically Corbyn, not a gimmick dreamed up by a political stylist.
One of the most striking things about the new leadership duo is how they exemplify the old-fashioned idea that MPs are employees of their constituents. In theory, neither of them should have a safe seat: Corbyn’s multicultural Islington constituency is the kind of area that in years past would have been vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats, while McDonnell’s Hayes and Harlington, in suburban west London, was represented for many years by the right-wing Tory Terry Dicks, and should really be a marginal seat. But both of them have built up impregnable majorities simply by being extremely hard-working, and happily dealing with as much casework as their constituents can give them.
Similarly, both are essentially activists, which is rare at the top of Labour. The last Labour leader who could have been classed as an activist was George Lansbury in the 1930s. Even icons of the Left such as Michael Foot or Tony Benn were really platform speakers rather than grassroots activists. But Corbyn and McDonnell’s willingness over many years to devote their time and energy to a range of causes has generated a constituency for them. McDonnell, in particular, inspires fierce loyalty in sections of London Labour, and at election times party members from across the capital will descend on Hayes and Harlington specifically to canvass for him.
But the surprise result couldn’t have happened without appealing to an audience outside the usual run of Labour activists. It seems to fit with a prevailing mood, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, where the public is turning away from the slickness and spin of pre-crash politics. There is fertile ground for insurgent parties like the Greens, the Scottish Nationalists or Ukip.
Those rare politicians who are unspun, authentic and don’t talk down to the voters have a potent appeal. Boris Johnson has succeeded by being a larger-than-life character, and Andy Burnham’s pitch for the Labour leadership was heavily based on his northern working-class background. It was unfortunate for Burnham that he was too much of an insider to convincingly run as an outsider.
So what will the new broom at the top of the party mean for Labour’s relationship with religious groups? The great cliché about the Labour Party is that, unlike continental socialist parties, it was founded on Methodism rather than Marxism. But those roots have withered as society as a whole has become less religious, and have often been fraught in recent years.
There are relatively few prominent Labour figures today who are even willing to publicly admit to a religious faith.
Of the party’s two most prominent Catholic figures, Jim Murphy was swept aside by the Nationalist surge in Scotland, while Andy Burnham often seemed, when talking about his faith, to be looking over his shoulder to see if the party’s metropolitan liberals would hold it against him. Although there are exceptions – newly elected Lancaster MP Cat Smith, a serious Christian socialist, will be someone to watch – the religious element in the party is steadily declining.
Much of this is a generational shift. Tony Blair liked the idea of religious communities as stakeholders, and Gordon Brown could on occasion speak movingly about his Presbyterian roots, but little of this seemed to filter through to those who succeeded them. Indeed, there was a period when it seemed as if large elements of Labour were becoming firmly anti-religious rather than simply indifferent.
This period may be passing. The era when the New Atheism was sweeping through the culture now looks like an aspect of the boom years.
But there is also an ideological element at work. For many people, it will seem common sense that, if the moderate Left is somewhat hostile to religion, the hard Left will be very hostile. But that isn’t necessarily true. Old-style socialists may be atheists, but they are less likely than the liberal Left to have adopted atheism as a form of identity politics.
Of course, Labour is not going to return to a pre-1960s social conservatism. McDonnell and Corbyn do not dissent from the mainstream Labour positions on feminism, gay rights or similar issues. Indeed, Corbyn was an advocate for gay issues in Parliament long before it was fashionable. But these stances derive from a broader view of social justice, and the two men have other priorities centred around class and economics.
As activists, they are used to building diverse coalitions with people who disagree with them, and one hears of Jeremy Corbyn speaking to church audiences in his constituency with an ease that it’s difficult to imagine Ed Miliband doing. The question will be, in this unpredictable period, how broadly McDonnell and Corbyn will cast their net, and how inclusive a coalition they want to – and can – build.
This article appears in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (2/10/15).
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