The election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour Party leader tells us three things. First, that we have (deservedly) lost faith in the prevailing political class. Second, that the old class-and-age-based party alliances are dead. And third, that things are going to be a lot more interesting (if also a little worrying).
First, Corbyn (like Donald Trump in the Republican Party election in the US) did well because he does not follow the accepted norms for politicians. For one thing, he didn’t wear a suit in regulation camera-friendly plain colours or, like rival Andy Burnham, blue-grey and the regular white shirt and camera-friendly plain tie too. Indeed, there was speculation that Corbyn’s minders had briefly got him to dispose of his undershirt, but this hope was soon dashed. He was neither clean-shaven nor coiffured. Unlike the others he looked like a regular person, in fact – acting his age as a mature person who does not need to dress like a mannequin to be taken seriously, but can be taken seriously on his experience alone.
Maybe that is why he used just two words when the others used ten. He had no need to exert his presence by filling the available airtime, because his presence alone was quite sufficient, and the views he was expressing were so gripping. No need to fill the airways with platitudes when you can simply drop one or two bombshells and enjoy the silence.
The reason why he gripped the debate and garnered the votes was precisely that. Whatever you might think of his positioning, he seems like the sort of person you can have an honest conversation with in the pub, rather than someone who believes nothing and spouts focus-group-tested soundbites at you. Britain, it seems – or at least the Labour side of it – is ready for such straight talking after the porage of the Blair-Cameron era. The fact is that we are fed up with identikit politicians and want leaders who will take firm views on things they believe in – even if we sometimes disagree with them.
Second, with this stance, Corbyn can attract new people to his side of politics, breaking them away from their traditional tribes (as the LibDems tried, but failed to do). Mrs Thatcher, similarly, had strong support in the working-class and Northern areas that were hardly traditional Tory heartland communities. They voted for her, even though they disagreed with much of what she did, because at least she looked like a leader, who knew where she was going, and not as a cipher that could let us drift off down the path to hell if it seemed to be less controversial. And there are a lot of potential things coming up that might split old alliances too – such as Scottish devolution and the EU referendum. The Labour Party in Scotland is dead, but might a more-left UK Labour Party be more willing to do a deal, or be more able to pick up the votes of disgruntled Scots? It all suggests that a Corbyn-led Labour Party (if it can hold together) could well pick up all kinds of new support from new places, and from non-voters who have given up on Westminster government entirely.
Third, all that is going to be interesting. The Labour (or indeed Tory) moderates who try to paint Corbyn as a dangerous nutter will seem as significant as the temperance campaigners who complained that Churchill drank too much.
With any luck the old consensus in which we drift gracefully into more and more public spending and more and more regulation and more and more intrusive legislation over our lives might suffer a shock, as it did in the Thatcher era. It probably won’t last long until we are drowned in cross-party porage again, but enjoy it while it lasts, if you enjoy a white-knuckle ride that is.