What Would Happen if Jeremy Corbyn Became Prime Minister?

It's 2020 and the Labour-left is in charge. Britain's establishment is not happy.

by Simon Childs
28 July 2015, 3:40pm

Jeremy Corbyn (right) with his friend and fellow Labour left-winger, John McDonnell (Photo by Jack Pasco)

It's 11.30PM on the 7th of May, 2020. You sip on a tin of Skol and munch a slice of frozen cardboard supermarket pizza as David Dimbleby squints at you through a faltering laptop stream – it's BBC Election 2020 , brought to you by Greggs. He seems somewhat dulled now, less sharp than he used to be, but with enough loveable charm to anchor the show as a legacy personality. The decrepit town crier of Westminster, ringing in the new government.

He's grilling a disbelieving Michael Gove, who is insisting that the exit poll – released 25 minutes ago, predicting a narrow victory for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party – is completely wrong. Never mind that exit polls are almost always bang-on: in a moment of hubris Gove promises to dance a naked jig to the Jam's "Eton Rifles" if it proves correct – a promise that he will later have to fulfil in front of an audience of millions.

After a short round of negotiations with the SNP, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru, Jeremy Corbyn makes his first speech outside Downing Street as the Prime Minister of a coalition government with a slim majority.

For this scenario to unfold, it would be necessary for certain truisms of British politics to be squashed – at least temporarily.


In political terms, the constant calls for Labour to be "pragmatic" and "realistic" – calls that basically boil down to "do the same as the Tories" – would need to be emphatically silenced. The massive civil war that is likely to break out in the Labour Party if Corbyn's leadership bid is successful would have to be won by the left. The party's right wing would have to be purged, perhaps seeing them leave to join lobbying firms and consultancies, or else the Lib Dems in political Siberia. In the ruins, Corbyn would need to turn Labour into less a political party for Britain's conscientious businesspeople and celebrities, and more of a social movement – a cross-section of trade unions and activist groups, funded by internet crowds a la Podemos.

In the build up to the 2020 election, that movement would need to have grown enough to shift popular opinion to the left – though not as far to the left as some anti-Corbynites would currently have you believe; on numerous policy issues, Corbyn's ideas already align with those of the public. As James Meadway points out, George Osborne's summer budget will drag vast swathes of the population into gloom by making serious benefits and services cuts. If Corbyn is to be successful in 2020, Osborne needs to be seen by the public as an unwitting conductor, hurrying angry, flustered people aboard the Corbyn train in his bid to redefine the welfare state.

To remain in power, Corbyn would then need to reverse austerity. The sheer weight of anti-austerity sentiment he needs to come to power in the first place would not allow for anything else, and nor would his newly democratised Labour Party. He would have to stick to his promises, and this could make things tricky.

Corbyn currently faces complaints from business, Conservatives and the Westminster bubble's New Labour zombies, who say his policies are unrealistic because they haven't been properly costed and thought through. But this is disingenuous; if the policies are unrealistic, it's mainly because those complainants will do everything in their power to block Corbyn from achieving what he wants to do.

Jeremy again (Photo by Matthew Francey)

For all the talk of him being a loony leftist, Corbyn's election manifesto is revolution-lite. His mooted £10 minimum wage would get rid of the worst poverty, but it wouldn't completely rebalance the economy in favour of the poor. He wants to close the budget deficit, but by investing not cutting, which makes more economic sense in conventional terms. He wants to tax the rich more, close loopholes for corporations and reverse £93 billion of corporate tax relief. He would abolish tuition fees, re-nationalise the railways and introduce a rent cap. All of these aims are perfectly plausible in an equal world.

But his envisioned "economy that works for all" is an economy that would have the very small number of oligarchs that the economy currently works for waking up in cold sweats. Moneyweek, "The UK's best-selling financial magazine", is already warning that "Corbynomics is no joke – we must nip it in the bud".

The housing market got the jitters before this year's election merely because it was thought possible that Ed Miliband might introduce a mansion tax. Following Cameron's victory, capitalists breathed a sigh of relief and share prices rocketed across the board. After a Corbyn victory, they would slump as investors looked on in horror at the prospect of being made to pay slightly more tax.

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Corbyn's plan to allow the poor to breathe would have monopoly men catching the first flight to tax havens. If jobs went with them, Corbyn would be under pressure to appease big business. Maybe even a couple of low profile privatisations would keep them sweet?

If, during his tenure, big money were to flee and the economy to falter, Corbyn would have to cast around for easy wins. At that point he would probably curse his decision – taken for the sake of party unity – to back the successful referendum campaign to stay in the EU. The hated Brussels bureaucrats would see that quick-fix, populist ideas from Corbyn's brightest young SPADS were struck out. Anti-poverty campaigner and tax-expert Richard Murphy, for instance, has already warned that any tax on luxury goods would not be allowed under EU law. How many policies would have to be consigned to the dustbin?

Any attempt to take the NHS – likely to become a husk of its former self, with outsourcing companies providing a safety net for those unable to afford expensive private insurance – back into public ownership could see Britain sued for hundreds of millions by an alliance of private health companies, thanks to TTIP.

Something far more personally damaging than public opinion or transnational trade agreements could also start working against him. In the 1970s, MI5 hatched a plot called Clockwork Orange to smear Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, led by members of the intelligence services who thought he was a communist. If you think the British intelligence services would be chill about the union being broken up thanks to a new Scottish indyref being signed into Corbyn's coalition agreement, think again – ditto for any Labour plan to scrap Trident and step down from the world stage.

Of course, if you try to tar someone as a communist these days, you just look silly. However, it probably wouldn't take too long for any forces moving against Corbyn to find some mud that would stick. Security service leaks could start to appear in the establishment press, for example, casting doubts over Corbyn's commitment to patriotism – patriotism here meaning "hatred of Muslims".

Perhaps Israel will decide to "mow the lawn" in Gaza once again. Corbyn has already been grilled for calling Hamas and Hezbollah his "friends" at a meeting – any condemnation of such a massacre would render him an outsider to the international "anti-terrorist" hegemony now commanded by US President Donald Trump. Perhaps, unable to live down his new image as a friend of the world's worst pariahs, George Galloway will make an ill-advised attempt to defend him, saluting Jeremy's "strength, courage and indefatigability" and in the process destroying public trust in him.

It would be at this moment – besieged by the establishment, his popularity dented by allegations that he's in league with terrorists – that Corbyn would most badly need the social movement that catapulted him to power to rally around in support.

And then he'd have a choice to make. The optimism for a new, kinder Britain following his win would dissipate quickly after an election victory unless he could bring about real, rapid change for the worst off and middle classes. That change could only happen in confrontation with the establishment, to whom he'd have to resolutely square up – otherwise we'd be looking at the great revolt of 2021 being put down by the Labour Party's riot police using the same water cannons Theresa May finally approved for use during the great inner-city riots of 2018. In the event, it may be less a question for Corbyn himself, and more one for the social movements that any tenure of his would surely rely on.


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