Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead Labour

Well, you should hold onto your hats during this blog, because we're going to tell some home truths.

Here's the main one: Jeremy Corbyn (above) cannot lead the Labour Party. There. We've said it. It's out there. Everyone knows it, in their hearts, but no-one's saying it, out of deference for that internal party 'democracy' the late and unlamented Ed Miliband decided to leave behind, and out of a certain respect for Mr Corbyn himself.

But it's true. Long-serving Labour members know that Mr Corbyn's true views represent only a small sect within the Party, quite apart from those who've recently joined in a rush of admirable (and often youthful) enthusiasm for ideas that seem clear, 'principled', passionate and above all anti-austerity in an era of painful cuts.

But consider. The tradition that Mr Corbyn represents is way out of the mainstream of the Labour Party, let alone the country. Labour's gradualist, parliamentary, reformist and above all mainstream appeal to the people is alien to Corbynism, a form of Marxist Socialism, rather than social democracy, that often revels in 'official' Labour's misfortunes - and which is unrecognisable, even totally inexplicable, to the mass of the electorate. Michael Foot, that brilliant and much-misunderstood Labour leader from the early 1980s, was far to the Right of Mr Corbyn - at a time when the country was much more Left-wing than it is today (and when Labour could rely on electing lots of MPs in Scotland). And look what happened to him.

Do Labour members really want to leave NATO? They shouldn't. Do they really want to be equivocal about our continuing membership of the European Union? They musn't. Do they want to chuck around tax and spending figures that have been plucked out of thin air? Mr Corbyn does exactly that when he commits a small Corporation Tax rise to spending plan after spending plan, and wildly exaggerates how much a rise in the top rate of Income Tax might bring in. Labour members have always been committed to multilateral defence, to the EU, and to telling the truth - however hard - about tax and spending. At present, they are being lured to their utter ruin by a campaign that tries to ignore all these real questions about actual policies. If members do plump for Mr Corbyn, they will wake up to find that their party has been utterly transformed into something they do not recognise, and something they do not like.

Many members have expressed in our hearing the view that 'well, they're all unelectable, so we'll just vote with our hearts'. This is a dangerous and mistaken expression of deep despair that the Labour of the past would and could have dismissed as defeatism. Bevan would never have despaired. Kinnock did not despair. And neither should we. For yes, it is unlikely that Labour will ever win an overall majority again without Scotland. Strong and consistent social democratic politics in these islands might never again be possible without at least some Labour recovery there. For now, that looks a long way away. But consider what Labour might easily do. Win five more seats, and deprive the Conservatives of their overall majority. Win ten to twenty more, and make it impossible for them to pass any laws. Win forty to fifty, and be in power with the backing of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens - and perhaps the Liberal Democrats. Politics is not a zero sum game. It is not about a binary choice of 'winning' or 'losing' in which you say 'oh well, we can't win, so we'll take our toys home'. It's about very small shifts in support and identity - all of which will be dwarfed by the popular cascade away from Labour if Mr Corbyn becomes its leader.

Think about what we know about the 2015 General Election, not just from the polling numbers, now cast into doubt by their patent recent inaccuracy, but reported back by Labour's unsuccessful candidates. Look. There are five reasons why Labour lost. It had a leader who no-one could imagine walking into No. 10. It had no economic credibility, because voters believe that Labour caused the crisis - and shouldn't be allowed to spend anyone's money until they have a credible team in place. Labour failed to listen to what most voters were telling it about immigration and welfare, allowing the United Kingdom Independence Party to tear into its working class vote. It seemed culturally distant, snobbish and arrogant when anyone brought up any concerns about spending, immigration or benefits. And it had no consistent vision of modern Britain, beyond a retail offer listing policies as bitty and confusing as an energy price freeze (when prices were falling) and an attack on zero hours workers (which many workers felt would abolish their jobs). 'Win a microwave' isn't much of an offer, when you really come to think about it.

It's no wonder that Labour candidates who failed to take target seats favour Liz Kendall, the most Right-wing candidate who's least identified with Labour's past. Voters listened with incredulity, and some hostility, as Labour candidates listed the Miliband offer to them on the doorstep. More than a few just slammed the door in canvassers' faces. Labour has to defy stereotypes just to gain a hearing again.

And what would Mr Corbyn do about this? He would make every single one of those failures worse. He will never be Prime Minister. He does not look, sound, speak or feel like one. He will never chair the COBRA emergency committee. He will never go to summits with Presidents and Chancellors. He couldn't even stand up at a Prime Minister's Questions without his own side booing him - and Prime Minister David Cameron just doubling up in a fit of giggles. Mr Corbyn, one suspects, knows this himself, for it is patently obvious that he possesses not the slenderest shred of credibility. Voters rate him bottom amongst the Labour contenders as a 'future Prime Minister', and those numbers will get worse once the Conservatives really get to work on him (they're laying off him for now, hoping that he wins). He will not accept a single adjustment to public spending, entirely beholden to producer interests as he is, at a time when we will be beginning a long shift downwards in the prospects for the public accounts. He will move sharply left on immigration and welfare. He will refuse to listen to everything that Britons (and particularly the English) have told Labour, again and again and again. It's no wonder that the Party is slipping even further backwards in voters' regard. Mr Corbyn will seek to reinvent reality. He will fail.

For shall we tell you how his remedies really worked out in practice? Inequality fell in post-war Britain, it is true - but based more on work, inter-generational mobility and the opening up of hundreds of thousands of white collar jobs, and less on actual government intervention. Solutions designed for that era - National Insurance, nationalisation, economic planning, very high rates of personal taxation - are also not necessarily the ones that we would adopt now that we are faced with the challenges of adapting to globalisation.

Nor did they work very well, even then. Let's take nationalisation. Now nationalisation allowed governments to direct modernisation, concentration and industrial streamlining in the 1950s - with the loss of a lot of jobs, though that wasn't all that painful at a time of high employment. But nationalised industries were run by distant, technocratic, Ministerially-appointed managers who had absolutely nothing at all to do with democracy. Industries such as electricity, telephones and water were progressively starved of investment by a Treasury that always - as now - wanted to save money above all else. Britain was left with a crumbling infrastructure that it took thirty years to put right. Nor did nationalisation lead to social harmony or industrial peace. Quite the opposite. It socialised the contests between workers and management, drew in the Government, and helped ferment an era of bitter industrial unrest and social division in (for instance) the coal industry. There is just so much to do, so much to think about, and so much to change in the privatised utility sector (there needs to be a shift from private borrowing to equity finance, for instance, to make sure that subsidies don't just go to massive offshore monopolies). We could talk more about mutualisation, or non-profit-making companies along the lines of Welsh Water or Network Rail. But this cul-de-sac of ahistorical Leftism will mean that none of that work and that thinking will get done. Mr Corbyn has his history all wrong: not as wrong as he gets his present, of course, but without understanding the nature of his defective pasts, one cannot understand the roots of his future hopes - all of which are destined, come what may, to wither and die.

And yet, at the time of writing, it does seem quite possible that Labour members, trade union associates and registered supporters will vote for Mr Corbyn as their leader. Even though he will probably not be able to appoint a Shadow Cabinet. Even though his own MPs will not support him in debates, and despite the fact that some of them, at least, may defect to other parties. Even though he will have the Conservatives laughing into their champagne. For make no mistake - a Corbyn leadership at a General Election would see Labour lose between 80 and 100 seats, hemmed into the inner cities and able to muster only about 130 to 150 MPs - a defeat unknown since the 1930s. The Conservatives would be able to occupy all of the centre ground where elections are won and lost, even though the public have moved moderately leftwards since about 2005. Labour will have ignored all the opportunities that patently exist, and will have failed to take advantage of that shift.

Corbynism is an elemental cry of pain from the heart. It is about identity, about a tribe that is deeply wounded and that wants to stand for something - for some values and some beliefs. That's totally understandable, but we are driven to say and record the following. Most of those beliefs are wrong, many of them do not belong in the Labour Party at all, and - taken as a whole, rather than as a pot pourri of Milibandite lists - they appall or even sicken the electorate.

Youthful enthusiasm is a good thing. It's fresh, clear, clean and dynamic. But we've been here before. George McGovern mobilised the radical young in his Left-wing 1972 US Presidential campaign. They got utterly, totally, embarrassingly, humiliatingly routed. Once Richard Nixon had stamped on their pea-shooter of a campaign, he went on to fundamentally poison some of the roots of American government and American trust in their leaders. We shouldn't let it happen here, as it assuredly will once the over-60s - who turn out in their droves, and last time chose the Conservatives by a margin of nearly two-to-one - have finished with these misguided enthusiasms.

And then the Corbynites - most of whom have homes, jobs, contacts and prospects - will have to go round and apologise to every mum who's terrified of being pushed out of London because of the bedroom tax. To every worker who wonders how she can possibly afford to go to work now her tax credits have been slashed. To every elderly citizen trapped in their home, who's been left all day to sit in their chair without a home help. To every child who's learning in a dilapidated prefab. To everyone who's sitting, doubled up with chronic pain, waiting for an NHS appointment. To everyone living in a crowded little hutch in an unplanned, sprawling suburb.

Because Labour's plunge off the precipice will mean there will be no-one left to speak up for them.