Monday, 28 September 2015

The long reign of King George

Let's turn, this week, to the other side of the political equation: let's have a look at the Conservatives' tactical and strategic choices in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn's surprise election as Leader of the Labour Party.

Behind the scenes, they're elated. High-fiving, fist-bumping and laughing in the corridors of Westminster, they cannot - of course - believe their luck. Now, as The Historian has always predicted, there might be something of a Corbyn bounce in the weeks and months ahead. There's scant evidence of it so far, though there is a bit of an uptick in Labour support noticeable in Labour-leaning Wales as recorded in a YouGov poll this morning. It may well be that Mr Corbyn's plain-man-in-the-Islington-coffee-house persona will buoy up Labour's poll ratings over the next few months. That the people will want to buy a political craft ale after years of fizzy-but-samey lager. The Party's sensible refusal to tear itself to pieces at its first Corbyn-led conference, notably over Syria and Trident, is a baby step in this direction. And there is abundant evidence of lots of voters pricking up their ears and taking a bit of notice of Mr Corbyn as new, intriguing, fresh and above all a bit different. He will probably do a little bit better than many of his detractors believe right now.

But really. Conservatives noted all this at their recent political Cabinet. They pondered for a bit and tried to look serious. They made a few respectful noises. Then they all burst out laughing. They now think that they get to play this Parliament's game of 'UK Elect' on the easy settings, kicking back with a few beers, leaving Central Office empty, saving on their heating bills and just pushing out an email every few days from the comfort of their armchairs. That they don't even have to try. They're probably right, as Labour's 'new' but incoherent and fantastical economic policy is just one great big easy open goal that Conservatives can just keep kicking the ball into until their legs are tired.

But this does face the Conservative Party with some serious dilemmas. The first problem they'll have to face is how not to kick seven bells out of each other over the European Union referendum, now they believe they're likely to be in power for the next decade at least. The second, though, is much more significant, and goes to the heart of the dilemma facing all modern Conservatives: what is the party for? Should it be all Tory consolidation, comforting noises and anti-Socialism, with a bit of patriotism and a dash of welfarism blended in? That's the 'Harold Macmillan' option. Or should it go hell-for-leather right now, while there's basically no official Opposition, and try to reshape state and society in their entirety? We can call this the 'Thatcher' button on our imaginary 'UK Elect' game.

Well, they're almost certainly going to go for option one. They still don't have much of a majority, remember, as displayed by notable recent retreats on fox hunting and the European Convention on Human Rights. Wholesale reforms of - for instance - the NHS and the BBC will have to wait until 2020-25. But the tack to the centre will first and foremost be because the Conservatives' top leaders these days are basically political nihilists, as we've argued many times. What matters is winning, over and over and over again. And they'll do anything to secure that end. In fact, let's amend that: what matters is winning for an entire generation. Smashing the Labour Party to bits, driving over it repeatedly to make sure, then chucking it in an incinerator and burying the rest of it in a shallow grave.

They're succeeding at the moment, by the way. The Trade Union Bill's changes to political funding, whereby trade union members will have to 'opt in' to political funding rather than choosing to 'opt out', just like changes to charity's rights to speak out in the last Parliament, are designed to chill and still opposition in its entirety. To bankrupt Labour as a serious national party. Given their likely loss of councillors and MPs over the next five years, the state funding and support that is also the lifeblood of any party that seriously seeks to form a government is going to bleed away as well.

And what will be the best way to disembowel Labour? To go for the centre (rhetorically, at least): to aim at precisely the sweet spot where all those Britons who are leaning Conservative live and think. Now we've already seen this process in action, because Chancellor George Osborne made sure he claimed to be bringing in a Living Wage during this last Budget. Now, yes, we know that he wasn't, and that Tax Credits cuts will actually leave most of the working poor worse off. We've pointed this out before. But it's a waste of breath now that Labour have vacated the ground where they can even hope to fight back.

Now he'll pull this trick again and again. He'll talk about devolution all the time, even though the reality is somewhat less impressive than the rhetoric. He'll squeeze as much as he can out of new childcare and leave arrangements (and spending) for working parents. He'll try to pull centrist Labour MPs into his big tent with offers of big juicy jobs. He'll indulge in a great big string of tax cuts once he has a surplus in place during 2018-20. Know where they'll be focused? Yes, you guessed it - among the blue collar workers, the so-called C2s of electoral lore, who often opted to stay with Labour in 2010 and 2015. While all the cuts happen to very poor and disadvantaged Britons - or slice into budgets, for instance for research or the police, that few people notice in their day-to-day lives. That way, he can recoup the greatest electoral advantage for the least money spent. Since Osborne is now quite likely to be the next Conservative leader and next Prime Minister (right now he's got a 35% chance of that on the betting markets, as against Boris Johnson's 18%), he's got every incentive to do all this. He'll talk about economic and social security for the middling sort of Britons (who, oh, just happen to be those people who live in marginal seats, and who will actually vote) until you're sick of hearing it. And then he'll say it some more.

How far we have come. In early May, as the spring began, Left-leaning Britons thought they discerned a future of rainbow coalitions, proportional voting, a federal Britain, and an end to austerity. Now, as we leave September, the future appears rather different. And it's this: George Osborne doing just as he likes. For as long as he likes.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Corbynmania: early evidence

One good thing about having very strong opinions is that you can then test them against the evidence. Now, there weren't many opinions stronger than those we came out with last week - namely that Labour's new leader, Jeremy Corbyn (above), was doomed to fail on psephological, domestic and foreign policy grounds. Now, the fascinating thing is that - having shown our workings - we can get down to actually testing those views. The fact that we've already put those concepts and computations down in hard, cold print has one enormous advantage: it shows not only where we were right, but (still more interesting) where we may have gone wrong.

Mr Corbyn's foreign and domestic policies will probably take a while to assemble - especially as his Shadow Cabinet and MPs seem to have an open license to just ignore them. But we already have some polling, and actual electoral, data that we can use to test and explore our assumptions about Mr Corbyn's likely popularity - or, to be blunt, lack of it. So let's get to it.

Last week we said that the new look Labour Party would probably be generally unpopular, given its leader's past, as well as his views on key touchstone issues. But we thought there was a likelihood that his novel experiment might get quite a lift or 'bounce' in the polls, due to its freshness, apparent lack of spin, and clear opinions. However, we furthermore argued that he would have a hard time attracting voters back from the Scottish National Party (due to that party's patriotic and centrist, as well as 'left wing' appeal), but that Mr Corbyn might be able to get Green and United Kingdom Independence Party adherents to join his new brand of anti-austerity politics. Since Labour seems no longer even to want Conservative voters to take a second look at them, those three pools are where they're going to have to get new voters from. As well as from last time's non-voters, of course, but that's difficult to test as yet.

How are we doing with those prognostications? Well, not bad on the overall picture, but with some interesting caveats on the detail.

The first thing to say is that there has not been much of an overall 'Corbyn bounce'. That may not be surprising, given his absolutely torrid first week in charge, during which his project looked on several occasions like blowing up before it had even begun. But it is of note. There's a teeny, tiny bit of a lift discernable in the four national polls and one marginal survey we've seen. But it's well within the margin of error, and therefore it might not be there at all. ComRes showed a 0.5 per cent swing to the Conservatives from their last poll; YouGov, a 1.5 per cent move to Labour; ICM, the same; and Opinium, a 0.5 per cent swing to Labour since the General Election. An ICM marginals poll, taken in Conservative seats with slender majorities, showed a 2 per cent swing to Labour. All that left Labour a long way back - eight points behind the Conservatives if we take the YouGov figures, when they led by one point the day after Ed Miliband was elected leader in 2010. This should worry you a great deal if you are cheering Mr Corbyn on to ever-greater heights. Every Labour leader in the past fifty years has got a polling 'bounce' on taking up the reins - except James Callaghan and Michael Foot. And look what happened to them. Even Michael Howard and (especially) David Cameron gave their parties a lift when they first became leader. Now? Almost nothing. So our first presumption - that there would be something of an early Labour bounce - seems to have gone awry.

We also have quite a lot of evidence that the policies Mr Corbyn is most associated with are often very, very unpopular. Rail and energy nationalisation are popular, as are rent caps and more taxation on the rich. Fair enough - those causes have for many years been seen as pretty good ideas by a majority of the public. But the numbers on national security - Trident, the military, patriotism - and on the economy are dire. A majority in the ComRes data actually think Labour's leader is a positive danger to national security. The overall picture, away from specific policies, is just awful. A majority of voters trust Mr Corbyn only on the NHS, and that by a mere seven points: far worse figures than Mr Miliband's even at his nadir. He is underwater on the economy by 17 percentage points, even at the start of his leadership. Leftists are enthused, something that may well help Labour survive in an era of local campaigning and Individual Voter Registration. But worried centrists and swing voters alienated. The really worrying thing about this is how UKIP voters have responded. ORB data which only covers what voters are thinking of doing, or might do, has to be treated with caution. But it's revealing. 20 per cent of past UKIP voters are now more likely to vote Labour; but 42 per cent are now more likely to vote Conservative. Last week we thought this might be where Mr Corbyn might find some of the new votes Labour desperately needs. This sort of finding undermines even that thin hope.

Overall, Mr Corbyn is deeply divisive. Particular policy positions are popular: the overall offer, and philosophy, certainly is not. So Labour has learned nothing from the failures of the 2015 General Election, in which it made precisely this error of focusing on a 'retail offer' rather than a deeply resonant series of stories and emotions. Mr Corbyn starts off on YouGov data with a negative rating of -18: 38 percentage points below where Mr Miliband began as leader (that -18% figure is backed up by the ComRes numbers reweighted for those actually likely to vote). Those numbers alone ought to frighten Labour headquarters out of its wits, for personal ratings are more likely to fall than rise in the medium term. His numbers are somewhat above the truly abysmal that Mr Miliband's plumbed: given how far ahead of Mr Corbyn the latter started, similar numbers are probably not far away.

And what about attracting actual votes from among those who voted for other parties in 2015? Well, here there's some solid votes in ballot boxes to go on. Last week there were two council by-elections in Haringey, one in Ayr, one in rural North Yorkshire, and one in Cambridgeshire. Labour seems to have attracted votes from the Greens to increase their large majorities in the first two contests, remained in third place in Ayr East, and got nowhere in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire. The move from the Greens, combined with numbers buried on page three of the ORB report showing 'others' (often Greens) shifting over to them, seems concrete and well-evidenced. But Labour stood still in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire - while the Liberal Democrats pushed onwards with their local revival - and went backwards in Ayr. Labour's votes may be collecting exactly where the party doesn't need them: in liberal, multi-ethnic areas of big cities, where they're already well ahead. That bodes ill for them.

However, that Scotland result is interesting. That was about a seven point swing since the last time the seat was contested, a similar move from an Edinburgh (Leith) by-election the week before. Pretty bad. But nowhere near as bad as Labour's polling leading up to Mr Corbyn's election (opens as PDF), which implied a 14-15 per cent swing to the SNP since the Scottish local elections held in 2012. This, taken with the Scottish subsample in the YouGov figures - 46% to 28% for the SNP - might imply something of a (very limited) recovery by Scottish Labour. The two figures for swing that we can derive from those two sources aren't that far apart that they're incompatible. The problem with a post-2012 swing on that scale? It only means that Labour will be buried by an SNP landslide next May, on similar lines to 2011, rather than utterly, utterly wiped off the face of the planet. Scottish Labour's terrified of coming third next year, behind the Conservatives - in our view rightly. These first three data points - just two, perhaps unrepresentative by-elections and a tiny unweighted chunk of a UK poll - only hint at something less than oblivion. And in a Westminster contest, such a small swing back to Labour might give them back just three or four seats. Nowhere near enough to make a real difference. We doubt any of this 'hopeful' news comes as much of a consolation for them.

To sum up: no polling bounce; personal and ideological unpopularity; divisiveness; votes piled up or won back where Labour can't really use them. Not a great overall picture. Diving deeper, there are some crumbs of comfort in Scotland, which may help Labour avoid humiliation in next year's Holyrood election, but probably wouldn't in a general, UK-wide contest. There are definitely signs of Green voters coming over to Labour - though that won't help the party win many seats. And our theory about UKIP voters - that they might be brought back by an apparently old-fashioned, full-blooded, nostalgic socialist ticket - looks thinner by the day. One thought in parentheses is this: perhaps voters are rather more ideologically- and policy-driven than we thought. Certainly Mr Corbyn's leftward shift seems, initially, to be attracting back some SNP defectors, and alienating English UKIP supporters. Still, it's very, very early days. We need to know more. Much more. We need properly-weighted and balanced national polls from Wales and Scotland. We need qualitative and quantitative numbers on UKIP voters. We could do with lots more by-elections to confirm what we think we've seen already. But the first straws in the wind are deeply suggestive.

The real danger here is that Labour is going to be misled by what happens in next May's elections. If they attract a great deal of Green support (and second preferences), as well as left-leaning ex-Liberal Democrats, they may win the Bristol and London Mayoralties. If they can at least staunch the political bleeding in Scotland, they may avoid a total wipeout at the hands of the SNP; there is very little chance of them losing actual power in Wales, even if they do badly, because Plaid Cymru remains too weak to mount a sustained challenge, and there are no alternative coalitions available to replace Labour altogether. The English local election results, which are likely to be pretty grim, may get lost under a tide of relief at winning back City Hall by the Thames, and dodging total extinction at Holyrood.

But all the while, the storm clouds will be building up. Green defections, and SNP second thoughts, are not enough for Labour to hold the line and remain standing even where it landed in 2015. These numbers amount to a warning that things are even worse than we thought last week.

The increasingly thin ranks of left-leaning Britons comfort themselves by scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, reading comments written by their friends, for their friends - about how principled Labour's new leadership is, how silly the Prime Minister looks while beset by revelations about his youth (which he does), how social media lets them get the truth out (to each other), and how new lefttish alliances are now imaginable. It is a comfort blanket, twisted ever tighter while the political skies darken outside, and the ominous feeling of oncoming winter deepens.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The wrongness of Corbynism

It’d be easy to get all bent out of shape over Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership (above). Plenty of people have (Dan Hodges, we’re looking at you). So much emotion and blood and guts has been shed over this apparently cataclysmic (or salvific) turn of events that you’d think that the moon had just wrenched itself out of the earth’s orbit, or some enterprising astronomer had just spotted a massive asteroid steaming in on a collision course with the doomed earth. Well, no. Not really. A relatively unpopular Western European political party has just elected a really hardcore Leftist as its leader. No-one died. No-one even got badly injured, actually. Small earthquake: no-one hurt.

Except. Except. Be in doubt that this might be an epochal moment in British political history, insofar as that matters much in the world any more – the moment that the Labour Party was transformed into something radically new and different. Or the moment that it chose to dive off the precipice that most of its ex-leaders have been warning about for months. The day it committed itself to a political kamikaze mission that can only end in its extinction as a serious national force. It might, of course, just be the juncture at which it chose to muddle on downwards, arguing with itself, bickering, shoving with elbows, glaring around at the increasingly-inclement political weather. But that seems less likely right now. We probably are at a real crossroads.

So it’s our duty here, as a blog dedicated to rational policy evaluation, data and – above all – to analysis based on long-term trends, to look coldly and clearly at the Corbynite platform. Now we strongly disapprove of a project that seems as doomed to failure as it is self-indulgent, but it’s not enough to shout. Corbynism must be unpackaged and examined as a political movement and argument, not just abused. The first thing that usually involves is picking our categories, and it seems uncontroversial to pick three areas in which we would judge any leadership: electoral strategy; economic policy; and foreign policy. Let’s have a quick reconnaissance across each of these, shall we?

Electoral strategy

Labour has now lost two consecutive General Elections, that of 2015 quite badly. Any effective leadership must address and turn around whatever failings led to that slow-motion rout, and we therefore make no apology for turning to psephology first. Here the Corbynites make three central claims. The first is that they might attract non-voters to Labour’s colours, raising the party's vote from outside the traditional electorate. The second is that they will unite radical non-Conservatives under a single banner, bringing in ex-Green and Scottish National Party voters to serve Labour’s cause. The third is that Mr. Corbyn might appeal to Britons who’ve deserted Labour for the United Kingdom Independence Party. Let’s test these using the tools of the reality-based community, shall we?

No blowing of trumpets, but we’ve got a bit of form here. Public Policy and the Past correctly predicted that the Ed Miliband experiment would end in electoral disaster – and (by the way) exactly why. This was for three reasons: Labour had no economic credibility; Labour had a leader who the voters struggled to take seriously; and the party seemed to have lost contact with the social and moral values, both small-‘c’ conservative and more solidaristic, that many ordinary people held. In short, it’d stopped listening, and then stopped talking with a voice that most citizens could recognize or even understand. So we’d ask for a bit of a hearing for the following statement: the Corbynite’s psephological case is a total and utter load of nonsense.

First, non-voters. The thing to remember about non-voters is that they almost always remain that way. Labour tried mightily to raise the turnout in the last Parliament, and managed an increase of one per cent (1.2 per cent in target seats). The Obama campaign of 2008 managed a two per cent increase in the size of the electorate, with one of the best and most inspiring candidates the western world has ever produced. There is not going to be a massive surge of new voters to the polls. It will not happen. Indeed, Individual Voter Registration, so cleverly brought in by the Conservatives in the last Parliament, probably means that the numbers of voters is going to go down, because indigent younger people, in particular, are just not going to appear on the electoral rolls. Headline: reality is tough. Get used to it. The second thing you should know about non-voters is that they are not necessarily sympathetic to Labour’s cause. Only one third of them sympathized with that party in 2015. Even less would lean over to Labour were the party to move decisively to the Left. Indeed, their preferences look much more like UKIP’s than Labour’s, and hostility to immigration and social and cultural change is much more ingrained among them than any sort of radicalism. Labour might seek a one or two per cent rise in voter numbers at the next election, if it stiffens every sinew to become a campaigning crusade for registration and engagement: that might, and only might, lift the party’s vote in extremis by between a third and two-thirds of a single percentage point. A teeny, tiny uplift likely to be concentrated in heartland areas, where younger and poorer Britons are likely to live, and where the party retains something of an emotional appeal to gut rather than mind, rather than swing seats. Big deal.

Next wake-up call: only very limited seat gains can be expected from attracting Green voters, and almost none from the SNP. Here electoral geography limits gains from the Greens, whose vote is disproportionately concentrated in liberal urban areas that Labour carried anyway. Only sixteen seats are winnable if every single Green voter in the country switches to Labour. Just sixteen, again on the totally unrealistic basis that all those Green voters think and feel on the same axis as the Corbynites: an old-fashioned battle between Left and Right, rather than one rooted in environmental concerns, local activism and lived ‘sustainable’ eco-identities. Turning to Scotland, it is extremely unlikely indeed that Labour will make any gains at all. Corbynites’ mistake here is to imagine that the SNP is indeed the Left-wing party that it claims to be, rather than a centrist party of ‘the nation’ with radical trappings (and the occasional Left-wing policy). British Election Study data makes eminently clear that the reason for the SNP landslide is rooted in just that sense of competence mixed with patriotism: the constitutional issue, coupled with a sense that Scots would just be ‘better off’ under an effective and impressive leader in the shape of Nicola Sturgeon, gave the SNP its conclusive victory. If Mr Corbyn enthuses the Left, Ms Sturgeon will simply tack to the centre – as she has already. The SNP’s victory will probably abide for decades, and will not be disturbed by playing to the Left-wing gallery. What thin evidence we have shows that Scots (and especially Scots in poorer areas) declare themselves less, and not more, inclined to vote Labour if Mr Corbyn is its leader. And insofar as there might be some appeal or resonance in a far Left platform, in Greater Glasgow (say), the SNP majorities are so huge that increasing the Labour vote will win no seats, while losing votes in more conservative Edinburgh, where the SNP surge has been rather less all-pervasive. Take a look at Glasgow South, where Labour will need a twelve point swing against a first-time sitting incumbent. While the SNP, in the form of the Scottish government, hold all the cards and initiative. Is that going to happen? Very, very unlikely.

The point about UKIP is rather more convincing. Here there is quite a lot more evidence behind the idea that Mr Corbyn’s populist anti-politics will tempt back some ex-Labour voters. Even though they disagree with him about almost every view he’s ever espoused, at least he’s ‘authentic’, UKIP sympathizers might well say. At least he ‘believes what he says’, and speaks like a normal person, they’ll muse – perceptions that are not without foundation when you listen to the Islington MP’s speeches. But here again there is the problem of geography. Most UKIP votes in 2015 piled up in Labour seats, seats that Labour still holds (for instance) in the Midlands and the North of England. Some returnees may hand them just a few seats in Southern England and in Wales, perhaps, but almost certainly not enough to make a decisive difference in the electoral balance.

And all the while, the seven per cent or so of Liberal Democrat defectors that Ed Miliband was able to attract in 2015, and those Labour voters who flirted with the Conservatives but stayed on board given the main governing party’s poor image and lack of sympathetic warmth, could be defecting in their droves to the Conservatives – as many Liberal Democrats in fact did in the last election, handing David Cameron the majority that was the cherry on the cake of his victory. We would guesstimate, on the basis of all the quantitative data that’s out there, that Labour might now be able to boost its vote by half a percentage point from ‘expanding the electorate’, one or two points from the Greens, almost nothing from the SNP, and two or three percentage points from UKIP. That’s a not-so-stupendous gain of 4.5-5.5 per cent, placing Labour at a relatively healthy 36 per cent in the best possible imaginable scenario. Take off seven or eight percentage points for those middle-of-the-road voters fleeing the Left-wing takeover, though, and you get to 28 per cent – pretty much what Labour got to while standing on a similar platform in 1983. Bear in mind also that we think that this is the best Labour can possibly hope to do in 2020 if Mr Corbyn is allowed the luxury of actual contact with the electorate, and you can see the scale of the utter rout and humiliation Labour now faces in that contest. Print this projection out and stick it to your fridge: if Jeremy Corbyn is allowed to lead Labour into a General Election, the party’s vote will be between 24 and 28 per cent, and the swing to the Conservatives will be between three and five per cent. There will be a massive Conservative landslide. No other conclusion can be drawn.

Mr Corbyn and his supporters are probably right to expect something of a short-term boost in the polls, perhaps of some magnitude. He’s a novelty. No-one knows much about him. He enthuses young people and (some) non-voters: many will tell survey companies that they’re going to back him, before failing to make it to an actual ballot box. He speaks using real words, rather than careful-but-robotic soundbites favoured by most of his opponents. He has ‘cut through’. Footballers talk about him. He’s mentioned in the pub. He’s interesting. He really is. Some of what he calls for (rail renationalization, for instance) is quite popular. And next spring’s electoral tests, for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Bristol and London Mayoralties, will be fought on some of his territory. If he can attract UKIP voters back to Labour, they might cling on to one-party government in Cardiff (though some form of arrangement with Plaid Cymru is more likely); they might at least stem losses to the SNP by standing on a full-blooded socialist prospectus in Scotland (especially because it’s a list election, and it matters rather less where you win your votes). Liberal and cosmopolitan cities such as Bristol and London might have been designed as test-beds for defections from the Greens and from among more left-leaning Liberal Democrats.

But make no mistake: on every single day of the Parliament to come, Labour support in (say) Nuneaton, Lincoln, Kidderminster, Plymouth, Harlow, Carlisle and Crawley – all seats that Labour just has to win – will be ebbing away. The voters have now told Labour twice that it wants the party to get a more astringent economic plan; that it wants it to appoint a more credible leader; and that it wants to be spoken to as if its views matter (even when they might be wrong). Choosing Mr Corbyn as its leader amounts to turning round and urinating on this electorate. Doubt what we say? Watch this focus group, drawn from voters living in Nuneaton and Crawley, and then come back and argue with us. No? Didn’t think so.

Summing up under this heading, all we can say is that Labour under Corbyn will be lucky to drag its boats off the electoral beaches in a Dunkirk-style electoral disaster. Mainly by picking their least popular potential leader. The party might win about 180 to 200 seats in a 600-seat House of Commons shrunk by planned boundary reforms, if it makes no gains and suffers no losses at all from 2015; we would expect a Corbyn-led Party to hold no more than 150. There is some possibility, at one end of the probabilistic bell curve, of a General Election campaign becoming gruesomely and negatively dynamic, with the Conservatives bringing out of the closet, every single day, something controversial and unpopular that Mr Corbyn has said in the past (on which, more below). At the limits of very real possibility, Labour under its new leader faces the danger that it might experience a wipeout like that of the Liberal Democrats in 2015, ending up with no more than 130-140 or so seats clustered in its urban heartlands. That’s still unlikely: but it has now become possible, for the first time since the Parliament of 1931-35.

Economic policy

Here we should distinguish between the Corbyn camp’s relatively uncontroversial ideas, mainly in the sphere of macroeconomic strategy, and its more far-fetched concepts. Economists can fairly easily be asked to sign up to a programme of less austerity, as the 41 experts who wrote to The Guardian in just this vein proved without much effort. There is no doubt – and this blog has pushed the case again and again – that there is absolutely no need to cut public expenditure at either the speed, or to the extent, which Chancellor George Osborne, now plans. It’s just vandalism, intended as an ideological check to the idea that the state can help people at all, rather than properly-worked-out economic strategy. One of Mr Corbyn’s strongest cards is that he has always unequivocally opposed austerity in the strongest and starkest of terms – just as Labour activists and members have always yearned to, in their heart of hearts. He’s right about that. There is absolutely no need to cut public spending at the rate Mr Osborne proposes, and there never was. Some increase in Labour’s definition and full-throated opposition on this issue would be welcome.

There is, however, a grave tactical and presentational danger here: although austerity has had, and is having, a deleterious effect on growth, Mr Osborne has shown on more than one occasion before that he is quite capable of junking it when the need arises. His great 2013 U-turn, when he stopped cutting on his accelerated timetable and went back to Labour’s plans, has now been matched by his second 2015 Budget, which announced a much slower and smoother path for spending reductions. And you know what? By 2019-20 he’ll probably have plenty of money to spend. He’ll splurge it everywhere, posing as a latter-day centrist Harold Macmillan. New train lines? New hospitals? New schools? How many would you like? And Labour will have absolutely no answer whatsoever, if all it has focused on is austerity.

Some individual Corbyn policies can also be welcomed – at least in theory, and on the basis that they are unlikely to do positive harm. Rail nationalization would likely produce some savings given the crazy franchising system under which the UK labours right now, a treasure trove of work for lawyers and train owners (who usually franchise their units to the actual Train Operating Companies). A more efficient railway probably would emerge once the shift to a reorganized, slimmed-down public sector provider was complete. Network Rail is in this respect far superior to Railtrack. But there most of the efficiency gains end. Anyone who thinks that water and energy, for instance, would be better off in the state sector should remember the key lessons of the 1960s and 1970s. The first of these is that the Treasury, obsessed with short-term budgeting, is unlikely to pay itself for the infrastructure upgrades that those sectors constantly need. The second is that, in attempting to reorganise such industries on a ‘big bang’ and technocratic basis, the key flaw of most centralizing management initiatives (including the free-market arms-length initiatives we’ve so failed to enjoy since the 1980s) will impose itself: namely that nothing so complex as these entire industries can be run as one organization. Britain’s water and sewerage system was in a terrible state by the 1980s; its railway system was doing rather better, but it was hardly a model of either modernity or efficiency. Since then, Britain’s beaches and rivers have been cleaned up, while we live in what is really a golden age of passenger numbers and investment on the railways. None of this is to say that new models of citizen participation and control, for instance via election to boards and the like, cannot be experimented with. Such ideas would be more than welcome. But it is to say that the banner of ‘nationalization’, so alluring and so simple, is a very questionable one indeed.

Nationalization would also cost money, unless the UK government proposes just to steal foreign governments’ and investors’ property (totally against European Union rules in any case). It’s true that investing in an asset shouldn’t be seen as current spending, but the transport and especially the energy sectors’ income and balance sheets are very uncertain. They certainly do not represent going concerns, free of subsidy already - so they can't just be discounted as a free hit. They might well be ‘investments’. That doesn’t mean they’re good investments. And this at a time when, whatever the arguments about the relative need for budgetary restraint right now, there is no doubt that some spending reductions, especially in real terms and as a share of national income, will be required in the years to come. The United Kingdom is about to dive into an era of structural deficits created by its rapidly-ageing population and pitiful labour productivity, without much of a natural resources buffer (such as oil and gas) to soften the blow. Continuing to run deficits as we are now, without any reduction at all, is just deferring the pain until it will be much more difficult to cope with, and much more damaging to those young people who for the moment flock to Mr Corbyn’s red banner. Put simply, the Exchequer does need more money, and only spending cuts and tax rises can make that change.

It is here that the Corbyn campaign engages in a rather nifty sleight of hand, for it contends that a mix of apparently painless tax rises (such as a reversal of the Government’s planned Corporation Tax cut), a crackdown on tax avoidance and ‘corporate welfare’, and a plan known as People’s Quantitative Easing can bridge this gap. Well, we’re sorry, but it can’t. The Corporation Tax change would raise relatively little cash, quickly absorbed by Mr Corbyn’s voluminous public spending pledges, from the arts to nationalization to his proposed ‘National Education Service’ and the abolition of university student fees. The £120bn that his advisers at first seemed to herald from reducing tax evasion and avoidance quickly shrank to £20bn, a figure strongly, consistently and convincingly called into question both by the most eminent independent experts (some of them on the Left themselves) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ actual figures. Yes, there is more than £30bn in the big gap between what the Revenue should theoretically bring in, and what it actually does. But that doesn't mean that you can actually get at it. It's been squeezed by tax-starved Chancellors for years. You can get some more out of that pot, if you squeeze hard enough. £120bn? Laughable. £20bn? No. Maybe a few billions more - not enough to fill the Corbynite spending hole. The ‘corporate welfare’ we hear so much about is also often made up of tax breaks for investment or exports, neither of which we suppose that the corporatist Mr Corbyn would really wish to see cut. And so on. Labour activists like to say ‘if only big companies would pay their taxes, everything would be all right’. They wouldn’t. It’s a fantasy.

As for People’s Quantitative Easing, this basically involves the Bank of England printing more money (as it has to support economic growth via the banks since 2008) via loans to the Government for infrastructure projects. The concept is rooted in Modern Monetary Theory, a set of ideas that posits that this is unlikely to be an overall increase in debt because lending money in this way might dry up some of the demand for increased lending in the private sector (ballooning, almost out of control, as Mr Osborne always intended it would to take up the slack of government retrenchment). Well, we’re not convinced, and neither should you be. The whole thing reeks of an academic bookkeeping exercise rather than a really coherent plan. For one thing, QE was initially a plan for a downturn, during which it would support demand; to push it further in a strongly upward growth phase, which we might be in for during this Parliament, makes no sense at all. Next, the idea threatens the independence of the Bank of England – something that we shouldn’t really have an absolute fetish about, but should preserve if we can as one capstone of a still-fragile banking system struggling for credibility. If the Government can just order the Bank (or a new State Investment Bank, inevitably just its proxy) to do as it pleases for specific reasons and on particular projects, what’s the point of a central bank at all? Far better just to borrow the money in the normal manner, especially while interest rates are so low.

Mr Corbyn knows this himself, in his heart of hearts. He admitted that PQE was just ‘one option’ during one of Labour’s seemingly-endless leadership hustings. And he said that he’d just consider raising the money via increased borrowing, which – given his spending pledges – is a bit more of a realistic plan that abandons much of what is new about ‘Corbynomics’ in the first place. All while apparently increasing funding for council areas bearing the increased strain of immigration that his policies will undoubtedly involve, and boosting the state pension – further assisting the very group who have done the best, financially, out of the past thirty years. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of those initiatives, taken in and of themselves, but the impression that he is just turning on the money hoses cannot be avoided – at one and the same time as he ignores most of the really new ideas, around micro-finance, localism and productivity, that should actually get us excited. If he cancels the Trident nuclear missile system, that might save the UK £10bn over the next Parliament: nothing like the funding he’d need to meet all these raw spending pledges. Voters will and should draw the correct conclusion: that Labour believes, even more than it did in 2010 and 2015, in a magical money tree. They will act accordingly. They will vote for parties that speak to them in a language that they understand.

Foreign policy

Now let’s conclude our three-pronged analysis by looking at the next vital area of any party's or candidate’s work: foreign policy. Here’s where the arguments around Mr Corbyn have actually burned fiercest, unusually in the increasingly-insular UK, a fact that’s most often due to his multifarious contacts with extremist groups. Now it’s important to take some of the energy out of these debates. Some of the more heated attacks on Mr Corbyn have been misguided or overblown. He has been called an anti-semite, or at least a fellow-traveller. This seems overdone. He might or might not have given money to an anti-semitic organization, but perhaps before its true nature was clear. He spoke up for conspiracy theorist Stephen Sizer, notorious for ‘encouraging debate’ about the view that Israel was behind 9/11, but not over his absurd conspiracy theories. He has indeed described Hezbollah as his ‘friends’, though that seems in its context to have been rather more in the way of a diplomatic formality than an expression of warm and close relations. He has raised the case of two terrorists who plotted to bomb the Israeli embassy back in the 1990s – but experts in miscarriages of justice, including the campaigning QC Michael Mansfield, thought that the law might have gone wrong in that case as well. Mr Corbyn did indeed invite to Parliament a Lebanese political activist, Dyab Abou Jahjah, who once argued that ‘every death of an American, British or Dutch soldier as a victory’. That sounds pretty bad. But Abou Jahjah has subsequently become a respected political commentator in his adopted home country of Belgium: his ideas have evolved in a much more secular and democratic direction that some of the comments attributed to him suggest on the surface. And so on.

So the most serious allegations against Mr Corbyn are, individually, not necessarily as bad as they can be made to look. But the pattern is pretty scary – a continuous association with a grisly fringe of the disreputable, the dishonest and the downright nasty. A reluctance to really examine and question their views. And the singular reasonableness of those cases taken one-by-one doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about his view of the world. For Labour’s new leader has a long history of sympathizing (and meeting) with anyone who opposes the interests of what he must see as American and British Imperialism. His worldview might be described as Chomskian, after the American political campaigner and theorist Noam Chomsky. It basically involves a deep suspicion of ‘western’ economic, diplomatic and military power, a deeply appealing view across much of the Left in the wake of the disastrous Second Gulf War. But that view of the deleterious effect of the American Imperium, its power to smash local equilibria and oppress peoples who stand against its clients (particularly Israel) can be a snare and a delusion if you push it too far. It can get you into some very, very questionable positions when you start to talk to America’s enemies. Hence the talks with Hezbollah and Hamas; hence the sympathetic hearing granted to Islamic extremists. Hence, also, Mr Corbyn’s deep-seated distrust of the European Union, to Labour's new leader a capitalist club and free trade bloc against the policies of which he has voted many, many times in the House of Commons, and out of which he would probably like to lead Britain – if he was allowed.

Mr Corbyn’s camp excuse all this as ‘dialogue’, ‘a search for peace’ and a series of ‘engagements’ with perhaps some distasteful contacts. But this won’t quite wash. Mr Corbyn’s thought is deeply penetrated with a nasty old dose of obeisance before power, always one of the Far Left’s most unattractive attributes. In his search for counterweights to the Americans, Mr Corbyn has signed an Early Day Motion on behalf of Slobodan Milosovic; played down Serb forces’ behavior in Kosovo; recommended Russia Today, that mouthpiece of Vladimir Putin; mused aloud that Russia only moved in on the Ukraine because NATO forced them to it; drawn parallels between the crimes of 9/11 and the killing of Osama bin Laden (read the actual text if you’ve heard that this is a slur); and reflected that 9/11 might not have happened at all if it were not for western military intervention in the Middle East. Well – how shall we put this? – that’s quite a list. We’ve gone over the electoral implications of Corbynism, and we don’t want to go back over his likely deep unpopularity: but these philosophical and theoretical dispositions, quite apart from all the unpleasant meetings that Mr Corbyn seems to put himself through, are inimical to leading a major Western European political party.

For consider the other ideas that Labour’s new leader wants you to agree with. He’s against renewing Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system, and he wants to ‘recast’ British forces’ role within NATO (having previously been in favour of leaving altogether). Now the former position is a perfectly respectable one, and one with which we here at Public Policy and the Past have some sympathy. Trident is expensive; a bit of a white elephant in a world where most threats will come from non-state actors unlikely to be deterred by the thought of nuclear deterrence; and a distraction from making sure that the UK has the carrier and rapid reaction forces that it needs to win and secure the peace. One can always think about the way every country commits its forces: France left NATO’s military structures in the 1960s for its own reasons, and the heavens did not fall. So – once again – we can’t just say ‘Corbynism is mad’, an impoverished and not-very-reflective position into which his rivals have fatally, to and to their own ultimate harm, fallen.

But speaking out of both sides of the mouth about Russia, saying that you can’t imagine any circumstances in which you’d use British troops at all, and comparing Islamic State to the Americans’ occupation of Iraq? That just disqualifies any of these policies getting a hearing at all: for they amount to saying that you might as well not have influence, you might as well not bother paying for any force projection of any kind, you might as well not fight for anything – even for the Kurdish, Syrian and Yazidi peoples that (just for instance) might desperately need our help. Okay, western military intervention isn’t always the answer. But sometimes it might be. It was in Kosovo. It was in Sierra Leone – both campaigns of which Labour should be rightly proud. Right now, Mr Corbyn is moving in and trashing the last elements of Tony Blair’s legacy that Labour’s previous leader, Ed Miliband, left intact. And who can ever be expected to respect or support a party, or a governing philosophy, that will not even speak up for some of its most conspicuous successes?

Northern Ireland provides another good case study of Mr Corbyn’s various searches for ‘peace’ – not entirely a foreign policy question, of course, but certainly one with a lot of foreign policy aspects. And a live matter of deep concern as the Stormont Assembly in Belfast struggles to survive under the burden of increasing suspicion and political division. Here the record is against very revealing. Mr Corbyn met with Sinn Fein representatives just weeks after the 1984 Brighton Bombing had seen the IRA try to murder the British Cabinet. He stood for a minute’s silence honouring the IRA’s ‘active service brigades’ while the latter were still committed to murdering social democrats and liberals within the UK’s borders – and beyond. He still believes in Irish unity without broad consent, just as he always did, refuses to condemn the IRA's actions, and apparently in the rise of an ‘Irish identity’ that we can only identify as Catholic, Nationalist and Republican – not the ‘Irishness’ to which many of the people of Northern Ireland, and increasingly many in the South, would aspire.

Just as in the case of Israel’s enemies, one is entitled to ask: on whose authority did Mr Corbyn do all this chatting? In whose name? Who appointed him? To whom did he report? Exactly what was being ‘negotiated’? Precisely what was being said that forwarded the cause of peace? And did Mr Corbyn also meet with Northern Ireland’s Loyalists, or right-wing Israeli settlers? Well, no. He poses as a visionary who reached out to supposedly irreconcilable enemies before it was fashionable to do so: but, and this is crucial, he did so before there was the slightest indication that his contacts were willing to compromise or even temper their hard-line hatred of many (Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, for instance) with whom he should have been standing and fighting – for peace. Most of this just has the flavor of a free-floating backbencher’s intellectual curiosity and hatred for settled orthodoxy, which is fair enough. But the signal it sends, not just to those who seek peace but who actively wish the UK and its allies ill, is unmistakable: UK Labour is making sure that it is crystal clear that there is a deep weakness, and a willingness to talk on almost any grounds, at the heart of the British state. In a very unstable world, that is a very dangerous place to stand.

The standout conclusion is this: it’s not the meetings that are the problem. It’s the ideas. If you think that NATO should stand up to Putin over Swedish NATO membership, the Baltic states’ independence, Ukraine’s national integrity, or oil and gas security, Labour’s leadership election just dealt your liberal and democratic views a huge blow. If you believe in the European Union’s historical mission to spread peace and security across the European continent, Britain is now more likely to turn its back on you. If you think that the search for peace in Northern Ireland involves the creation of a new sort of mixed and flexible ‘Irish’ identity, you can’t look to Labour any more for any assistance. If you think that liberal internationalism will sometimes, necessarily, involve military action, you just lost a whole movement. It’s a doleful picture, and a potentially epochal betrayal of Labour’s historic mission so stand up – in any way it can – for national self-determination and European security.

Seven degrees of wrongness

So the data, the evidence and the weight of history tell us this: Mr Corbyn’s electoral strategy is, quite simply, in error; his economic policy is factually incorrect; his foreign policy is the most worrying element of the whole picture, at best very naïve and at worst vaguely sinister. How to thread it all together? How can we even get a purchase on this level of misguidedness? Well, there are in fact at least seven analytical categories which we can and should use to summarise the overall failings of Corbynism. The first of these is just how disingenuous it all is. Mr Corbyn is the man of principle who was against NATO before he said we should stay in; who has campaigned against the European Union, but now says that a Special Conference could be held to ‘advise’ him about it; who said he would keep Shadow Cabinet elections until he said he wouldn’t; and who thought he might stand for yearly re-election until it looked as if he would win. It’s not much of a record of principle. All from a populist non-politician, anti-metropolitan insurgent who, well, went to a public school and who has been the MP for a North London seat for 32 years.

Shorter descriptions will have to do for our other six headings, but you’re probably beginning to get the picture. Corbynism is, secondly, deeply nostalgic: for nationalization, to be sure, but also for a world of street-organised machine politics that defined British Leftism in the 1970s and 1980s. The current uprising in Labour’s ranks is a variant of crowdsourced clicktivism: but the bursting-at-the-seams church hall meetings and the overspilling masses outside addressed by loudhailer are deeply evocative of an older Britain that will soon come into conflict with the newer (and very sophisticated) techniques at the disposal of the Conservatives. Thirdly, the new leadership is deeply naïve. Meeting with extremists, without making clear exactly where you stand, or that you’re going to lay down some red lines at some point, is the very acme of such a failing; but Mr Corbyn’s announcement that he wanted to ‘consult’ on all-women train coaches is another example. Rule one of announcing consultations: that means that you own them, and you’re probably 90 per cent in favour of the policy you’re consulting about. Not to realise that means you went to sleep in… well, 1979 actually.

Fourthly, Corbynism involves thinking in binary terms alone. That’s what’s behind the blank anti-Americanism, as if the USA is behind all the world’s problems; but it is also shown off by the Corbynites’ refusal, under any circumstances, to talk about attracting citizens who voted Conservative in 2015. ‘Horrible Tories, horrible Tories’, goes the mantra; the far Left’s opponents are constantly labelled ‘Red Tories’. Never mind that Labour can never, ever return to power if it does not attract such people; never mind that they are usually unassuming workaday citizens who the Labour Party should be standing up for and helping. No. They’re Tories, and that’s it. Quiet patriotism? Charity? Self-help? Volunteering? The little battalions that Mr Cameron summoned up, at his best, as the long-forgotten ‘Big Society’? Suburban voters’ fear of economic profligacy and waste? They’re all just fantasies, Labour’s new masters say – the product of false consciousness and media lies. Well, they’re welcome to come out on the doorsteps and discuss that theory with actual voters. They’d soon find that their fifth failing, the simplicity of their concepts, is one of their reasons that their views are so at variance with grassroots reality. Every social problem can be solved by just spending more money, they often seem to say; every industrial problem by common ownership; every social problem by ‘consultation’. Here’s another example: Tony Blair might be put on trial for ‘war crimes’. What crimes, under which law, and in which court, we are never told – and nor do Corbynites ever face the inevitable consequence, the criminalization of every single British officer and soldier who was involved in the Second Iraq War. Well, complicated, messy, difficult public life and step-by-step policymaking isn’t actually like that: it demands complex tradeoffs, shades of grey, pushing two steps forward only to go one backwards, identifying precisely what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. Anyone who always tells you that they have the solution to every problem – and that it’s usually the same sort of controls and spending that they’d apply to every other difficulty – is someone who it’s best to ignore.

Six and seven are easier. Sixth on our list is this: Mr Corbyn thinks in mechanical ways, similar to the Lego theory that we often criticized when wheeled out by Mr Miliband, his immediate predecessor. Mr Miliband thought that he only had to attract ‘left-leaning’ Liberal Democrats to win a General Election – a similar thesis, though far less ambitious, to the idea that gluing together SNP, Green and non-voters will carry Mr Corbyn to victory at the next election (stop laughing at the back there). But he thinks in terms of Left and Right on everything, from international relations to class and through to his deeply inadequate approach to a Scottish nationalism he cannot help but see as deeply contradictory (because he cannot understand the national element). The result? The major ways in which people really think – viscerally, in terms of attachment, viscerality, credibility, likeability and loyalty – are almost entirely ignored. Seventh, and last, the Corbynista's preconceptions are just so evidentially at variance with the scene outside Britain’s large radical conurbations. They make but little sense outside of the meeting room, the agenda, the motion and the long-winded speech. We’ve seen this, again, in terms of their psephology: but consider, too, their view of the overall crisis of late or post-capitalism that we are experiencing. They think that the European Left is riding the wave of a chaotic, but dynamic, revolt against capitalism itself – while Podemos, their mirror image in Spain, falls away in the polls, while the Right and far Right in France get stronger all the time, and while the radical Leftists of Syriza begin to split and fall out after performing an absolutely vast austerity U-turn in Greece. Well, let’s just put it like this: just as their domestic analysis seems wildly astray, it seems unlikely that they are right when they look abroad for inspiration.

Conclusions: false hope is worse than despair

It is an awesome cluster of misconceptions, a tsunami of inaccuracy and misguided enthusiasm, a wrongness that you could probably see from space. And it seems likely to land Mr Corbyn, in person a decent and moral man, in an absolutely agonizing position. He will have to lead Parliamentary colleagues many of whom have never even met him, and among whom many frankly loathe him; he will have to face a triumphant and braying Conservative Party, delighted at his elevation to Labour’s leadership. No wonder he looked so crushed when he first faced Mr Cameron across the floor of the House of Commons as leadership frontrunner; no wonder he slipped quietly out of the subsequent meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party; no wonder his appointment of the Shadow Cabinet turned into a farce and a joke. He must feel, in his heart of hearts, the deeply sickening, sinking feeling of someone who is now going to have to bear burdens they are deeply unsuited to; of a man who is about to be vilified and humiliated beyond limits most of us can be imagine; and who is going to be transformed into a figure of hate and derision by both the Conservative media and his own colleagues. Let’s face it: once the Conservatives are done with him, he will resemble an empty plastic bag floating in an abandoned canal. It is a deeply tragic and perhaps even darkly comic turn of events, for Mr Corbyn most of all.

But we are going to have to watch it all. Mr Corbyn is going to be left without any refuge. He is, in the jargon, going to have every last scrap of bark stripped from him. Last week’s Panorama is only the beginning. Think you’ve seen political hatchet jobs? Oh, get ready. You haven’t seen anything yet. It was hard to watch the miners and the printworkers go into battle in the mid-1980s, to almost inevitable defeat, fulfilling just that role that the Conservatives had long planned and set for them. To watch the people you stood with and agreed with fall into just about every trap the far Right and the far Left could tempt them into. You know what? This is going to be a replay. This is going to be nearly as bad.

Because it’s a great thing, the evocation and the experience of hope. We’ve seen and commented on hope in all sorts of places. The rebuilding of NewZealand’s Christchurch after its disastrous earthquake; the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama, the United States’ first African-American President; Northern Ireland’s troubled, but ongoing, peace process; Britons’ very human reaction, in recent days, to the plight of Syrian refugees. All full of hope. All inspiring. And Mr Corbyn’s young supporters feel similar hope – embodied in a new, participatory, straight-talking politics of equality and respect. Building hope is always a good thing. But there is a difference between inspiration and the peddling of false hope. Because what will happen when Mr Corbyn is either ousted by his Parliamentary colleagues, or – even worse for Labour – is actually allowed to collide with the electorate, like a piece of space debris burning up as it smashes into the atmosphere? The eye-popping but fake sugar rush of this microwaved Tony Benn’s elevation having passed, the subsequent crash will be terrible. There will be the blankest, darkest, most painful despair you can imagine, followed by blame – of Blairites, the media, the public themselves – who were not clever or far-sighted enough to accede to the Corbyn relevation.

Then the Corbynites will move on to join the Greens, or drop altogether out of organized politics, cursing the Labour Part as they leave. Free to indulge the fantasy that the world can be lived in and engaged with as if it is exactly as they imagine it, rather than as it is – a world that never has been, never will be, and never can be. In which you never have to fight to defend yourself, or your allies, or the powerless. You never have to choose between spending your money on one thing or another. You never have to appeal to voters you don’t agree with – or talk tough with terrorists and their fellow-travelers. And the Labour Party? After that trauma and exodus, that once-great movement will have been stripped of much of the little credibility and loyalty it can still command. The only – the only – vehicle for forwarding and fighting for working people’s lives that we still have will have been crippled.

And then what? Then what? The answer, you know in your hearts, is this: decades of unbroken Conservative dominance. And a Britain that becomes less fair, less equal, less open, less liberal, less European – and less respected – with every passing day.