Thursday, 22 November 2018

The eight days that gave us Corbynism

Regular readers of this blog will know that we now regard Labour’s victory at the next election as very likely – not overwhelmingly likely, and certainly not a done deal, but far north of fifty per cent if we’re talking probabilities. There are lots of reasons for this. For one thing, they’re so, so close to power that they can almost touch it. They need just a tiny swing of 0.5% to take the seven or so Conservative seats that would lock the Tories out of power and allow Labour to govern (albeit uncertainly) with the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Labour are also riding a wave of deep concern about disorganised capitalism and its unequal results. Nationalisation is popular, and profit not so much – a phenomenon we see again and again in the British Election Study data. When the Right have been in for a long time, the public swing Left, and vice versa. All of this has happened before, and all of this has happened again. And lastly, of course, the Government is preoccupied with, and increasingly exhausted by, Brexit – that great Schleswig-Holstein of a question that no-one can even understand any more, and which Labour has tricksily and artfully navigated better than anyone else.

For all these reasons, Labour is pretty likely to win the next election. They are not in themselves particularly popular, and Jeremy Corbyn as their leader certainly is not. But none of that really matters. If the Conservatives tear themselves apart, at a time when the public are tired of austerity, then Mr Corbyn will walk into No. 10 unopposed. That outcome looks more likely by the day. But these are proximate causes, located in the present or the very recent past. The extraordinary ascension of Corbynism, to the point where it looks likely to capture the commanding heights of the state, surely needs deeper and more profound explanations than these.

So for this month’s blog, we’re going to look at eight days that made Corbyn’s move into Downing Street so likely. We’ve done this before, when we looked at why Leave could win the Brexit referendum – two months before that happened. It’s hopefully a good way to lay bare the real forces – deep and shallow, long- and short-term, policy-wise and political – that have brought Britain to the verge of its first real Leftist government in the mould of Die Linke, Podemos or Syriza. Without further ado, here are the eight days that have put Jeremy Corbyn within a hair’s breadth of the Cabinet room.

4 February 1996. This was the day that the first privatised trains since the 1940s ran on Britain’s railways. Actually, the first 'train' was a bus, pootling along between Fishguard and Cardiff, but the first real train was the suburban South Western Trains service between Twickenham and Waterloo at just after five in the morning. But there was a problem with the whole design of British Rail’s privatisation: the divide between track and train, between Railtrack (as it was then) and the Train Operating Companies, fragmented the railway and lost it some of that coherence, engineering know-how and in-house organisation that had helped keep Britain’s railways going. Now in some ways the railways are a victim of their own (privatised) success: crowded, expensive and groaning under the weight of demand, they are pushing lots of regular commuters towards Corbynism. But that doesn't matter politically. When they fail and struggle and flounder, as they often do, passengers blame privatisation - forgetting, for a moment, that all the infrastructure is owned by the state. Rail nationalisation is one of Mr Corbyn's signature ideas, and it’s popular. This is the moment when Britain's political economy gradually, gradually began to go his way.

15 February 2003. The Iraq War was a defining moment in British politics. It provides meaning for so many people, across the spectrum of British politics: a coherent part of the narrative about how ‘little people’, outsiders, the principled, the unheard mainstream are never listened to. It is one key reason why New Labour in power was not able to cement its legacy, and why Tony Blair is still so unpopular. In February 2003, probably about one million people marched against that war: many also opposed the wider strategy of military intervention that had taken hold after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The Stop the War Coalition was the directing mind behind this demonstration, and it hated (and hates still) ‘centrists’ with a passion. They are one of the most important parts of the Corbyn coalition, and stood with him in the crucial first days of his leadership. Without the Second Iraq War, the infrastructure behind Mr Corbyn simply would not have existed.

5 May 2005. This was the moment at which Labour won its historic third term under Blair: but little noticed amidst all the toing-and-froing was that an obscure backbencher named Jeremy Corbyn had just been re-elected in Islington North. At this stage, of course, Mr Corbyn was little more than an irritant or a figure of fun at Westminster, having never been involved in a single mainstream cause in his life (beyond stirring up trouble for the Anti-Apartheid Movement and others). But Mr Corbyn had an unseen friend: no lesser figure than Prime Minister Blair, who at some point in the previous Parliament had rejected some local activists’ calls for Mr Corbyn to be de-selected. Until and even after the Iraq War, the Blair government attempted to build at least something of a broad church within Labour: Robin Cook, Clare Short and Michael Meacher were all relatively successful Ministers. The Corbynites will not make the same mistake Blair did, misled as he was by the mistaken assumption that his side of the party had won and could relax.

14 September 2007. As queues began to form outside high street branches of the bank Northern Rock, it became clear that something was very wrong with the financial system. Thousands of ordinary people were in a panic, racing to pull their savings out before Northern Rock collapsed altogether. Its tellers were overwhelmed, its phone lines jammed. The lender had ridden the wave of pumping more and more cash into an overheated property market, whoever you were and whatever you could afford: now that ponzi scheme of a model came crashing down. It was the first sign of the financial crash to come. Now the epicentre of that disaster was in New York, not London, and in the American, not the British, housing market: but the British had left themselves too exposed to the US markets, and the world economy threatened to go into a tailspin. Years of economic attrition lay ahead – and the Great Moderation, so beloved of the ‘centrists’ who stood in the Left’s way, was over. Corbynites always blame capitalism for most of the world’s ills: after this, they had a point.

12 May 2010. By this point, Britain’s Liberal Democrats had been on the rise for years. They had opposed the Iraq War. They had advanced a kind of more radical, and more Left-wing, Blairism. They had got increasingly popular, and increasingly vocal, able via targeting particular swing seats to grow and grow in the House of Commons. Now the quirks of Britain’s First Past the Post voting system put them in a kingmaker position. They chose to put the Conservatives, under David Cameron, into office. This turned out to be a huge mistake, and the lovely mood music they emitted in the Downing Street garden press conference held on this day in 2010 (abovewas an even worse blunder. Most of those radical voters who’d put their cross next to the Liberal Democrat choice thought they were voting for a radical party that could make Britain fairer, better, perhaps in some undefinable way newer: now they got the Tories back. The Liberal Democrats have never recovered, and there is now no rival to Labour on the Left, and no rival for pro-European Remain voters. That absence has helped Corbynism to first survive, and then thrive. 

22 February 2012. When the Labour MP Eric Joyce got drunk and got into a fight in the House of Commons, no-one really thought much of it. It’s not as if there’s never been a drunken disagreement in our politics before. This particular bust-up turned out to be one of the most important moments in modern British political history. Mr Joyce eventually had to give up his seat in Falkirk, but the jiggery-pokery being pulled there by the huge Unite union led to the then-Labour leader, Ed Miliband, suspending the process by which the local party picked its Parliamentary candidate. In future, trade unions were not to be allowed to pay the dues of people that it was signing up to play a role in Labour Party selections. The whole debacle put huge pressure on the link between the unions and the formal Party itself. Mr Miliband soon announced a clean break with the unions, so that Labour’s three-part electoral college was to be replaced by a One Member One Vote structure for all elections – including that of leader. That new system was to allow Mr Corbyn to be elected, as he never would have been had MPs had one-third of the say (and unions another third) over the choice.

23 June 2016. When Britain voted for Brexit, it looked as if that decision might sweep away Mr Corbyn just as it did Prime Minister David Cameron. Labour MPs and officials were furious that Mr Corbyn had basically done less than nothing to make the case for Remain – unless you count turning up at a handful of pretty pitiful photo opportunities as doing something. A political riot ensued, in which almost the whole of Labour’s top team resigned to try to force out their leader. That putsch failed, because the members continued to support him – in part of course because they had only just chosen him. But the Brexit vote secured for Labour that sense of chaos, thrill and opportunity that any new movement needs to gain a hearing: it played, and is playing, the role that the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent played for Mrs Thatcher when she said that Britain was broken. It is tearing apart the alliance of big business, liberal-minded small-‘c’ conservatives and self-consciously English patriots that allows the Conservatives to govern: justifying, all the while, New New Labour’s case that something is deeply wrong with British state and society.

22 May 2017. Theresa May’s social care u-turn was the defining moment of the 2017 General Election campaign. Her Conservatives trounced Labour in the local elections, held in early May. She enjoyed a 20-point lead in the opinion polls. Labour was a chaotic laughing stock that made a bin fire look organised. But then the Conservatives published their manifesto, and machine-gunned their own campaign. Its centrepiece was an entirely reasonable and justifiable policy – that you (or your estate) would keep more of your own money if you needed residential care in your old age. But there was a catch: the value of your house would be included in the assessment, and charged, if you needed care at home. Hitherto it had been left out of that account. Reminding people that they might need care, and still more that they are pretty soon going to get old and die, oh and by the way you’ll steal their house on the way, is pretty much up there with the most moronic decisions in all of political history. If we look at the best polling of that election, it was at about this time that the Tories’ hopes of a majority tanked, never to recover. Their majority – indeed, their landslide – was gone. Mr Corbyn looked like a winner, though actually Labour didn't even do all that well. He was well set on his march to power.

So there we have it. Labour is now likely to govern. You could always pick out other reasons for that, of course, but when a historian looks at this, they see a series of very deep-seated causes and some butterflies flapping their wings. In the ‘deep’ end: what if privatisation had never cut so deep into the British economy? What if the US banking system hadn’t got out of control? In the ‘medium’ category: what if the Iraq War had never happened? What if the Liberal Democrats had tried to keep Labour in power? What if voters had not chosen Brexit? What if the Conservatives had not launched and then unlaunched a manifesto that basically amounted to ‘we’ll take your mum’s house away’? And then the little things. What if Mr Blair had left Mr Corbyn to his fate in 2001-2005? What if Mr Joyce had not thrown his fists about? Well, just take away one or two of these, and Britain would not be on the brink of the most fundamental changes to her economic and social life since the early 1980s. But they did happen, and here we are. Whatever else it is, it’s quite a story.