Monday, 20 July 2015

The Corbyn illusion

The news that veteran rebel and left-winger Jeremy Corbyn (above) now leads the nominations race for leader among Constituency Labour Parties is an unwelcome reminder of how far the Labour Party has fallen over the past few years. From a position in which it bestrode the political landscape in 2001, and from considering an early election that might have destroyed David Cameron and pushed the Conservatives into oblivion in 2007, Labour is now contemplating its own end of days.

Mr Corbyn's prospectus is an alluring one for many a left-wing Labour member. It's full of fire, full of commitment, passion and hope. No to nuclear weapons. No to more 'austerity'. No to the private sector. No to landlordism. No to university fees. No more compromises - not with the electorate, and certainly not with the rest of the Labour movement, which has been singled out for a nasty dose of purge and schism by one of Mr Corbyn's more overexcited supporters.

It's an illusion and a fantasy.

The whole thing is what Aneurin Bevan, the last true leftist to come near the Labour leadership, would have called an 'emotional spasm'. Labour feels bad about itself. It hates itself for its weakness and unpopularity. It is therefore considering committing political suicide by trying to short-circuit everything we know about British electoral dynamics. Bevan knew better than to despair in such a way, and his eventual peace with Hugh Gaitskell as leader allowed Labour to start on the long road back to power in the late 1950s.

No doubt many of Mr Corbyn's activist supporters will point to the example of the Scottish National Party, that extraordinary powerhouse of political successes that has swept the Scottish board in recent elections. Many of them think of the SNP as a grass-roots leftist movement that has supplanted Labour by being more radical than that old and apparently tired socialist party. But they ignore the way in which the SNP has been very careful to shore up middle-class support in Scotland, making sure that university tuition fees are kept at zero (while maintenance grants and Further Education are cut), that Council Tax is frozen (while services decline), that they fought the UK General Election with a manifesto that would have meant more cuts than Labour's, and above all ensuring that income taxes have not risen - and are unlikely to rise, even after the new powers imagined by the Smith Commission and in the Scotland Bill are in place. The SNP also maintains an admirable and well-oiled iron grip on discipline, in a way that even New Labour did not manage: testament, once more, to everyone's admiring glances at Tony Blair's period in charge of British politics. In short, the SNP are like a single-shot antibiotic that kills virtually everything in their way, because as a national party they can pose as both 'moderate' and 'centrist' (as indeed they are on most economic matters) and 'radical' (as indeed on some issues, for instance land reform, they also are).

Labour doesn't have this luxury at the moment, because they lack the first element. No-one in the wider electorate (beyond a handful of Twitter and Facebook-based extremists) doubts their left-leaning credentials. What all swing voters worry about is credibility. It is Labour's competence, moderation and sense of reality. Everything we know about the last General Election tells us that, though not really a contest of Left and Right, it was lost in the field of capability. Labour, and especially its accident-prone leader Ed Miliband, were seen as just not up to it. No less than 67% who voted based on who they thought would be the best Prime Minister voted Conservative - meaning that David Cameron, an unconvincing and risible simulacrum even of a ribbon-cutting frontman, got back into No. 10. 69% of those who voted on the basis of the 'most competent team' voted Conservative.

Here's the reality: Labour is still blamed for the economic storm that hit Britain in 2008-10. That's just wrong, given that Britain's debt fell under Labour up to the point at which the crisis broke, and that the country never ran a current account deficit at all - while running only a tiny capital deficit, which was used to re-equip the nation's schools and hospitals. But watch the election Question Time in which Mr Miliband makes this case. There's an audible gasp which is really the moment when Labour went from losing the election to losing it badly. No-one believes Labour's case on the deficit. It's dead. It's gone. Better far to say 'okay, there's no way every penny was spent wisely, and perhaps we'd have liked to have had a surplus. But it wouldn't have made much difference to the crisis'.

That's realistic. That's what most voters believe, or a case they could be persuaded of. Mr Corbyn's full-on raging against austerity will just have most middle-of-the-road English voters in Telford, Plymouth, Bedford, Croydon or Hastings saying 'well, you put the deficit up there, the economy's recovering, you're offering me nothing'. Across England, in the small towns and long suburbs where elections are won and lost - in Sherwood, in North Warwickshire - the common wisdoms and radical attachments of urban Britain (where Labour did pretty well) are an alien matter of comment and concern, not of attraction. Until Labour works out how to appeal to those huge car-dependent swathes of common-or-garden Englishness, and to win in Canterbury, Stafford and Loughborough, they will win nothing. Labour activists should remember that, while austerity is indeed fierce and cruel, it falls enormously disproportionately on children, the very elderly, the mentally ill and the very sick. Most of them can't vote, don't vote or won't vote. If you want to protect them, you have to be in power. And you won't be in power if you talk all the time about an austerity that most voters never see and don't feel - and you talk about spending money and running the economy as if those ideas never went out of fashion, and as if those ideas are warmly greeted on the doorstep.

Politics and political change are not won by some sort of utopian, once-and-for-all breakthrough towards the commanding heights of the nation's psyche. Ideological and organisational triumphs are won by attrition. Trench-by-trench, field-by-field, house-by-house, hour-by hour, eye-gouging, knife-wielding, teeth-crunching, boot-in-the-face struggles which don't shed much sound or give out much glamour. But which might, in time, allow Labour to gain a hearing again. Labour were a joke in 1983. It took fourteen long years to allow the people of - say - Slough, Harlow and Lincoln to trust them again. That's the challenge that faces Labour today. They must walk the hard yards: organising, talking, listening, thinking and engaging with people's very real fears about economic reality and competence. Most of what people know about the economy is wrong. But shouting in their faces about just how wrong they are isn't a solution. A little humility wouldn't go amiss.

Jeremy Corbyn would prevent Labour taking even the first steps in that direction, and indeed as leader he would spell the end of the Labour Party as an organised national force (if it isn't doomed already). Conservatives love the idea. Some of them are signing up to join Labour and extinguish it forever. The Prime Minister has advised Mr Corbyn on how to win.

But Labour members considering voting for him should consider this: what are they in politics for, if not to seize power and use it to protect and serve those they represent? If they believe in social democracy, and they want to see it thrive, they should vote for any of the other three candidates and leave Mr Corbyn off the ballot altogether.

The alternative is this: British politics' nuclear winter could last for twenty years. Or more. All spent, by Labour, in the purity and helplessness of Opposition.


  1. Okay, so people want to vote for a party which is in touch with economic reality and demonstrates competence. But 'most of what people know about the economy is wrong.' I understand both of these two points.

    What I don't understand is how telling people what they want to believe, rather than what you believe to be true, in order to secure their votes is:

    a) humble - I'd say that telling people whatever you think they want to hear just to humour them, even though you privately think they're completely wrong, is pretty arrogant


    b) effective (it's pretty hard to sound convincing when you're just parroting whatever you've been told people in focus groups want to hear, as opposed to putting forward ideas which you believe will work in the world as it actually is).

    You may not get anywhere by 'shouting in [voters'] faces about just how wrong they are.' But I don't see how you'll make much headway by going to the other extreme, patting them on the head like frightened children and telling them that you understand their 'very real' fears about the horrible wardrobe monster, but that you're going to make it go away with special mummy magic.

  2. "Everything we know about the last General Election tells us that, though not really a contest of Left and Right, it was lost in the field of capability."

    If this is true, then I see no reason why Labour can't win under Corbyn (or a left-winger of some kind). You seem to be saying that they just need to sell their competency better. Why is it impossible for Labour to make a compelling case for better and more left-wing policies? Why is the only way to sound credible to sound like the Conservatives?