All Shook Up?
In the last issue of Labour Affairs we said that a Corbyn victory would be the catalyst for a long overdue shake up of Labour. Even a very good showing might make a difference. Well, he won decisively, and the shake up has certainly begun. ‘Democratic socialism’ has always in practice included a habit of getting slippery when a clear democratic vote produces the ‘wrong’ result. Corbyn’s election was immediately resented within the parliamentary Labour party and scorned by the parasitical press. The press acted true to form but it is astonishing that a man, whose political style and support for public ownership resembles that of Attlee and the much admired post-war Labour government, can generate such opposition from his parliamentary colleagues. What are they afraid of? They claim that under Corbyn Labour will lose the next election. But they are the people who lost Labour the last two elections. And yet they still persist in promoting the same policies, albeit honed to suit the current political scene. They differ only marginally from the Tories. Corbyn on the other hand wants Labour to move in a distinctly different direction.
Corbyn has resurrected Labour as the Party of the people, reaching out to those who had given up on it as their natural party. He has rejuvenated Labour, attracting thousands of young voters alienated by the politics of Blair’s New Labour and Cameron’s rich Bullingdon Club aristocrats. What is there to dislike about him? His victory was overwhelming with almost 60% of first preference votes. He said politics would be done differently and so far has been true to his word. He is replacing the irritating bear pit politics of Westminster with a politics that connects with the lives of real people. His is a more conciliatory style of Westminster politics, without losing sight of the need to call the Tories to account for their callous, divisive policies.
His first Prime Minister’s Questions, in which he raised issues requested by the public, was a decent start. However, his leadership will be judged, not on his performance at an elaborate Parliamentary ritual which few voters follow, but on his ability to unite the parliamentary Labour party. Given the initial and continuing hostility it will be a difficult task. It will require him to compromise on his perceived voter-alienating positions. He has already done so on Europe, displaying a political realism his colleagues believed was absent. However, his position appears ambiguous. There is much to be said for keeping the Tories guessing on Europe and making support conditional on support for worker’s rights. This would strengthen Corbyn’s hand and make right-wing Tories very unhappy.
Corbyn showed his realism consistently during the campaign, insisting the Party would reach policy agreement through consultation, not imposition. In spite of this, a number of his colleagues, including two of his election opponents, declared they would not be part of his shadow cabinet team, citing irreconcilable political differences. Liz Kendall said it was essential to bring the Party together and then immediately announced she would never serve under Corbyn’s leadership. Kendall, and those like her, one thinks of Baron Mandelson serial resigner, are clearly determined to make Corbyn’s tenure as difficult as possible, while claiming loyalty to the Party. By doing so they seek to split the Party and may make their prophecy of defeat at the next election under Corbyn’s leadership a near certainty. And they will not lack the support of the Tories and the right wing press in doing so. But the ‘free’ press is much more right-wing than the electorate, being dominated by the views of wealthy owners and advertisers. There is a lot of resentment towards the press. Most of it is ill-focused, but it could be harvested by a bolder Labour Party that was willing to say that the press are crooked.
What about the main enemy, the Tory party? Within hours of Corbyn’s victory Cameron claimed that, “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.” An accusation that can be more accurately levelled at Cameron’s governing party. And the press headlines screamed “Bye Bye Labour”, with the Mail claiming a poll showed that under Corbyn Labour would lose the next two elections! But none stooped as low as Matthew D’Ancona in the London Evening Standard of 16 September who, referring to the challenges ahead, wrote, “Yet Corbyn and his team, like a cuddly version of the Khmer Rouge, appear determined to declare the arrival of Year Zero.”
Criticism of his shadow cabinet was directed at the three key positions of Chancellor and Foreign and Home Secretary filled by men, but half of the thirty members are women and seventeen supported Burnham and Cooper. Just three are declared Corbyn supporters, one of whom, Diane Abbott, is one of just two non-white members. This point was missed by media commentators, or else intentionally ‘not seen.’ Had Cooper agreed to serve under Corbyn she would no doubt have filled one of the three key positions, although her ideal role would have been shadow business secretary. By no stretch of the imagination, therefore, can it be said that the shadow cabinet will bend to the will of the leader. Corbyn has pledged that agreement will be reached by consensus. He will do whatever is necessary to ensure the election of a Labour government.
In an Observer article of 30 August, Blair wrote “Corbyn’s policies are fantasy—just like Alice in Wonderland.” But the Cheshire Cat failed to spell out the policies he believes are fantasy, merely asserting “Corbyn’s programme is exactly what we fought and lost on 30 years ago.” Except that it isn’t, but it suits Blair and Corbyn’s opponents to pretend that it is. Britain is a different place to what it was in the early 1980s. His proposal of people’s quantitative easing to stimulate growth through investment in job creating programmes is pure Keynesian. He has proposed that rail services will be returned to public ownership when the current franchises run out. He has spoken about the misuse of power by the banks and utilities and the need for rich individuals and business to make a greater financial contribution through changes to the tax regime. And he has questioned the role of NATO and Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons.
None of these are policies set in concrete. In fact Labour’s recent conference failed to discuss the renewal of Trident at the insistence of the unions who fear job losses. Policy will continue to be discussed within the shadow cabinet and among the wider party membership. This way of agreeing policy is anathema to Blair who formed policy with a small coterie of political friends, forced it through the cabinet and browbeat the party into acceptance at staged managed conferences.
Lord Kinnock too joined in the attack. He is the 1970s left-wing firebrand who supported public ownership, advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament and was a critic of NATO. He deserted the left on becoming Labour leader and led Labour to two successive general election defeats. His criticism of Corbyn cannot be taken seriously.
Under Corbyn, Labour is acknowledging the key role unions play in the workplace and in society as a whole. His speech at the TUC conference was one of his first acts as leader. And within days Labour opposed the second reading of the draconian Trade Union Bill and the cuts in tax credits. It will oppose the Welfare Reform Bill when it returns to the Commons, having abstained on the second reading under Harriet Harmon’s leadership. Labour is changing, as Corbyn promised it would. There are signs, at last, of it returning to its historic core values.
Can Labour win with Corbyn? To do so it needs to win back voters who deserted it for the Greens and UKIP in England. The Midlands and the South East in particular are the key to a Labour victory in 2020. And it must appeal to the voluntary disenfranchised, the non-voters, giving them a reason to vote and to vote Labour. It is consistently said Labour must appeal to the centre ground, to so-called middle England. But the centre is not a fixed entity. It is constantly shifting. It is said Labour must attract the support of aspirational voters, but their aspirations are never defined.
Corbyn understands the importance of aspirations to voters. “Everybody,” he said, following his election, “aspires to an affordable home, a secure job, better living standards, reliable healthcare and decent pension. My generation took those things for granted and so should future generations.” He should have added ‘free education for everyone who can benefit from it’. But nevertheless his simple message will be conveyed to voters. It will, inevitably, be distorted and diluted through the prism of the press. If voters understand that, they should rally to Corbyn’s and Labour’s anti-austerity cause. But only if they believe Labour can be trusted with the economy. That is the enormous task it faces under Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell.