Corbyn: Could Do Better
Jeremy Corbyn’s performance at Prime Minister’s Questions has improved in the weeks since his re-election. He is more abrasive and aggressive, and carries a confident swagger. And yet, he continues to let Theresa May off the hook. Her false accusations about Labour and the NHS, the last Labour government’s profligacy and its responsibility for the 2008 crisis, go unchallenged. But Corbyn is not helped to counter these accusations by his backbenchers who remain fixed to their seats with an air of indifference. One could suspect that they are more keen to defeat Corbyn than to weaken and eventually defeat the Tory government.
Open backbench opposition to Corbyn has subsided, although when confronted by the media some backbenchers confess their displeasure and are quick to stress their failure to support him in the leadership ballot. Big hitters such as Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper now head key Commons committees on Brexit and Home Affairs, freeing them from potential Shadow Cabinet membership. Meanwhile Chuka Umunna, beaten by Cooper for the Home Affairs Committee chair, sulks in the background, when his obvious talents could be used in the service of Labour.
Opposition to Corbyn is now most vocal from former Prime Ministers Blair and Major. Blair’s promise to “help millions of effectively homeless people” is code for hatred of the left. It rings hollow when millions were alienated by his support for the disastrous Iraq war and when Labour’s membership collapsed under his leadership. Meanwhile Major has called for political centrists to unite against “extremes” and the “far left”. To the cynic the simultaneous media reporting of Blair’s and Major’s comments suggest a conspiracy. Or to the naive, they suggest a mere coincidence.
One earlier media focus has now faded: the accusations of antisemitism within the Labour party. Too many Jews came forward to denounce it for it to have any credibility. Too much public debate might have convinced the public that it was sheer nonsense. But the House of Commons report on antisemitism in the UK, referred to in this issue of Labour Affairs, focused heavily on Labour’s and Corbyn’s “failure” to deal with abuse against Labour MPs. And yet a report that purports to have investigated antisemitism across the UK, but has little to say about it. And the emphasis on Corbyn’s supposed role in antisemitic abuse and pointing the guilty finger at his lack of leadership on this, has more than a whiff of a stitch up.
Brexit offers Labour an opportunity to challenge the Tories on the absence of a coherent, workable plan on leaving the European Union (EU). A clear majority of MPs on both sides of the House of Commons, being Remainers, are unhappy with the referendum result. But they accept that the will of the people must be respected and rule out a second referendum on whatever final terms are agreed by Theresa May and her Brexit ministers. However, those final terms must be placed before the House of Commons for scrutiny and, if necessary, amendment by its members. But as we do not know what the final terms will look like, it was unwise of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to imply that the UK could have a rosy future following its exit from the EU.
A number of factors influenced those who voted to leave, but two in particular stand out: 1) the overwhelming sense of neglect by the political establishment of their need for economic security, 2) the perception that immigration is out of control with damaging effects on their communities. Corbyn understands that the economy has not worked for those people but fails to identify how identity and culture influenced the way they voted. When people feel that cultural change is adversely affecting their identity they become angry. And the loss of identity, rather than any adverse economic effects, may have had a greater influence on how they voted. This is not an argument against immigration. The overall economic benefits of immigration, are well known and accepted by most people. This is true only in terms of growth in gross domestic product, and may look different in the labour market, especially at the lower end. Nevertheless, Corbyn and Labour need a more holistic view of immigration rather than a narrow focus on its economic impact.
Corbyn and Labour appear to lack a credible defence and foreign policy, or indeed any policy on these. Given Britain’s history of military activity, which people, rightly or wrongly, generally support, it is naive to expect them to accept Corbyn’s apparent pacifism. Being in favour of peace and justice is an emotional aspiration. It is not a policy. His refusal, for example, to say if he would press the nuclear button was bad politics. He could have simply said he was opposed to a first strike option and left it at that. And he should remind the House that Britain’s nuclear deterrent is not independent so it is therefore nonsense to believe that a British Prime Minister could press the button as she or he chooses.
A coherent case can be made against the renewal of Trident, and Corbyn has a right to make it. But it would not find favour with most Labour MPs and some of the big trade unions. Nor would support for a dialogue with Putin and Russia which Corbyn has called for. Although his recent remarks about Russian militarism suggests a move away from his earlier position. This magazine supports a dialogue with Russia and Corbyn should continue to press for it. Of course, dialogue didn’t fit with former US Presidents who tried to weaken and isolate Russia on account of its effort to strengthen itself internally and pursue independent foreign policies.
On the domestic front Corbyn and Labour are launching an attack on austerity and the marginal changes to benefits announced in the Autumn statement. These will do little to improve the perilous plight of disabled and out-of-work benefit recipients and the working poor. Theresa May’s ‘just about managing’ received no comfort from Chancellor Philip Hammond. May is high on flowery rhetoric and low on political delivery. Her government have persuaded people that the ‘out of control’ welfare budget is exploited by ‘shirkers’ and bogus claimants, even though fraud accounts for a tiny proportion of the total cost. Welfare is a key component of a civilised society, not a political football to be kicked around by politicians, some of whom, not so long ago, were guilty of fraud themselves.
A little over two weeks ago Clive Lewis, Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, spoke to the Royal Society of Chemistry about Labour’s plans for Britain. In his speech he referred to a “New Deal for business”, a “contract between Government, business and workers”, and “a proper role for our trade unions” within “a social contract” that can bridge the divide between the parties. These were fine words but they will butter no parsnips until Lewis and Labour spell out in some detail exactly what they will mean in practice. The apparent reluctance to admit that this could mean putting workers on company boards may have been influenced by the silence, and in some cases downright opposition, from the unions.
Labour also needs to break out of its silence. Corbyn should press Theresa May on her earlier promise to put workers on company boards, from which she is now retreating. And he should urge the unions, with whom he has a good relationship, to take industrial democracy seriously. The TUC have shown how industrial democracy can help to move us away from the short-term shareholder model of capitalism and in the direction of a long-term general stakeholder form which benefits shareholders, workers and customers. It is time for Labour and the unions to take up the challenge.