Admitting to supporting Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race is to accept your own insanity. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. We are antediluvian leftists, idiots who refuse to acknowledge reality, ideologues willing to consign the Labour party to permanent opposition for the sake of misplaced idealism.
Needless to say, we Corbyn supporters see things a little differently. Firstly, Corbyn isn’t a Marxist revolutionary, or even that left wing by international and historical standards. He believes in a return to the values and policies of the post war consensus, accepted by both Labour and Conservative governments from 1945 to 1979. In this sense he is something of a small ‘c’ conservative – wanting a return to the welfare state Thatcher dismantled. When pushed in a recent interview to say what he would renationalise Corbyn mentioned the railways and electricity companies – if that’s a Marxist position than Thatcher was a Marxist, as they were in state hands for the entirety of her premiership. Pushed to say what his ideal top rate of tax would be he suggested 60% for the very highest earners – which was Thatcher’s top rate from 1979-1988. Does Corbyn’s website call for armed revolution and hanging the rich? No, it calls for reasonable things like: ‘An economy which works for all’, points out that ‘Government should not be the property of a closed elite’ circle and suggests that ‘we must act in the long term interest of the planet rather than the short-term interests of corporate profits’. Hardly Leninist.
Secondly, we supporters of Corbyn reject New Labour’s analysis of modern British political history, a narrative that could be summarised as ‘Clever Tony and the stupid left’. It goes something like this:
In 1983 the stupid left put forward a Marxist manifesto which led to Labour’s worst ever defeat. Then came Neil Kinnock, a sort of John the Baptist figure, who began kicking out the stupid leftwingers. But he didn’t go far enough so Labour lost two more elections. Only when Tony Blair became leader in 1994 and positioned Labour as a more competent and cleaner version of the Tories did Labour reach the promised land of government. When Labour was stupid enough to force him out they ended up losing two elections. Now they need to elect a leader as much like Blair as possible in order to win again.
It’s time we started contesting this narrative. For starters, in the 1983 election, the combined left and centre left (Labour + SDP) vote was 53%, to the Conservatives 42.4%. It was the combination of the formation of the SDP and our disastrous electoral system which awarded Thatcher her victory, giving the SDP 3.5% of the seats for 25% of the vote. And the 1983 manifesto wasn’t even that radical by today’s standards – it’s most notorious policies were the abolition of Trident (now advocated by former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo) and withdrawl from the EU (on which a Conservative government is now holding a referndum). We can also contest the narrative of the 1997 election. By that point, the Conservatives had been in government for 18 years, had lost their reputation for economic competence in the wake of the ERM debacle, and were tearing themselves to pieces over Europe. Pretty much any Labour leader could have won in 1997. The Conservatives were still utterly hopeless in 2001, keeping them out of contention, but by 2005, the apparently invincible Tony had lost Labour millions of supporters, and the party received only 35% of the vote. New Labour’s habit of taking its core voters for granted was finally backfiring. The results in 2010 and 2015 were the continued rejection of a form of politics that ignores the wishes of the majority of the population (who favour ‘impossible’ things like rail renationalisation and a genuine living wage) and favours backroom deals over democratic engagement. Miliband failed because he said enough left wing things to scare off some centrist voters, but didn’t offer a radical enough change to inspire millions of poor people to turn out to vote – which is the only way the left ever wins.
Are we Corbyn supporters so deluded that we think there is a left wing majority in this country, waiting to vote for a socialist leader? Of course not. But neither do we accept that there is a right wing majority – most people hold a diverse range of views and are neither left nor right. They move depending on which arguments seem to be most convincing at any one time. And that’s precisely the point – we have to start making an argument again. The Conservatives have utterly defined the terms of debate, with Labour forced onto to the defensive, promising to cut slightly less, be a little less cruel, protect a handful more people. On top of this the Conservatives have the massive advantage of being able to say what they believe, rather than saying only what they think the media will accept, as Labour does. Ordinary voters who are not naturally left or right will inevitably choose the party that leads the debate, rather than the one following it, the party that speaks authentically rather than one which seems constantly nervous and hesitant.
Miliband started to changed Labour’s discourse, talking more about equality and criticising the excesses of big business in a way that Blair and Brown were never willing to. But it was done in a cautious, nervous way, with a constant fear of going too far (remember ‘The strikes are wrong’?) This was coupled with a overly cautious economic agenda from Ed Balls, designed to demonstrate fiscal responsbility but in fact leading to an ‘austerity lite’ programme that failed to offer any sense of hope. The proposed changes were too small to make a difference, the voters that Labour needed to inspire did not believe Labour would significantly change their lives for the better and stayed at home. As recent research has suggested, it was the unexpectedly low turnout of Labour voters, rather than a late Tory swing, which cost Labour the election.
The only way that Labour will be able to implement its socialist values – equality, community, a decent standard of living for everybody – is by talking about them. We need to start setting the agenda again. We need to send a clear message to the underprivilged and vulnerable that Labour is once more on their side. We need to re-enter the battle of ideas.
Am I so naive as to think that Jeremy Corbyn could win a general election? No, I don’t think he could, not in the current climate. He would be utterly demonised by the media, who still have substantial influence on many voters. But none of the current candidates could win either. Burnham and Cooper are timid Labour centrists, without the imagination of Miliband, and without the charisma to particularly inspire anyone. The drift of traditional labour voters would continue and UKIP (empowered after a close referendum result) might well take a large number of Labour ‘safe seats’ in the North, having coming second in many of them in 2010. Even if this effect was minimised I doubt that either of Burnham or Cooper would add more than 1 or 2% to Labour’s 2015 result. A Liz Kendall victory would see the same effects, but much faster and more brutally, as millions of voters are explicity told: you have no place in Labour any more. A fullscale hollowing out of Labour would occur – the party would be giving up on Scotland and the North for good. Yes, Kendall would attract Tory voters, and gain support from the press. But, short of a complete Conservative implosion, as in the mid 1990s, wouldn’t most of those people, and those newspapers, continue to back the Conservatives rather than an opposition that allows all it parameters to be set by the by the other side, failing to offer original ideas of its own?
Given this bleak situation, the best we can do is choose the right candidate for now. Someone who can start to rebuild the Labour party so it begins to believe in something again. Someone who will give hope to people being stamped on by the Conservatives, so they might start to organise themselves and refuse to accept what is being done to them (in particular so they might be inspired to register themselves to vote before the government redraws constituency boundaries based on a electoral roll that doesn’t include millions of people). Someone who will offer some serious opposition to Conservative policies – and quite conceivably stop some of the most disastrous measures, which should be possible, given the government’s wafer-thin majority. A temporary caretaker leader who will restore Labour’s values, someone who doesn’t really want to be leader, someone sufficiently unmotivated in personal ambition to step down in a few years to allow a younger, more charismatic candidate to fight the next election.
That person is Jeremy Corbyn. He’s already stated that he believes the leader should stand for re-election every one or two years, and, if he manages to pull of a surprise victory, would surely do just that. It’s true that Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t win a general election as things stand. And he’s by no means a perfect candidate. But if Labour starts to rediscover its values and sets the terms of debate again, a younger, more charismatic candidate, with similar politics to him might well emerge. If we choose a candidate that we don’t agree with because we think they will win an election, Labour will end up losing it. But if we instead choose a candidate who will put up a fight in the here and now and show voters that there is a genuine alternative, we might, in 2020, just have a chance.