Sunday, 16 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour's Saviour or Nemesis?

Bill Jones discusses the impact of Jeremy Corbyn upon the Labour's future.

Unable to command the required 35 nominations, it was only the kindness of several Labour MPs, (none of whom actually supported him), which enabled little known leftie, Jeremy Corbyn to limp over the line and post his leadership candidacy on June 15th. Since then developments have been sensational, phenomenal: Corbyn leap-frogging into the lead over the three more established candidates and addressing jubilant packed out rallies across the country.  This has delighted those of a leftish temperament but plunged centre right supporters into deepest gloom. What can we make of 'Corbynmania'?

It's not unusual for political parties when defeated  to argue that if they had been more true to their ideological roots, they would have fared better in the election and might even have won. We saw this in 1979 when Thatcher's victory led to the election, in a Bennite fever of enthusiasm, of Michael Foot as Labour leader; after 1997 we saw the Conservatives elect three rightwing leaders before finding David Cameron in 2005. In both cases the swing back to core ideology resulted in heavy defeats.

Would the election of Corbyn produce the same result? The case is strong. After 1945 Labour was riven by left-right factional disputes. Divided parties seldom prosper and the party was out of power for 13 years before Harold Wilson's cautious prospectus won a tiny majority in 1964. During the 1970s the left established the Benn - led Alternative Economic programme which triumphed internally after 1979 but was totally rejected in Thatcher's 1983 landslide win. Labour lost heavily again in 1987 and yet again in 1992.

New Labour', the creation of Blair, Brown and Mandelson marked a recognition that voters had turned away from Britain's road to socialism- nationalisation- and did not favour unlimited welfare spending. The new approach tacked strongly towards the market economy and ardently wooed business, especially the City. Public schoolboy Blair was the perfect person to reassure middle class voters that Labour was no longer beholden to its (in any case shrinking) working class, unionised core support.

The result was Labour's biggest ever landslide victory, one that seemed to vindicate the wholesale abandonment of all those 'Old Labour' shibboleths. During Labour's subsequent 13 years in power, left-right factionalism more or less ceased but defeat in 2010 initiated a rethink under Ed Miliband which eschewed the 'split the difference' approach of New Labour and shifted left on the assumption that voter opinion had done the same after the 2009 economic meltdown; 2015 revealed this assumption to be false.

Corbyn's critics argue that after rejection of a leftish (though none too clear) Miliband route in favour of a much more emphatic anti-austerity leftwing one which embraces: much more borrowing, higher taxes, an investment bank funded by 'a people's quantitative easing', the ending of university fees, a substantial extension of public ownership,  abolition of Trident and withdrawal from NATO, is tantamount in Alan Johnson's words to 'madness'. The Economist's columnist, Bagehot (8/8/2015), is not impressed by ideas 'which shore up the old status quo; of reinstatement over reinvention... he has the attention of many, otherwise disengaged from politics. These people surely deserve ideas responding to the convulsions -digitisation, automation, globalisation- through which they are living.'

Corbynites, for their part, argue that the party has never conftronted austerity policies head on and that the Blairite attempt to position Labour in the centre ground via 'austerity- lite' policies had proven fruitless: voters will always tend to prefer the 'real' i.e. Tory, thing. This attitude sweeps away New Labour  as a busted flush; a new approach is needed more in line with fundamental Labour values. Corbyn argues that UK voters, like supporters of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, need to consider new approaches to end the unnecessary cutting of public expenditure and the consequent immiseration of millions of working people. Cutting expenditure will only shrink demand and lead to contraction and widespread hardship. They claim a focus on expanding the economy is long overdue and is supported by distinguished economists like Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

Given the dichotomy between Corbyn's position and that of his critics what are Labour's prospects if Corbyn, as it currently seems likely(William Hill makes him 1-5), actually wins? Clearly a return to schism in the party would occur. A number of leading figures have already declared their unwillingness to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet and, given he could not even raise 35 supporters among his fellow MPs, he would find himself in a very small minority. It seems the (somewhat surprising) influx of new members since 2015 is mostly youthful, unable to recall either the wilderness years of the 1980s or the electorally toxic nature of leftwing ideas. They have also warmed to Corbyn's style and personality.

He is not exactly an exciting politician but his views are in marked contrast to the crowded 'austerity lite' centre ground politicians, including his rivals, Burnham, Cooper and Kendal. His demeanour too is refreshingly different: transparently modest, low key, endlessly courteous, refusing to engage in the acrimonious political culture displayed so unpleasantly in weekly PMQs. In all these qualities Corbyn has something of Tony Benn about him, a champion of the left who must be spinning in his grave with envy that his moment has arrived just a year and a bit after his death.

But could he win? It depends on the short or the long term. In the current climate everything we have learnt about UK voters tells us Corbyn could not reverse the laws of political gravity. The Tories would be over the moon with delight if he became leader; Cameron, Osborne, Gove and the like, would hold up his ideas to ridicule and certain defeat in five years time; Labour could even join the Lib Dems as an irrelevant minority. However, my guess is that Corbyn's quiet, unflappable patience, would triumph over any bullying Cameron style at PMQs- that would certainly be worth the watching.

Looking to the long term Corbyn might have a half decent chance of converting Labour to his left-wing programme and then, just maybe a majority of voters too. But that would require, as it did in Greece and Spain, an economic  crisis far more acute than anything we have so far suffered. Older Labour voters might have to accept that they will see out their years within a virtual one party Tory ruled state with just a chance that Corbyn's heartening reinvigoration of youth and grassroots party members will lead to possible victory around 2030.         
Bill Jones has published widely on the subject of British Politics, and is the co-author (with Philip Norton) of Politics UK. 


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