Labour Must Not Reverse on Policy

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader (Image from the Press Gazette – Joe Giddens/PA)

So there we have it. The polls were right, and produced the electoral results that could have been anticipated from them. To the extent that is a surprise it is only because of the unexpected result of the 2017 election and the rarely-fulfilled dream of some substantial tactical voting. Of course Scotland is a rather different story, and one that looks likely to run and run.

As far as England is concerned, Labour seem to have been caught in a Brexit trap – divided both within and without by the either/or nature of the question. It could neither fully embrace what was always primarily a right-wing nihilist project, nor fully reject a referendum result that was backed by many in ‘working class Labour heartlands’ – irrespective of which side actual Labour voters had supported in that referendum. At least the Conservative majority gives that issue some clarity; whatever Brexit brings over the next five years – and it is unlikely to be anything particularly good – it will be entirely at the doors of Boris Johnson (if he survives without terminal scandal) and the Tories.

The Jeremy Corbyn Problem

The ‘Jeremy Corbyn problem’ is born of New Labour’s compromises with the prevailing economic ‘wisdom’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Those compromises placated the powerful voices at the expense of any coherent tackling of the long-term economic questions: how a globalised world can maintain vibrant local communities and happy, healthy individuals; and how to manage a co-ordinated switch away from fossil fuel energy use with minimal disruption, particularly to regions of serious poverty. Those compromises finally ran out of credibility in 2015, despite it must be said some serious recognition of the issues at stake from the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Since Miliband could not get traction even within his own party, it was always one of the possible sequels that the Labour Party would undergo convulsive change rather than simply drifting on as an appendage to the ultimately terminal status quo. Miliband’s own changes to the leadership selection process actually allowed that convulsion to happen, but both the politics of the left outside Parliament and the compromised position of most Labour MPs were so ossified as to mean no meeting of minds was possible. The most notable features of that ossification were a fixation on one side with oppressive state actions overseas, such as in Palestine, and a limpet-like adherence on the other to a static book-balancing view of economics on the other.[1] These factors explain the worst tendencies of both sides: the activist left could become so identified with the non-state ‘oppressed’ that their view of the peoples of the ‘oppressing’ states and those associated with those states was distorted; the centrist MPs, wedded to a zero-sum economics, began to accept by default the beggar-thy-neighbour nationalist and xenophobic themes peddled by actual nationalists and xenophobes.

Jeremy Corbyn’s roots were more in the extra-Parliamentary left than in the Parliamentary centre, and so he was never likely to be acceptable to the latter grouping, however organised his leadership and fine his judgement in dealing with natural allies who over-stepped the mark into anti-semitic tropes. The centrists’ antipathy and that of media allies that shared their complacent worldview had plenty of ammunition in Corbyn’s history of championing the ‘oppressed’ – many of whom, such as Sinn Fein and Hamas representatives, were responsible for violence whose justification depends on your point of view but sits awkwardly with the conventions of British politics. So as well as counts of being a ‘dangerous Marxist’ from natural enemies (moderate Miliband was ‘Red Ed’ after all) Corbyn and his closest colleagues acquired the label of ‘extremist cranks’ from many within the ‘centre-left’.

The Policy Offer

The specifically ‘Corbyn’ problem looks as if it is in the past, but the underlying issues are the same – certainly outside the party and to a greater or lesser extent (depending on how things fall in the post-election shake-up) within the party. Support for those in financial and other forms of poverty, which is essential to prevent multiple deprivation spreading within families and communities, and the maintenance of public services essential to the fabric of a unified society, are very close to being destroyed. So severe has this situation become, with multiple nefarious positive feedback effects, that we must run to stand still. The large increases in current and capital spending proposed in the Labour 2019 offer were probably the bare minimum required to do that running – improvements may need more radical intervention yet. Unless the make-up of the Parliamentary Labour Party (the Stalinist purge that never happened) has been drastically altered by the election outcomes, even that minimum will struggle to find its way back past the ‘sensible’ wing.

It is also important to analyse the election results properly. The Conservatives gained 47 seats, but this has almost nothing to do with voters’ choices, and is almost entirely a consequence of our electoral system. In losing 59 seats Labour’s vote share was down around 8% to around 32%, but the Tories only gained around 1% over Theresa May’s appalling 2017 campaign. So what happened to Labour’s 2017 vote? Astonishingly, despite losing a seat and their leader the Lib Dems’ national vote share rose by 4%! The Greens and SNP rose by around 1% each, and while that garnered the SNP another 13 seats it did nothing to add to the one held by the Green Party. Labour with Jeremy Corbyn won 40% of the vote in 2017, and 32% of the vote in 2019. So what changed? Was it all about Brexit? No. Was it mainly about Brexit? Almost certainly, yes. Certainly, Corbyn’s ‘othering’ had another two years in the bank, so Labour’s actual policies (even after passing through a hostile media filter) are probably third on the list of why Labour did badly.

Five years hence, in the throes of post-Brexit wrangling and the economy struggling as a consequence, with further damage to our social infrastructure from Conservative neglect, and extensive climate-change impact, it is difficult to see how Labour’s next policy offer can be less radical without being completely ineffectual. Sure – some outliers can be dropped, such as compensation to the WASPI women, some proposed nationalisations, abolishing student fees and keeping the pension age at 66 (although with life expectancy in Glasgow only 71 for men a bare four years of retirement seems pretty cruel) but we will actually need by then to be considering wealth taxes, a proper land value tax and severe restrictions on fossil fuel use.

Conclusion

Can the Labour Party find a leader who understands all of this; who can get some cut-through with a hostile media, and is properly supported by his or her MPs to build the long-term bottom-up strategy required? I don’t know, but the future of the UK (if that arrangement survives the next five years) as a safe, prosperous liberal democracy depends on it.


[1] What Simon Wren-Lewis has referred to as ‘Mediamacro’.

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