Thursday, August 13, 2015

Labour pains

It is a curious thought that the National Chair of the Stop the War Coalition could become leader of the Labour Party, but I still don't think it will happen.

A little while ago I posted a link to a critique of the accuracy of a YouGov poll that put Jeremy Corbyn in the lead. Since then another poll has been published by the same organisation that puts him further ahead and gives him an absolute majority of the first ballot. The same methodological reservations apply. I don't think either poll is trustworthy or representative of the views of Labour members as a whole. If I was a gambler, I would be down the bookies right now to bet on him not winning, though he may not now finish fourth.

The great imponderable though is Labour's new electoral system of one member one vote. It sounds fair enough, except that for some bizarre reason they decided that you didn't need to be a member. For a one off payment of £3 you can have a vote and then disappear off into the sunset. You don't need to do anything. Just vote to determine the future of an organisation you don't belong to. The figures for how many have registered, and their political views, are opaque.

The aim of the open primary was ostensibly to swamp the left with the votes of a much more 'moderate' membership and electorate. That didn't turn out right, did it? Any system can be gamed, but people get complacent when they assume that what they think is what the majority think; a delusion shared by many Corbyn supporters.

What has happened though is that the poll, however dubious, has created a bandwagon, such that nobody is talking about anyone else. The same happened with UKIP in the general election. The effects are ambiguous. The media frenzy may create support, but it also generates panic and belated opposition as people suddenly realise that their opponents need to be taken seriously. We can't know, but my guess is that without that first poll his candidacy might have sunk beyond view, even if he was generating enthusiastic meetings. It would have needed his rivals to provide a bit of credible opposition, mind you. They haven't been very good at it so far.

So where does his support come from?

First, there is the anti-war movement. It is organised, vociferous, very anti-Israel, against all foreign interventions (except Russia's apparently), and its organisation is an alliance of Stalinists, the SWP and Islamists, supported by well meaning humanitarians. This is where his foreign policy, his apologias for tyrants, and some of his dubious friends come from. He is not over scrupulous about who he is prepared to share a platform with. There is nothing original about his thinking. It is the party line.

Second, there is an activist left and their sympathisers. They are always prone to hero worship and just as likely to cry betrayal (usually by a corrupt media and sometimes because of a hidden conspiracy) when they have to confront reality. I count among their number really nice people who are friends, but when I look at what they share on social media, some of their politics is bat-shit crazy.

There is an overlap between the two, but the noise they generate does not reflect their size as part of the electorate. They are mainly middle class and vote Labour anyway (apart from a few Greens). Labour's problem is that it has lost working class votes and that is as troubling as the need to have a broader appeal in marginal constituencies. I don't think these two groups are assets for recovering this lost ground.

Finally, there are the trade unionists, socialists and social democrats anxious for a change in the consensus in political economy. They are appalled by growing poverty, punitive benefits regimes, the need for food banks, and the diminishing of the public realm. At last they seem to have a champion, but is he a convincing one? I remain sceptical, especially given the experience of Syriza's confrontation with a world that was not as accommodating as they thought.

When I look at Corbyn's candidacy, it is only the last group that has any credibility. But the others will make the most noise, whilst attention will turn rightly to foreign affairs where he should face tough interrogations. This is not a marginal issue. It goes right to the heart of what type of left we have; about left anti-Semitism, the susceptibility to conspiracy thinking, and the willingness to cosy up to some deeply unpleasant regimes. Combine this with the difficulty he will have in commanding the support of the Parliamentary Party, most of whom oppose him, and simply his age – he will be in his seventies by the time of the next general election – and the prospect of his leadership would appear to be little more than that of an interregnum, much in the style of George Lansbury after the 1931 split.

I have long argued that Labour has an incredibly hard task ahead to rethink an alternative political economy that is both credible and capable of attracting the undecided and the alienated at the same time. It has to embody the values of the left, but it must be deliverable. Labour needs to do this if it is to seize the next opportunity when change will be possible. The last moment was 1997. The next one is not now and I doubt if it will be 2020 either.

The Labour Party loves to go all misty-eyed over Attlee. They forget the most important phase of his leadership. That was the period before the war when he headed the rebuilding of the party around the right, marginalising the far left with ruthless pragmatism, whilst accommodating talented left wingers when desirable. There would have been no Bevan in power without Bevin. They forget, too, his eventual embrace of rearmament against Nazi Germany and his opposition to appeasement. This isn't an attempt to argue from analogy, but to point out that throughout the Labour Party's history there has always been a struggle between the romantics and the pragmatists. The pragmatists always end up winning. And I think they will this September as well. I make no promises about eating hats, nor am I foolish enough to put my money where my mouth is, but I still don't think that Jeremy Corbyn will be elected leader of the Labour Party.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting article Peter.

I'm surprised you think Corbyn will not win. The general election taught us the polls and social media can be massively misleading, but he has the backing of many unions and I expect most of the entryists are pro-Corbyn. His opponents might have already left it too late. I think if he doesn't win he will come close.

I also found it interesting that you placed foreign policy ahead of economic and equality concerns when looking at his supporters - I think the later is much more important for Corbynites. Austerity is an ideological tool for re-distributing wealth upwards sold on a Tory lie. People are very angry about that, and although you are right to point out that the people that realise that are mostly middle class and Labour anyway, it is very possible that they will be able to shift the bulk of public opinion in five years and reach out to the working class too - after all, it is the working class that would benefit most from an anti-austerity stance.

That won't happen however if Andy Burnham continues to apologise for Labour borrowing recklessly (although less than the Tories that preceded and succeeded them) and Cooper's stance is hovering half way on the fence between 'it wasn't our fault, but I'm sorry, we won't do it again' - she may be being honest, but she isn't speaking with enough confidence to convince people she is right.

Labour's calling, Labour's very point, is to fight for equality, and it cannot do that while it pursues milder austerity to appease centre - right voters. The other candidates need to be aggressively anti-austerity, and it is too late for them to take that stance now. For that reason, Corbyn might not be the right choice, but he is the only choice.

The Plump said...

Anti-austerity is too unspecific. It has become a slogan. How are you going to do it? What policies will you have? His economics are not impressive at all. There is some pretty ordinary centrist stuff that nobody would object to and some things he would never be able to do ("people's QE" - jeez).

I am in a country that elected an anti-austerity party that had to retreat into worse enforced austerity. They promised to end austerity and stay in the Euro. Sounds nice, but was impossible. It was one or the other and when they contemplated the economic collapse that would result from leaving the single currency and the, not austerity, but massive poverty that would result, they gave in. But only after having made the situation far worse. No. Slogans and half-baked schemes are not enough. That is why we need hard work on rethinking political economy.

And foreign policy matters. It matters to have a party that is happy to brown nose murderous dictators and apologise for their crimes on the basis of their anti-western credentials. It matters for a party to have a leader who is comfortable sharing a platform with fascists and anti-Semites and call them friends. It matters for a party to have a leader that will not abandon principled internationalism on the altar of non-intervention whilst the victims of bestial crimes beg for help that is never forthcoming. That is not a party or a left worth having.

As for him not winning? I have spent my life being wrong about most things. I have always thought I was right. You can draw your own conclusions.

Josh Hill said...

Luckily, the UK is not in the Euro, and we do not need to seek EU / IMF /ECB approval for our economic policies. Slogans are not enough, but at the same time Labour needs to be confident in its economic approach - it is not enough to have good, well though-out out policies and assume public opinion will shift to vote for what is right without being nudged. An unimpressive Labour in power has to be better than a stellar Labour in opposition, and a Tory government continuing to dismantle the state, no?

I'm not an economist, but from an uneducated standpoint massive investment in housing and infrastructure sounds like a good idea. I may be wrong - I probably am wrong - but it sounds good (note I haven't voted in the election, I'm not going to inflict my ignorance on the UK, but I do find this very interesting). I would also be really interested as to why people's QE would not work?

I agree that foreign policy matters, but I don't think its why most people are voting for him. Some, sure, but not a majority, and not by a long way. Frankly his foreign policy is an embarrassment to many of the people that will support him for economic reasons.

The main reason he stands such a good chance of winning is that the mainstay of the party will be split between Cooper and Burnham. It's unlikely he will get a majority on first preferences, but its going to be very close. Then again, I can't see him getting many second preference votes - he is an all or nothing kind of guy - so maybe he will come third. ahead of Kendall.

SP said...

Penultimate paragraph is spot on save that I think you are too pessimistic – we have to try now.

The Plump said...

Agreed Simon that we have to try now, but I am not sure we will be successful in winning power at the next election. The big question is whether the Tories mess up over Europe and whether Labour can capitalise on any opportunity. The Conservatives have a small majority and a low voter share, something often discounted by analysts when they look at the difficulty of the task Labour faces. Labour needs to be ready, but the Tories are looking capable of securing their position. But then again, events happen.

The Plump said...

And Josh, economics later, but you should consider that Corbyn is aiming to be a candidate for Prime Minister. That means, if successful, he will be in overall charge of the direction of British Foreign Policy. It will be one of his primary roles. If his his foreign policy is an "embarrassment," shouldn't it negate the appeal of his candidacy?

Josh Hill said...

Yes, it probably should, but for me foreign policy is less of a concern than economic policy. I think possibly the main reason behind this is while I am not an expert, economics is something that can be backed up by data. I can look at statistics, figures e.c.t. and see what is happening and form a semi-informed opinion. For me, my left wing economic views are grounded partly in principals - the belief in equality - but also in facts. Foreign policy it is much harder to do that with, so my viewpoints are entirely based on opinion and principals, which I guess I do not trust as much. With economics there is a clear solution that is both right and effective, whereas foreign policy is a moral minefield.