Image: Jeremy Corbyn responding to Theresa May's Brexit statement, November 2018. Credit: PA Images, all rights reserved.
This should be the moment for Corbyn’s Labour. They face a divided, incompetent Tory Government. A party that has lost nine Cabinet ministers in the last year, which has no domestic agenda to speak of, and is not even bothering with the pretence of a Queen’s Speech.
The Government has no direction or purpose, no credo beyond continuing limpet-like in existence, clinging onto office and pursuing the project of Brexit. And yet at this moment of decision, when Labour should be harrying this government and holding them to account on Brexit and more, despite everything it is the Tories who consistently lead Labour in the opinion polls, rather than the other way round.
As profoundly, the intellectual climate has turned against mainstream Conservatism, as well as moderate social democracy, opening up the terrain for Corbyn’s Labour.
The zeitgeist of the age has finally turned against the assumptions that have dominated British politics for so long. The assertions that markets should be left unfettered, that deregulation is a good thing, that government and the state should just get out of the way of private initiative and believe in the super-rich, that making things doesn’t matter, and that ownership is ultimately just an irrelevance, have all been shown to be bogus.
Such dogmas were taken to breaking point, with no area of British public life left unchallenged by it. It resulted in such ridiculous ideas becoming government policy as the belief that it does not matter who owns the key strategic assets of your country - whether nuclear power, nuclear weapon research establishments (Aldermaston), the electricity grid, water in England and Wales, and much more.
It took a long while for such a grotesque set of ideas to finally fall apart. It did so on results. After decades of pursuing this dogma modern Britain has been made in its image: the fawning of the super-rich, huge inequalities socially and regionally, average living standards stalling over the last decade, and the trashing of public sector values and ethos. To give an example on the last point the expansion of the university sector on the back of student tuition fees in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has dramatically changed higher education. It has made life good for a new class of super-remunerated Vice-Chancellors, but in England less than half the extra monies have been reinvested in student resources, while UK university borrowing has risen to £12 billion since the financial crash, not withstanding the £105 billion student debt which the state will end up writing off.
The evolving Corbyn project has captured some of the anger, rage and discontent which has flowed from this. The party is the largest in Western Europe in membership; it has energy, dynamism and sense of possibility in its younger activists.
The party has also disrupted the complacent cosy elite order which emerged post-Thatcherism: the Blair, Brown, Cameron (BBC) consensus which explicitly said this is the way things have to be: that little people outside of the elites have no choice but to knuckle down and show deference at the altar of the market and finance capitalism. It has numerous advocates and proselytisers in the public eye and media, and an emerging infrastructure of initiatives and platforms within and outwith Labour, from Momentum to Novara Media, the Canary, and in old-style media, the re-emergence of the left-wing paper, ‘Tribune’.
Yet for all the advantages that Labour has going for it: Tory troubles, the political climate of ideas changing, the bankruptcy of the economic orthodoxies of recent decades, and a mass membership party, something critical is clearly missing in Labour.
With the wind blowing in Labour’s sails, what is the nascent Corbyn programme for revitalising Britain – economically, socially and democratically? On the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell talks a radical talk, and occasionally the odd revolutionary soundbite, dreaming of overthrowing capitalism. Reality is somewhat different. McDonnell has supported Tory tax cuts and welfare cuts for the poor. And there is at the core of this – Labour’s economic prospectus – there sits a vacuum.
This contrasts unfavourably with the previous period of left dominance in the party: the Bennite insurrection of the 1970s and early 1980s. This saw a mass of policy detail and on the economic front, whether one agreed with it or not, a comprehensive Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) with fleshed out policies and academic and intellectual buy-in from prominent figures. No such detail or comparable coalition building is evident today.
The same is true on social policy with instead Corbyn’s Labour offering reassurance and monies to the middle classes and redistributing up the income scale and further away from the poorest. The party has at least made bold statements on environmental policy and climate change, but too much of the Corbyn Labour stance on the wider economy still has a hankering after traditional left economics that believes in growth as the solution.
A similar picture can be found in constitutional affairs and the state of democracy in Britain. The UK political system is creeking and falling apart, and yet where is the Corbyn agenda to take that on, knock it down, and build something better? A key issue in the future of democracy is what happens to England - the only nation in the UK which lacks a democratic voice and institution. When I asked in the summer a senior member of Corbyn’s leadership what they were thinking about England, they replied bluntly: ‘We are not doing any thinking on England.’
There is a strange air of conservatism running through Corbynista Labour that undercuts its self-belief in its radicalism and unprecedented scale of its ambition and mission. A more nuanced assessment of Corbyn’s Labour would gauge that its supposed radicalism is not anywhere near as great as its chief advocates like to think. Indeed the Corbyn project in many respects sits within the tradition of Labour insularity and smugness, believing it is the only radical political force of any worth in the UK – hence its patronising attitude towards the SNP, Plaid, Greens and others.
The Corbyn project has had little to say about the multiple crises of government, state and public agencies that make up the unhappy state of Britain, and which is also a crisis of the actually existing capitalism, economic and business assumptions, and even, society. The party has it seems no convincing remedy for the hyper-fragmentation of the UK in its nations and regions – or a recognition that the age of the all-powerful, enlightened centralist state are long over.
Then there has been the party’s abdication of responsibility leading up to the Brexit referendum and subsequently. Corbyn and McDonnell have managed a policy of constructive ambiguity on Brexit – which seems to amount to saying and standing for as little as possible – building a bridge between Labour’s pro-European sentiments and Corbyn and McDonnell’s Euroscepticism which has ended up offering sustenance to Theresa May and the Tories. This despite Labour members, voters and parliamentarians, all being emphatically pro-EU, pro-single market and customs union, and open to a People’s Vote.
On top of this there is a Corbynista complacency and even in places, worse an arrogance. The belief that the party can somehow repeat 2017 is used to excuse Labour’s current poor poll ratings. This states that once the party gets into a future election campaign it can repeat its performance and achievement of the 2017 election, and win significant new support. There is no guarantee of such an outcome and it is unlikely Labour will ever again face a campaign as inept as Theresa May’s last year.
Then there are the sweeping assumptions of some of the new Corbynista adherents. Aaron Bastani of Novara Media recently savaged the British Legion and in the run-up to Remembrance Day called the Poppy ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’, which is to put it mildly, over the top and counter-productive, and at best, just plain attention-seeking. Owen Jones, ‘Guardian’ columnist, in the last week has railed against what he called the ‘rigged’ electoral system. His basis for this was that on current predictions if Labour won the share of vote it did in 1997 it would win an overall majority of 32, rather than 179. In this he forgot that present day Labour has ‘lost’ Scotland, and taking that into account could produce an overall majority of 102; plus there is the effect of what is a distortive electoral system and how it works in favour of the big parties.
There is a wider problem of believing your own hype and soundbites. Too many Corbynistas believe it as self-evident that the existing order is rotten and will just collapse like a house of cards if pushed. One small example in many was provided on the BBC ‘This Week’ last Thursday where the former IPPR economist Grace Blakeley talked of the broken British economic order. She was surprised when challenged by anchor Andrew Neil who asked her to provide details and costings for her policies, and who only offered as a guide the example of the Chinese Communist Party post-crash recovery programme. This is part of a bigger picture: of believing that saying socialism is possible will bring it about: an example of a sort of reverse neo-liberalism of the individual.
Add to this the deliberate tribalism which now exists in Labour and on the left. Thus, John McDonnell can say: ‘I could not be friends with a Conservative’. There is a moral superiority in this, creating barriers between a left and those who are not on the left (which is after all most of humanity), and deliberately caricaturing your enemies: the Tories.
The Corbynisation of Labour looks more than a transient phenomenon. It looks like a permanent revolution in Labour; a fundamental and irreversible shift in power and influence in the party. There are many positives to this change. It has acted as a disrupter of the way that Britain has been governed and who it is governed for, and our broken economic and political system.
We are now over three years into the Corbyn project, and in a comparison Corbynistas would dislike, at this point the Blair New Labour project had won an election, were entering office and about to govern for over a decade. Despite this the Corbyn revolution is a curiously incomplete entity with little fully developed policies, a lot of attitude and self-belief, while being heavy on the rhetoric.
On the major issues of the day: the economic and social malaise facing millions in Britain and the reality that the social compact between citizens, government and businesses is bust, Corbyn’s Labour has not much substance to offer. On Brexit, the greatest challenge to British statecraft since the 1930s, the Corbyn leadership has no strategy at all. The Corbyn project is a very English-centric project which is paradoxically silent and saying little on the state of England: that isn’t a feasible proposition for reforming 21st century Britain.
No one said radical change in a country like Britain was going to be easy. It isn’t just an establishment stitch-up that there has never been a radical Labour Government: the 1945 Attlee one going with the grain of the Wartime coalition and public opinion. Corbynistas had better wake up to what the Blairites eventually did: that winning the party is one thing, but changing the country is something entirely different.