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September 12th 2015

Back to the Future: Jeremy Corbyn

So, Jeremy Corbyn is now leader of the Labour party. The hard left candidate, whose name was only on the ballot slip because he was nominated by MPs who didn't actually want him to be leader but wanted to widen the debate, took nearly 60% of the vote. He dominated across all areas, winning majority support from party members as well as registered and affiliated supporters; unlike Ed Miliband, then, who beat his brother David only because of union support, Corbyn has started with a clear mandate from throughout Labour. This makes his position strong internally; it also makes it nigh on impossible for him to be toppled by those Labour plotters who feared what his leadership would bring.
It had become clear in recent weeks that Corbyn would win the election, but I still found myself surprisingly saddened when the announcement was made. I have voted Conservative in each of the last two elections, but I firmly believe - as I've written here before - that our country is best served by having a strong opposition as well as a strong government. By electing the most left-wing of their candidates, Labour have ensured that this will not happen. The nation rejected Ed Miliband's Labour and chose David Cameron's Tories; this was emphatically not because Miliband wasn't left-wing enough. The values and themes that Corbyn espouses have routinely been rejected by the electorate since the 70s, and are the surest route to failure in 2020. If you hate the Tories - and, above anything else, the theme of the Corbynistas has been Tory-hatred - then it is odd to play right into their hands by choosing the candidate they were most hoping for.
And I get the counter-argument, I do: what's the point in being elected if you have to adopt policies you don't like in order to do it? Isn't it better to be morally right and lose, than morally wrong and win? And while I've put words into other people's mouths, there, it's a question that sums up the problems that Labour is suffering from at the moment. There are a few of those problems, so I've listed them:
(i) People can disagree with you without being morally wrong. You'd be surprised how few Tory voters - and members - are actually evil; it's just that what they think is best for the country isn't what you think is best for the country. For example, it is (just about) possible for someone to believe that there should be private contracts within the NHS because they hate the idea of poor people getting excellent care and they want to stop it; isn't it more likely, though, that they think it can reduce costs and increase efficiencies without worsening healthcare? They might be wrong, sure, but that's the level the debate should be at.
(ii) Compromise is vital. If your views are clearly at odds with those of the populace, then you have a choice: you can try to bring the nation round to your way of thinking; or you can temper your policies to bring them closer to the world around you. Actually, any electable party will do a bit of both (and I am proud of the Tories where they do hold firm to unpopular decisions that are the right ones, such as student fees), but you can't win an election simply by standing your ground and hoping that millions of people's views swing round to yours, particularly if you've made it clear you think their current views are actually evil (see above).
(iii) The centrist party (almost) always wins. This is a very similar point to the previous one, actually, but it is so important I thought I'd say it separately. David Cameron vs. Gordon Brown / Ed Miliband; Tony Blair vs. Michael Howard / William Hague / John Major; John Major vs. Neil Kinnock; Margaret Thatcher vs. Neil Kinnock / Michael Foot / James Callaghan. In almost all of those battles, the party that was closer to the centre - or, at least, convinced the electorate that it was closer to the centre - was the victor. The echo chamber of party politics (and, more recently, social media) can sometimes convince people that the centre is much closer to their own views than it really is, but there should be no doubt that Cameron is more centrist than Corbyn.
(iv) If Labour doesn't win, the Conservatives will. That's just a fact: one of those two parties will either have a majority or be the leading party in a coalition. So, no, neither of them has the luxury of being able to lose while standing on the (supposed) moral high ground. If you're a lobbyist, say, or a charity, you can do just that: you can keep making your point until someone listens, and indeed that's exactly what you should do. If you are leader of the opposition, though, you have a duty to make your party electable; after all, you can't change the world from the outside.
The Labour party, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, shows no sign of understanding any of these points. His acceptance speech was a masterclass in preaching to the converted, making no attempt to reach out beyond the Labour party; indeed, making little attempt to reach beyond the pro-Corbyn elements of it (although, having said that, there were kind and supportive words for the Blairite candidate Liz Kendall). You can watch the speech yourself here, but here are some of the highlights:
  • Early on he listed 11 separate trade unions that supported him, and stated that the party's organic link with unions is "where we get our strength from"
  • He twice suggested that Monday's Trade Union bill would shackle the unions, and claimed that it would "destroy another element of democracy within our society". It is unclear which elements of democracy he believes have already been destroyed, but the main point of the Trade Union bill is to ensure that unions can go on strike only if they have the support of their members (50% need to vote; 40% need to be in favour; strikes must take place within four months)
  • There were three separate attacks on the media, for their treatment of Ed Miliband; Corbyn's 'widest family'; and (somewhat surprisingly) 'the great Ralph Miliband'. I'm no fan of the much of the tabloid press, but this was overkill and a fundamentally unwise battle to pick
  • He praised Andy Burnham for his stance that having the NHS "free at the point of use" is a "human right". I'm not aware of anyone of note believing that the NHS shouldn't be free at the point of use - certainly that is far removed from Tory policy - so this bears the hallmarks of a straw man. Although, having said that, I'm also not sure that the NHS is a 'human right'
  • He suggested that there has been a 'social cleansing of London by this Tory government', also implicating Boris Johnson in this
  • He made the accusation that the Tories "used the economic crisis of 2008 to impose a terrible burden on the poorest people in this country". Maybe it was just poor phrasing, but it sounds like he believes the Tories were just waiting for an excuse to make life harder for the poor; see point (i) above
  • Unlike Tom Watson (newly elected deputy leader), he did not explicitly say that Labour would win the next election. He did predict, though: "Great victories, not just electorally for Labour, but emotionally for the whole of our society"
  • There was a message to those former Labour party members who had previously grown disillusioned and left the party: "Welcome back to your party. Welcome home". There was, though, no message to those voters who starting voting Labour when Blair was leader, and stopped when he wasn't. Surely that is the more important group to win over.
While the recent general election has made me wary of believing the prognostications of the political commentariat, I don't struggle to believe that Labour will crash to a resounding defeat at the 2020 election; the question is, what will happen next? After being condemned to political irrelevance throughout much of the 1980s by Thatcher's success (and by Michael Foot), the party turned to the centre ground under Tony Blair and had 10 years in power: this appears to be a source of embarrassment to much of the party now, which is why I wonder if they will let a more centrist candidate replace Corbyn after 2020, or if will they continue banging the left-wing drum until the party splits in two.
In David Cameron's first ever PMQs as leader of the opposition, he used a very good line against Tony Blair: "He was the future, once". A few years later, Gordon Brown used the same line back at Cameron. Well, Jeremy Corbyn was the past, once, and now it seems he is Labour's future. It is a sad day for British politics, and it may be a very long time before it recovers.

what was I listening to?
Revolver - The Beatles
what was I reading?
Beguiling Miss Bennet - Various
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