A proper consideration of the Labour leader’s programme must now happen, writes Philip Collins
For most of his career on the fringes of politics, Jeremy Corbyn has not been a serious figure. Happy to campaign forlornly for losing causes, largely on foreign policy issues over which he had no influence, he was destined to be a footnote in the history of the time, if that. Then, propelled to the leadership of his party on a tidal wave of hope, he became a national figure, though not yet a serious figure. His performance as leader of the opposition was, for a long while, lamentable. His ratings were dire and his future seemed to hold a colossal defeat for his party. Then, in the most extraordinary political event in living memory, at the election of June 2017, everything changed. Though Labour did not win, the party polled 40 per cent and held the Conservatives to a hung parliament. It was wildly better than most people in the Labour party had dared imagine.
Clearly, Corbyn has earned the right to be taken seriously. Indeed, to judge from his spruced up image in public, he has started to take himself seriously. This raises the interesting question of whether being taken seriously is a wholly good thing for Corbyn. At least two fractions of the 40 per cent of the nation who voted Labour did so on the assumption that Corbyn would not become prime minister. For those who defected from the United Kingdon Independence party and the Greens and who like to protest, and for those who like Labour but not the leftwing version, the assumption that Corbyn had no chance of winning permitted them to vote Labour. The tribal anti-Tory vote and the perennial ‘protest vote’ came together. Whether this would happen in quite the same way if Corbyn went into a general election as the favourite is another matter. The paradox at the moment is that a lot of Labour voters who did not take Corbyn seriously have now forced us to actually take him seriously.
A serious consideration of Corbyn yields four important things about his political programme which collectively lead to a troubling conclusion. The first is that it is predicated on a vague but elevated sense that tomorrow should be better than today. This often has an air of the great platitude that Kingsley Amis put in the mouth of Lucky Jim: nice things are nicer than nasty ones. But we should be careful about sounding war-weary and cynical. The modernising wing of the Labour party has relinquished the idea of hope and optimism to the left, and that comes with a cost. Modernisers, since the departure of Tony Blair and probably before, have sounded dry and technocratic. They lack poetic lift, and a little inspiration is a vital commodity in politics, especially on the left. Corbyn’s ability to articulate the principle of hope is greatly to his credit and counts as a sign of political accomplishment. Whoever recovers the moderate element of the Labour party, if such a thing ever happens, will have to learn this from him. It is not enough to sound plausible. You have to sound beautiful too and, if you are good enough, you can arrive at plausible via beautiful.
Remember that this is not the preserve of the hard-left. It is wrong to dismiss the Corbynite rhetoric as solely ‘unrealistic’ or ‘impractical’. All pledges of a better day have an air of unreality about them. They are designed to inspire, not to put down the first draft of a blueprint. Look at the early speeches by Tony Blair. They are rather light on detail but heavy with optimism. New Labour was a programme for government but it also generated a sense of excitement and it would not have been as successful without it. Think too of Barack Obama who, in the days before he reverted to being a professorial lawyer, ascended to the presidency through his power to lift his audience with the spoken word. Corbyn does not have much in common with Blair but he does have this. The element of hope in British politics currently belongs to him. We will not understand his appeal if we do not pay him this compliment.
The second important aspect of Corbyn’s appeal is that hope spreads more quickly these days. We have been waiting a long while for the internet to turn up in British politics and in 2017 it truly did. Of course, social media sites have been around a long while now but this was the first occasion on which the identities formed and consolidated online made a big difference to the outcome of the election. We await definitive data but it seems as if there may have been something in the order of 1.5 million new voters in this election, the vast majority of which will have voted Labour. If you exclude those people from the vote, then the Tories would have won 46-36, with a majority close to 100. That was the election that the old people were covering and predicting. It seemed to be consistent with everything that we had known about Corbyn over half a lifetime of observing him.
The third part of Corbynism is by some distance the least convincing and the reason why principled social democrats in the Labour party should remain wary and keep their distance. Corbyn’s domestic policy, so far as he is interested – which is not very far – is a hopelessly anachronistic commitment to nationalisation of industry and the faith that money is all that the public services need to move from disaster to triumph. Tuition fees have, once again, become a signature policy as Corbyn seems determined to give money away to middle class students. This is a straightforward retail bribe. The politics is obvious but the policy is terrible.
Fourth, Corbyn cannot be let off the hook with respect to his foreign policy. His only really uncomfortable moment during the election campaign was in a television debate when a member of the audience pinned him down on the nuclear deterrent, in which he evidently does not believe. Corbyn’s entire political career has been marked by anti-Americanism of a crude kind. There is clearly no conflict he feels Britain should be involved in as he regards conflict as an inevitable, and largely justified, response to capitalist imperialism. It really is extraordinary that a man of such juvenile views should be as close as he is to power.
The conclusion is inevitable but not easy to face. Labour members of parliament have helped to put Corbyn where he is. The credit for bringing young people to politics is his but there is no doubt that the tribal Labour vote came out because they did not believe there was a genuine chance of Corbyn becoming prime minister. They hid behind the shield of an argument that Corbyn was hopeless. Now that he has proved that wrong, internal opposition is a lot tougher. But it is still necessary. Corbyn should lead from the left, as he wishes, and anyone who does not believe that nationalising the water companies is a good idea should have nothing to do with it. They should not seek every opportunity to dissent. Corbyn has earned the right to their silence but they all have a duty not to offer their active complicity.
For a couple of years now the Labour moderates have offered nothing more than arcane rubbish about this committee and that procedure and how there is some organisational route back to credibility. Relying on the deputy leader and the National Executive Committee to engineer a solution behind closed doors has produced little. The only way forward now is to start thinking, writing and inspiring. Then, if the Labour party is open for persuasion, perhaps future modernisers can inherit that mantle. If not, and it is by no means obvious that the moderates have a glowing future, they do not deserve a future in the Labour party.
Philip Collins is chief leader writer at The Times. He tweets at @PCollinsTimes
Credit: Richard Gardner
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