Jeremy Corbyn’s prescriptions have neither popularity nor merit
by Patrick Webber
With Canada’s New Democratic Party looking for answers following the disastrous October 19 election result, there will be many who will look to the UK and the British Labour Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for ideas on how to revive the party. They should not.
Thirty years ago, then–Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock evicted the sectarian militants of the hard left who had tried to rip the party apart. At his party’s annual meeting in 1985 he said,
Implausible promises don’t win victories. I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs … The people will not, cannot, abide posturing. They cannot respect the gesture-generals or the tendency-tacticians … They might try to blame others – workers, trade unions, some other leadership, the people of the city – for not showing sufficient revolutionary consciousness, always somebody else, and then they claim a rampant victory. Whose victory? Not victory for the people, not victory for them … They are not to be found amongst the leaders and some of the enthusiasts; they are to be found amongst the people whose jobs are destroyed, whose services are crushed, whose living standards are pushed down to deeper depths of insecurity and misery.
That speech led to the expulsion of various Trotskyists, the beginning of Labour’s move to become the New Labour of Tony Blair, an unparalleled three consecutive majority election victories, and eventual defeat under Gordon Brown at the 2010 election. The legacy of the New Labour project was debated from 2010 to 2015 as Brown’s successor, Ed Miliband, tried to reach out to the disenfranchised old left of the party while maintaining New Labour’s electability and organization. The hard left was not part of the argument until, following the May 2015 election, it came back to life with a vengeance and the Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.
The victory of Corbyn, a 32-year veteran of the backbenches with more than 500 votes against his own party on his record, was not some accident but a symptom of a party engaged in an exuberant detachment from reality. On September 11, 49.6 per cent of the party’s fully paid-up members voted for Jeremy Corbyn on the first ballot of the leadership race. Corbyn’s victory is often attributed to the “affiliated supporters” who signed up for only £3, many from trade unions or extreme left groupings, not to mention a few mischievous Tories. While supporters propelled Corbyn’s first-ballot victory to nearly 60 per cent, the point remains that Labour’s rank-and-file, as a whole, preferred Corbyn’s message to any other on offer.
Hard left versus Third Way
Originally, I intended to lay out a blueprint for the future policy direction of the Labour Party in the aftermath of its crushing loss. Had the party selected Liz Kendall as its new leader, as I hoped, those ideas could have been implemented. They would have been acceptable to a Labour Party led by Yvette Cooper or, to a lesser extent, Andy Burnham, the other two leadership candidates. The party’s selection of Corbyn, whose politics is a mix of old-style statism, hand-wringing isolationism informed by apologetics for Vladimir Putin and jihadists, and total lack of interest in the devolution of political power, means my policy prescriptions now only serve as points of contrast, intersections between the real world of people’s needs, to use Kinnock’s words, and the destructive 1980s nostalgia kick Corbyn has embarked upon.
What is Corbyn rejecting? It is useful to elaborate on the broad differences in thinking between the hard-left dogma of Corbyn and the centre-left philosophy of New Labour and the Third Way. The old left represented by Corbyn is steadfastly committed to nationalized industries, a neutralist foreign policy and a consequently neutered military, a preference for autarky over trade, a distrust of British membership in Europe and a “the state knows best” philosophy of handling social matters.
Third Way, radical centrist Labour politics embraces the market as the most effective means of generating wealth and is instead concerned with ensuring that workers are treated fairly within such a system and that the benefits of the market are as widespread and accessible as possible. A heavy emphasis is placed on education and skills training, along with entrepreneurship and innovation. Third Way philosophy also seeks to focus on the outcome of social programs and the delivery of social goods, rather than fetishizing the means through which those programs are delivered. Therefore, if nonstate or hybrid private-state methods of providing social goods are found to be more practical, they ought to be embraced. Finally, Third Way thinking embraces globalization and cosmopolitanism, seeing the larger world as an opportunity rather than a threat, and is robustly involved in international affairs, including a universalist approach to human rights, with the military ready to intervene to enforce those rights.
Detractors often assert that radical centrist, Third Way–inspired policies are inherent concessions to the right, watered down for reasons of political expediency. It is easy to see the flaw in this argument. First, some of the central tenets of Third Way thought, like a forceful defence of an interventionist foreign policy backed by military action if necessary and a liberal attitude toward immigration, are hardly recipes to achieve immediate popularity in contemporary Britain. Tony Blair, for better or worse still the most articulate promoter of radical centrism, pointed out that political expediency was not his motivation for rejecting Corbyn’s program. At a July 2015 speech to the Labour pressure group Progress he said, “So let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.” Outdated socialist ideas are bad ideas, and while they lack popular appeal, the fact they don’t work is the reason to reject them. Third Way thinking is attentive to shifting popular moods, but only so that those moods can be harnessed to further the development and implementation of policies.
For all their talk of principle, in contrast to what they present as the spin-centred rootlessness of Blair’s New Labour and the incoherent populism of Ed Miliband, the Corbynites often refer to the supposed popularity of their positions to make or at least buttress them. The leadership campaign featured Corbyn constantly repeating that Labour lost the May election because it ran on a platform of “austerity-lite,” that it did not offer a radical break from the Cameron-Clegg coalition and thus failed to inspire the electorate. A quick Google search will find numerous far-left bloggers and pundits arguing that voters rejected Labour because it was too similar to the Tories, that Britons craved a truly socialist alternative and, finding Labour wanting, bolted for the Greens or Scottish National Party (SNP), or else didn’t vote. This ignores the reasons why Labour voters in Scotland switched to the SNP and ignores the even more important fact that more 2010 Labour voters switched to the Tories than to the Greens and SNP combined.1 Here, for example, is Owen Jones, boy wonder of the outdated British left, in June 2015:
[Corbyn] will be able to draw from the findings of Britain’s leading pollster, John Curtice … These findings dispute that Labour lost for being too leftwing, and underline that Labour lost Scotland partly for being too rightwing. Corbyn could also draw on the conclusion of Peter Kellner, the YouGov pollster, that however Ed Miliband allowed himself to be portrayed, his policies were less radical than those of Tony Blair in 1997. He could nail why Labour lost … the lack of any coherent alternative. If Labour MPs deny the party and the country a genuine debate, it will reflect disastrously on them.2
Corbyn and his tribe rely on claims that their policies are popular as much as claims that they are correct. Hardly an appeal to principle or, if you look at data on the British electorate, hardly an appeal to reality.
The need for sound fiscal stewardship
The Corbyn line about Labour losing because it ran as an “austerity-lite” party is contradicted by the party’s own research and analysis. The “Independent Inquiry into Why Labour Lost” revealed that voters rejected the party because they did not regard it as a safe pair of fiscal hands. Far from dismissing the party as promoting “austerity lite,” as the Corbynites would assert, voters shunned Labour because it was viewed as, in Labour MP Jon Cruddas’s words, “anti-austerity lite,” as not taking the deficit seriously. In the Inquiry’s polling, 58 per cent of voters agreed that living within our means and cutting the deficit is a top priority, compared to just 16 per cent who disagreed. Even among Labour voters, 32 per cent agreed with this sentiment, compared to 34 per cent who disagreed. As Cruddas bluntly summed it up, “The Tories won because voters believed they will cut the deficit, even though a majority understand that the economic system is unfair. The Tories’ message on the deficit was clear, Labour’s was not. The Tories are trusted to manage the country’s finances, Labour is not.”
That the need for sound fiscal stewardship is not established progressive code is a depressing reality that centre-left Canadians are all too familiar with. Corbyn’s lack of interest in balanced budgets is not only deadly to Labour’s electoral chances but also inherently anti-progressive. Reflecting on Labour’s election defeat, the party’s shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, nicely summed up a progressive rationale for fiscal discipline: “It is not ‘Tory lite’ to argue that, in the long term, it would be better not to continue with a situation where we spend more every year paying debt interest to City speculators and investors who hold government debt than we spend on housing, transport or education.”
The need for sound finances to ensure that public funds are available to be spent on social programs instead of debt servicing raises another area in which Corbyn’s political ideas lack popular appeal: the basic question of what ought to be the purview of the state.
Corbyn’s prescriptions for Britain envision a series of renationalizations of services and an affinity for state-run behemoths. Corbyn’s support for renationalizing Britain’s railway network, which he has given the ominously Soviet-sounding title of “People’s Railway,” enjoys popular appeal.3 But this should not be misunderstood as broad popular support for a more statist approach to the economy and delivery of social goods, or at least a return to the statism of the 1970s.
The Blue Labour movement that gained traction after Labour’s loss in 2010 addresses the statist overreach of past Labour governments and accordingly reimagines social democracy in a manner that acknowledges these shortcomings. For instance, Blue Labour questions the legacy left by the Attlee government of the 1940s, and perpetuated in the Wilson-Callaghan era of the 1960s and 1970s, of a large centralized state that sought to deliver public goods. As Blue Labour advocate Lord Glasman put it in 2011, “1945 was a wonderful achievement of solidarity. But the sting in the tail of 1945 was that it broke all the mutual solidarity – the ways we took care of each other – and handed them over to the state.” Blue Labour seeks to redress this problem by granting greater power to communities to deliver and administer public goods and social welfare, so that communities can take greater responsibility for their own challenges, minimizing the reach and power of a Leviathan welfare state in people’s lives.
Blue Labour’s thinking on a redesigned welfare state chimes with a growing libertarianism among young Britons. The British Social Attitudes survey has shown that the newest generation of voters, those born after 1979, are not just more classically liberal than older cohorts of voters at present, but are more classically liberal than these older cohorts of voters were when they were the same age. More than any other age group of British voters, “Generation Y” believes in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. Over two thirds of those born before 1939 consider the welfare state “one of Britain’s proudest achievements,” compared to less than one third of those born after 1979 who feel the same. In other words, Corbyn’s state-run answer to every social need and problem does not resonate with the bulk of new voters.
Missing the devolution boat
Blue Labour also concerns itself with the next big idea which Labour could promote (though it is unlikely to do so under Corbyn), and which speaks to a growing desire among British voters: a more devolved, decentralized Britain. This includes both promoting greater local control for cities and remaking Britain as a federal state.
Enhancing the political and decision-making power of local communities, including taxing and spending powers (Westminster currently raises 95 per cent of British taxes) does have proponents within the Labour Party, most notably MP Tristram Hunt and former party leadership candidate Liz Kendall. However, the Corbyn campaign did not address this issue or greater devolution in any noticeable way.
A February 2015 Survation poll found that English and Welsh voters support the formation of an English Parliament by a margin of more than two to one. Meanwhile, 61 per cent of English voters feel that too much of England is run from London, versus only 14 per cent who don’t believe this. The desire for greater devolution and local power also explains Labour’s collapse in Scotland between the 2010 and 2015 elections far better than the oft-repeated claim that Scotland fled Labour for the Scottish National Party because Labour wasn’t sufficiently “left-wing.”
The polling data gathered on the eve of the general election suggest that a more left-wing Labour Party would not have brought more Scots on board. When asked by Survation in December 2014 if a Labour Party committed to renationalization of entities such as railways and utilities would make one more or less likely to vote Labour in the upcoming election, only 33 per cent of Scots stated that they would be more likely to vote Labour. This compares to 48 per cent for whom it would make no difference, while 10 per cent said it would make them less likely to vote Labour. The same poll found that only 26 per cent of Scots believed that taxes levied by the Holyrood government in Edinburgh should be raised to fund better public services, compared to 41 per cent who thought the tax-to-spending ratio was about right and 13 per cent who believed that both taxes and spending ought to be reduced. So the Corbynite assertion that Scottish voters are of a leftist hue so red that Labour could not accommodate them seems a doubtful premise for Labour’s losses to the SNP.
What the polling data do suggest, however, is that the SNP surge in Scotland, and Labour’s concurrent losses, were due to the desire for greater powers that the Corbyn camp is oblivious to. According to Panelbase, Scots want full fiscal autonomy by a margin of 53 per cent in favour to 33 per cent opposed, while a margin of 51 per cent to 29 per cent favour a Scottish Parliament with control overs all areas of government policy except defence and foreign affairs.
Trust in the pan-UK parties to deliver on their promises of increased devolution for Scotland was nonexistent as the election approached. In February 2015, a YouGov poll found that 39 per cent of Scots believed that the unionist parties would likely deliver on these promises, compared to 54 per cent who thought they were unlikely to. When asked during the campaign which party would be most effective at securing increased powers for the Scottish Parliament, 69 per cent of Scots opted for the SNP, compared to a mere 14 per cent for Labour.
According to Panelbase, by a margin of three to one, Scots believed that an SNP balance of power would force the British government to deliver more powers to Scotland. And an SNP balance of power was the most preferred election outcome among Scots. In February 2015, 35 per cent of Scottish voters preferred a Labour-SNP coalition while 10 per cent preferred a Conservative-SNP coalition. This combined 45 per cent whose preference was to see the SNP as a junior partner in a coalition was notably larger than those who preferred a Labour majority (19 per cent), a Conservative majority (12 per cent) or the continuation of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition (7 per cent).
The verdict of public opinion
Corbyn is ambiguous on British membership in the European Union and overtly hostile to British membership in NATO, promoting a Britain that would retreat from concern beyond the cliffs of Dover. In this regard he is far more similar to Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), than either would care to admit. Both envision a fortress Britain – though in Corbyn’s case the fortress would be disarmed – and they interpret world events in a similar manner. Both Corbyn and Farage regard NATO as the cause of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, and advocate a cold realpolitik that would see the fragile democracy there and in the Baltic states sacrificed to placate the Russian autocrat. This extends to Corbyn and Farage’s willingness to see human rights tragedies proliferate on the grounds that foreign interventions make things worse or are inappropriate for Western powers, who must pay for their legacy of colonialism by turning their backs on the slaughter and oppression of Syrians, Ukrainians, Zimbabweans and so on. By upholding such views, Corbyn betrays one of the finest legacies of the left, the notion of a common humanity and the universality of human dignity, and the commitment to internationalism that springs from that.
The clearest indication that Jeremy Corbyn is blind to the broad swath of British public opinion can be found in the polls conducted since he became Labour leader. What these indicate is that beyond the din of his admirers’ cheers, the country as a whole does not welcome or trust his policies.
A YouGov poll conducted soon after Corbyn became Labour leader asked respondents to what degree they trusted Corbyn on a series of policy fronts. It is worth noting that Corbyn’s victory came after a lot of media buzz around his ideas and previous stances and statements, so respondents were not answering questions about a blank slate. The only area where voters expressed overall trust for Corbyn was in handling the National Health Service, where he earned a modest net positive 6 per cent. This is not surprising given that the NHS is the most cherished legacy of past Labour governments among the British public. However, the warm feelings stop there.
On government spending and cuts Corbyn scored negative 19 per cent, taxes negative 20 per cent, Britain’s relations with the EU negative 23 per cent, immigration negative 24 per cent, economic management negative 27 per cent, terrorism negative 27 per cent, and defence negative 34 per cent. One of Corbyn’s most cherished policies, scrapping Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons, lacks appeal even among Labour supporters. A Survation poll conducted on the eve of the September 2015 Labour Party conference found that 55 per cent of Britons believed Trident should be retained versus only 18 per cent who wanted to see it scrapped. Among Labour supporters the score was hardly better: 54 per cent in favour of Trident compared to 22 per cent against.
Overall, a Labour Party ruled by the Corbynites is even less electable than the party of Ed Miliband. An ORB Research poll conducted in the week after Corbyn won the leadership revealed that not one single demographic group, be it based on gender, age, social grade, employment sector or region, was more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as leader. Only among those who already cast their vote for Labour in their disastrous showing in May 2015, and those who voted for “Other” parties (presumably the Greens in the main), did a net positive of voters say they would be more likely to vote Labour. Only 36 per cent of SNP voters in May 2015 said they were more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as leader, compared to 64 per cent who said they would not be more likely, further countering the claim that the SNP surge was due to a lack of socialist adherence on Labour’s part. Those who would not be more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as leader won out by a margin of three to one among Liberal Democrat voters and four to one among UKIP voters.
Polling numbers aside, my opposition to Corbyn’s policies is based on their inherent lack of merit. His economic prescriptions – a fascination with command economy statism that distrusts independent innovation and regards the market as inherently flawed, as opposed to a great wealth generator that needs to be democratized and humanized – were outdated even before he won his parliamentary seat in 1983. His view of the means as an end in itself and the actual functionality of state-run enterprises as irrelevant in their promotion represents the worst of the old left. Corbyn’s faith in an all-controlling, all-knowing state is also evident in his woeful lack of interest in the next big area that centre-left thinking is exploring and needs to respond to, which is the devolution and localization of political power. Corbyn is not for power to the people so much as power on the people.
Too often it is assumed that hard left positions represent pure idealism, with no hint of calculation or electoral consideration. These concerns actually factor greatly in the assertions of the Corbynites. To every call for a return to or adoption of pure socialism, there is appended the cry that a return to power can only be built upon such a move. The Corbyn Labour Party is not a new type of politics; it’s simply a very old type, done very poorly. The Corbynites would be slightly less obnoxious if they were to drop the pretence of an argument between rootless and shifty Third Way advocates and principled socialists, and instead debate policies on their own merit. At the very least, the Corbyn victory, much like Syriza’s triumph in Greece, will serve as an example of what happens when the illiberal far left’s ideas are put into practice.
1 For detailed data on how British voters migrated between 2010 and 2015, see the website Electoral Calculus (http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/Analysis_votermigration.html). The data suggest that of those who voted Labour in 2010, 1.9% went to the Greens in 2015, 7.3% to the SNP and 10.3% to the Conservatives. It is also worth noting that more Labour voters switched to UKIP (2.4%) and nearly as many to the Liberal Democrats (1.7%) as opted for the far-left option of the Greens.
2 Owen Jones, “Jeremy Corbyn Is in the Labour Leadership Race: The Real Debate Starts Here,” The Guardian, June 4, 2015.
3 Will Dahlgreen, “Majority Support for Rail Nationalisation – but Also Policies from the ‘Radical’ Right,” Yougov.co.uk, August 6, 2015. According to the poll, 58% of Britons support renationalization of the railways and utilities versus 17% who oppose.
Patrick Webber is Head of the Research Unit for the New Brunswick NDP.