The Indiependent, 5th August 2015
Modern Labour is in the midst of an identity crisis. It was born in 1997 with the rejuvenation of cobwebbed Old Labour, it enjoyed a glorious childhood until 2010 and now – at the age of eighteen – it’s looking to leave home, throw off the ideological shackles of its parents and rebel.
That would be a mistake.
Jeremy Corbyn is the socialist sweetheart. He’s grubby, he’s stubbled, he revels in not conforming to authority and he’s not afraid to launch a campaign against his own party and create factionalism. Those on the left of Labour have hailed the return of pre-Thatcherite socialism, of ‘real Labour’, and of the leftism rampant in Europe. It’s a popular argument that Corbyn represents the Podemos or the Syriza of the UK – the front against Tory austerity.
Those comparisons are largely unhelpful because they’re inaccurate. The success of left-wing parties in Europe is a result of the oppressive austerity of the European Union, a side-effect of the awkward system of monetary union without fiscal union. In Greece, the leftist opposition to the ECB’s bailout conditions is grounded and pragmatic, from a country which cannot withstand the levels of austerity imposed by its central bank. In Spain, the austerity has come from a stagnant economy, slammed by tiny growth and the collapse of the structurally integral construction industry in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. That austerity is, once again, a condition of membership of the Eurozone, enforced by high-growth, low-debt Germany.
In the UK, the fiscal situation is different. We have neither the economic collapse of Spain, nor the near-brink bailout circumstances of Greece. On the contrary, the UK’s economy has recovered as one of the best of the EU nations, it has complete fiscal sovereignty, and retains the AAA credit rating recovered by Osborne’s austerity. Whilst it may be heartening for UK leftists who resent the suited-and-booted Westminster class, who yearn for the street protests and socialism of the Mediterranean, Corbyn cannot make the same arguments as Tsipras and Turrión. The UK is not sinking, it does not need bailouts.
Corbyn’s 35 nominations came, in the majority, from nominees who wanted to see a widening of the political debate. That is, of course, a good thing. The attack by the British right, that Corbyn’s nomination perverts the ‘Overton Window’ of political consensus is nonsense. It’s always a good thing to allow diversity of opinion within a leadership race, a policy discussion or indeed a local council debate. But just because Corbyn’s addition has generated better discourse, it’s not necessarily created a better policy agenda. Many of the original Corbyn nominees have retracted their support, happy that he’s stirred the cauldron but not willing to support his leadership.
Writing for the Guardian, ex-Labour leader Neil Kinnock pointed out that “we are not choosing the chair of a discussion group who can preside over two years or more of fascinating debate”. All this from the man who backed Ed Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership contest – the outsider with the big leftist ideas. In response, the left has championed Corbyn as the ‘strongest’ opposition against the post-Thatcher consensus. Owen Jones, writing yesterday in the New Statesman, celebrated the possibility of a return to the Foot-esque agenda of the seventies.
He forgets, perhaps, the thirteen years of government Labour enjoyed whilst supposedly in the pocket of the Tories, or the economic growth and development the UK enjoyed in those years. He forgets the failure of the Tories to make any headway against a huge Labour majority. Clearly, the strength of opposition to right-wing ideas is in no way correlated with the extremity of the leader. The Overton Window, which Jones appears to want to heave to the left, is sitting with a majority on the Tory side of the House. Even if Corbyn’s ideas were valid and useful for the UK, precedent suggests that extreme leftism is unlikely to be a successful strategy against a centre-right consensus. Osbornomics has a mandate.
There are three reasons why Corbyn is an electorally insensible choice for Labour. Firstly, whilst Labour occupies the space in front of the opposition dispatch box, it is at its weakest in recent years. It has lost much of its most left-wing electorate, in Scotland, and much of its right wing, in the Home Counties. Miliband was neither centrist enough for the English, nor pro-independence enough for the Scots. A movement to the left of Labour is likely to push the right wing of the party even further away, but not regain the SNP voters north of Hadrian’s Wall. Corbyn appeals solely to the Trotskyite left and the frantically extreme youth, and would lose the majority of the meagre share of the vote Labour still has in England.
Secondly, Tim Farron’s election as Liberal party leader represents a tempting choice for the disillusioned English liberal-left. Those shifting to Labour at the election of the hated Nick Clegg are considering a move back to the true position of the Liberals, and Labour’s vacation of that area is likely to precipitate that change. Farron, at the election of Corbyn, becomes the obvious choice for Yellow-Bookers or Home Counties Labour voters who are turned off by grubby socialism.
Thirdly, the demise of Miliband has shown that personality politics has huge potential to damage Labour. A well-turned-out, relatively leftist leader was eviscerated by the right-wing press simply for his ability to eat a bacon sandwich and for his birth to a Marxist father. The comparatively weak limelight of the Labour leadership candidate shone on Corbyn has already illuminated some questions over Hezbollah affiliation and his insurgent backbench past. Whilst it’s wrong that voters make decisions based on personality, they certainly do. Corbyn is the image that Labour needs to avoid.
Jeremy Corbyn is the perfect opposition leader. He has the rugged charm of Russell Brand, the grey hair of Michael Foot and the poor fashion choices of Pablo Turrión. He would look majestic at the dispatch box, firing abuse into the Tory front bench and offering radical and alternative economic ideas. His issue is that his ideas do not work, he’s not facing the ECB and Labour doesn’t need another quirky leader. It needs a Prime Minister, and Corbyn’s not the man.