It’s amusing, in a gallows humour kind of way, to watch the horrified response of the parliamentary Labour Party to Jeremy Corbyn’s startling surge in the Labour leadership polls. Having shooed him into the race in order to broaden the parameters of a democratic debate that they expected him to lose, the upper ranks of the Labour hierarchy are now aghast at the completely unforeseen possibility that ‘Comrade Corbyn’ might actually win it.
One Labour MP has claimed that ‘no one serious would work with him’ if he won the leadership contest, as if there were anyone ‘serious’ amongst the other contenders. Others are demonstrating their commitment to party democracy by plotting to launch an anti-Corybyn coup if he wins, on the grounds that ‘We cannot just allow our party, a credible party of government, to be hijacked in this summer of madness.’
Labour’s supporters in the liberal media are equally horrified at these developments. Yesterday the Observer‘s political editor Toby Helm argued that the Tories have stolen the centre ground from Labour, while Andrew Rawnsley dismissed Labour’s embrace of Corbyn in the usual snarky style that he always reserves for the left, in an article filled with cheap Citizen Smith-type references to the ‘hirsute Islingtonian’ and ‘Lenin-cap Labour’ leading the party to destruction.
Much has been made of a poll conducted by two former Labour election directors suggesting that voters who deserted Labour may never return to the party again. Basing its research on focus groups, the pollsters concluded that Labour was not trusted on the economy, that it was ‘anti-business’, that it was ‘in the pockets of the unions and not tough on immigration.’ Immigration, according to these researchers, was something of an obsession amongst focus groups, which repeated arguments ‘along the lines that our country is full, our country is broke and public services are creaking and cannot stand extra strain.’
The liberal media and the Labour rightwing have used these findings to argue that Labour ‘ignored the public’ during the Miliband era and is now headed for self-destruction through its refusal to recognize this.
This analysis is flawed on so many counts that it is difficult to know where to begin. Firstly Labour did not ‘ignore’ the public during Miliband’s campaign. On the contrary, it bent over backwards to try and pander to popular prejudice on welfare and immigration. Nor, despite its tepid leftwards drift, was it ‘anti-business.’ As for the economy, there is nothing that Labour did when it was in power that the Tories would not have done, and rumours of Tory economic competence, like the Duke of Wellington’s death, are greatly exaggerated.
Last month, some of the UK’s leading economists warned that George Osborne’s concept of ‘permanent budget surpluses’ had ‘no basis in economics.’ Rather than make these arguments or even consider them, the Labour right and its supporters have uncritically supported Osborne’s austerity model and prefer to accuse their own party of arrogance and high-handedness for ignoring the opinions of the public – even when these opinions are based on blatantly false premises.
To take just a few examples: Even the Economist has claimed that ‘millions will suffer’ as a result of Tory welfare cuts that were largely carried out for political reasons, and that the public has an exaggerated idea of how much of the country’s £220-billion welfare bill actually goes to the unemployed.
Other polls suggest that 29 percent of the public believes more money is spent on Jobseeker’s Allowance than pensions, when the reverse is true; that the public believes that immigrants constitute 31 percent of the population, when the actual figure is 13 percent. So yes, the public can be wrong, especially when it is fed a constant diet of misinformation, and a party with real vision and principles ought to challenge these false assumptions rather than pander to them.
It is obvious that the Tories have no interest in addressing lies and prejudices that work politically in its favour, but the Labour Party has shown no more interest in doing so either, and its single concern with what the public thinks appears to be how to turn its prejudices into votes.
This frantic and vacuous populism has gone even further in the leadership campaign, with all the contenders except Corbyn falling over themselves to reject the Miliband triangulation program they once signed up to, and demonstrate how pro-business, anti-welfare and tough on immigration they are. All of them seem to think that this is what the centreground of politics now consists of, and they aren’t the only ones.
An Observer editorial has concluded from the Ed Miliband debacle that ‘it is impossible to conjure a winning position if you are too far from the centre,’ while Tristram Hunt’s ’10 hard truths’ that Labour must learn similarly argues that ‘The Tories and George Osborne, their next leader, are now the centreground of politics.’
This is ridiculous. Where else was Miliband trying to be except the centre? What did his ‘One Nation’ Labourism – a slogan that he himself ripped off from the Tories before they ripped it back off him – mean if not that? As for the idea that the Tories now occupy the centre, don’t make me laugh. This is a radical rightwing party, that has used ‘austerity’ to carry out a wholesale program of neoliberal social engineering and restructuring for purely ideological reasons, and which is arrogant enough to believe that its narrow majority entitles it to effectively abolish the right to strike and carry out billions of pounds of cuts.
Where is the Labour opposition to these developments? Where is the angry condemnation of Tory brutalism? Or the vision or an alternative? Not from Miliband and not from his would-be successors. According to the Observer ‘Only a couple of voices on the frontbench – Tristram Hunt, Chuka Umunna – seem fully to grasp the scale of the challenge’ of the next election.
Really? Chuka Umunna, the smooth lawyer who-could-have-been-a-contender, who once supported Miliband because he wanted a frontbench job? The same man who now accuses the party of behaving ‘like a petulant child’ because of its embrace of Corbyn, who he calls ‘ “weak on defence at a time when global insecurity is rising, more generous social security payments for people who can work but refuse to work and mismanagement of our economic finances.’
Note that ‘people who can work but refuse to work.’ That is – or should be – a pretty disgraceful statement for a left-of-centre politician to make. But it isn’t anymore, because so many of Labour’s bigshots are making them.
This is why Corbyn comes across like a breath of fresh air. Look back on his record and you find a politician who actually believes in causes and principles and has fought and campaigned consistently for them. When he speaks he sounds as though he has ideas rather than soundbites to offer and even has the weirdly anachronistic temerity to try to argue on the basis of his convictions, regardless of what focus groups might say.
This is what politicians should be doing, but Labour hasn’t done it for so long that it can’t even remember what it feels like. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Labour would win a national election under Corbyn’s leadership, but I really doubt very much whether any of the other political zombies competing against him could do much better. And he has certainly reached the parts of the party that the troughers and careerists who have dominated parliament for so long could never reach.
In doing so he has exposed what a hollow, shrunken, soulless and empty electoral machine that the Labour Party has become, and which has resulted in the array of Tory lite holograms queuing up for the big job.
And it is this evolution, more than anything that Jeremy Corbyn might say during Labour’s ‘summer of madness’, which explains Labour’s defeat at the last two elections, and which may lead it to yet another rout at the next.