As someone committed to seeing the Conservative Party removed from power, I have been watching the Labour leadership contest with a sense of mounting panic. Alongside the glaring lack of an outstanding mainstream candidate, there is the surreal rise of Jeremy Corbyn – morbid symptoms of a Party seemingly hell bent on oblivion.
Since the disastrous election result the Left’s momentum has been engaged in repeatedly fighting arguments that are already lost. Instead of using the post-election period to engage in serious self-reflection, it holds protests, vandalises war memorials, and chants for the removal of a democratically elected government. Instead of asking itself the hard questions about their inability to convince the electorate not to vote Conservative, they have retreated to their safe space, ranting incoherently on Twitter and Facebook about “Tory scum” and pouring scorn on their fellow countrymen – whose votes they will need in 2020 – for having the audacity to elect them.
Such histrionics do not grow from a position of strength: it is the death rattle of impending futility. Five years of banging on about how posh David Cameron is and how evil the Tories are failed topple the government. What difference do they think they are making now that government has a majority? Being twice as loud doesn’t make you twice as right.
Successive, and worsening, defeats have not chastened the Left. That the country, after five years of austerity, chose more austerity, is not a reality that humbles them. They apparently see no need to reframe the anti-austerity argument, and show little interest in understanding why those arguments proved so spectacularly unconvincing. Instead they double-down on their failures, putting their energies into the campaign of a man who is, by any sensible reckoning, wholly unelectable.
What was it, do you think, about the reelection of a centre-right government – with a majority no less – that makes Corbyn’s supporters think the country is secretly hankering for socialism?
It is all too tragically clear that for the Labour Left ideological purity matters more than winning elections. Being in opposition to things, that is, matters more, and feels better, than being in a position to change them. Corbyn’s supporters make a lot of noise about the injustices of poverty and inequality, and rightly so, but they seem dangerously blasé about the inconvenient fact that you have to get elected before you can do anything to alleviate those ills. In order to do that, Labour must appeal to more than just the Angry Squad.
Unlike the politically committed activists of social media, the vast majority of people are not rigidly partisan or ideological in their thinking. When they vote, they do what they think is best for the country. I’d be willing to bet there was a great number of people who voted Conservative in the last election who have no particular love for the Tories, indeed many who have voted Labour in the past, but who thought, on balance, it was the least worse option, given that Ed Miliband failed to convince as a leader, and the party has yet to regain its reputation for economic competence. People know about food banks, and they don’t much like them, but they also know the economy is experiencing a recovery, however fragile, that the deficit had been reduced, however partially, and that unemployment has, however bumpily, come down. Unless the party can coalesce around a set of principles and policies that demonstrate a Labour government wouldn’t put all that at risk, it is doomed to the impotence of dwindling popularity and lasting opposition.
That, though, would require making some accommodations with the public mood, and the Left has shown it is in no mind to compromise. Attempts by Labour candidates to reclaim the centre ground for the Left are greeted instead as an unforgivable betrayal of all that is sacred. Pragmatism is out: Idealism is in. Those not willing to indulge the heady atmosphere are denounced as heretics. Everyone who isn’t Corbyn is suddenly and inexplicably a “Tory”. This isn’t a leadership election: it’s a purification ritual. A purge.
One need only look at the resentment toward Tony Blair to see the root of the wrongheadedness. Blair, for all his undoubted flaws, was the most electorally successful Labour leader in history, and his government, for all its undoubted mistakes, the most redistributive. Yet the most vociferous, most frothing, criticisms of Blair do not come from the Right. Blair, you see, decided to work with the deregulated world Thatcher had made, rather than fight it, and for that the Left has never forgiven him. No Tory would have bought us policies like the minimum wage and tax credits, let alone presided over the massive increases in spending on schools and hospitals that characterised the New Labour years, yet ‘Blairite’ remains the ultimate insult on the Left. Compare the Right’s attitude to Thatcher and you’ll see my point: the Right canonise their successes, while the Left seek to bury theirs.
The pervasive mood of anti-politics demands authenticity, and sees attempts to reach out to the centre ground as selling out. It wants extreme voices – Nigel Farage, Russell Brand, Jeremy Corbyn – because in their uncompromising nature they discern something genuine. They seek a clear divide between the hated centre ground of grubby compromises and incremental change that represents the reality of governing in Britain, and themselves. The fringe appeal of such figures – the fact that they are hated by the ‘elite’ and the ‘establishment’ as intensely as they are loved by their supporters – is proof of their credentials. Tony Blair, by way of contrast, had genuine mass appeal, whatever the revisionists say, so he can’t have been the real thing: he must have been a Tory in all but name, and the New Labour years a wicked aberration.
Corbyn appeals to the left of the Left precisely because he promises a return to some prelapsarian ideal of ‘true’ Labour values. That those values are sure to exclude large swathes of the electorate, who are eminently more sensible than the average political activist, is neither here nor there. The positioning is what is important. They are firmly and unquestionably on the side of the Good (the poor and vulnerable, the NHS, the welfare state) and opposed to the forces of Evil (war, corporations, cuts, The Daily Mail, Tories).
For this Labour voter it’s been a profoundly depressing spectacle. When powerful voices within the movement are calling members of their own tribe a “virus” that must be “purged” by a Corbyn victory, it’s probably time to think about moving on. If that’s what they think of those who broadly share their goals, how on earth do they expect to persuade anyone outside their corner of the Left?
It helps to note that many of the voices telling us Corbyn is a serious candidate are the same people who believed, right up until that 10 o’clock exit poll, that Ed Miliband was going to win the election. They have form, that is to say, in massively overestimating their own popularity and competence, and badly underestimating the popularity and competence of their opponents. They deny it now, of course. Now, all of a sudden, they don’t believe Miliband was ever left-wing at all, as if energy price freezes, rent controls, and the living wage were lifts from the Tory playbook. Now they argue they knew Miliband was doomed all along, not because Britain didn’t want the alternative on offer, but because he wasn’t really offering an alternative. By offering a genuine left-wing alternative to the austerity agenda, runs the argument, Corbyn will galvanise those left-leaning voters who abandoned Labour to vote SNP in Scotland, UKIP in the North, and the Green party and Lib Dems elsewhere.
I see no evidence that that’s a realistic analysis. Firstly because, unlike the ideologues, the public thought Ed Miliband was pretty left-wing, and they rejected him. Secondly, even if Corbyn won back every seat Labour lost in Scotland (a very unlikely scenario indeed), the Conservatives would still have their majority. To stand any chance of winning in a general election, then, Labour must win in England, and it must win in marginals currently held by the Conservatives. For the Left to be in a realistic position to govern, that is to say, it must engage with, and persuade, those it despises – the very sort of middle-Englander who used to vote Labour during the Blair years. Those voters are about as likely to swallow Corbyn’s brand of unreconstructed leftism as I am to fist David Cameron.
This bout of ideological self-indulgence can only end in tragedy. Promises to rescind Clause IV, renationalise the railways and energy companies, and reopen the coal mines are not, taken together, policies the country wants or needs – they are policies the far-Left wants, which is not the same thing at all. They are inward-looking and backward-facing attempts to salve the wounds of historical defeats the rest of the country has long since moved on from. The thought that a Corbyn-led Labour party will go to the voters in 2020 with a pledge to refight the miners’ strike would be a merely comical one were the stakes not so high.
Even more disturbing is the way Corbyn gets a free pass when it comes to his deeply toxic stance on foreign policy. This is a man who spent his career defending every shade of tyrant and terrorist. He’s a regular on the Kremlin propaganda channel RT. Worse, he actually seems to believe that propaganda, which is why he is pro-Putin and anti-NATO. He’s filled in for the odious George Galloway on the bizarro-world Iranian-state propaganda network Press TV. He’s an open admirer of the repressive Cuban state, as well as the autocratic Venezuelan regime, and is an apologist for Slobodan Milosevic and Colonel Gaddafi. He has a long record of association with anti-Semites, and calls Hamas and Hezbollah “friends”. He’s a veteran sympathiser of the IRA, whose legacy of murder and thuggery he refuses to condemn. He’d like to see Blair in the Hague, but refuses to back action against Assad, or ISIS.
This pattern is not accidental. Corbyn, for all his avowed ‘principles’, is firmly in the tradition of those ostensibly liberal and left-wing people who have made a mental accommodation with some of the most vicious and reactionary forces on the planet, whose hatred of the West and loathing for Israel they share an instinctive sympathy for.
None of this is allowed to cloud Corbyn’s saintly aura. Balancing admiration for his anti-austerity stance with criticism of his grubby indulging of anti-Semites, terrorists and oppressive, anti-democratic regimes is seemingly beyond the mental reach of most of his devotees. Love is not only blind, but indifferent. They just don’t care.
Excited Corbyn supporters have been writing, blogging and Tweeting about the groundswell of backing for their man as if we are witnessing the murmurings of a revolution. They talk of packed halls, of lines around the block. Something momentous is happening, they say. Membership of the Party has swollen considerably. People are engaged. The left-wing writer Owen Jones, for example, can barely contain himself. He believes the Right are mocking Corbyn because they “fear” him, which just goes to show how reality is not being allowed to intrude on this debate. (It’s not an act, dude. The Right really are pissing themselves.)
I’ve seen this mistake before. The Occupy protests elicited a similar wild-eyed enthusiasm in the far-Left, who made similarly grandiose world-changing claims for a movement that petered out having achieved nothing. Ken Livingstone (Corbyn backer, natch) ran on a comparably left-wing platform in 2012 for London mayor and couldn’t even win against Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson! In London! When Ed Miliband beat his brother to the Labour leadership, Neil Kinnock famously cried “we’ve got our party back!” And look where that ended. The push for Scottish independence was driven by the same sort of wishful-thinking, the same sort of naive guff about the politics of “hope”, and it affected the same anti-establishment pose. It was just as convinced as Corbyn’s supporters of victory. They lost the referendum.
Time and again the Left confuses the depth of its own passion with expressions of genuine popularity. Protests, packed town hall meetings and noisy hustings are not useful as barometers of public opinion, whereas general elections are.
As far back as 1947 cabinet minister and future leader of the Party Hugh Gaitskell noted privately how Labour MPs in marginal seats had a marked tendency to be “most unrealistic about the left-wing character of the electorate”, and he argued they made the mistake of “identifying their own keen supporters – politically conscious and class-conscious men – with the mass of the people.” Gaitskell’s warning is one the Labour party has a habit of forgetting. It forgot it for eighteen long years, between 1979 and 1997, and it is about to forget it all over again.