Labour Party Election Special pt II
Why is it Corbyn who has emerged as front runner in this elecion for Labour leader?
Corbyn's route to victory: not cynical or bland
1983 is a year that hangs heavily over the present Labour leadership election. The surprise runaway candidate – Jeremy Corbyn – has been accused of wanting to take the party back to those supposedly dark days. For the Labour Party ’83 is the year they wrote the longest suicide note in history and committed electoral hari kari. The defeat of the party by Thatcher ushered in the period of introspection and reform which led directly to the re-branding of the party as New Labour, and the success it enjoyed under Blair and Brown. The lessons learned from that defeat have been drummed into candidates, activists and especially the parliamentary party and have been treated as the unquestionable route to power. But whilst the approach initiated by Kinnock and continued by Blair brought 13 years in government, it also unwittingly sowed the seeds of the present crisis in the party, which may yet prove fatal.
The idea that Corbyn is a throwback, hankering for the past is a common theme in commentary on the election. It is lazy and wrong. It is meant as an insult because the assumption is that as time passes the party makes further progress down a path of modernisation. This modernisation is seen as the key to achieving credibility with electorate – above all economic credibility – and therefore success at the ballot box. Wanting to revive policies of the past is seen as a retrograde step, moving the party away from their ultimate goals. Witness the intense scoffing when Corbyn hinted he might bring back Clause IV, or something similar.
1983 is not just a year of defeat in battle against the Tories. It also represents the intense civil warring between the hard and moderate wings of the party. If the first and most important lesson of ’83 was that to win Labour had to modernise, then the second and complementary lesson was that it had to remain united at any cost. Voters do not like their parties to be divided, and so everyone must be on-message, from the cabinet downwards.
So, the quest for credibility and unity re-shaped Labour post-’83 allowed them to capitalise on the woeful mess that Major made of governing when the chance finally came in 1997. Yet each stored up problems as well, problems which are only now being worked through, very publically, in their choice of a new leader.
More credible, but less believable
Writing in the Guardian – the parish newspaper of the British left – Tony Blair recently wrote: “The party that assembled after the 1983 defeat knew its direction. Maybe we didn’t know how far or how fast, but we knew, and the new leader Neil Kinnock knew, that we had to put aside the delusion that we had lost two elections because we weren’t leftwing enough and start to modernise. And our objective was to return to government.”
Over and over again senior figures have asserted the idea that the Labour Party is a party of government and not of protest. For any political party committed to a peaceful, electoral route to government, ideas can seem pointless unless they are combined with power, or its pursuit. Being right is no good if you are stuck in your bedsit, railing against the world. The practical outcome of this logic is that the thought on every issue, the response to every event has to be parsed via the question 'what is the line we need to take in order to elected?' Watering the beer only works for so long, however, and eventually the brew tastes no different from the clear liquid flowing from the tap.
The Labour Party put the cart before the horse in this way following the principle of ‘traiangulation’. This involved a delicate interplay between ideas, messages and electability.
New Labour’s immense electoral record is the trump card that Blairites – and very often Blair in person – play when engaging in intra-party politics. It was wildly successful, delivering in 1997 the largest landslide election victory since 1906. ‘Capturing the middle ground’ is the mantra of the Blairites, that is espousing political policies that do not frighten middle England, and that are above all ‘aspirational’: sympathetic to the assumed ambitions of most people to get on, and improve their material lot. Anthony Giddens, the nearest New Labour had to an intellectual lodestone, described the approach in ‘The Third Way’. When translated into day-to-day party and electoral politics this became ‘triangulation’, splitting the difference between the Tories and themselves, in order to capture enough of the crucial swing voters. Hence in the 1997 campaign the policy of sticking to Tory spending plans for two years, and the slogan ‘Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime’.
Once out of office again, and especially in a world re-shaped by the 2008 crash, the principle of triangulation presents the party with more problems than it does solutions. Instead of sounding reasonable and pragmatic, the hedging of bets in this way began to look unprincipled and directionless. Let us take one example of a Miliband policy to illustrate the problem at hand.
Ed Miliband had been elected leader of the party in 2010, infamously beating his own brother David, the more photogenic and solidly New Labour of the two. It was the approach of Milband as leader (and only history will tell us if it was by accident or design) not to propose alternative policies in opposition to those being implemented in reality by the Con-LibDem coalition. The Labour Party is dealing with the direct consequence of this policy/ideas vacuum, and will be for at least another electoral cycle. However, at the party conference in 2013 Miliband broke cover and announced that if elected Labour would impose a prize freeze on energy bills.
The reaction from the chiefly right-wing press was predictable accusations of being a clandestine Communist and comparisons with Castro’s Cuba. However, there was sound electoral logic behind the policy. Energy bills had been steadily rising, and the prices of the ‘Big 6’ energy companies tracked rises of wholesale energy prices upwards – and within hours of each other’s – by never moved back down so swiftly. Milband had spoken of ‘crony capitalism’, a slightly clunky phrase, but one which chimed with those exasperated by bankers’ bonuses and the like. What is more, Miliband and his team knew that as a policy it was popular because internal polling showed its popularity as an idea was "off the charts". Over the weeks that followed the criticism began to bite, and the danger of losing the crucial battle for economic credibility was too great a price. The policy remained in place, but was not talked up in the same way.
Miliband was trapped by the ingrained New Labour habit of hedging every policy in order to try to please the maximum number of people, or rather offend the minimum number of people. When it looked as though the idea might frighten the horses, or was ‘too left’ his instinct was to adjust the policy, not maintain the principle. Instead of sticking to the idea, and have events bear out his reasoning in the confidence that people could be persuaded over time, the policy was simply jettisoned. The logic of triangulation was that the party had only to find the perfect policy and votes would appear from thin air. Where Miliband intended to be a pragmatic and calculating tactician, however, the public only saw someone lacking ideas and leadership.
Unsurprisingly, this triangulation is accepted as political gospel by those leadership candidates who were blooded during the New Labour years. Andy Burnham in particular has the manner of a man well aware which parts of his soul he needs to renounce in order to gain high office. In the end that means triangulating even further than New Labour had had to do in the heyday of Blair. Faced with the wantonly neo-liberal policies of Gove and Osbourne the conventional Labour answer is to tack ever further towards them, dragging policy ever rightwards. Thus far the nadir of this approach has been stand-in leader Harriet Harman’s decision not to vote against the government’s swingeing cuts to the welfare state, but to order the party to abstain. Of the leadership contenders only Corbyn defied the whip.
Loyalty at all costs
The Labour Party is not uniquely dysfunctional in the way it sporadically turns on itself. The Tories have been split amongst themselves, as illustrated by the long-running animosity between from Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher, via John Major’s struggles with the Euroscpetic “bastards” in his cabinet, through the rabidly right-wing ‘Tory Taliban’, such as Peter Bone, in Cameron’s party today. Being in government is terrific glue for a party, however, and it is Labour who are currently letting debate spill over into warring. It has been made particularly intense because of the subsumation of debate under Blair and Brown meant not only was there no outlet for healthy discussion, there were no new ideas being generated outside of the inner circle of power.
Being on-message ironed out personality and left no room for the principled and impassioned stance that has engaged present supporters of the Corbyn bid. During the boom times the blandness and identikit nature of New Labour politicians could be ignored, or even perceived as an asset; they were like the business men and women of the 2000s, standing atop vast new empires, spinning money out of nothing, spouting managerialisms whilst decked out in shiny suits. What did it matter if MPs failed to say anything inspiring if hospital waiting lists were shortening, unemployment was down, schools had new roofs? It was only when the good times failed to keep on rolling did a lack of an ideology stop seeming like a positive and start feeling like a gaping hole.
To sum up, the New Labour machine took a calculating and cynical approach to getting elected, and demanded unswerving loyalty from its MPs. An apparently large section of the party as a whole see Corbyn as the medicine for two clear reasons.
Firstly, Corbyn is a rebel and an outsider. His voting record, has interventions in the House, his chairmanship of organisations directly opposed to his own government’s policy are all strong evidence of this. He is unquestionably a man of principle, whether you choose to agree with those principles or not. It does make him a very unlikely candidate for leader of the party, though, let alone leader of the country. Would he use party whips, which he has so routinely defied in the past, the force through his own potentially divisive policies? He has not been that convincing when asked if he would really like to become Prime Minister. How can a political party committed to winning office be so wildly behind someone so unsuited to the position he may well be filling in a few weeks’ time? The answer is that he has maintained a personality and a degree of individual credibility, where his colleagues have traded theirs away.
Secondly, Corbyn has always espoused his own ideas. They are not particularly first rate ones, but he does at least have some. Read another way, Corbyn-mania is properly a damning indictment of the terrible paucity of thinking within a Labour Party all but lobotomised during the Blair-Brown boom years.
In the next post I’ll continue to look into the long history of the party’s struggle with their own ideas, and what it means for the current, overtly ideological struggle.