By electing Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader, the Labour Party has finally thrown off the last vestiges of Blair-ism and taken a firm step back towards its Leftist roots. This has led to much shock, both within the party and outside it, with the inevitable virulent attacks from the mainstream media. So what is actually happening here? Has Labour really made itself unelectable by taking on a thoroughly discredited ideology, or is this the start of a fundamental change in our political system?
The first thing to say is that the frequent comparisons with Labour’s last lurch Left in the 1980’s are completely wide of the mark – because the country and the economy are in vastly different positions now to what they were then. In the early 1980’s the economy was stagnating, largely, many believed, due to the effects of militant Trade Unionism (those old enough to remember will recall the devastating strikes of the 1970’s and early ’80’s, including the dreadful ‘Winter of Discontent’). Under such circumstances it wasn’t very likely the electorate were going to turn to a party espousing hard-Left policies (and don’t forget that at the same time the whole of Eastern Europe was still in the grip of Soviet-style Socialism, again hardly an advert for the benefits of Left Wing economic practices.) So when Margaret Thatcher came along promising to rein-in the unions and let ‘the markets’ provide wealth for all, it was hardly surprising she was able to crush Labour and romp to three consecutive election victories.
However things are now very different. The current economic crisis, and excessive government debt, have been caused not by Trade Union militancy, but by an out-of-control financial system, itself the product of Right Wing free-market economic theory. In other words, in the 1970’s the Left caused the problems, with the Right promising the solution, whereas now the roles are reversed with Right Wing theory causing the problems, and the Left promising to come to the rescue.
Having said that though events aren’t simply a mirror image of each other (history never does quite repeat itself) and we need to be aware of the differences. In the 1980’s inequality wasn’t that severe, so there was a real feeling that ‘we’re all in this mess together’; and in those circumstances Margaret Thatcher was able to mobilise support from all classes of society – both the business community and workers. Now however, after 35 years of ‘Free Markets’, levels of inequality are far, far greater than they were in the 1980’s, and are in fact nearly at levels not seen since before the First World War. So it’s absolutely obvious that we’re not now ‘all in it together’, and while a privileged strata at the top of society enjoy almost unheard-of wealth, those at the bottom are being forced to endure endless cuts to public services and ever-deeper Austerity. In other words society is incredibly divided, and in such circumstances no one party can whip-up widespread popular support. The Tories with their ‘business as usual’ approach can probably rely on the continued support of the top third of the population, who are currently doing very nicely, thank you (that’ll be the third of the population that voted them into power – just – in the May election). Meanwhile, at the other end of society , an extremely large number of people (though quite how many it’s hard to judge) will probably vote for any party which promises an end to their poverty and economic misery. In the middle are all those who are just about getting by, but would probably like to see a change from the usual batch of disingenuous politicians, or have sufficient moral integrity that they don’t just vote out of self-interest. The big question is whether Corbyn and the Labour Party can turn enough of that middle section to vote for them. To do that they need to show pragmatism, maturity and above all, economic competence.
The first thing they need to do is show they’ve learnt the lessons of history and aren’t just old-fashioned Socialists, who want to nationalise everything and in so-doing – in most people’s opinion – crush the economy. They need to recognise that the public do, in general, support private enterprise, but it’s the repulsive excesses of unregulated Free-Market Capitalism – out-of-control multinationals, corporate corruption, cronyism, rampant tax-avoidance, all leading to vast inequality – that people want to see the back of. Things on that front are looking good so far where, despite the media’s attempts to portray them as old-style Socialists, Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell have actually so far only talked about re-nationalising essential public services (a policy which opinion polls indicate is supported by the majority of the population). Their policies of balancing the books, not by Austerity, but by clamping down on tax-avoidance and increasing taxes on the very wealthy are also sure-fire vote-winners. So, economically they are so far looking very sound indeed.
They will of course also be attacked for relatively trivial things, and just need to make sure they don’t give their enemies any more ammunition than they have to (Jeremy Corbyn would be well-advised to bite his tongue and sing the National Anthem occasionally); and they will need to explain and deal with past ambiguous statements on things like the IRA and Israel, which so far they have done pretty successfully. However there are three issues they do need to be very wary of, issues which are highly contentious but don’t necessarily follow a straightforward Left/Right divide.
The first is nuclear weapons. Jeremy Corbyn may well support nuclear disarmament, but he needs to be aware that though there is plenty of support for cutting-back on the astronomical costs of running Trident, that doesn’t mean that the general public agree with him that nuclear weapons should be got rid of altogether. Ignoring public opinion on that issue would be a massive vote-loser, and could indeed cost him an election victory.
The second issue is migration. Opinion polls show that immigration is for most people now the single biggest election issue. Though there is no doubt that most of the population want to show compassion for refugees and help where they can, that doesn’t necessarily mean they support the sort of open-door policy nowadays being espoused by some politicians. If Labour were to move in that direction, and so increase significantly the already problematic 330,000 per year net inward migration, they would undoubtedly be alienating many of their potential supporters.
And the third issue is the EU referendum, which admittedly is a potential minefield for all political parties. Jeremy Corbyn has already stated he will campaign for Britain to stay in regardless, which is a bit premature and could even go against some of his union backers. He and his team need to think very carefully how they will play this, as again they don’t want to shoot themselves in the foot over such a divisive issue.
In summary though, Jeremy Corbyn and his team are serious contenders indeed, and despite all efforts by the mainstream media to portray them as crazy no-hopers, the skill with which they have (so far) dealt with their detractors has their opponents already realising that defeating them in the next general election will be no easy matter.