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Jeremy Corbyn: Blast From the Past or Leader of Tomorrow?

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LEN MCCLUSKEY
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This blog is an edited transcript of the address delivered by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey to the Oxford Union on Tuesday 9 February

Last summer's Labour leadership election must count as one of the biggest upsets in British political history. Certainly it was the most extraordinary event in the 45 years I have been a Labour party member.

Jeremy Corbyn's election, winning with a mandate which dwarfed that given to any other leader of a British political party in a generation or more, will, I believe, be seen as a major turning point in British politics.

It's been all too much for some, and I will say a word about them in a minute. But first I think we should celebrate the process that led to this outcome - the engagement of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them only marginally interested in mainstream politics previously, who felt inspired to join in with the Corbyn campaign.

For too long, politics has been an elite sport, increasingly the preserve of a small slice of society nurtured at distinguished addresses like this one!

Jeremy Corbyn has already let some air into a very stuffy room, and if he achieves nothing else we should be grateful for that. Of course, some folk aren't grateful at all.

They say we are heading back to the 1980s, worse still 1970s, when Labour was supposedly in the grip of extremism and was considered too left wing to win office. From day one the media and political class have used that as their narrative. Corbyn has been cast as 'hard left-wing', 'far-left' - 'extreme' even - and that was just the mainstream outlets.

The attacks from the right-wing media and tabloid press were more focused and vitriolic - he is not just left-wing but a danger to the country, the man who hates Britain, a terrorist sympathiser. They have set out to create a caricature of Corbyn, so people never get to hear his real message.

Nick Robinson, the former BBC political editor, wrote to his colleagues accusing the BBC's political coverage of reinforcing anti-Corbyn bias.

And analysis from the Media Reform Coalition found that the British press "systematically undermined" Corbyn with negative media coverage in his first week as Labour leader.

In that week, across eight national newspapers, 80% of articles were 'negative', openly hostile or expressing animosity or ridicule, whilst only 13% of stories were positive.

Of course the truth is Jeremy Corbyn does present a very real threat - but it's not to the ordinary people of our country. It's to the ideological consensus that has dominated political and economic thinking in Britain and the West for more than a generation. And it seems that no-one finds this more of a threat than some Labour MPs. The sort that cheered on the neo-liberal economic policies and illegal wars that disfigured the record of the last Labour government.

These MPs, who refuse to accept the overwhelming mandate Jeremy Corbyn got from Labour's membership, are generously described as the "moderates" in the Party. It's an abuse of language - there is nothing "moderate" about voting to bomb Syria or agreeing more public spending cuts, anything more than it's "extreme" to vote for peace or for an end to eye-watering austerity. Such labelling simply obstructs the debate we need to have.

Which is: What went wrong with New Labour, what lessons can we learn, and how can we craft an appealing electoral pitch for the reality of 2020, not 1997?

Today's political and economic challenges are direct consequences of the failed political consensus of the past 30 years. After the 1992 General Election and the election of a fourth consecutive Conservative government, Margaret Thatcher announced 'the end of Socialism' - and Tony Blair believed it.

He declared that New Labour was now "the political wing of the British people" while others in the party told us "we're all middle class now". New Labour may well have believed its own rhetoric on building a classless society. Its leading figures saw a virtue in being more comfortable in City boardrooms than they were in trade union offices.

Don't get me wrong the last Labour government did a great many things. Not least in civil and equal rights, restoring dignity to pensioners, giving opportunities in education, training and work to the young and investing in our communities. But for all the good it did do, the last Labour government did nothing to change the fundamental structures of wealth and power in this country. In fact, it helped entrench them. The last Labour government built new schools and hospitals by the dozen-load - but it also led the way for free schools (through academies), brought NHS privatisation in through the back door and left hospital trusts with crippling PFI debts.

The last Labour government brought in the minimum wage but it also subsidised the poverty wages paid by big business through it programme of tax credits. Tax credits signalled a refusal by New Labour to deal with the significant economic structural causes of the problem (low pay and corporate greed) being content to simply ameliorate the symptoms.

Labour got tired. It thought managing the worst aspects of capitalism was the best it could do. And the New Labour brand became tarnished. The professionalization of politics created a new political class. Political debate was out. Politicians now had to be "on message". The politics of great ideals gave way for the politics of spin.

It's no surprise that somewhere along the way people lost interest in politics. Turnout in elections fell and the belief that politics could achieve real change was eroded. New Labour's unholy alliance with the City of London, its backing of light-touch regulation for the financial sector and refusal to act on the mass tax avoidance of the corporate elite was more than a minor misjudgement.

It was an indictment of Labour's 13 years in government. What people remember today is a government that started out "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", and ended with a Treasury note that simply read: "I'm afraid there is no money left". And to add insult to injury New Labour's leading figures were quick to find favour in the City of London with lucrative careers after waltzing off the political stage - leaving all to fall behind them. And that's before we even mention Iraq. And so the New Labour experiment failed.

The global banking crisis and a taxpayer funded bail-out of the banks raised the first big
question mark over New Labour economics. It was then people started noticing that not only had the economic model crashed, but that society was still divided, with widening inequality, an elite super-rich and rampant corporate greed.

In opposition Ed Miliband started to grasp the seriousness of the problem, although his responses were hampered by timidity, over-cautiousness. Millions of people wanted more, a decisive alternative to the past. If people are looking for an explanation for the rise of Corbyn-mania last summer - they needn't look much further than this history.

And it's exactly this failed political consensus of the past 30 years which makes Jeremy's popularity today all the more understandable. He has asked the obvious questions about our society, and raised the issues that the prevailing consensus cannot grapple with.

He articulates the simple human decency which tells us that cutting support to the sick and disabled whilst doing nothing about a growing super-rich cannot be right.

He asks how can it be right that more than half of people in poverty in this country are in work?

He talks about young people priced out of buying a home and unable to afford extortionate rents.

He raises the obscenity of hundreds of thousands resorting to food banks simply to raise their families.

He speaks for students leaving university with debts totalling tens of thousands of pounds. These aren't 1980s throwback issues. They are the here-and-now reality of a country more deeply divided than I have ever known it.

That is why Jeremy Corbyn's message can, and does, resonate with the public, and why support for him is holding up so strongly, despite the media onslaught.

Of course there is another side to things.

There are many who say the Corbyn leadership 'hasn't all gone to plan' so far. Well the truth is - and this isn't really a secret: his leadership of the Labour Party was never planned at all. He didn't stand in the expectation of winning. Most politicians who run for the leadership of their party have spent years preparing, assembling a team, formulating detailed policies, cultivating media contacts, hiring image consultants and so on. And even they still have teething problems when they win. Jeremy had done none of these things. Nor had the team around him - because until a couple of months before his election, there was no such team. That is part of the reason he won. He is not the normal identikit career politician. It's central to his appeal to a public that wants something different from politicians. But it is also of course a weakness. Let's face it, lack of preparation is a weakness for most things in life.

So both Jeremy and his team are on a steep learning curve - but not in a classroom, instead on the front line and under heavy enemy fire. Jeremy has been fast-tracked from the fringe meeting to the centre of the conference hall.

From thirty years on the backbenches to having to carry out shadow cabinet reshuffles. It was never going to be easy. But if there has been some sloppiness in the early months of Corbyn's leadership that has not been the heart of the problem. The real difficulty has been the behaviour of a number of Labour MPs and Party grandees who have simply refused to accept the result of the leadership election. They spend their time both plotting behind the scenes, with every week producing another coup plan - or running to the media to attack the Leader and the policies that Party members voted for.

All this has made it hard for Jeremy's voice to be heard, for his message to get across. Every issue is turned into a "Labour split" row. Now of course there is a problem here that requires careful handling. Jeremy derives his huge mandate from the Party's membership and its registered and affiliated supporters. On the other hand, his committed support in the Parliamentary Labour Party is very much smaller.

As I say, this is a sensitive issue. That's why I'm not a supporter of going back to mandatory re-selection or other changes designed to intimidate or undermine Labour MPs. But I also believe that we need to issue a clear warning to those who are advocating the PLP being used as a lever to force Jeremy Corbyn out.

The bizarre plans outlined by Joe Haines, (Harold Wilson's advisor) and pollster Peter Kellner, the call to arms by Damian McBride in his Times article and the ludicrous 99 days notice given by Michael Dugher to the arch-Tory Mail on Sunday - all have to be dismissed with distain by any real Labour supporter.

If the Labour MPs want something constructive to do, then start working out policies and ideas that might help attract voters back to Labour.

The leadership election revealed just how much the New Labour faction had run out of political impetus. They offered no answers to the big questions of inequality, economic management, and 21st century social justice.

There were certainly no big ideas from what were dubbed the "mainstream candidates" during the last leadership election. Remember, the leading Blairite standard-bearer was Liz Kendall who got two per cent of the vote.

Their analysis of Labour's defeat in 2015 was unconvincing, their proposals stale, minimalist and uninspiring. And for the most part they have still not shaped up after Corbyn's victory. Until they can do that, they are a plot without a programme; a cabal without a critique.

Some have sought to excuse their disloyalty to Corbyn by pointing to his own rebellious past on the backbenches. But who can seriously argue that his votes in parliament against the Iraq War, against ID or against university tuition fees now diminish his ability to lead the Labour Party today. On all these issues he was not only right, I believe he was giving voice to the views of most Labour supporters.

I'm not saying that any Labour MP should have to abandon his or her own views, or cease to articulate them within the Party's democratic structures. But I am saying that this continual war of attrition is achieving nothing beyond taking the pressure off the government. So my clear message to the plotters is - stop the sniping, stop the scheming, get behind Jeremy Corbyn and start taking the fight to the Tories.

Jeremy Corbyn's message, his authenticity, his radical challenge to the status quo is part
of an international movement against business-as-usual politics. In Europe we can talk about Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Just look across the Atlantic.

By putting his socialist principles at the forefront of his campaign, taking on the injustices of inequality and a super-rich elite, Bernie Sanders has seen his popularity soar and his challenge for the White House taken seriously. The Senator from Vermont hasn't changed his message to fit in with the public mood - he's been banging on the same political drum all his life.

Tad Devine, Sanders' top strategist, says his campaign "has the potential to change the composition of the electorate, and getting young people and lower income voters back into it on the side of the Democrats because his message is so powerful and believable."

The globally political and economic problems are so stark that they can no longer be ignored.

Politicians who are willing to talk frankly about them - will be listened to. So we need to sharpen and clarify our message, confident that there is a growing receptive audience.

At the 2015 General Election Labour was anti-Tory cuts but not anti-austerity. It was a muddled message that failed to convince many people. Now we have a clear message: one that rejects austerity economics and promises investment and growth instead.

Fairness, tackling corporate greed, tax avoidance and tax evasion, and holding power and wealth to account - all popular proposals which are resonating on both sides of the Atlantic. What Jeremy Corbyn offers - like Sanders in the U.S. - is a calling out of corporate corruption, a rejection of the austerity that has made the UK the most unequal economy in the G8 and the promise that politics and politicians can and will put things right for ordinary working people.

But Labour cannot simply go back to where it left off in 1997, 2007 or 2010. Many of the problems the country faced then have worsened - and there are other brand new ones as well.

So what does Jeremy Corbyn have to do to be a leader of tomorrow - our next Prime Minister? It's right to say that it's not enough for Labour simply to point the finger at Tory hypocrisy. The challenge the Labour Party faces today is to prove to working people that it's on their side.

Yes, it will always be there defending the poorest and challenging the Tories' ruthless attack on welfare. But I accept the view that this is not enough. We also have to set out a new agenda on building the modern productive economy that delivers security and prosperity for ALL working people.

In short, Labour must show that it can best express:

  • The emerging consensus in favour of a more powerful role for the state in tackling social and economic problems
  • The resolute action needed to tackle inequality and its consequences
  • The need to address the insecurity that millions of people who are not badly off nevertheless feel - fear for the future of their jobs, of their living standards, of their homes and their children's prospects
  • And the rebalancing of our economy away from its overwhelming reliance on financial services.

As leader, Jeremy Corbyn has already overcome a number of political hurdles placed in his way. On Syria, he spoke out against extending British military involvement but allowed the free vote demanded by a small clique in his shadow cabinet. A very big majority of Labour MPs voted with their leader and at the same time reflected the views of the wider British public, despite all the fuss at the time.

On tax credits George Osborne was forced to reverse cuts that would have hit the lowest paid working people the hardest. And Labour peers are working hard to defeat some aspects of the Tories' malicious and vindictive Trade Union Bill - a piece of legislation which in some of its provisions does not threaten trade unions as much as they threaten democracy itself.

So there are reasons for Labour to be confident. Polling tells us that on key issues, a majority of voters back Left alternatives, from renationalising the railways and utilities to higher taxes on the rich. Of course, it's still a big step from popular single issues to building an entire programme of government. But at the last election there was no great enthusiasm for the Tories.

Labour increased its vote by more, despite the collapse in Scotland for specific reasons. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats allowed the Tories to win a majority in the House of Commons without widespread support across the country - just 36% of the vote and less than a quarter of the electorate put Cameron back in Number 10.

Now there are warnings that another economic crash may be around the corner - indeed, some are pencilling it in for 2018 when I guess many of you will graduate. The weakening position of China will have ripple effects around the world. And Britain is particularly vulnerable. With an economy only kept on the tracks by fuelling private debts and a housing bubble and no answer forthcoming on fixing its critical structural failings, the Tories will have their work cut out winning over new supporters.

So this is the moment for a clear and confident Labour alternative. The energy and enthusiasm of last summer's leadership election campaign needs to be sustained all year round, and taken to a still wider audience.

It's about, as the saying goes, a new kind of politics, one that can engage and enthuse non-voters as well as our traditional supporters, and that can win over waverers as well as mobilising the committed. The Labour Party was, let's remember, founded to overturn the establishment consensus of 100 years ago, to give working people a voice in politics and in government.

Challenging the establishment has always been Labour's calling, something that was forgotten but has now been rediscovered. And that's why I am confident that Jeremy Corbyn, who embodies much of the best of our past, is also the man for the future of our country. That's what I hope for.

There's a lovely poem by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

There may be some amongst you who want only a big house and a Porsche.

Well good luck! But I hope most of you can look beyond that. You are the future. Your whole life that lies ahead will, I hope, be fulfilling. Be determined to make your mark. Be determined to fight for a better, more equal Britain, and a more peaceful world. Thank you for listening.

Len McCluskey is the general secretary of Unite

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