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The Way Forward: How Corbyn Can Unite Labour and the Country

01/11/2015 22:35 GMT | Updated 01/11/2016 09:12 GMT

Times change. Notoriously, at the 1981 Labour conference in Brighton, Neil Kinnock was assaulted in a Grand Hotel lavatory by a young supporter of Tony Benn, angered by Kinnock's refusal to endorse Benn's unsuccessful deputy leadership bid. Reportedly, Kinnock later said that he "beat the shit out of him" and others described the "blood and vomit all over the floor" afterwards.

Fast-forward to 2015: A stone's throw away from the Grand, I found myself at the till of a coffee shop, when none other than Chuka Umunna stood next in line. Once he had paid for his drink, I introduced myself as someone who voted for Jeremy Corbyn but who respects Umunna as an intelligent and talented man with, I hope, a bright future. I expressed my fervent hope that, leadership campaigns now over, we could all work together as part of the same team. He shook my hand warmly and assured me that we are all part of the same team and that he agreed with my sentiment entirely. Quite a contrast.

Despite the ceasefire and the warm atmosphere in the Brighton sunshine a few weeks ago, back in Westminster we hear that simmering tensions within the PLP boiled over, with the immediate trigger being John McDonnell's change of strategy over Osborne's so-called 'fiscal charter'. No follower of British politics can be in any doubt as to Corbyn's mandate to make Labour an unashamedly anti-austerity party, to focus on persuasion and principle - rather than presentation and triangulation - and to open up and democratise the Labour Party itself. Now comes the big challenge: How to unite the Labour Party and then, by 2020, the country under Corbyn's banner? How can we make this work?

The first point is that there is no turning back. There can be no question of swallowing Tory premises, such as "the country must live within its means", whether these are stunts or sincere Tory positions. It is indeed embarrassing that McDonnell even considered signing up to this nonsense in the first place. Of course borrowing to invest in infrastructure, or in education, can increase future earning power. This has long been Labour's view. This is common sense. Economic credibility is not reached via economic illiteracy, regardless of where the media may think the centre or the mainstream lies. As the eminent economists on McDonnell's new panel of experts will say, the simple reality is that cutting the economy tends to shrink it and leads to less prosperity; investing in the economy tends to lead to growth and more prosperity. As Tom Watson, hardly a Marxist firebrand, put it: "killing public sector demand kills private sector demand kills growth and obliterates tax receipts." It is Cameron and Osborne who need to be brought back to reality; it is Corbyn and McDonnell who understand the struggles faced by ordinary families, such as the small-business owner and working mother Tory voter in tears who so powerfully chastised Amber Rudd on BBC Question Time.

The challenge for Labour is more complicated than simply rediscovering its efficacy as a weather-vane, pointing towards the mythical "centre-ground", which - according to Paul Myerscough - the BBC seeks in its "balance" between the Tories and the Labour right. Despite the punditocracy's received wisdom that elections are only won in this "centre-ground", even Professor John Curtice challenged this assumption in a Brighton fringe meeting. The Professor rejected the notion that Labour is regarded as being too left-wing, noting also that Labour "will never form a majority again unless it can quash the SNP tsunami". No-one doubts that voters who have, over the years, swung away from Labour to the Conservatives need to be won back, but Professor Curtice noted that the most working-class party in the UK at the moment is, in fact, UKIP. For him, the key question is: How does Labour re-connect with its core electorate that has begun to peel away? The only plausible answer is that Labour must once more be a signpost, but one capable of uniting Blair voters who drifted away from the party in the noughties with the northern working class for whom the Farage factor has struck a chord with the Scots who demand a more economically interventionist state.

The problem with the early weeks of Corbyn's leadership hasn't been principle: despite media attacks incredible in their extent, Corbyn is 22 points ahead of Cameron in the polls on being "in touch with everyday lives of people like you". Despite Corbyn's omission to sing the national anthem, he leads our second-term Prime Minister on being "in tune with British values". The opinion poll gap between Labour and the Tories has shrunk to four points. As Clive Lewis persuasively put it:

"In the 1980s, they promised everybody would have a home in a share-owning democracy. Neoliberalism was an infant economic theory, so a lot of people were taking it on trust and saying: 'OK, let's try this.' But now we've had 35 years of it, and we don't have a shareholder democracy; corporations have bought those shares out. We don't have people owning their own home; a large percentage are renting and 40% of homes are now buy-to-let, in many cases owned by Rachmanesque landlords. So things have changed. People in the 1980s went to university and came out and got a decent job, but they see their children with thirty to forty to fifty thousand pounds' worth of debt and working in Costa. So people are beginning to realise - This. Isn't. Working."

Of course, persuasion takes time. The problem with the Corbyn leadership's early weeks has actually been perceived competence. Whether the selection of the Shadow First Secretary of State (Angela Eagle) allegedly based on appeasing the Twitter reaction to the all-male appointments to shadow the "great offices of state" or the alleged lack of consultation with the PLP before McDonnell's U-turn over the 'fiscal charter', the story has been one of relative indiscipline from the new leadership. The quote that sticks in the mind is Ben Bradshaw's reaction to the recent fractious PLP meeting, when he referred to proceedings as a "total ****ing shambles". Competence matters, of course. But initial inexperience is to be expected with a new team led by people who have never before held front-bench office. The contrast is presently sharp with the iron discipline and centralised obsession with being 'on-message' from the Blair years. The new politics shall take time to bed in, but bed in it shall.

Corbyn's party conference speech was criticised for preaching to the converted rather than reaching out to the country. While this criticism may have a pinch of merit, it neglects the green shoots emerging of a policy platform that should gain as much favour with the Daily Mail as with the Daily Mirror. Indeed, the left of the party is suddenly in charge and Corbyn's raison d'être is that no longer should Labour compromise on its core beliefs, especially in matters economic. However, for those who listened closely at Brighton, there was to be heard the tentative beginnings towards setting out a policy platform that can and would receive the backing of all manner of Labour figures, from Chris Bryant to Ben Bradshaw, from Clive Lewis to, even, Chuka Umunna. There is scope for a Corbynist offer that could win votes in Nuneaton without losing them in Islington. So, what kind of policies am I talking about?

1) Focus on the Self-Employed and Small Businesses

Tom Watson hit the nail on the head here. 96% of the 5.2million private sector businesses in the UK are micro-businesses, with 0-9 employees. This growing group includes over 8 million people. While the self-employed may enjoy relative independence and flexibility, we (it's only fair that I declare my own interest here) suffer the risk and insecurity of not necessarily knowing when or from where their next pay packet will come. As Corbyn pointed out in his conference speech, the self-employed earn less than other workers, on average just £11,000 per year, and it is these incomes that have been hit the hardest by Tory economic failure. Fortunately, Corbyn demonstrated a keen awareness of our struggles of time spent chasing payment of invoices from bigger firms, of surviving on credit and debt, of not having Statutory Sick Pay, and so on. The proposal of opening up Statutory Maternity and Paternity Pay to the self-employed is an intriguing one and, together with the forthcoming review by Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, points the way forward for a Corbynist policy platform that is on the side of the self-employed and on the side of small businesses.

2) Immigration

Yes, I said it. Immigration. Writing as myself a second-generation immigrant who abhors racist or nearly-racist attempts to demonise or scapegoat immigrants, whether refugees or the economic migrants (who form the backbone of our NHS, public services and other jobs that indigenous Brits either can't or won't do), I have to accept that it would be daft not to recognise that, especially outside London and the big cities, there are associated problems.

In his conference speech, Andy Burnham was right to recognise that "free movement, as it currently works, is widening inequality". Although Corbyn rightly challenges head-on those who suggest that immigration is bad and must be stopped, it is entirely consistent with Corbynism to recognise, as Burnham did, that immigration:

"has also made life harder in our poorest communities, where the rules have been exploited to undercut people's wages, undermine their job security and create a race-to-the-bottom.

And those same places get no extra funding to deal with the pressure that comes on primary schools, GP services and housing."

Burnham rightly exhorted that we "welcome people here to work, as we always have"; but he was also right to stress the need to "make it work for everyone" by stopping undercutting of wages and working with the EU to ensure funding for the places where the pressures are the greatest. He was right to argue that the attack should be not on the migrants, but on the obstacles that make it more difficult than it should be to accommodate them. His pledge to "go to Europe" to argue for the "common-sense, practical changes" needed is welcome.

3) Policing

Burnham again hit the target with his focus on a policy issue that can unite Corbynites with millions of non-partisan and persuadable sometime Conservative voters. Having Police cars doubling as ambulances and police cells as mental health beds is already a national scandal. It should shock most people when campaigning makes them aware of the depth of the poverty of resources available to emergency response services. Yet Burnham was neither exaggerating nor being alarmist in his description of the impact that the forthcoming (even) further cuts will have:

"Crimes uninvestigated, calls unanswered, victims abandoned.

All the progress on domestic violence under threat.

In places, the thin blue line will be rubbed out completely.

Theresa May talks of asking volunteers to fill the gaps.

Well, I'm sorry, Home Secretary, you're not on.

Your part-time police force will put people at risk."

If there is one issue that will make Conservative voters stop in their tracks and wonder whether the country has taken a drastically wrong turn, it is the threat to public safety and security caused by Tory cuts to policing.

4) Defence

Given the controversy over Corbyn's position on Trident, and the Prime Minister's hysterical suggestion that Corbyn threatens national security, Defence policy may seem a surprising addition to my list of promising green shoots. While Corbyn is not actually in a position to endanger British lives at 45 minutes notice, and while there is an interesting argument to be had over the utility of an eye-wateringly expensive, and Cold War age, system of weapons of mass destruction useless against Al-Qaeda and IS, there was little or no focus on what Corbyn himself actually said about Defence policy in his own conference speech.

"Britain does need strong, modern military and security forces to keep us safe.

And to take a lead in humanitarian and peace keeping missions - working with and strengthening the United Nations.

On my first day in Parliament as Labour Leader it was a privilege to meet the soldiers and medics who did such remarkable work in tackling the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone.

There is no contradiction between working for peace across the world and doing what is necessary to keep us safe.

Today we face very different threats from the time of the Cold War which ended thirty years ago.

That's why I have asked our Shadow Defence Secretary, Maria Eagle, to lead a debate and review about how we deliver that strong, modern effective protection for the people of Britain."

Corbyn's position on defence policy, as set out here, is unimpeachable. He is not arguing for naïve pacifism, nor for de-funding essential conventional defence forces. The debate will be over how our military can be strong, have the right modern equipment that defence experts say is necessary and how we can work internationally towards keeping the peace and keeping ourselves safe. This is surely a position that should find favour with the good folk of Nuneaton.

I have named four policy areas where green shoots are already emerging. There will doubtless be more. Ultimately, uncompromisingly attacking Tory economic failure is consistent with promoting the security and life-chances of all. Corbynism need not be viewed as the narrow view from Islington North; it can also win back the working class voters who voted Ukip, the Scots who first voted 'No' and then for the SNP, and the many who simply did not get Ed Miliband. All these groups and more will be able to relate to Corbyn's values of fair play, justice, solidarity and a more caring society. If Labour under Miliband was not a clear enough signpost, Labour under Corbyn can be.

The views expressed here are the author's and do not reflect those of any organisation with which he is professionally associated.