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Corbyn's Opponents Have Lost Sight Of The Bigger Picture: Things Are Much Worse Than They Claim

22/09/2016 09:23
Jack Taylor via Getty Images

Another leadership election, another hatchet job by Panorama, another set of Labour grandees merrily running their keys along the paintwork of the party. The saner Labour people on either side of the debate - if one is generous enough to grant it the title - have largely resorted to huddling in a corner and praying for the bombardment to end, so that we can come out and begin the rebuilding process. (A friend of mine told me early in the contest that he was only allowing himself to read Ed Miliband's Twitter feed, which he described as being 'like morphine'.) Even the aftermath now looks grim. None of us can be sure that Labour will have a frontbench for the next four years.

What serves to make these events still more tragic is the fact that the contest could, possibly, have been a constructive process. Certainly, it was a grand and outrageous dereliction of duty for the party to start eating its own feet immediately after the greatest political, economic and constitutional shock for a generation or more, and when I consider that this time should have been spent cheerfully pointing the press towards Tory European cage-fights I want to gouge my own eyes out with the shiny new membership card that seems to have occupied more of the party's efforts than has holding the government to account.

Nonetheless, something positive could have come out of it; indeed, to an extent, already has. Corbyn's policy-making machine, having been so active during the 2015 contest, seemed to go into hibernation after he won the leadership; now someone seems to have given it a dose of red bull and it's back in full frenetic action. Corbyn's media operation has apparently become slicker as well.

However, benefiting from nearly exclusive press focus and very little actual competition for his position, Corbyn could have tried to address the country's concerns about his capacity for leadership: instead he has often appeared parochial, happier to be immersed in party squabbles than to be persuading sceptics in the country. His more rabid supporters - for whose actions, contrary to the claims and insinuations of the PLP and the press, the man himself can hardly be held responsible - have been even worse, running amok on social media and providing the material for the smears that are then catapulted at Corbyn.

Owen Smith has appeared no less introspective. As one of my friends in the Conservative Party gleefully pointed out, his campaign literature only ever advocates making Labour a strong opposition, never an actual government. This acknowledges the basic pessimism of the anti-Corbyn MPs, some of whom have already conceded the next election and want to retain as many of their jobs as possible. It is hardly a confidence-inspiring message: "Vote Smith for some degree of parliamentary representation."

At the same time, Smith has been unable to move beyond the rhetoric that failed Cooper, Burnham and Kendall last year. At hustings after hustings, meeting after meeting (they call them rallies, but I think you need more than 50 people to make a rally), in between throwing off bizarre and offensive statements that may or may not be jokes about his penis size or fighting chimpanzee-style over the right to copulate with his wife, Smith tells the membership that 'we need to win elections'. I'll wager you even read that in his voice.

The problem with this argument is precisely that it is completely incontrovertible. Contrary to popular myth, and Mike Gapes, Corbynites do want to win elections. Much was made of Jon Lansman's tweet a few months ago, claiming that "'winning' is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves". This was a stupid thing to say given the absolute certainty that it would be misinterpreted to support the Corbynite stereotype, but Lansman did not mean that winning was unimportant, only that a narrow focus on winning power without the intention of redistributing it to the people was wrong.

In fact, many Corbynites are furious that Labour MPs and centrist commentators seem to have abdicated their own will to get Labour elected. For years, the most compelling argument that New Labour's adherents could make, while they handed public services over to private interests, accepted huge corporate donations for favours, and launched illegal wars, was that you needed to vote Labour to keep the Tories out. Now, Alan Johnson is talking about "relentless rebellion" against the party leader (some Momentum activists tired of being dismissed as Trotskyites might spot a grim irony in a Labour moderate's calls for 'permanent revolution'), and Barbara Ellen has said in the Guardian that she will not vote for Corbyn's Labour under any circumstances. Apparently, then, they do not think that the priority is to get Labour elected, since internal revolt and a sulky electoral boycott are both surefire ways of keeping the Tories in power.

The false caricature of the actively anti-victory Corbynite might be reassuring to Labour MPs who want to feel that they are fighting an unambiguously righteous fight against entryist purists, but it has thrown an entire toolbox in the works of the leadership debate. The reason why it is so futile for Smith to keep repeating that 'we need to win elections' is that no-one disagrees with his premise; Corbyn voters simply do not think that Smith is the one who can win elections.

It is here that the Smith campaign's strange combination of pessimism ('we have to be a strong opposition') and optimism ('we have to win elections') blends into pure self-delusion. Just as some Corbynites who are unwilling to confront poor polling figures have decided that the party is suffering in the polls solely because of the PLP's coup, so too have anti-Corbynites persuaded themselves that the leader alone is responsible for the party's slump in popularity.

It is as if they have forgotten the shock of the 2015 defeat and the tectonic demographic shifts that it uncovered. It is as if they have forgotten that Labour's old electoral coalition - the majority of the working class, a portion of the socially-responsible, 'vegetarian' middle, and at least a plurality in Wales and Scotland - is disintegrating further with each new election, finding new homes among, variously, Ukip, the Greens, the nationalist parties, and the Tories. Instead their critique of Labour's electoral prospects seems to boil down 'Get Corbyn' - as if by replacing the man who has been leader of the party for one year, they can reverse the trends of a decade.

This is why so few Corbynites are being persuaded by Smith's self-consciously left-wing platform, along with the basic lack of trust that now reigns in the party. (Not a single Labour left-winger is at all convinced that Smith genuinely believes in a wealth tax and a massive investment programme; we all expect that if he does win the contest he'll disown those policies before you can say 'Pfizer lobbyist'.) He, and the PLP, do not seem to have an answer to Labour's existential crisis. Corbyn, by contrast, might be able to tap into the emerging strength of the country's anti-Establishment sentiment, the one which produced Ukip and Brexit, and could win back votes in the nation's deprived corners with a Keynesian borrowing and investment scheme. Those claiming that Corbyn cannot win over Tory voters fail to comprehend the politics that the majority of people entertain, which are not aligned to any kind of ideology and mostly look for economic coherence and competence, whether that be in the form of austerity or of spending to induce growth.

The real Corbynite perspective is this: if Labour unyieldingly advocates a new form of economics, based on spending to encourage growth - something that John McDonnell has been doing quite competently of late - then they can win over centrists for whom the priority is simply prosperity. If it offers whatever the Conservatives are doing, to a slightly lesser extent and with slightly more social justice, then there is no point in voting for it. Those deriding us as ideological purists who fancy controlling an opposition party are intellectually lazy, and will condemn the party to perdition if their preference for triangulating over an ever-shrinking patch of the electorate prevails.

The right of the Labour Party, for all its doom-stricken expressions and angry attacks on Corbyn and his adherents, is in fact being insufficiently pessimistic. They seem to think that if they replace their leader with a balding, uncharismatic, middle-class technocrat, it will be sufficient to avert the collapse of the Labour electoral coalition, ride out the politically destabilising effects of Brexit, and confront the emerging problem of a new fascism that could define the future of western politics. Myself, I shall stick with Corbyn.

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