When people talk about Labour in the polls and the record of Jeremy Corbyn in opposition, I feel the same as I do listening to people who say they saw Jesus in the burn marks on their toast, or the milk in their coffee. The narrative you string out of the – erratic – figures very much depends on what you want to see in them. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour are either by-election supremos who have reduced a 10-point Tory lead to a 36-point tie, routing the Tory government and forcing U-turn after U-turn.
Or they’re taking a drubbing in the polls, hovering limply around 28% and failing to resonate with voters in the constituencies that Labour needs most to secure victory in 2020. According to this view, the party is in crisis. We should be hitting the panic button.
For what it’s worth, I think Corbyn is doing well in opposition – any fair assessment of him has to concede that his party has put the Tories on the back-foot on a number of important issues (in a way that would be inconceivable had the party been led by someone else). After an initial teething period, John McDonnell is also proving to be a formidable Shadow Chancellor.
I don’t really know whether Labour will win in 2020 or not. I suspect we won’t do too badly in the 2016 local elections, but we’ll see (I do think, however, that raising expectations to the extent that winning anything less than 400 new seats is considered an abject failure – as some are doing – should be called out for what it is: a cynical attempt to foment the conditions for a coup when we inevitably win less than this – frankly, silly – target).
Having given all these two cents, actually I think wrangling about how we’re doing in the polls is rather tedious, because there’s a much more interesting “crisis” in the Labour Party. That’s the crisis of the Labour Right.
It’s often said on the left that Blair then Brown “hollowed out” the party, reducing party democracy, tightening the grip of the leadership over every aspect of policymaking (how ironic the grumbles now over Corbyn’s attempts to assert any kind of control over the PLP or NEC), and losing 6 million votes between them.
But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s also been a political “hollowing out”. With each generation of right-wing Labour leaders and apparatchiks, there’s been a rightwards shift – an accommodation to an agenda set by the Conservatives, halted – to a degree – by Ed Miliband. Now the “heirs to Blair” advocate positions well to the right of the master.
Whereas the “third way” was built on an analysis – the idea that the rich could get, well, filthy rich as the economy boomed and we shared some of the proceeds of that growth downward for things like Sure Start, tax credits and the national minimum wage (which some on the ultra-left forget were all Good Things) – the modern Labour Right are intellectually bereft. A barren wasteland of ideas. A void. An uncomfortable deadness behind the eyes – eyes to which the asinine, desperate “I’m being held hostage” smile don’t quite extend (ironically, a smile shared by – or rather forced upon – the millions of millenials – “Blair’s children”, just as Thatcher had hers – who worked hard and finished their degree only to find themselves employed not in the graduate jobs they were promised, but the badly paid, zero-hours Costa and Starbucks gigs that comprise our “service” economy).
The real crisis in the Labour Party is that the Labour Right have next to nothing to say of any substance about the pressing issue of the day: economic policy. In fact, they’d rather talk about anything else – Syria, Trident, the leader’s “lacklustre” support for EU membership, Gerry Downing, whatever Ken Livingstone has recently and ill-advisedly said etc.
When they do talk about the issue that we all agree lost us the last election, there’s plenty of stuff about how the electorate favour austerity, about how we can’t “change” or “shout” at voters, and about the “hard” electoral realities that face the party (often justified on quite flimsy evidence), but there’s no diagnosis of the causes of the current stagnation (in fact, some don’t even seem to register that the economy is stagnating), let alone any proposal for a policy framework needed to tackle it.
This is politics at its most vacuous. There is no underlying conceptual framework, no serious answer to Osborne’s knuckle-dragging deficit reduction narrative, only banal commentary about what will play well with the voters. The tragedy, of course, is that it ends in exactly the same nonsense that lost us the last two elections – a tepid and incoherent shopping list of policies that attempt to make us look “tough” on borrowing and the deficit, but not quite as nasty as the other guys.
Quite apart from the fact I think it’s not true, for the Labour Right to say that Corbyn is an electoral liability is really to demonstrate a breath-taking lack of self-awareness. We lost two elections on the basis of the policy porridge they proposed and are now once more proposing. It wasn’t under Corbyn that the electorate thought we were economically incompetent, it was under Brown and Miliband. What makes them think a figure like Dan Jarvis or Rachel Reeves will fair any better?
Actually, McDonnell has proposed the beginnings of a very sensible economic strategy (so good, in fact, that the Labour Right are trying to claim it as their own – a ludicrous claim that Paul Mason and Mick Burke both demolish). There are real signs that the Labour frontbench are developing a credible alternative to austerity politics, a model based on the solid Keynesian principle that the state should direct investment to stimulate economic activity, growing the economy to reduce the size of debt in relation to GDP, thereby increasing tax revenues to balance the books on everyday expenditure.
When John McDonnell spoke at my CLP, he said “if Blair’s mantra was ‘education, education, education’, the mantra of the next Labour government will be investment, investment, investment”. This is exactly right. We should be going into the next election with the promise that Labour will stimulate the economy by borrowing to invest in, among other things, rail and road infrastructure, high speed internet, education, research and development, green energy, housing and improving and properly insulating the existing housing stock. We should be arguing for investment in a high-skills, high wage, high technology economy that competes on the world stage as it increases the standards of living for all the people who live here. That should be our vision, our grand narrative.
We can only do that with the kind of economic policy being advocated by the current Labour leadership, not the gushing lukewarm platitudes of would-be challengers on the right of the party. So let’s stick with Corbyn and McDonnell. We could do much worse.