The Corbyn vacuum
PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:58 05 January 2018
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In dangerous times, the Labour leader needs to work harder or give way, argues MICHAEL WHITE.
Contrary to hysterical expectations just a few months ago, Theresa May is still prime minister this New Year and looks likely to stay put a while. Emboldened by her Brexit negotiating reprieve in Brussels, she reminded Jeremy Corbyn of this fact at their pre-Christmas session of prime minister’s question time. But what about Jeremy? What does 2018 hold for him?
A few minutes into the New Year Here We Come, a video of the Labour leader’s campaign highlights in 2017, was posted on his Twitter feed, smiling but wordless apart from a soundtrack by hip hop group The Siege. It wasn’t quite what Michael Heseltine had in mind when he warned that even a Corbyn government wouldn’t be as damaging to Britain as the irreversibility of Brexit. But both Hezza and Jezza caused offence.
Ever the happy warrior, Corbyn was apparently predicting last summer, as Corbynmania reached dizzy new heights at Glastonbury, that he expected to be prime minister by Christmas. Undaunted by a missed target date, he is now reportedly looking to Christmas 2018, though, if his natural modesty is any guide, he will opt to work out of the policemen’s hut at the end of Downing St, rather than be corrupted by the trappings of power.
I must admit I am still struggling with all this. Back in 2015, when John McDonnell told Jez it was his turn to be the left’s token sacrifice for the post-Miliband Labour leadership contest, I wrote a Guardian piece arguing that he was a nice guy, but totally unsuited by temperament, training or experience to offer himself as a potential prime minister.
To the rage of some, I cited his occasional penchant for open-toed sandals and white socks as proof of his unworldly outlook, instead of concentrating on less frivolous evidence. What about his wilful ignorance of economics? Or his Lennon-like ‘Give Peace a Chance’ approach to international affairs, albeit with a pious bias in favour of any gun-toting rascal, even a nuclear-armed one, who could present himself as a victim of western imperialism.
Lennon meets Lenin, as it were, even in his preferred choice of headgear, that dark, peaked cap. A teetotal, vegetarian, pacifist and allotment holder, a Raleigh 300 biker with a beard and a passion for manhole covers? Even in the current Age of Naivety, they could not be serious? Sandals and all, they could.
When I attended one of his early leadership rallies I discovered that Corbyn had even written a forward to the new edition of J.A. Hobson’s 1902 classic, Imperialism, not a bad one either. At the rally in Nottingham, the hall packed, with 400 people in the road outside, mostly middle-aged and well-scrubbed in this East Midlands university city, I also realised that here was genuine enthusiasm.
Corbyn may have been the most diffident speaker on the platform that night, he definitely was. But he was authentic, a survivor from the half-forgotten Bennite past untainted by the slick managerial compromises of the Blair-Brown era. Up against the insipid careerism of his three rivals – Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham – all decent people, but so cautiously uninspiring, I concluded that Corbyn was going to win.
Correction. He was going to win the Labour leadership, but it would be a brief and unhappy interlude during which his unsuitability (“wholly unsuited” Seumas Milne, his ex-Guardian minder is supposed to have said at the time) would become apparent to all but the most happy-clappy of Labour left-wingers. He was doomed to emphatic rejection by the wider electorate if he lasted to the next election.
In fairness to the pundits (we don’t deserve it) Corbyn’s inner circle expected that too. Just as they struggled to get him to dress better, they fought to prevent him resigning after the Brexit vote where his non-campaign clips are unlikely to feature on any Here We Come video for YouTube. But thanks to May’s snap election on June 8, a bad decision very badly executed, it has not turned out that way. Far from it. Corbyn-led Labour has led many polls, imposed its candidate on the recalcitrant Scottish party and put Momentum’s fear of God into would-be dissidents. Voters don’t seem too bothered – not yet.
This may be one reason why. A friend of mine, a high-level veteran of past Labour governments, tells how he was giving a political talk to help flog his book in a well-heeled Tory town in the Home Counties. When it was over, a middle-aged woman approached him to say: “I have always voted Conservative, but I am thinking of voting for Jeremy Corbyn next time for the sake of my children’s future.”
Startled, my friend replied “But what about his association with Stalinists and with the IRA?” “Who’s Stalin?” she countered – apparently without irony. Armando Iannucci’s dark comedy, The Death of Stalin, had clearly not reached Henley-on-Thames and enlightened the matron on Uncle Joe’s shortcomings. It may since have done so.
But the concerned mum’s answer points to an amnesia about the relatively recent past which astonishes my old age. I am slowly realising that it shouldn’t, but I’ve never been old before and it does. Every day and all over the world, we see people voting for things, doing things and buying them too, which their parents or grandparents learned the hard way don’t work.
So that’s what recurring cycles of history mean, is it? We learn hard lessons and, in a generation or so, we forget them. Left, right and centre, we’re all as bad as each other, supposedly clever people, often sillier than the ‘ordinary people’ they find it so easy to despise.
What, other than silliness, would have persuaded clever Andrew Adonis to confide to the Observer that his decision to resign as chairman of the government’s infrastructure commission – in order to fight Brexit tooth and claw – came to him during the celebration of mass while on a skiing holiday in Austria? How precious was that!
Resigning a position of real influence was a bad idea anyway, it usually is. And Adonis demanding Chris Grayling’s dismissal was a wonderfully counter-productive footnote. It’s much better to provoke them into sacking you, Andrew. That way you become a Brexit Martyr too.
The Adonis Affair smacks of a wholesome innocence that takes us effortlessly back to the case of The People vs Jeremy Corbyn. It’s probably wrong to suggest that Jez has forgotten hard lessons of the 1960s and 1970s because there is no evidence he ever learned them. His speech to the UN Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva last month – he was there to pick up a humanitarian award – was full of admirable pieties about the urgent need for world peace and cooperation to tackle familiar horrors of war and refugees, poverty and oppression.
Few could disagree with such sentiments, but politics is about practical engagement, about road maps and painstaking diplomacy to overcome setbacks and reconcile apparently irreconcilable differences. It’s about hard work and messy compromise. About such matters there was little or nothing in Jez’s speech, there never is. He leaves the detail to others, to the likes of Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who don’t do them very well on radio or TV either. Gordon Brown, they’re not.
Brown and Blair constantly battled to accommodate a world that has utterly changed since 1973 when Corbyn and his first wife, Jane Chapman (“he never read anything, all the books were mine”) first campaigned for election to Haringey council. Mostly it has changed for the better, yes it has. But in Geneva one of the few specifics the Labour leader – now 68 – cited was the overthrow in September that year of Salvador Allende, a well-meaning Marxist presiding over disorder, in a brutal US-backed coup in Chile. It made a deep impression at the time.
The Henley matron who hadn’t heard of Stalin probably doesn’t remember much of the Pinochet regime and its experiments with free market excesses of the Chicago School of economics either (“a pity about the torture, the economics worked well,” commentators told each other). Nor about Corbyn’s well-meaning sessions with Sinn Fein, Hamas and other political militants – but never with their opponents. Even last month he ducked the Israeli lobby.
They are meetings that allow the ignorant and sentimental to claim he was right to “promote dialogue” as the road to peace, right to oppose the war in Iraq and sidestep the even bloodier conflict in Syria, as well as for the consequences of Russo-Iranian ascendancy there.
But, as Syria cruelly demonstrates, peace processes are always about hard facts on the ground, military, political and economic, not just about warm words. The IRA negotiated terms only when its leaders accepted that, horribly penetrated by the security services and penned in by the British army, it could not win its grandiose ‘liberation struggle’. Peacemakers have to talk to their enemies too.
Yet, in a highly-revealing interview in the recent edition of GQ magazine, he admits that he has not spoken once to triple-election winner Blair since becoming Labour leader. Is that not odd from a man who likes to reach out? “I’d talk to anybody, I’m very polite,” he told GQ. Except that it isn’t true.
It took the Britain Stronger in Europe group eight months of negotiation to fix up a pre-referendum briefing session, and even that was only with a Corbyn staffer. By way of contrast, they spoke almost daily to the official Labour In campaign, chaired by Alan Johnson. As for the emollient Johnson’s efforts to get Corbyn to say in a speech or television clip “That is why I am campaigning to remain in the EU,” the phrase was often in the draft, but then disappeared.
According to GQ, Corbyn says Johnson’s complaint was “extremely unfair and unhelpful”. He did utter the phrase with Johnson at his side. When the magazine’s Stuart McGurk struggled to find online evidence, the leader’s office eventually provided a link: it turns out to have been on June 22 – the day before the fateful Brexit vote in which a third of Labour voters peeled off to the Boris and Nigel Farage camp, many unsure where their party stood.
A lifelong critic of the EU, Corbyn insists he voted Remain though he has never asked Milne, his similarly-minded director of strategy and communications, if he did. Milne is blamed for editing the boss’s drafts – as he famously did Clive Lewis’s at the party conference. That’s his style.
As The New European readers know, Corbyn’s equivocation on Brexit persists over membership of the single market and the customs union, over the pace and timing of disengagement, over the possibility – however remote – of a second referendum. This week he is against one. Barbara Castle once accused her old pal, Michael Foot, of “growing soft on a diet of soft options”. It was a habit he never wholly discarded even after five years’ hard slog as deputy PM in the 1970s when militant young shops stewards like Len McCluskey were doing their best to undermine Jim Callaghan’s highly egalitarian government too egalitarian for some trades unionists who voted for Margaret Thatcher’s promise of restored pay differentials in 1979.
Forty years later the limits of Thatcher’s drive towards the free market right are as obvious as Callaghan’s battered, post-war social democratic consensus was after the ‘winter of discontent’. It was part of a global reaction to the statism of the 1945 generation, but it glibly went too far in countries like Britain, gripped by ideological zeal, ‘neo-liberal orthodoxy’, as a new generation of cliché mongers call it.
Since the bankers’ crash – for which the Iron Lady gets less credit than she deserves – budget-cutting policies of austerity have fallen too harshly on sections of the poor. Communities whose ageing industrial base were shattered during Thatcher’s heyday have not recovered at anything like the speed she blithely predicted. Little wonder that some went UKIP as they went Trump in Middle America.
Cutting taxes to liberate private investment has too often served more effectively to stimulate tax avoidance, inequality and avarice. Water, rail and other privatised utilities are bywords more for fat cattery than efficiency. Even local authorities, universities and NHS trusts have been caught up in the fake ‘market forces’ culture of excessive executive pay – even in poorer, under-performing regions.
There is much that a radical, reformist government of the left might do – or try to do. Higher taxes, personal and corporate, have a place in such a programme as does public investment in creaking infrastructure (especially in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ if it ever gets beyond a cliché) and new skills. Technical education remains woefully neglected. The tax system needs to be simplified (property taxes are scandalously regressive and corporation tax has outlived its uses in a mobile corporate world) and regulation improved. Energy policy is a mess.
The list is long and the May government has little energy left over from its debilitating Brexit negotiation to spare on creative thinking outside the Barnier Box. Does Corbyn-led Labour show serious signs of filling the void? No. It is not that some of its ideas are not appropriate.
Even Andrew Adonis – an immigrant postal worker’s son regarded (like Alan Johnson?) as a class enemy by the public school lefties and metropolitan progressives who run nice Mr Corbyn – agrees that the failed-again East Coast rail line should be in the public sector. That would offer real competition to the fat controllers.
But taken in the round, Labour’s policy offering exudes stale complacency and a lot of borrowing which someone (eventually those students whose fees get cancelled) will have to pay.
Substantial renationalisation will not be cheap or easy and past history suggests it will quickly disappoint. Corbyn supporters – I hesitate to say fans – are quick to assert on Twitter that his 2017 manifesto was mainstream European social democratic – the sort of policy stuff they do in Scandinavia or Germany.
That is as superficial as saying that the IMF’s October report on the need for more progressive taxes to ease inequality was an endorsement of the Corbyn manifesto – with its sharp rises on those earning over £80,000 (a 45% rate) and 50% for those over £130,000.
Like those promised crackdowns on tax avoidance/evasion, getting it right is harder work than a conference speech. And when it doesn’t deliver the tax receipts needed, the net is cast wider over easier middle class targets. Even in Henley-on-Thames, we have been here before, if we bother to remember.
Curbing arms sales to oppressive regimes? Try selling idea that to skilled BAE workers in Lancashire, newly relieved to get a Typhoon fighter order from the Gulf. Fixing the supply side failings of the housing market alone would be a mighty achievement, worthy of profound public gratitude. What is Labour’s plan? I’ll get back to you.
On rail fares this week, injuries lawyer turned Labour spokesman, Andy McDonald, cannot have cheered many commuter hearts by promising to work closer “with our trade union partners”. There’s plenty of talent around in Westminster and in Labour-held town halls, but it needs to be focussed, energised and properly led.
To some old lags on Merseyside, Jeremy reminds them of John Hamilton, the modestly benign but vain figurehead leader of Liverpool City Council in the 1980s era of Militant-dominated confrontation with Thatcherism. Whoever called the shots, it wasn’t Hamilton. It is surely significant that Corbyn just loves campaigning. We should regard it suspiciously as displacement activity, work-dodging adulation in the Farage sense.
Of course, it might help if that cohort of experienced ex-ministers and front benchers who resigned en masse from the Corbyn team decided their duty is to return and help, as stalwarts like Keir Starmer would like.
I didn’t blame them for resigning and wouldn’t blame them for going back. In a similarly polarised atmosphere to the 1980s – this time with the left in control of the party machine – it is far from clear the leader’s puppet masters would have them back.
Big business has listened politely to John McDonnell’s ‘tea offensive’ in the City, doing his best to sound moderate like the ‘I am fun’ John in the Dead Ringers parody on Radio 4. But now that a Corbyn-led government is no longer total fantasy, if May implodes, money is starting to move out, not just as Brexit precautions.For their part, Blair and Brown have been loyally restrained, praising Corbyn’s 40% share of the election vote, but warning that he must do much more to get Labour over the line. Given May’s bad year, Blair mildly observes that Labour should be 20% ahead, but Corbyn is not the first Labour complacent leader to believe in ‘one last heave’ to get him into No 10 by Christmas.
Though much mocked for under-rating Corbyn’s Pied Piper appeal to the innocent young and the angrily neglected, I stand by my judgement. After all he did actually lose and in the unlikely event of an election before 2022 it remains my hunch that he will lose again.
My default position in myriad elections is usually to vote Labour. I did so for nice but hopeless Mike Foot in 1983 and for Corbyn on June 8, three times actually since I had two proxy votes to cast.
But that was on the strict understanding that both would lose – as they did. Now that such assumptions are no longer reliable, I will not vote in dangerous times for the dangerous vacuum Jeremy represents. Try harder and think harder – or give way to someone who will.