Thursday, 23 July 2015

Things the Labour right don't get

There are some people who can't understand why Jeremy Corbyn is inspiring thousands of people, especially young people who grew up under an elected and electable Labour government. They say that we've seen what happens when you follow the Blair playbook (you win) and what happens when you don't (you don't). As such, they can't understand why anyone would think someone so far left of Blair should be elected leader. The even bigger thing they can't understand is why anyone would think Corbyn is electable. So this is an attempt to explain some things.

As it happens, I don't think Jeremy Corbyn, if elected Labour leader, will win a general election. I put his probability of winning at less than 1%. I want the Labour Party to win elections, because for everything it does that I don't like, there will be many more things it does that I like. The reverse is the case for the Tory Party, which is why I'm not a Tory. (It is possible to support some things the Tories do without being a Tory, by the way.) I put Andy Burnham's chance of winning an election (by which I mean becoming Prime Minister) at 25%, Yvette Cooper's chances at 33% and Liz Kendall's chances at 40%. Obviously, anything could happen in five years, but that basically explains the order I'll be voting in.

Why won't Jeremy Corbyn win? He has past and current associations too easily attacked by the press, he has deeply unpopular positions on defence, immigration and welfare, he can be painted as economically incompetent on the deficit, he actually does want to raise taxes on the middle class, who vote, he doesn't look like a world leader, he's too old and has never held a position of authority.

Not only will he not gain seats like mine in Finchley that we need for a majority, I have yet to hear an explanation of how we keep seats like Westminster North, Hampstead and Kilburn, Birmingham Edgbaston and Gedling under Jeremy. We'll pile up even more votes in seats we already hold and lose overall. In addition, although the SNP is much more than an anti-austerity vote, why would Scots vote for an English anti-austerity party when they can keep their Scottish one?

If you genuinely think Jeremy has the best chance of winning an election, vote for him. But if there's any doubt, the risk is so high that please, please don't.

But there are enough people lecturing Corbyn supporters out there. And they should face up to some things.

New Labour failed. It wasn't just the war in Iraq and his dubious employment after becoming PM that made the generation now backing Corbyn hate Blair, as disasterous as those things are. It's because he entered office in 1997 as the tribune of hope and in the end failed by 2007 to make Britain a more equal place, especially in terms of opportunity. It remains the case after 13 years of Labour - Labour! - government that where you are born determines where you'll end up. The problem of stagnant wages didn't start with austerity or recession, but in 2004. The productivity problem our country has has its roots in the New Labour government.

It's insufficient to say that 10 or 13 years is too little to fundamentally change the country. By 1990, Thatcher had utterly transformed Britain's economy and political culture. It's ridiculous too  to blame the recession for failure. I met too many people in the 2010 campaign who looked at their lives and saw only poverty after 13 years of Labour government, not just the last 2. The Tories were right about Broken Britain, even if their solutions are terribly misguided. In 2010, there were too many people rotting away on council estates or seaside towns. There were too many middle class people, too, whose wages were going nowhere and whose cost of living was going up.

You can point to higher spending if you want, but people going to A & E for 4 hours still feels like a long time. You can celebrate Blair for making this country more socially liberal, when the whole world has. It was easy for Cameron to embrace gay rights, but we didn't shift Tory policy a jot on the economy. If people are still going hungry on your difficult to enforce minimum wage, what's the point? To be sure, I'd rather live in 2010 than 1997, but that's not much of an accolade.

People don't vote for people who were in power and don't make their lives any better. We were caught in the worst of both worlds: poor people didn't see us helping them and middle class people saw us helping only the poor. The defenders of Blair also have to account for his ultra liberal policies on immigration and his Euromania, which saw our traditional core vote abandon us to the Tories in 2005 and 2010 and to UKIP in 2015.

Then there are the obvious issues the left have with the New Labour era. PFI has left us with huge debts. While the academy program saw some success, it also saw creationists and Islamists set up schools. I'm not vehemently anti tuition fees, but they did seem like a strange priority for a Labour government. And yes, I struggle to trust the judgment of someone who thought events leading to hundreds of thousands dead and the continuing destabilisation of the Middle East were a good idea. And the worst thing is these were emphatically vote losers rather than vote winners. Blair went into Iraq knowing it would drive Labour members and voters away. He didn't put power over principle in that case.

There were huge advantages in having a Labour government in terms of just having people who care about less popular issues of social justice taking them up and gaining success. But it should be easy to understand why people like me, who were 5 in 1997 and 18 in 2010, see Blair with more than a little bit of scepticism, or even downright hatred. Our formative political experiences were anti-Labour, on Iraq, on tuition fees, on civil liberties.

People like me grew up in an unjust country despite a Labour government. The fact that things have got worse under a Tory government isn't a consolation or an argument against that. This Tory government is so bad, so economically, socially and morally illiterate that I want it gone at all costs. But can you blame people for arguing that there's not much point in getting a government just a little bit less bad than this one? Incidentally, it's worth pointing out to the right of the party that "you're all the same" feeds into the lack of economic competence narrative. If I'm choosing between two identical parties, I'd rather choose the one with a leader who can eat sandwiches and a team who have actually managed the economy for five years than an untested weirdo. There has to be some added value in order for people to switch.

I don't want to trash the last Labour government because it did great things and, in particular, managed the economy well, before and during the recession. But people on the right of the party have to understand that the mistakes that were made weren't clerical errors. They cost the party support on all sides, and it will be a long time before those people are won back.

Ed Miliband wasn't seen as left wing by people on the left. He signed up to austerity, he had mugs saying "controls on immigration." People on the left were as unexcited by him as anybody else. The fundamental problem with Ed was that people didn't see him as competent in general, and economically competent in particular. I heard many complaints on the doorstep about Labour being too timid: not as many as complaining about welfare or immigration or the economy, which is ultimately why I've taken the position I have, but enough.

The next Labour leader has an impossible task. It's not just winning back votes from the Tories and UKIP, it's holding onto those people who were attracted to the party under Ed, or who voted Labour as the best of a bad bunch. It's not entirely unreasonable to see Jeremy Corbyn as being able to do that. I think it's unlikely to work, but the people who lost 8% of the voting public between 1997 and 2005 (let's please have the argument about whose votes they were in the first place, why Labour won in 1997 and all that jazz, I dare you) have to look hard at themselves, really hard, and understand that it's them, and not just the left, that are responsible for Labour's current predicament in Scotland, Wales, and across England.

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I don't agree with your estimations of the candidates' victory probability (I'm probably in the exact opposite order), but I think this is a really interesting article. I think it pinpoints several crucial things that the Labour right need to face up to to regain support in the party and the country.