It should attack the government's analysis, not its motivesby Philip Collins / October 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
Now read Peter Kellner on whether Corbyn can ever win
The Labour Party likes opposition more than it dare admit. There is a protest reflex in Labour which relishes the business of being against. Government is a troublesome business which inevitably compromises the purity of belief. In opposition, which demands no actions and no decisions but only words, Labour can remain intellectually unsullied. It can complain and shout and feel better about itself. There was more than a sense, during the 2010 parliament, that Labour, especially on the NHS and on welfare, was relishing opposition far too much.
The Labour Party is now governed by the professional protestors in its midst. Jeremy Corbyn can hardly ever have addressed a meeting in which the audience did not already agree with him before he began. He has never before had to trouble himself with deeds or win an argument with colleagues or set a collective line. He has never, in short, worked in politics before. He has worked in protest, which is a different occupation. Even opposition, official opposition of the sort that the Labour Party is constitutionally obliged to conduct in parliament, is quite distinct from protest. When the conference season finishes and the dust settles on Corbyn’s extraordinary rise to prominence, he needs a strategy to oppose the government.
His natural inclination, and that of his closest consiglieres, will be to make exactly the error that Ed Miliband made before them. That is to characterise the government as expressly and malignantly ideological. This is so much the default assumption of Labour activists that it will be hard to resist. Hannah Arendt once said that the left always has a tendency to go for motive. It is the other side of the left’s self-righteousness. If I am morally upright and on the side of the angels, then you, my sworn opponent, must be morally dissolute and singing the Devil’s tunes.
Labour wasted a long time trying to pin ideological motivation on the Conservatives. They are shrinking the state with relish, privatising public services out of dismal conviction and impoverishing the least well-off out of class hatred. The trouble with this is that, not being anything like true enough, it sets a low bar for a government to jump over. David Cameron does not look or sound like a man consumed by belief, still less belief with deliberately nasty intentions. The ideological accusations warmed the Labour Party but never rang true. They also have the parallel disadvantage of saying to people who have just voted Conservative that they are bad people. When victory depends on winning back the affection of some of these people, it is hard to imagine a more counter-productive political strategy.
Corbyn will have to steel himself to avoid making ideological vandalism his central accusation. The tone of his opposition, taking a cue from his first Prime Minister’s questions, should be sorrow rather than anger. He should eschew personal attacks, as he has said he will, and seek to be forensic in his critique. He can, indeed he should, imply that the government cares too little for the travails of those who are not wealthy. His opposition can at times be emotional and heart-rending. There is nothing wrong in trying sometimes to induce a sense of shame in his opponents. But the tone should, throughout, be informed by a critique not of the motives of ministers but of their analysis and their competence. He will be regularly helped in that endeavour by the right of the Conservative Party, which will be tempted to take up the space they think is offered by a Labour shift to the left, by becoming recalcitrant. On Europe, on cuts and on the state of the economy, there could be internal trouble ahead. Indeed, unless Corbyn develops a credible strategy for opposition it will soon become established that the whole of politics is taking place within the Conservative Party, in the battle between its left and right flanks.
Corbyn’s critique of the Cameron government should inform all the Labour opposition, in parliament and outside. It should be based on the accusation that the Conservative Party has the wrong analysis of the problems that confront Britain and a poor selection of priorities among those problems it does identify. The Conservative Party, he and his team should say, does not understand that inequality and unfairness are serious problems. Though Boris Johnson made some passing references to it in his speech to the Conservative party conference they were greeted with applause that it would be generous to call lukewarm.
The Corbyn critique can continue with the claim that the Tories do not take the lack of social mobility seriously enough. They believe, wrongly, that people on welfare are not keen to work and that immigrants are coming to Britain enticed by generous benefits and the attractions of having their illness treated by the NHS. These claims were all made by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, in an address to the Conservative conference that played both to the gallery and fast and loose with the facts. The Tories, Corbyn can quite authentically say, want to limit the high-skilled immigration that this country needs and they are obsessed with a damaging and pointless referendum on the European Union. Above all, they have not yet realised that, even if there ever was a danger point for the British economy, that has now passed and austerity is imposing a huge burden on the least well-off and depriving the nation of investment in the public fabric that it urgently needs. The National Infrastructure Commission that George Osborne announced in Manchester is all very well, but it will be a pointless quango if no money is forthcoming.
The government, in other words, is damaging the country not as an act of malice but through an intellectual failure. It is asking the wrong questions, in the wrong order of priority and coming up with all the wrong answers. This critique can then be supplemented by the accusation, for which there will always be evidence, that the government is incompetent. The beauty of the accusation of incompetence is that all governments are incompetent to some extent. When an administration is acting on so many fronts, things are bound to go wrong. News thrives on error. There will always be mistakes to point out and peculiarities to mock. With luck, an opposition can link these incidents into a thread and an impression can be created that the government really does not know what it is doing.
“An opposition really does have to choose between the accusation of ideological vandalism and the accusation of administrative incompetence”
This leads directly and naturally to another accusation that Corbyn can credibly level at the government which is that it is neglecting the necessary solutions to Britain’s problems. Through a mixture of poor ability and the natural Conservative disposition of people who are lucky in life to believe that the status quo is fine, the government does not have the urgency needed in a country so rife with poverty and so in need of investment.
Note how an opposition really does have to choose between the accusation of ideological vandalism and the accusation of administrative incompetence. The public can only be scared by the ideology if the government is ruthlessly efficient at translating its diabolical desire into policy. The vandals really must be complimented at being very good at what they do. The accusation of incompetence, of course, undercuts the accusation of vandalism. A hopeless vandal does little damage. A choice has to be made and incompetence can always be illustrated. It is also, in the end, the weakness that debilitates a government. When it loses control of what it is doing the public tires. It is only in the fantasies of people who spend too long thinking about politics that governments change as a result of great ideological convulsions. The thing that will end this government will be losing control of events, either by losing the European referendum or by an economic disaster.
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These are the tones and the colours on the canvas but the painting needs detail too. Before articulating the campaigns that embody his opposition, Corbyn needs to work out what topics would be better passed over in silence. There are always some questions, in the course of a parliament, which an opposition would prefer not to discuss. Or at the least would prefer not to carry too much of the burden of defining who they are. In that category, Corbyn ought to relegate most foreign policy questions. Labour will be so weak on defence and foreign policy that, though Corbyn will go through the motions, he would be advised to do little more. The best he can hope for is that this weakness should be neutralised. Corbyn’s interview on The Andrew Marr Show in the week of the Labour Party conference showed that there is no position on, for example, Trident and the response to Vladimir Putin, that can hold the shadow cabinet together. Labour has, at the moment, two policies on Trident, one more than is feasible. The leader opposes this country’s independent nuclear deterrent but the bulk of the shadow cabinet remain in favour and have threatened to resign if Corbyn imposes his will. The result is a fiasco and Corbyn has conceded that Labour may even go into the Scottish elections in May 2016 with no settled view at all. This is not new politics, it is just a mess. It means that, though it is never possible to avoid foreign policy questions altogether, indeed it is irresponsible to do so, it can hardly be an issue that Corbyn chooses to emphasise.
There is one other option for opposition which is not available to Corbyn, which is to claim authorship of some of what the government is doing, to erect a platform from which to criticise the rest of the programme. The continuity between the Tony Blair years and the Cameron years is striking. The free school regime is a continuation of the academy programme. Jeremy Hunt has brought in Blair’s former adviser Simon Stevens as the Chief Executive of NHS England, to continue the reforms begun under Alan Milburn who is, these days, the government’s social mobility adviser. Gay marriage was an extension of the civil partnerships legislation. The national living wage is the minimum wage extended. Cameron has continued Blair’s insistence that 0.7 per cent of GDP be spent on international aid. Now, Osborne has appointed Andrew Adonis to be the head of his new National Infrastructure Commission, an idea that was in the Labour manifesto in 2015.
A sophisticated, confident opposition rooted in the political centre could claim credit for some of this. It could point out that the Tories have been educated by Labour and it took them a long while to catch up. That would have the twin virtues of sounding reasonable and reminding the nation that Labour achieved a lot in office. It would also give Labour the moral authority to say “given that you appear to do much as we tell you, here are your next lessons.” Those lessons could then be on tax credits, Europe, social care, poverty and housing. Labour, however, is in retreat from its own achievements. It has decided to disown its own victories. This was a process that Miliband began and which resulted in Labour being unable to defend its own record. That self-immolation has been confirmed by the selection of a leader who defines himself explicitly against every compromise, and therefore every success, that Labour achieved. Labour has become, in policy terms, a historical blank. To act like the government in waiting is not just a strategy that Corbyn has forsworn. He was chosen by his party precisely because they had tired of hard thinking of that kind. All of this leaves Corbyn in an inauspicious position. His instincts will take him in the wrong direction and his mandate rules out the best course of action. There is still plenty to go on, though and, in addition to the daily combat of the parliamentary calendar, Corbyn should organise his opposition around four major campaigns.
“This irresponsible government is jeopardising Britain’s prosperity for the sake of a battle that is purely about internal party management”
First, the Conservative Party will soon convulse itself in one of its periodic arguments about Europe. Cabinet ministers are making demands, especially on the free movement of people, which cannot hope to be realised in a negotiation of terms. It is possible that at least one senior minister, with an eye on the leadership of his or her party, will campaign for Britain to leave the European Union (EU). There appears no way for the Conservative Party to avoid division on a question which is of low priority for the British people. It is, of course, even possible that Cameron might accidentally take Britain out of the EU which would put his premiership in a perilous state. His Chancellor and possible successor, George Osborne, would be in no better a position, having led the failed campaign for a Yes vote. Corbyn needs to state, unequivocally and with some summoned enthusiasm, that Labour sees Britain’s future within the EU. It can then set about exploiting the divisions in the governing party. The principal charge is not about Europe at all. It is that this irresponsible government is jeopardising Britain’s prosperity for the sake of a battle that is purely about internal party management.
Second, there is a set of campaigns which, for want of a better term, Corbyn could mount on the theme of a Britain that, he can say, is broken. Into this category he can put the terrible state of social care, which the government is stalling on, the low priority allocated to mental health problems in the NHS, such decline in the performance of public services that can be attributed to spending cuts, the poor state of access to justice and the increasing level of child poverty. Then there should be a special campaign hoping against hope that the universal credit, the Godot of public policy, does, eventually, perhaps one day, appear.
Third, Corbyn would not be Corbyn if he did not conduct a campaign against austerity. It might resonate because public services have taken a lot of pain already and the second phase is going to feel punitive. The cuts may also bite at exactly the moment that the economy starts to turn down again. The first instance on which opposition can be mounted is the fact that the withdrawal of tax credits will impoverish some of the working poor who will not be compensated adequately by the rise in the minimum wage. The best approach to opposing this move, which will become thoroughly unpopular and might even prompt a reversal, would be to stress that the people affected are the working poor which, for a party called Labour, is exactly the wrong set to target.
Fourth, Corbyn can take the line that, in all the long-term problems confronting Britain, the Conservative Party is putting itself before the nation. That is most obviously true with respect to Europe but it applies too on airport capacity and energy policy. The most politically resonant case, though, is housing where Corbyn can claim the market is broken with all the authority of the distinguished economists on his advisory panel and plenty more besides. The campaign has the added virtue of speaking for a younger generation that is precisely Corbyn’s target political cohort.
Even if the government’s travails become serious and even if Corbyn articulates the grievances of the affected with force, this is only the case for being against. It is only one part, the lesser part, of the audition to be Prime Minister. If Labour’s new leader, and indeed his party, is seriously interested in that post it will need to do more than oppose. That, though, is another story. Perhaps even another party.