Labour's centre must fight Corbyn on doctrine as well as strategy

The real case against the party leader is not that a Corbyn government is unlikely, but that a Corbyn government would be disastrous

November 30, 2015
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We know that many Labour MPs want to see the back of Jeremy Corbyn. But are they fighting him on the right grounds?

Yes, the MPs think Corbyn is a vote-loser. Yes, they deplore the way he tries to mobilise his supporters to outflank the shadow cabinet. Yes, they fear catastrophe if he leads Labour into the 2020 general election. But they are also refusing to engage publicly with Corbyn’s camp on doctrine—on what, fundamentally, Labour should stand for.

My point is that this refusal is a bad mistake. The real case against the party leader, that most Labour MPs know in their hearts but dare not say openly, is not that a Corbyn government is unlikely, but that a Corbyn government would be disastrous.

I had expected by now, eleven weeks into Corbyn’s leadership, to have to qualify that judgement. I thought that he would soften his long-standing, anti-capitalist views, appoint a moderate shadow chancellor, and seek to come to terms with the business community. He has done none of these things. He appointed John McDonnell, if anything an even more strident doctrinaire socialist, to speak on the economy. Corbyn’s conference speech contained no concession to the business community. He refused to address the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI) annual conference.

Perhaps the most telling words came from Andrew Marr’s recent interview with McDonnell. In an exchange that deserves greater prominence, Marr asked this:

You have a socialist view of how a socialised and organised economy should be structured and you made a speech about it this week. However, we live in a world dominated by international capital, by huge movements of capital, multinational companies, in effect an economically borderless world. So my main question is: how is it possible to run a socialist economy in a capitalist world, unless you start to put up some barriers around it?

Had McDonnell wanted to signal that today’s Labour Party wanted a constructive relationship with the world of business, he would have acknowledged the benefits of globalisation as well as the defects that need to be remedied, and to extol the virtues of the right kind of market competition in delivering innovation, enterprise and prosperity. He did no such thing. Instead he gave a gloriously honest answer, which shows that his socialist ambition remains unsullied by his promotion from the backbenches:

Well, what you do is you incrementally improve the situation, so you introduce a series of reforms that eventually reach a tipping point in which you reach the society that you want to reach.

There you have it. Today’s Labour leadership wants to end capitalism, not to mend it. I wish I could claim to have coined that “end it, not mend it” contrast. In fact it was given to me by one of the many Labour MPs who wants Corbyn gone. But that was in a private conversation. In public, nobody seems to make the real case against Corbyn—that his doctrine is absurd, and that the central purpose of progressive politics these days is to harness the power of capitalism to the wider social objectives of spreading prosperity and ending poverty.

Corbyn and McDonnell, and their supporters, reject that view. They have a clear doctrine in which they believe passionately. When will their opponents promote their rival doctrine with equal clarity and passion?