The electoral and parliamentary arithmetic has altered; the issues of principle have notby Oliver Kamm / June 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Labour lost the election, the third in succession since Tony Blair stepped down, despite a prolonged squeeze on household real incomes. Yet many pundits, including me, were mistaken. We expected Labour to suffer a historic defeat; evidently, so did Theresa May. The measure of our error is not the gains of 29 seats and 9.5 percentage points in the vote share, or the huge majorities built up in major urban constituencies, but the fact that Labour at the start of the campaign looked at risk of annihilation.
Voters were unimpressed with the Tories’ chaotic, ugly and intellectually risible campaign. Given the opportunity to endorse a hard (or rather, dogmatic) Brexit, they demurred. Yet the early evidence suggests that Jeremy Corbyn attracted votes, especially from young people, who would not have gone to Labour under any likely alternative leader (say, Yvette Cooper) with a different manifesto. Where I live, in Hackney in east London, the capable, moderate pro-European Labour MP, Meg Hillier, was returned with a majority—not her vote, but her majority—of 38,000. By strengthening Labour’s relative position and increasing its vote, Corbyn has ensured the parliamentary party’s loyalty and nullified any notion of a breakaway centre-left grouping.
And this is wrong. Critics of Corbyn within the party stressed that he was leading Labour to oblivion. They were confirmed in this belief by the Copeland by-election and last month’s local elections. Now that Corbyn has confounded these expectations, they have nothing left. So it needs to be said: Corbyn’s politics are not a reputable or coherent stance for a progressive party to take.
It’s perfectly possible to construct a rational, redistributive left-wing programme for government. Labour’s manifesto isn’t it. On the contrary, it fails to attack the biggest obstacle to intergenerational equity—a dysfunctional housing market, granting tax privileges to homeowners—while entrenching the protected position of pensioners. The party’s commitment to abolish tuition fees is, by comparison, minor in principle while being regressive in practice. These spending commitments are pork-barrel politics targeting a source of revenues that probably doesn’t exist. There’s nothing wrong with raising corporate taxes so long as you’re aware of the trade-offs: the likelihood that companies will reduce dividends, headcount and spending on research and development.
Corbyn meanwhile promises to retain all the benefits of the EU single market while not being in it and not paying for them. To this day, he says Labour is “ready to undertake negotiations on behalf of this country to protect jobs and have a sensible trade tariff-free trade arrangement with Europe,” heedless of the fact that the biggest obstacles to trade are non-tariff barriers, which are eliminated within the single market.
“It’s perfectly possible to construct a rational, redistributive left-wing programme for government. Labour’s manifesto isn’t it”
These are huge lacunae in Labour’s message. To address them would cause unpopularity with sectional interests. It’s good politics to pretend that tough choices need not be made because someone else will pay but it has the demerit of being false. It’s as absurd in its own way as the Tory insistence that leaving the European single market and erecting barriers to immigration will have no costs because, respectively, other countries and native-born workers will make up the difference.
Corbyn’s politics are not only fanciful: they’re reactionary. His record on international affairs is not anti-war, as he claims, but anti-Nato. That’s why he called for the abolition of a voluntary alliance for collective security that the Attlee Labour government was instrumental in founding. And if you abjure the use of force under all circumstances rather than just particular ones, you’re ineluctably driven to underestimate the capacity for evil among malign actors in the international order. Corbyn is evidence of this tendency: he outright denies the war crimes of the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic, which Nato stopped in Kosovo in 1999. His revisionist account of his role in the Northern Ireland process might as well have been written by Paul Nuttall, the departing Ukip leader, for all its fidelity to autobiographical accuracy. Corbyn opposed the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 and has ever after declined to specifically condemn the IRA’s terrorist campaign. His description of Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends” remains a testament to his naivety and incomprehension of the need to fight anti-Semitism and defend secularism and women’s rights.
The structure of the British political system makes it hard to break out of the main party duopoly (as it now is). It’s why, on a personal level, I never supported or voted for the SDP in the 1980s but stuck with Labour. But a generation later, there is a moral issue that didn’t arise then. Corbyn is not Labour and not even left-wing in any historically recognisable sense. The electoral and parliamentary arithmetic has altered; the issues of principle have not. Corbyn’s politics need to be fought and his leadership undermined. In the minor capacities available to me, I’ll do my best.