13 August 2015


1. A large part of the bien pensant liberal middle class did not believe what happened in front of their eyes at the general election. They thought Labour had done the right things to win and that Ed Miliband was a decent bloke who’d been much misunderstood. This response was particularly widespread among young Labour voters and others with a poor sense of how many British voters look at their house-price estimates on websites before putting the cross in the box on election day. Jeremy Corbyn is the champion of the disappointed who can’t believe the election result even now.

2. His appeal is not too difficult to understand. Corbyn is not a ranter or a speak-your-weight machine. He’s a decent constituency MP and personally austere. For people of broadly liberal-leftish views who don’t go out much, don’t mix with people unlike themselves and don’t read much about politics (let alone post-election psephology), he’s just a good bloke. He has caught a mood that Labour needs to say what it means rather than try to find out what people want it to say before it opens its mouth. And he’s been the beneficiary, bizarrely, of his low profile and marginal status in the parliamentary Labour Party. Tony Blair and others bemoan his lack of experience by comparison with Michael Foot and Tony Benn in the 1980s – strange in Blair’s case because he became leader in 1994 and won the 1997 general election having never been anywhere near government. But Corbyn is not part of “that lot” who OKed the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and tuition fees, presided over economic crisis and got fat on parliamentary expenses. Even though he’s a parliamentary veteran, he seems fresh, or at least untainted (in a way that Foot and Benn and even Neil Kinnock and John Smith did not after 1979).

3. This is in part simply because time flies. No one under the age of 50 has an adult memory of the 1970s and no one under 35 voted Labour in 1997. Labour’s massive bust-ups in the 1980s mean as little to committed politicos in their twenties, thirties and forties as Bevanism v Gaitskellism did to anyone under 50 30 years ago. Corbyn’s minor role in Bennism and his much bigger one in the diminished and ineffectual PLP Campaign Group hard left after Bennism collapsed are now ancient history.

4. But as time flies, the past is not just forgotten but mythologised. We all do it. I am past-it enough to remember trolleybuses and steam trains, signing on during university vacations and living in squats that were legally sanctioned. Ah, the good old days… But forget my reveries. Corbyn appeals to a wistful false memory of a mythical world. A generous cradle-to-grave welfare state and industrial economy that could both have survived globalisation if only we’d done something different 30 years ago. Tony Benn as the principled leftwinger only interested in the “ishoos”, who never realised his actions would knife Michael Foot in the back and destroy Labour’s chances for a decade or more. The heroic stand of Lambeth council against the 1980s cuts, when it was run by crazed Trots who took cash from Saddam Hussein. The narrative needs to be countered – the 1980s hard left were for the most part complete bastards – but there's hardly anyone doing it.

5. OK, I’m uneasy with idiotic nostalgia, but it's not just because I'm worried about my memories being traduced. I rather like the new. I’m online man. I don’t need to go to the supermarket any more because it delivers. I get any book or computer device or railway model I want from Amazon. I’m posting this on my blog, where it will be read (not only in my dreams) by more people than saw anything I wrote 20 years ago for small-circulation weeklies and monthlies. I keep in touch day-to-day with people who’d long ago have faded into memory were it not for social media. I get Tribune and the New Statesman and the Guardian as print editions, but I’m not sure I’ll bother much longer. Yes, there are downsides: poor pay and conditions at online retail warehouses, cities that have only charity shops in their main streets, writers and musicians put into penury, students with giant lifetime debts, the ongoing housing crisis. And of course, there is a lot wrong with the current government's policies: its cuts to benefits, public services and infrastructure spending, its proposals to neuter trade unions and so on and so on. But Corbyn doesn't get any of the upsides of the new world even though he’s a beneficiary of social media enthusiasm. He still writes for the Morning Star, FFS.

6. Politicians’ records are open to scrutiny as never before – and yet they are able to get away with platitudinous nonsense and worse because the internet has created a populist noise that has made everyone a valued player and has thereby simultaneously devalued expertise and nuance. Corbyn’s record on foreign affairs is a case in point. The first thing to know about him is that he’s a boilerplate leftist with a Chomskyite thicko’s take on the world. American imperialism is the greatest evil in the world. Apartheid was the second-greatest evil – forget about Soviet totalitarianism – but now it’s Israel as US proxy in the Middle East. Nato expansion is the root of Russia’s current authoritarianism. It was a bit of a mistake to get rid of Gaddafi and at least Assad is secular and allows girls to go out in public. And, er, that’s it. It’s simplistic, but there’s enough truth in it to make it attractive to the great new internet democracy of Wikipedia opinion. The US interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were bloody failures. Apartheid was evil. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is shocking and generally backed by Washington. And so on. The devil is of course in the detail and the “yes, buts”, but the detail and “yes, buts” get very few people engaged. If you say, for example, that the ongoing crisis in the Middle East is only partly down to Israel, that Russia and Iran and China are more important imperialist agressors in many parts of the world than the US or any EU country, that Cuba and Venezuela and China are hardly models to emulate, you lose your readers’ attention (and then get abusive online comments from morons, though that’s a minor everyday hazard). The idiot noise online favours Corbyn; I’d rather read the FT.

7. On domestic policy, Corbyn has surprisingly little to say. The anti-austerity line (his USP) is straight Keynes and the policy prescriptions – an end to social security cuts, lots of borrowing to finance public investment in housing and infrastructure, renationalisation of the railways and so on – though rather vaguely sketched-out, are far from crazy. Corbyn is not going for a 1983 manifesto shopping list (at least so far) and has refrained (again so far) from embracing old panaceas (withdrawal from Europe and devaluation) that stymied Tony Benn in the 1980s and a large part of the soft left well into the 1990s. There are bits of his programme that are very poorly developed. But the main difficulty he has is selling even moderately expansionist and redistributive social democratic proposals on borrowing and taxation to voters, which has been a Labour bugbear for years. The major problem in 1992 was not the radicalism of Labour’s shadow budget but the failure to put its programme over publicly as reasonable and unthreatening: the same was true after 2010. Ed Balls was told to turn off the Keynesian rhetoric in early 2011 – Ed Miliband appointed him shadow chancellor only reluctantly after a few months of Alan Johnson (and getting Balls to shut up on his Keynesian ideas was the defining failure of Miliband’s useless leadership). Backing borrowing for investment is going to be as difficult a trick to play in the future. The voters think domestic budgeting is a model for the state. And is austerity going to be a big issue five years hence? Hunch says yes because British capitalism is so fragile, but it has recovered before and seems to be doing so again.

8. Which brings us to the question of electability. Corbyn is obviously electable as Labour Party leader unless the opinion polls have got it very badly wrong – and he has been elected as Labour MP for Islington North for more than 30 years. But is he a credible prime minister? No. Outside London, he can't sell his economic and social policies, and he can't sell his foreign policy anywhere. Labour won in London in 2015, but it needs to win in Scotland, the West Midlands and the south and east of England. Corbyn is not the one to do it.

9. I’m voting Yvette Cooper for leader and Stella Creasy for deputy.

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