Matters of Principle & Defining Realities:
Yesterday, I completed my on-line voting in the Labour Leadership race. I did so knowing that it is highly likely if not quite certain that Jeremy Corbyn will be elected the next Leader of the Labour Party and next Leader of the Opposition. It seems as likely he will win on the first ballot. That is the defining reality. I therefore no longer need to calculate how best to cast my vote and I too can vote on the basis of principle. It therefore falls to me to set out why I cannot vote for Jeremy Corbyn and as previously promised, I will also declare how I voted.
The primary context for this election has been the aftershock of Labour’s huge defeat last May. This inevitably means the party has had to consider its future whist still in political anaphylactic shock from the scale of May’s defeat. But politics is a cruel trade and its terms of business most often are brutal.
The same electoral defeat has also triggered a crisis both of identity and of confidence within the Labour Party. Dazed it has struggled to rearticulate if fresh terms the competing values of Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism which have long been co-exited – not always happily – within the party’s big tent.
If the nostrums of New Labour perhaps sound passed their sell-by-date the pragmatic centre of the party has yet to reformulate them in terms that seem attractive to an audience now weary of being told – ‘x’ will not work or ‘y’ is just a failed old idea. Here Burnham, Cooper and to a lesser extent Kendall have struggled – or perhaps more fairly have been perceived to struggle – to say anything new. In fact Cooper in particular gave a good account of the politics of the post-crash decade in her speech in Manchester but by then the Media was following its agenda about Corbyn and the split in the party. Burnham has promised a National Care Service integrated with the NHS whilst suggesting in Wilsonian terms that “Jeremy” must play a big part in the next five years of opposition. Kendall – who has for some reason evoked a visceral misogyny – has argued the party needs to leave it comfort zone of being seen to speak only for sectional interests dependent upon the public sector and the welfare state.
Gordon Brown gave an even more compelling analysis last Sunday – 7500 words of it – and he the broad stakes in the election. Here Brown made the case Blair could not make because of the tainted nature of the Blair legacy on foreign policy. Brown pointed directly to the fact that the left of which Corbyn forms part, has long had a history getting into bed with some very dubious figures – Hamas, Hezbollah, holocaust deniers, President Assad and not least Vladimir Putin. Jeremy cannot recall some of these close encounters but the camera has caught them and it will speak volumes in an election campaign. Moreover, those like George Galloway, who now is seeking to re-join Labour, supped with not such a long spoon with dictators like Saddam Hussein – a man who was guilty of quasi-genocide.
Still these hard facts have not impeded Jeremy Corbyn’s triumphal progress. Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as an unlikely hero of the hour and of this election. He has been in Parliament for 33 years. He is 66. He has long been a standard-bearer of unfashionable left wing causes as homespun and as unfashionable as his carefully untailored appearance that contrasts so sharply with the cut of New Labour’s suits. It is the contrast – some would say authenticity – that marks out the man and marks out the fresh ideas. The uncontrived exterior seems as freshly minted as a shiny new coin. I conjecture from my seat in the peanut gallery that it is alas as contrived as its novelties are counterfeit.
Mine is one vote out of 610,000; of these some 410,000 have joined the Labour ranks in one form or another since last May. If the hustings are any guide two groups strongly represented within this new membership are the young and union members. Both groups have been at the sharp end of the economics of the past decade – since the financial crash – which has significantly disadvantaged them over other groups – save perhaps for the poorest and disabled. Many who have joined the party have been radicalised by this experience and they strongly reject what they perceive to be the failures of the old politics easily summarised in the term: ‘New Labour’.
The pragmatism of Labour’s conduct in office has, quite inaccurately, come to be described the as ‘neo-liberalism’ of New Labour or even more disparagingly as Tory Lite.
Neo-liberalism is the new ‘’c” word of the left in general. It’s a portmanteau term used in debate disparage free market economics and especially (if somewhat oddly) the policies of the last Labour government. The fact is the last Labour government spent very large amounts of public money in ways no neo-liberal would countenance – for example on very effectively on tax credits; maternity and paternity pay; and child benefit. In fact, however, in this debate facts no longer count.
Corbyn has told the party and his supporters that he offers Labour a fresh start and new thinking and – and that principles are to be their new watchword. Beware any man or woman who retails political principles – they not only come with the unspoken subtext that his or her opponents are possessed of none – they suggest principles alone are the measure of the public good. Inviolate principles are in fact the business of philosophy and religion and their Panglossian kings and turbulent priests but politics as best practised is the art of the possible; the science of the pragmatic; the ascendancy of the small differences adding up in time to something much bigger.
The Corbyn offer has included in addition to reopening mines; investing in ‘real industry’; renationalising the public utilities and the railways; not renewing Trident; reducing defence expenditure and spending the money on jobs; leaving the NATO alliance; putting LGBT at the heart of foreign policy whilst engaging with Putin and Russia; (perhaps) leaving the EU and generally “anti-austerity” painlessly financed by taxing the rich more and increasing public borrowing. He claims this ‘investing’ in the public weal can be done whilst also reducing simultaneously the public debt and increasing economic growth. This particular idea – not necessarily a bad idea – is not new idea – in fact it is the same idea as the one that has just crashed in flames on the doorsteps in last May’s election.
Good or bad, as ideas go not one of them can be called new. Many of the economic ideas have been tried before and failed in the mid 1970’s. Though there are many who shout: this is not the 1970’s or 1980’s. That is true. However, it hardly makes a case for trying them again. At least when they were last tried they possessed the virtue of being applicable to the economic circumstances of the world as it was. Time has moved on; the economics of the world has moved on; the financial markets have moved on: we might not like this different reality but it is the reality from where we are and from where we must go forward.
Being anti-austerity on the centre-left is alike Motherhood and apple-pie. Anti-austerity is a phrase which many agree about in principle but differ over what it means in practice. The version of anti-austerity Jeremy Corbyn articulates on the part of the unreconstructed Labour left is not at all the same anti-austerity as that of SYRIZA or Podemus. Theirs is based of membership both of the EU and the Euro Zone. Corbyn‘s offer is unilateralist in temper; pacifist in tone; it takes little or no account of treaties which bind the UK’s economic conduct – like the EU treaties; membership of IMF; the World Bank and GATT.
Amongst the rebranding of old ideas as new there was one idea that has sounded sound genuinely new – Corbyn’s suggestion that a Labour government could use QE (QE is Quantitive Easing; it’s the mechanism the Bank of England has used to increase the liquidity of banks’ assets by swapping government bonds held by them for cash) as a painless means of financing public investment in housing building and acquiring assets like the Utilities or the Railways from the private sector. It has played well to audiences up and down the county and has been repeated to great applause. It is widely known using any Central Bank for such purposes will break the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU, IMF, World Bank and GATT. It is the financial equivalent of making a single-entry in system of double-entry accounts. It does not add up.
The matters of principle which influenced how I used my vote are those which reflect this role of the UK in the wider world: its membership of the EU; NATO; the IMF & World Bank together with its role as a Permanent Member of the Security Council and signatory of the Convention on Human Rights and founder of the European Court of Human Rights. It may appear odd that these foreign matters matter so much to me but they matter precisely because they are the expression of values of solidarity and democracy are the foundation for the successful social progress since 1945.
That progress has transformed the lives of many to which I am as a 60 year old gay man in the UK a most particular witness. I’ve seen and lived the accumulation of argument and persuasion and small incremental changes have added up to something very big indeed. I think that is the path of consistent reform to which the Labour Party must continue to be committed; and to which in my view the party must continue along. If it takes the shortcut of the big gesture politics it will ultimately lead only to another catastrophic defeat.
To put it is a nutshell voters are sceptics not true believers. Like all sceptics they need to be persuaded. Voters are little interested in policy and principles; they’re interested in their lives. If we can persuade them we will make their lives better they will vote for us in large numbers. Thus far, Jeremy Corbyn has preached to enthusiast believers. Indeed he has fired many of them to re-join a Labour Party they felt had left them. He has re-connected with a large group of young voters who sees nothing inspiring in the New Labour since many of them were themselves children when New Labour was born in 1994. It was part of their life; inevitably they see it as part of the problems they live with day to day.
Politics turns in cycles and sometimes you cannot persuade by recourse to the example of history and its wisdom. Each generation has to be permitted to choose for itself and to learn for itself from its choices. The priorities of democratic socialism will counter-intuitively be achieved by gradualism rather than revolution. I believe Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper can best deliver that and therefore I’ve voted for them in that order. Others will choose differently and I do not doubt I will be on the losing side. It is however, the better side of this argument and I believe the majority of the party will in its own time come to share that view.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s mission statement is marked – “open carefully this contains the new kind of politics”. I suspect it will self-destruct in the manner beloved of those mission tapes in the opening sequence of that 1970’s classic – Mission Impossible. Retro is the fashion of the times and Jeremy’ like his hero Tony Benn, is of the vintage of the tape-recorder.
However, we now live in the Digital Age; there is no going back; no rewind; only faster and faster forward. Labour needs someone who thinks in those terms to take us forward……