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Home Opinion The Corbyn fantasy: doomed from the start
State of the Left - United Kingdom

The Corbyn fantasy: doomed from the start

Hopi Sen - 15 September 2015

Corbyn’s agenda will not work. Not because it is too leftwing, or extreme. Simply because it is wrong

The minutiae of a huge political shock can give you more insight than broad strategic strokes. To understand the state of the British left this autumn, consider the following: On Sunday, the new leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, sat in a small office in parliament trying to build his top team.

Corbyn had just trounced his rivals. More than that, he obliterated them. Yet it was proving a struggle for him to put a team together at all.

How could this be? The new Leader was cheered by a crowd thronging parliament square just the day before. Jeremy Corbyn is no Alexis Tsipras or Pablo Iglesias. He is perhaps their English uncle. More reserved, gentler, a little paler, but arousing some of the same fervour.

As the new leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s political mandate could not be questioned. His popularity within the party was proven. He should have had a queue of old allies and new sycophants seeking his patronage. Outside parliament, he indeed has many friends: union leaders, journalists, celebrities, students, pensioners – all are enthused and excited by his rise.

And yet. Jeremy Corbyn has spent 32 years as a member of parliament. The vast majority of his parliamentary colleagues have said they do not agree with his policies. Less than one in 10 of Labour MPs wanted him as leader. With one or two exceptions, the few who do, are like him, habitual rebels.

To build a team, he needed to reach out beyond this group. He was trying to do so. Many refused to serve as officers under this particular general.

To complicate matters, the Conservatives launched a savage attack on his ability to keep the country safe. They twisted, somewhat, things Corbyn said at a long distant rally for peace. These words implied Labour leader doubted that the island of Great Britain needed military forces capable of crossing the sea.

So the Labour leader needed a shadow defence secretary. He and his Chief Whip searched for one. Unfortunately, they didn’t know their phone calls could be heard by those waiting outside. As a result, a journalist heard the following:

“Now, this might be a bit of an outside idea, how do you feel about being shadow defence secretary?" A pause. "Just, what are your views on Trident?"

Trident is Britain’s nuclear weapons system. Jeremy Corbyn is an opponent of Britain possessing nuclear weapons. Most Labour MPs disagree with him on this.

A much, much longer pause. "But, are you willing to engage in a debate?"

Here, in microcosm, are the three fundamental problems Labour now faces.

First, there is the simple question of capability. Having spent their political lives in internal opposition, Britain’s leading figures of what used to be called the far left are not used to the kind of scrutiny that comes with national leadership.

They have skills, of course. Hugely important ones. They can identify great causes, demand an end to injustice, or torture, or poverty, or war. They can, and have, inspired. This is why they have won such a triumph, not least because their opponents – your correspondent included – seemed unable to summon up such passion among almost anyone.

Still, it is hard to imagine a Lyndon B Johnson or a François Mitterrand being embarrassed by a too-thin door. It is equally hard to imagine them offering any power over defence policy to someone whose views they did not know.

This would mean, after all, that the personal views of politicians are relatively unimportant. Corbyn has long argued that policy should be for the whole party to decide. Until then, a debate can range. It will be a new model of leadership.

There is a value to debate and democratic consideration. There is also a cost: apparent incoherence.

To resolve this potential confusion requires a lot of persuading and explaining. Omnipresent during Labour’s leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn has done no detailed interviews since his victory.

In his place, his newly elected deputy, Tom Watson, a supporter both of Nato and Britain possessing nuclear weapons, diplomatically deflected questions Labour’s policy on Nato by suggesting he did not know the detail of his leader’s views and that a debate would settle them.

Yesterday morning, Labour’s new foreign spokesperson, Hilary Benn, said that Labour would campaign to stay in Europe, unconditionally. By the evening, his Leader had told Labour MPs the issue was still open. A debate is surely forthcoming there too.

Late on Sunday, pestered with questions about the fact that he had appointed no women to the top jobs in the Labour party, Labour’s new leader walked silently into the night, alone.

The next day, his supporters argued that this was a new approach to politics. There were now no ‘top jobs’ in the Labour party. Perhaps the men simply did not know whether finance minister or youth minister was the more powerful position. On discovering all were equal, however, none offered to swap.

Modern political leadership is hard. It is fraught. It may be that a lifetime of principled defiance has not given Jeremy Corbyn the dexterity usually demanded of leaders. He may not be very good at leading a political party in the traditional way.

This is the easiest issue for him to deal with. It simply requires Jeremy Corbyn to lead non-traditionally. This is how he won the leadership, after all.

Which takes us to the second problem – what is the leadership for?

Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership on a real and overwhelming mandate for change. The nature of that change was clear in principles and communicated with great grace.

He offered an end to austerity, funded by eliminating all tax avoidance and demanding the Bank of England provided the government with money to fund its programme.

He opposed foreign engagement, whether Nato’s pressure on Russia’s borders or military action in Syria, unless it was authorised by the UN security council.

He offered better-funded welfare and public services, opposition to expanded free trade, and an end to neoliberal economics. Further, (and for this writer, at least, admirably) Jeremy Corbyn has been a consistent advocate for the rights of migrants and refugees, at a time when many in Britain feel immigration is a threat to their comfort and security.

On this basis, Corbyn inspired voters. He won hearts, applause and minds. It was a wave. A tsunami, a revolt against conventional thinking and political timidity.

Yet while the election that gave the new leader his huge mandate was a genuine outpouring of popular enthusiasm, his campaign had a subtle contradiction. Jeremy Corbyn was the man of principle, of belief, of clarity. Yet he was also a unifier, merely a loyal servant, offering to be an instrument of the great movement he was honoured and humbled to have become the voice of.

But what is this will, exactly? His own? The resolutions of party meetings? A certain sense of mood of a demonstration or an online campaign?

What’s more, not all decisions can be deferred until the will of the movement is known. Every appointment, every question, every appearance in public has consequences. Does Corbyn want Britain to maintain a nuclear weapons force? Does he wish the Labour party to support remaining in the EU unconditionally? Does he oppose limits on immigration? How does he intend to eliminate tax avoidance?

So far, Corbyn has responded that he would simply be the instrument of the democratic wider movement. It matters not what he thinks, but what the movement decides.

Implemented as strategy, this would mean those who control the machinery of the movement would also control its destiny. Corbyn was long ago an adept of the pre-meeting and the faction. Today, he is not. There are others who are skilled and careful at such tasks. In the digital age, the tasks themselves have changed. Some of these talents share his principles, others much less so.

If Jeremy Corbyn pledges to be the servant of the movement, he may find he is trapped by clashes between grinding machines, unable to lead as groups fight for control of committees and campaigns. His defence spokesperson, having accepted a debate, might fear their own view would be rejected and so refuse resolution. If he followed this path, Corbyn could achieve only what forces he did not control allowed him. At best, he would preside over incoherent peace until he was too weak to prevent his ousting. At worst, the party would tear itself apart before then.

Perhaps therefore, he must lead. Corbyn has won a mandate from his party for huge change. He has overturned the consensus, broken the mould, ended the era of both Tony Blair’s triumphant New Labour and its nervous, timid successors. Why not cast out the money-changers? Why not accept the power of his victory?

Corbyn can, rightly, say that this popular endorsement demands he, as leader, is followed. He has every authority to drive through his agenda. He would simply be insisting on the principles which took him to the leadership.

Even his Labour opponents know it would be hard to stop him turning his popularity into control of the party. So he could push through his agenda – but it would be Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda, not a synthesis of all good things.

This leads to the final and most fundamental problem Labour faces. Here, I have to cast off any semblance of neutral assessment of options and consequences. You may disagree entirely. My party, overwhelmingly, certainly does. Perhaps they are right and this is not a problem at all.

The whole thing is doomed anyway.

Forget my first point, and concern yourself not at all with questions of competence and dexterity. Assume Corbyn is the superb operator and inspiring leader his supporters see.

Ignore my second issue. Imagine that every internal obstacle is overcome, every battle won.

Either by careful calibration of democratic will, or by the power of his own mandate, Jeremy Corbyn persuades Labour to adopt a costed, principled, passionate radical agenda of the left and offers it to the public.

It will not work. Not because it is too leftwing, or extreme. Simply because it is wrong.

We started with defence. The French Socialists support Nato. The German Greens authorised Nato action in Kosovo. Jeremy Corbyn has said Nato should have been shut down, and that attacking Serbia was illegal. He regards Nato as deliberately provoking Russia by encircling her. 

Leaving Nato, or closing it down, or limiting the protection we offer eastern Europe is just a bad idea. That’s it.

Even on the most basic test – that of how his plans are paid for, Corbyn takes refuge in either the fantasy of tax gaps or the idiocy of unproblematic money being printed at the behest of politicians. How often has that ended well?

The best of his supporters accept neither option, embracing instead a combination of more spending, more tax, more borrowing. The electorate has rejected the Labour party with such a prescription twice now, paying little heed to how many Nobel laureates endorse us. For them, it is an issue of competence, not ideology. Corbyn has embraced fantasy because he knows the realistic, expensive version of his radicalism would not appeal or prosper. Even if by some freakish chance we did win on such a programme, we would, like early Mitterrand or late Tsipras, abandon it or fail.

Of course some of what we offer will be popular and worthwhile, just as every great political failure has a cause to admire. There are ideas worth saving, worth learning from. But the whole construction will topple and crash. It is just not capable of bearing the hopes placed on it.

As far as I can tell, the best the Labour party can hope for is that the first or second problem Jeremy Corbyn faces overwhelms him, and we never have to concern ourselves with the third.

I could be wrong. I hope so, because if I am right, then for social democracy to advance, it cannot be led by a gentle, kind man whose belief that the memories of water molecules can cure diseases is among the least controversial views he holds.

So since I might be wrong, I thought it best to end on cheery note. We all pass. Our lives are meaningless specks. So relax. None of this really matters.

Hopi Sen is a former Labour party staffer, contributing editor to Progress and political commentator

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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David Butler
18 September 2015 13:06

Hopi Sen levels three arguments against Jeremy Corbyn. First he argues that JC and his team lack the competence to deal with the demands of leadership. Second he questions whether JC has a viable concept of leadership. JC is on many issues a conviction politician. Yet at the same time he argues that decisions are taken through democratic debate. Which is it? Finally he argues that even if the problems of competence and leadership were resolved, the JC program will fail because it is just plain wrong. Hopi Sen cites defence and economics as two areas in which JC’s plans are just unacceptable to the British electorate. All three of Hopi Sen’s arguments are questionable. It is true that the JC team lacks expertise. Allowing journalists to overhear sensitive conversations is unwise. But is that a fair criticism? Ed Miliband’s team, with five years’ experience and millions of pounds of Short money behind them, led him into the bacon butty and the inscribed pillar. And what idiot adopted the term ‘Mansion Tax’ from the Lib Dems? It invited the Tories to brand it the politics of envy. If it had had a neutral title such as Council Tax Supplement it might have stood a chance. JC’s staff don’t have to improve much to be better than Ed’s. Balancing leadership with democratic discussion is a task that every leader faces. Not only party leaders but company CEOs and football managers have to learn it too. JC is better qualified than most to strike this balance because he is not afflicted with an overbearing ego. Once again, comparing the leadership demands on JC with the performance of his predecessors, he doesn’t have much to beat. The Labour Front Bench 2010 – 2015 performed abysmally. During the first two quarters of 2009 the UK economy shrank by more than 2 percent. But thereafter we had five consecutive quarters (yes, five) of growth, brought to a grinding halt by Osborne’s austerity drive. Yet when the Tories talked of ‘the Labour car crash’ our Front Bench sat in silence. They said they wanted to ‘move on’. They might as well have said ‘give up’. Ordinary members were screaming at the TV while shadow ministers tamely accepted the blame for the car crash. Hopi Sen speaks loftily and dismissively of the Nobel Laureates who have argued that austerity is a destructive force. How I envy Hopi Sen: it must be wonderful to be cleverer than Krugman, Stiglitz and Wren-Lewis. You can’t argue that these ideas are unsaleable to ordinary people when no one has even tried to convey them to ordinary people. Unless of course you assume that ordinary people are too stupid to understand them. Some of Hopi Sen’s contentions are more extreme than most things JC says. On NATO he argues that ‘limiting the protection we offer eastern Europe is just a bad idea. That’s it.’ No difference of opinion on this topic is to be tolerated. He sees no element of risk in recruiting countries that were an agreed part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence into a military alliance targeting Russia. I see such recruitments provoking inevitable tension. Hopi Sen describes JC’s QE plans as ‘the idiocy of unproblematic money being printed at the behest of politicians’. So it’s OK to use QE so bankers can pay each other huge bonuses, but not to improve health or education. And when the government needs money, Hopi Sen prefers to rely exclusively on the markets that gave us the Libor scandal. Good luck with that. We are supposed to be content with the PLP playing the part of the Conservative Second XI, waiting for the Tories to cock up or elect a hopeless leader, or waiting for us to find a leader who is photogenic enough and eloquent enough to get Rupert Murdoch on board and so defeat the First XI. People like Hopi Sen are hoping to turn the clock back to the era when we were ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, like Thatcher, believed in trickle down. When people get rich they spend money and everyone benefits. The rising tide floats all boats. Unfortunately we have found that the kind of people who gain an economic advantage in a free market society don’t seek to share it but to increase it. Devil take the hindmost. But who cares? There’s always a food bank for the losers. New Labour became our mainstream but now it has run out of road. JC stands for a new vision. It may or may not work. But after the last five years of craven timidity we have nothing to lose. 40,000 new members in five days isn’t a bad start. And there is a hopeful scenario which is possible – just barely possible. Cameron returns from his tour round Europe with his begging bowl empty. Twenty or so of his back benchers either join UKIP or resign the Tory whip. He loses a vote of confidence. Tom Watson, Tim Farron and Alex Salmond negotiate a progressive alliance. JC leads a minority Labour government. One chance in ten maybe, but even those odds are better than carrying on as the Tory Second XI.

17 September 2015 12:01

Hopi, you may be right about Corbyn's lack of leadership skills and inability to withstand scrutiny. But I think you and other Labour 'moderates' are wrong to dismiss some of his economic ideas. For 'moderates' to win the hearts and minds of the party again, they must be able to articulate a radically different political economy. This is not just about winning internal party elections but also making Labour credible once again. I know Patrick Diamond has put some ideas together, though they are, let's be frank, a little technocratic and difficult to communicate. You should reconsider People's QE and decide whether you want to go along with that or more borrowing. I suggest you read this article from a city economist in the Evening Standard and think on...otherwise, the electorate, internally and externally, will continue to believe you have little to say http://www.standard.co.uk/business/anthony-hilton-corbynomics-are-not-as-crazy-as-critics-suggest-a2948081.html

17 September 2015 08:13

What was 'doomed from the start' was New Labour, the wholly wrong belief that you could have a thin slice of social democracy with rampant, unbridled capitalism. On foreign policy, you state: 'He regards Nato as deliberately provoking Russia by encircling her'. This is exactly what they did. There was a chance to embrace a changing Russia, but that was wasted by a bunch of out-of-touch 'cold war warriors' and short sighted politicians. The Labour Party voted for change and let's hope they get it and those in it, who don't support democracy and the expressed views of its' members, seek another party more to their political persuasion.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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