I was having a quite insightful conversation with this guy (so, credit to Tim) last night at 3am about Corbyn’s ascendency (as you do when you’re in your early 20s), and the logic he and -as he notes- a few cautious and intelligent Tories (Zac Goldsmith is as ever, the Better Tristram Hunt) consider, is the very possible scenario that could unleash a tide of leftwing populism: a new crisis. So is it possible that a financial crisis a la 2008 but “GOD, AGAIN????” could propel Corbyn or his Corbynomics to Number 10?
Well, it’s a bloody big gamble.
I’ve been a pretty huge ass cynic (though stayed true to my MILIBANDISM 4EVA instincts -“Jade, wtf?” I hear you say. And I reply, “chill bro, I’ll get to that”) these past few weeks, writing such articles as ‘GET OFF MY LAWN’ and ‘JEZMANIA? MORE LIKE ANXIETY AMIRITE?’, and anyone that follows my Twitter will know it has slowly descended into despair and even calls for FISCAL BLOODY DISCIPLINE amid my love for Liz Kendall Staring at Product Placements memes. I was even on Channel 4 News talking about affording things. So gross. I swear I’m not a Blairite. But I have reasons for my caution.
Firstly, as I’ve been boringly repeating, the debate has been dominated by middle class intellectuals. The George Monbiots of the world. And while they are intelligent and well-meaning, the arguments put forward are based on very little evidence or insight, they haven’t asked the people they speak about, like non-voters. I also, truth be told, have a knee jerk reaction to Green types. Soz.
Secondly, related to the first, it’s a terrifying gamble. I hate to be boring, but the Labour Party just isn’t a pet project I can dip my toes into. It’s not something I want to see go very near a cliff in the hope that OH IT’S GOOD THERE’S A SURPRISE BOUNCY CASTLE AT THE BOTTOM. I’ve become more risk-averse. That isn’t to say I don’t view myself as bold and radical, and that I don’t have my own visions (We all want the D E S T R U C T I O N O F N E O L I B E R A L I S M, and we all want housebuilding, and we all want a Care Service) but reality smacked me in the face with an exit poll, and I suddenly got war flashbacks to people abusing me on the doorstep -and now I feel like I should listen to those people. I don’t want to go through that again, which is why I’ve pinned my flag to a soft left stance.
BUT, is there a gamble in being a managerialist in itself? If this is the precipice of Labour’s future, and we are about to elect a veteran socialist anyway at a time of turmoil not just for the party but the world, is there a gamble in not taking a gamble? China’s stock markets have sent shockwaves throughout the globe, and we have not learnt the lessons of the past. Amid the political games played by pinning the blame on Labour, the Tories have done sod all to regulate the City; the housing bubble in London is even more grotesque than the dreaded Westminster Bubble; poverty and inequality have reached incredible heights, where 1 million people are going hungry in Britain. All signs point to another crisis, though we should never just speculate. We thought the Coalition would cannablise itself, and it didn’t. There’s also the fact, you know, crises hurt people.
But there’s a point here; what if Corbyn’s insurgent, anti-establishment, populism (x) could capitalise on the fallout of another crisis? Of the obvious illiteracy of austerity bared out in front of our eyes, rather than argued by Krugman (soz, Nobel award winning LAD) on obscure BBC shows at 10pm? He could appeal to UKIP protest voters and SNP voters who wanted to stick it to Westminster. He could unleash a zeitgeist. We could all be singing the Red Flag in a few years time. Though I prefer 🎵THERE IS POWER IN A UNIOOOOON🎵. He could fundamentally change British politics, and give us an argument we haven’t had in a bloody long time at a time of potential crisis, whereupon we are stirred into anti-establishment fervor, from the radical East End to Sussex.
But there’s a problem here; as in 2008, and in history, recessions and crises have lead to anxiety fuelling the complete opposite of leftwing politics. Here, it is to UKIP, not the Greens (I’ll get on to the SNP in a minute), who have captured a toxic mood, and in Europe their far more dangerous cousins. It’s then the spectacularly clever use of fear by the Tories in the 2015 campaign. It’s the hatred of spending and welfare and immigrants, capitalised on so well by awful people that we should never seek to echo, but have outgunned us nonetheless. Not because we were ‘Tory lite’ and without vision, but because ‘tax and spend’ and the traditional social democratic model was made obscolete when there was ‘no money left’. It wasn’t just Labour, it was all over Europe.
It’s also worth pointing out, as I always do, that the gap between Labour and the Tories this election was vast, and Labour’s spending plans were actually committed to more public spending and investment than the SNP. Ed Balls was also the ‘Keynesian bulldog’, initially arguing much the same for a ‘Keynesian moment’ that never happened in 2010, when the people opted instead for Tory austerity. People still turned out against us in 2015, afraid we would spend too much -not too little- and seeing us as too soft on welfare and immigration -despite the online uproar against mugs and Reeves. These were the same reasons non-voters gave against us too.
Another worthy point, and this brings me onto the SNP, is that Milibandism (And I can feel my friends eyes rolling as they read this, because I still identify with Miliband’s politics) was actually, in many ways, anti-establishment. I am reminded of Peter Oborne’s wonderful article. It was made to exploit the mood of anti-New Labour, anti-banks, anti-big business, anti-Murdoch, anti-war that we had assumed would come after the crisis. I recall the Predators v Producers speech (which Blairites hate but I think captured the mood), the fight for the break up of the banks, the fight against Murdoch, voting against Syrian intervention, for intervention in the energy markets, against tax avoidance, against non doms. These were the high points of his premiership that rode the tide of public sentiment. Miliband was on the left and people saw him as such (x); and he saw the centre had shifted left on many issues, and it did. (again, x) He explicitly wanted to break the neoliberal consensus (though coincidentally that phrase is not accessable enough that I used it on the doorstep). And I’ve defended Milibandism in this way before. It was powerful against the powerful, and Ed Miliband was vilified for it. Sometimes ruthlessly, other times by that ridiculous silly season of ‘hur dur anti-business’ open letters in the Telegraph.
But that powerfulness was badly communicated, and had a bad communicator. Which is where Corbyn could shine, because people love a straight talking, non-geeky type of casual politician (Take that, David Miliband). He could become a leftist Farage. I am assured he would be a bolder and better communicator, in fact I have no doubt. I think he could win back UKIP voters with this (or the ones that were protesting, rather than actually being anti-immigration).
But most important was not just Milibandism’s communication errors, but that its positives were outweighed by its supposed risks.
The point remains that Milibandism was anti-establishment, but was hard to sell against the Osborne and Crosby message of ‘don’t risk it’, a message that will be replicated ruthlessly in 2020 come what may, even with a new crisis (I’ll get to that too). The centre had shifted left on some things but right on others, too, and the taint of profligacy had helped push welfare and spending to the right instead of the left.
Milibandism was also more powerful than the pettiness of the SNP, who had a track record of cosying up to big business and Murdoch (See The Scottish Sun’s endorsement), but Ed Miliband was still vilified in Scotland.
The SNP were as much a nationalist reaction as one against New Labour, austerity and Westminster -which is why the Blairite argument is entirely wrong for Labour’s contemporary multi-party struggle- but it’s more complex than that. Because they quite literally stood on the Milifesto (x). Every policy bar Trident was copied and pasted. After years of centrism and Salmond, they were dragged conveniently leftward by Miliband. The difference was, they could capitalise on it with radical rhetoric that worked far better in SNP/Labour/Lib Dem centre left battlegrounds than would work in the swing seats Labour had to win like bloody Nuneaton. So do I think Corbyn could help us in Scotland? Hell yeah!
But that’s only a part of the puzzle -and the nationalists who are long term about independence, and know an unelected Labour is in their best interests, know and anticipate this-, because England was and is an entirely different kettle of fish (why is another article entirely, sod that), which stuck by the more conventional formula of what was happening on the continent, as following:
What happened in 2008 in England and Wales was that the thesis that people actually get less generous and more fiscally conservative after crises (x), as opposed to demanding a stronger welfare state as you’d suspect, was proved correct. Why this is or if it always has to be this way (ie versus the New Deal), I’ll have to let you know once I’ve completed my dissertation. But, lol, in the meantime, a good book to read is The Strange Non Death of Neoliberalism by Colin Crouch, whereupon he examines the re-entrenchment of neoliberalism just when people thought it’d collapse. Those people being, among others, the Brownites. Myths and scares saw bankers get let off unscathed while welfare claimants become enemy number one. Profits privatized and costs socialised. Helped along, of course, by Murdoch and Channel 5. And, despite Corbyn people thinking they were ‘Tory Lite’, Labour was seen as soft.
This isn’t an endorsement for Labour to go hard on welfare or embark on a race to the bottom, absolutely not, but it’s a hard circle to square. We cannot argue for redistribution and high spending in the way New Labour did (though we should have made the case for investment borrowing, but the latter was entrenched as a bogeyman, so even if we tried to ‘change the conversation’ on this or QE, we’d be up against an entrenched Undead Neoliberalism that’s survived against all logic).
And now we’re getting the strange scenario where Corbyn and those on the Left are rightly defending New Labour’s achievements versus the likes of Kendall who not only abstained on the (popular!) welfare bill, but actually agreed on principle to doing so. I cannot speak as an expert on ‘welfare reform’, and often the phrase is a harbinger of doom for me, or how to build millions of homes to ease the welfare bill, but the Osborne-inflicted image of ‘tax and spend’ (And Corbyn isn’t actually offering this but, then, neither was Miliband -and he still got tainted as such), I don’t think, will win the anxious hearts of people afflicted by another crisis. And this includes squeezed UKIP voters who may otherwise find appeal in anti-establishmentarianism, but have been made to drift right on welfare spending and immigration post-crash.
The anti-establishment appeal will be swept away with fear of profligacy versus security in crisis, once again. Anything that requires spending in deficits instead of surplus also requires us to prove our ‘competence’, as crappy as that word has now become. There is little point arguing for free education on the doorstep if it’s borne out of a supposed profligacy, when voters demand to know who’s paying for it -especially when said voters are struggling. It haunted Ed and, even as a good communicator and combative and bold performer unafraid to fight for borrowing and against austerity, I have little doubt it would once more be used effectively by the Crosby machine against Corbyn, to make people fear the Corbyn risk.
Anxious hearts indeed.
And then, all of this aside, there’s the very real chance nothing will happen. That, despite the ongoing suffering of the most vulnerable under austerity, the Tories will ‘get the job done’ of producing a surplus. People with jobs and homes and bills to pay will choose security in 2020, as the Tories’ achieve growth.
Again, it’s gambling.
The Labour Party is very dear to me. Not because I am a tribalist born into Labourism, but because its survival is necessary for so many people. Its survival is my priority, and seeing it into power to affect change. And not theoretical, academic change. Palpable change, like the removal of the bedroom tax. It should do good by the vulnerable, and always look to break the consensus, but overton windows change in government and not by Oppositions, and the path to that government requires observing the current mood of voters. True, overton windows also change in the instance of an external event, but we don’t know that will happen or the effect will be what we suspect it will. So my use of evidence as it presents itself is entirely rational, in my view.
But everything that is happening is unprecedented -so who knows? I may be proved wrong. The mood may change, and this time enough to brush aside the ‘risk factor’ that defeated Ed. Perhaps the Corbyn gamble could pay off.
I hope I am proved wrong, cos Jez has basically won.