My honest thoughts on the Corbyn campaign — and overcoming formidable obstacles
A confession: I didn’t originally want a ‘left’ candidate in the Labour leadership election. My view was that, in the midst of general post-election demoralisation, a left candidate could end up being crushed. Such a result would be used by both the Labour party establishment and the British right generally to perform the last rites of the left, dismiss us as irrelevant, and tell us to shut up forever. I originally toyed with starting a campaign to enlist Lisa Nandy, the straight-talking ‘soft left’ Wigan MP, but she had just given birth, so that wasn’t going to happen. [https://twitter.com/OwenJones84/status/600625839231893505] The Shadow Cabinet minister Jon Trickett was originally approached by several people asking him to stand: for the reasons above, I suggested it was bad idea. Instead we began brainstorming a ‘Not The Labour Leadership’ tour alongside a presumably dispiriting leadership contest with three candidates dancing on the head of a pin, with the aim of helping to rebuild a grassroots movement.
In all honesty, when Jeremy got the nominations, my instinctive reaction was somewhere between nervousness and trepidation. On top of the reasons above, I was worried (as someone who first met him a decade ago) that the personal characteristics that, in actual fact, have contributed to his popularity amidst a general anti-Westminster mood — understated, modest, his anti-firebrand disposition — might count against him. (On that count, I was clearly very wrong). Obviously there was no question I would do anything other than wholly support the campaign — I’d be a charlatan to do anything else. As one of the only people with a media platform who isn’t hostile to Jeremy — let alone supportive! — I’m pretty much duty-bound to be helpful and rebut the stuff thrown at the campaign as best I can.
But I originally felt that if he came third, that would in itself be a huge political achievement. The big contribution of Jeremy’s campaign, I felt, would be to put policies on the agenda, shift the terms of debate, and help rebuild a grassroots left movement; that this achievement could be built on, and crucially used to shift public opinion.
If you’d asked me privately back in May what I thought about a left candidate winning the Labour leadership, I’d have responded simply: “I don’t think we’re ready for that yet”. We’d need to spend the next few years building a formidable movement, I’d have argued, to win support for the policies we believe in, and to shift attitudes on a number of issues. Such a candidate would face formidable opposition from both within the Labour party, and from very powerful groups outside it, too. Without a big grassroots movement behind it, such a leadership would be crushed like an insect in someone’s hands.
But obviously the thing about history is that it doesn’t unfold in ways you can control. “Hey, history, tell you what, could we run this three years instead when we’re more ready?” A grassroots movement and political phenomenon has emerged now. It could well be that, without Jeremy’s candidature, it would never have emerged. It has to be engaged with as constructively as possible. It is like riding a tiger — a tiger that, yes, may well throw you off.
Anyone who predicted this huge grassroots movement would emerge in such a short space of time is bluffing. The packed meetings across the country, with 1 in 40 inhabitants of Llandudno coming to hear Jeremy speak; hundreds of thousands registering as members or supporters of the Labour Party (has there even been such an increase in the membership of a party across Britain in such a short space of time?); YouGov polls suggesting overwhelming support for Corbyn across the Labour party; polling suggesting that not only he is now the preferred candidate of Labour supporters, but does best among supporters of parties ranging from UKIP to the SNP; and that as well as poll suggesting cross-generational support, some of his most enthusiastic supporters are young people whose futures are threatened, and have few politicians championing their interests. This movement — and building it after 12th September — matters, because a Corbyn leadership would sink without it, and quickly too.
For some opponents of Corbyn, support for his campaign is an outrageous self-indulgence, the promotion of unelectability and thus the betrayal of the people Labour was founded to represent and who need it most. Firstly, if a candidate can not enthuse enough people in a semi-open primary of Labour supporters, and they lose this contest, they are by definition unelectable. And secondly, it is beyond me how Labour voters who plumped for the SNP, or people who voted Green, or UKIP, or who didn’t vote at all, are realistically going to go, “Oh, now that Andy Burnham/Yvette Cooper/Liz Kendall are leader of the Labour Party, I’m definitely going to vote for them.” The polling suggests that — although the general public doesn’t know the candidates, and with the exception of Kendall, Jeremy least of all — that if anything he has the edge amongst them.
The Tories are said to be privately delighted, despite the pronouncement of some Tory supporters who believe that Jeremy should not be underestimated. They believe his election will be a catastrophe for the Labour party. In the case of these people — drunk on triumphalism — this is deeply sincere. There is no doubt that the odds against a party led by Jeremy are formidable — yes, they can be overcome, but we have to be aware of what they are if we are to achieve this.
The current internal schism within the Labour Party is partly the product of our electoral system. In other democracies, there are often two left parties — one ‘centre-left’, the other more radical. They compete against each other but frequently form governing coalitions together. In Britain, they are in the same party. ‘First-past-the-post’ is increasingly untenable as a system because of the political fragmentation resulting from fragmentation in wider society — because of changes like deindustrialisation, a more transient workforce, immigration, people moving more, an ageing population, and so on. Having broad ‘left’ and ‘right’ coalitions fighting elections under the same banner seems to make less and less sense, but the electoral system compels it to be so.
The Corbyn surge is part of a general trend of political discontent bubbling across the Western world, manifesting itself in progressive ways but also reactionary ways, too: Podemos, Syriza, Bernie Sanders, the SNP, UKIP, the National Front, the True Finns, and so on. My fear is that, without this progressive Corbyn surge, that discontent could end up being funnelled to UKIP.
A strong movement is a precondition for success. But it is no guarantee of it, by any stretch. If Corbyn wins, the challenges, as I say, will be enormous, but not insurmountable. I’m not writing this to dampen people’s hopes, or to prepare excuses, but because people have to be ready and prepared. See those guns in the distance? Yeah, well we’re running towards them. We have to be hopeful and optimistic, but also prepared for what awaits. So here’s my thoughts about the problems, and what can be done about some of it.
- Popular appeal cannot be won by simply focusing on issues that affect those at the bottom of society. Yes, we desperately need policies that transform the lives of the one in five workers who earn less than a living wage; people who lack an affordable home; disabled people having their benefits cut away; those suffering from the bedroom tax; and so on. And yes, one of the main aims of a Corbyn-led campaign will be to mobilise, inspire, political engage poorer people who are significantly less likely to vote. But empathy for the worst affected alone will never win an election. Jeremy has begun outlining policies to support self-employed people and entrepreneurs, as well as expanding home ownership without flogging off social housing. This has to be built on, with a direct appeal to both middle-income and middle-class people that goes beyond being asked to empathise for the poorest people in society.
- A grassroots movement, yes. A cult, no. If you’re part of a movement that faces almost universal hostility from an Establishment you reject — in the political, media, and political world — it’s easy to become very defensive indeed. You feel like you’re under daily attack. Your positivity is sapped away, and you lash out, failing to differentiate between the sceptical and the critical and the militantly hostile. You risk becoming suspicious of anyone who is not already a signed up believer, and fail to be able to convince those who might be persuaded but have reservations. That has to be resisted at all costs. This growing grassroots movement has to based on positivity and inclusivity, love-bombing those who disagree — and certainly not attacking others as ‘Red Tories’ and the like. Hundreds of thousands have signed up as Labour members or supporters in a short space of time. It is at least conceivable that over a million people could sign up if he becomes leader — and that must be the aim. But if they become passive supporters, then Jeremy’s leadership is doomed. A thriving outward-looking movement has to be built, which organises in every single community in the country; which can start the biggest election registration drive in history, to “expand the electorate” as the Obama Democrats did; which can win over young voters, and particularly those people who voted for the SNP, the Greens and UKIP.
- The media campaign against a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn will be brutal and utterly unrelenting. It will be far worse than anything dealt out to Ed Miliband, Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot. The Tories are currently compiling the mother of all dossiers to throw at him. Jeremy has spoken at thousands of events in his political life: they will be trawled for other participants with dodgy backgrounds in order to condemn Jeremy with guilt-by-association. Quotes will be distorted. There will be little fair hearing of his policy proposals. He will be portrayed — remorselessly — as a dangerous extremist. The idea will be to extract a constant stream of denials, to produce a batter of headlines along the lines of “Jeremy Corbyn denies link to extremist”. A Corbyn-led party would have to learn from New Labour in at least one crucial respect: to have a rapid rebuttal media strategy. An image of moderation has to be emphasised: because Corbyn could hardly come across as less demagogic, portrayals of him as an extremist can be presented as ridiculous. The response from the leadership itself would have to be positive and upbeat, rather than constantly defensive. But without a mass movement, such a media onslaught could strangle Jeremy’s leadership.
- “Socialism is the language of priorities”, as Nye Bevan put it. Yes, we can look at polls and say — look, the vast majority support public ownership of rail. But while most certainly do agree with that, it will be eclipsed by other priorities. The focus must surely be on bread-and-butter concerns, like jobs, health, education, public services, housing, and so on. An issue like public ownership of rail can be broadened out by targeting, say, middle-class commuters who have to pay often ridiculous sums to get to work, while the public splash out several times more subsidies than the days of British Rail.
- Scotland cannot be won back straight away, even if this is a test Jeremy’s opponents will set. As things stand, Labour face being wiped out in next May’s Holyrood elections. The SNP won 6 Westminster seats in 2010; in 2015 they won 56. Huge Labour majorities became huge SNP majorities. The SNP’s lead in Scottish opinion polls is astronomical. Scottish Labour as a party currently remains a husk. The idea such a profound political shift simply be suddenly turned around — even though Jeremy is by far the best candidate to do so — in a matter of months is fantasy land stuff. Many ex-Labour voters who defected to the SNP are besotted with the formidable Nicola Sturgeon, will see Scottish Labour as a separate entity to a Corbyn-led Westminster Labour (an ironic turnaround in perceptions) and may take the view of “well done, best of luck, hope it turns out well with you, and if we don’t have independence by 2020, we’d be delighted to work with a Corbyn-led Westminster government”. As a beginning, an uncompromising apology has to be offered to the people of Scotland. And I mean grovelling. Huge amounts of effort have to be expended into showing Labour has changed. Trident and austerity will be key issues, of course. But it will take so much work, and it will mean relaunching Scottish Labour as a new grassroots insurgent movement that can take on the SNP from the left.
- Concerns about immigration cannot be addressed by sticking our fingers in our ears, or only emphasising the benefits of immigration. One of the great contributions of a Corbyn-led Labour Party could certainly be to reframe the debate, redirecting blame at problems caused by, say, austerity, failing to build housing, failing to protect skilled jobs, not paying workers a decent wage, away from those born abroad to the powerful instead. Stressing, say, the contribution made by immigrants to the National Health Service would also help. Shifting away from statistics about immigration (which don’t convince) to stories — examples of being helped by foreign-born nurses, or desperate stories of refugees — could also help. But there needs to be other approaches, too. Studies show immigrants pay in more than they get back, but that means little to most people: so the economic benefits of immigration should be felt by communities with the highest level of immigration in the form of an ‘immigration dividend’, an extra pot of money for such communities. Measures to prevent employers undercutting wages and working conditions should be emphasised. The NHS currently has to recruit one in four nurses from abroad because of cuts to training places: this is unfair on poorer countries who need those nurses more than us, which is why those cuts should be reversed. Rich Gulf states — who are staunch allies of Britain — are refusing to take in refugees fleeing places like Syria, and Labour should pressure the Government to do something about it — helping to reassure the public that others are pulling their weight. It’s also worth going for the Tories over their hopeless immigration targets — by pointing out that politicians promising things they can never deliver undermines people’s faith in both politicians as a whole and democracy, too. Social and economic grievances are not the only reasons for anti-immigration backlash, but they certainly give it its intensity: they can only be reduced when Labour is in power, and in the meantime the conversation has to be shifted while concerns are met.
- Huge amounts of efforts have to expended into winning over working-class voters plumping for UKIP. Authentic working-class voices like Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett need to be front and central here. UKIP voters must be love-bombed, not treated as closet racists, but as people who feel abandoned by the political elite and who have burning concerns on issues ranging from housing to jobs.
- Tanks have to be parked on opponents’ lawns from the outset. Corbyn’s first visits should surely be to places like Nuneaton, the Tory-Labour marginal seat that has become emblematic; Clacton, which is represented by UKIP’s sole MP; Chingford and Woodford Green, represented by Iain Duncan-Smith; and, well, let’s face it, pretty much anywhere in Scotland.
- What about Cornwall and the South West? Cornwall is Britain’s poorest region. That Labour is so weak there is just ridiculous, even if it is down to historic factors (like the weakness of the labour movement due to the nature of the unconcentrated industrial workforce there, and so on). A huge effort has to be put into winning over people there who frankly Labour was founded to represent and champion.
- A Corbyn-led government has to pick its battles, because it already has enough of them. Take NATO: the merits of membership are so far from the mainstream of political debate, it would be pointless and self-defeating to pick a fight over it. Instead, Labour should suggest a more constructive role for Britain within the Alliance.
- The government should be relentlessly attacked for not only consorting with extremists, but arming them. Saudi Arabia is one of the most vicious dictatorships on Earth. It beheads its own citizens for being gay or being “sorcerers”. It deprives women of basic rights. It has no democratic freedoms. The Kingdom exports extremism which is a clear and present threat to British citizens. And yet when the dictator of Saudi Arabia died, British flags were flown at half mast. We arm this dictatorship to the teeth. This arming of extremists must be absolutely taken on.
- Economic credibility is key. So a Corbyn-led Labour party should set up some sort of ‘Council of Economic Advisors’ composed of the various economic brains who back an alternative to austerity, and use it to flesh out a viable alternative based on clearing the deficit in a way that doesn’t punish working people, disabled people, and so on. A big coup would be the use the Labour Party’s considerable economic resources to hire the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman as an advisor.
- Message discipline is crucial. Jeremy has won plaudits because he speaks in an authentic, unscripted way. But one of the fatal flaws of Ed Miliband’s leadership was the failure to have clear sharp succinct messages repeated over and over again — unlike the Tories, who do exactly this. Many people simply did not know what Labour even stood for. Early on, it’s crucial to settle on some key themes and messages that can be endlessly repeated.
- The Parliamentary Labour Party must be tied in with more party democracy. If Jeremy wins, he will be helped by the fact he has the biggest democratic mandate in the history of the Labour Party. By having more democratic structures for policy-making, the argument can be made that backbench rebellions are rebellions against the democratic decisions of the Labour Party as a whole, rather than an arbitrary leader. Introducing more democratic consultations in the Parliamentary Labour Party will help, too. It will still be extremely difficult. Jeremy has to be extremely conciliatory, as he has indicated — emphasising a broad church, involving people from all wings of the party in the Shadow Cabinet, so that if he is attacked by those determined to undermine his democratically decided leadership, they are exposed as the aggressors.
- Democracy should not mean chaos, though. In our world of rolling news and rampant social media, having public conferences with huge bust-ups over every other issue would not look good at all, and would project an image of unfitness to government, as well as leaving the public unsure what Labour stands for on each given issue. So, there needs to be a balanced approach to democratic involvement.
- The first Prime Ministers’ Questions could well feature delighted, celebrating and baying Tory benches, while the Labour benches could be mostly quiet (which David Cameron will ruthlessly mock). If Cameron is mocking the Leader of the Opposition when he is discussing one of the main current matters of extreme importance — like the deaths of desperate refugees in the Mediterranean — he will shame himself. Sadly, that is not beneath him. It’s worth noting that at least two backbench Tory MPs have raised objections to cuts to in-work benefits. Maybe even picking something unexpected: like the huge drop in home ownership amongst young people.
- A new approach to politics has to be emphasised. Jeremy has already pledged — and stuck to — a non-personalised form of debate. He should avoid the sort of ‘Bullingdon Boy’ stuff that was thrown at David Cameron under Miliband’s leadership, because it will mean that when he is attacked, he will look clean and above personal abuse. It is not where the Tories are from that really matters, but where they are going. Inclusive; consensual; not personal — this approach to politics will help to defend him when he comes under a barrage of attack.
- Because he will be caricatured as a dinosaur, Jeremy will have to emphasise modernisation and a forward-looking vision. Emphasis on, say, an industrial strategy that nurtures the hi-tech jobs of the future, and renewable energy industries, so that Britain can move on from its failed old economic model and properly compete in the world.
- Stand up for the working poor. Cuts to in-work benefits will see them driven further into hardship. The gap between the rhetoric of patronising them as “hard-working Britons doing the right thing” and the reality of what is being done to them must be exposed. A £10 an hour minimum wage by 2020 is just a start, of course.
- The whole debate over social security needs to be reframed. Sweeping powers to build council housing, to reduce the amount of public money spent subsidising private landlords for example. A minimum wage of £10 an hour which would reduce the amount spent subsidising low pay, without imposing cuts to in-work benefits. But rather than focusing on statistics, Labour should focus on stories which are more effective: young people desperately looking for work that isn’t there; people trapped in insecure forms of work, in a cycle of low-paid work and unemployment; low-paid workers having their tax credits cut; and so on.
- Labour really does need to become a social movement, as Jeremy has promised. What about Labour setting up food banks? What about challenging the ‘clash of generation’ mantra by setting up a national scheme where many of the new young activists volunteer to spend a couple of hours a week keeping older people company? What about launching community initiatives? And so on.
- Labour needs a strategy for local government cuts. Refusing to implement them is not going to work — the Tories will simply sweep in and enforce their own. Instead, there needs to be a national strategy agreed by Labour councils to protest cuts and emphasise they are imposed by the Westminster government.
- Reframe the debate over national identity. Some people think that the left somehow hates being British or English. That simply is not true. A new approach to British — and, separately, English — traditions and values should be emphasised: of people throughout history who fought and struggled for our rights and freedoms, some of which are now under attack.
- Labour needs to win over older people. Labour got its second best result among 18–24 year olds since 1974, but half of them did not vote; whilst older people decisively plumped for the Tories, and had a huge turnout. Obviously Labour needs to inspire young people and encourage (and register them) to vote, by offering policies that actually provide hope for their futures. But that will not be enough to win: at least some older people need to be won over. An appeal for the future of their grandchildren is insufficient. From radical plans on social care to replacing inheritance tax with a new tax on the wealth of the recipient rather than the person who dies (note — shamelessly pillaged from the Greens); from dealing with the low level of the state pension compared to other Western European nations to the still unacceptable level of pensioner poverty — there’s so much Labour could offer. This has to be front and central to Labour’s new proposals or Labour can never win, particularly because of our ageing population.
- A mass registration drive is key. The Tories are stitching up the electoral system in their favour, from reducing the number of MPs, redrawing the constituencies and introducing individual voter registration. The poorer you are — and younger you are — the less likely you are to vote, disproportionately hammering Labour. So a new Corbyn-led Labour Party would have to be unleash the biggest ever mass registration drive, challenging a widespread sense that politics is irrelevant to people’s everyday problems.
- Labour’s support from black and ethnic minority voters cannot be taken for granted, and may beunder increasing challenge. Talented newly elected MPs like Clive Lewis, Kate Osamor and Dawn Butler surely have to be given prominent roles under a Corbyn-led leadership, as well as leading on strategies to involve BME Britons.
- Polls suggest ‘Corbynmania’ has disproportionately been driven by women, but ambitious policies are needed here. Policies have already been suggested on street harassment, and ideas on everything from domestic violence to low pay and insecure work among women need to be developed.
- Men’s issues also need to be addressed. A good place to start could be the fact that the biggest killer of men aged 18–50 is suicide, with many men suffering from mental distress but unable to seek help, and often finding it lacking when they do.
- Advocate a new federal Britain. George Osborne’s form of devolution is devolving cuts. But Labour should commit to federalism that devolves power while supporting redistribution based on need. That means to local authorities, as well as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.