Giving up on Jeremy Corbyn
In summer last year I was swept up in a new movement. Against the backdrop of a Conservative majority that no-one had predicted, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party. Having grown up in the years of Blair, Brown and most recently, Miliband, Corbyn’s uncompromising approach was incredibly exciting. Left-wing, progressive politics had been brought back in from the cold. I desperately wanted to be a part of the ‘movement’ that Corbyn espoused, working together to create a new kind of politics.
I watched with enthusiasm as Corbyn moved to appoint an economic advisory committee that involved some of the most heavyweight minds in left-wing economics. Early policy announcements like a desire to re-nationalise the railways, the establishment of a National Education Service and the use of quantitative easing to invest in social and infrastructure projects all felt radical and forward looking.
In the ten months since, disappointment has followed disappointment.
I watched with dismay as Britain threw away my generation’s economic future, voting out of the EU — as Corbyn campaigned for the Remain cause with no enthusiasm and many Labour voters were unaware of what the party believed in. The majority of Labour’s most experienced politicians were fired or resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in protest at Corbyn’s leadership. David Cameron resigned, prompting a bitter struggle for the Tory leadership. Theresa May won, appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and saw her lead increase to 16 points in the polls. The likelihood of a new independence referendum in Scotland — where Labour’s popularity has fallen even further — has increased significantly.
The early promise in terms of policy has disintegrated entirely. Despite being a Labour party member and relative politics geek, I’m not even clear what Labour’s position is on most issues. The collaborative, grass-roots up policy making that Corbyn promised has not materialised beyond emails asking if I wanted to put a question forward to Prime Minister’s Questions. That economic advisory committee has produced nothing of note other than to critique Corbyn’s EU campaign, resign and have recently have backed Owen Smith in the upcoming leadership election. No progress has been made towards a collaborative movement to change the archaic and unfair first-past-the-post-system.
Accounts from all sides of the Labour party have emerged which show complete chaos within the party. Lilian Greenwood wrote about how she felt continually undermined as Shadow Transport Secretary. Sharon Hodges reflected sadly on her experience as Shadow Minister for Children, detailing both the lack of communication and support from Corbyn’s office. Perhaps most damning is Thangam Debbonaire’s experience of being appointed and sacked as Shadow Minister for Culture, without ever being informed. If you haven’t read them, you should.
Committed, dedicated Labour party MPs and party members who have dared to voice criticism have been subjected to awful abuse. To pick but a few, the twitter feeds of Yvette Cooper, Angela Eagle and Stella Creasy give a flavour of this. While this has by no means been limited to the Corbynite faction of the party, a poisonous atmosphere where the only alternative to unswerving loyalty is being labelled a ‘Red Tory’ or a ‘closet Blairite’, amongst other things. Corbyn has done little to try and heal these divisions.
I have lost all faith in Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to build a Labour party and a progressive movement that can ever make real change in Britain.
A credible and radical alternative
Labour’s upcoming leadership election may be the only opportunity to reverse what Owen Jones is calling an ‘existential crisis’.
The contender for the leadership, Owen Smith, is was a relative unknown quantity before his announcement. If you want to read a profile of him and his life story, you can do so at the Mirror, the BBC or the Telegraph.
His career to date has already been the subject of much media attention. Previously a Lobbyist at pharmaceutical firm Pfizer, it is not the puritanical CV that some might have wished for. But it also includes time as a Producer at the BBC and — more recently — a stint as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, in which he successfully led campaigns to reverse Ian Duncan Smith’s proposed changes to tax credits and PIP payments.
More interesting to me, however, is the policy platform that he has already announced at the core of his leadership campaign. I am hopeful — perhaps unduly so — that the leadership battle can be fought on ideas and visions for what the Labour party should be doing and how it should be doing it, rather than on personalities and hostile criticism.
Smith has declared that he would be just as ‘radical’ as Corbyn in terms of policy — and has not disappointed so far. See the graphic below for the 20 key announcements from his keynote speech.
There is very little on this platform that Corbyn and his team actively would actively disagree with. Indeed, Corbyn and McDonnell have pointed out that many of these policies seemingly ‘echo’ those announced by their own team in recent months. But this has only, sadly, reinforced the confusion and lack of clarity around Labour’s current policy platform. Corbyn’s message has almost no break-through beyond the echo chamber of the already converted.
There are a couple of points where Smith’s ideas are indeed even more radical than anything Corbyn has announced. There is not space here to go through all of them in detail but there are some that are particularly striking.
He is the first senior Labour politician to talk meaningfully about tax — particularly on the taxation of wealth — for some time. After the 2015 election, the Tories raised the threshold on inheritance tax, allowing children to inherit up to £1,000,000 without paying any tax on it at all. This is one of the clearest routes for unjustified and unfair privilege to be passed from one generation to the next. It is becoming harder and harder to break onto the property ladder without inheriting, particularly in London. I cannot see how it is possibly fair to argue that a child’s chances of owning a house should depend so much on their parent’s wealth. Reversing the cuts made by the Conservatives would be a hugely progressive step.
At the same time, taking the top rate of tax back up to 50p on the pound, reversing the cuts to Capital Gains Tax and a new wealth tax on the very, very wealthiest should combine to begin to address the dangerous divide that is growing between the richest and the poorest in society. Research from the Equality Trust shows quite how stark this is, although you can also read Thomas Piketty to get a weighty second angle.
While new taxes are never popular, Smith has made two smart moves. Firstly, aiming taxes at the very richest — those who have seen their wealth rise even throughout the financial crisis and an era of wage stagnation — should ensure that they are seen as fair and redistributive, rather than unnecessarily harsh. Secondly, he has smartly linked them to a key pledge on increased spending on the NHS (always popular, and much needed) and an extensive investment project — a British ‘new deal’ of social and infrastructure spending that is badly needed, both to kickstart economic growth and to address the lack of investment that has been apparent throughout Osborne’s austerity period. This kind of holistic, progressive policy making is a great start.
Smith also proposes some radical ideas aimed at empowering workers across the country, establishing wage councils (previously successful in pushing wage levels up and abolished in the Thatcher years) and banning zero hour contracts. Combine this with the establishment of a Ministry for Labour and you can start to see how to address the ever-expanding trend of unscrupulous employers.
Not included on this list are two other pledges that are worthy of celebration. First, Smith has announced that he would take steps— including using all-female shortlists for MPs — to ensure that both his cabinet and Labour’s representation in parliament were gender balanced. More than that, half of the ‘great offices of state’ (PM, Chancellor, Foreign Sec. & Home Sec.) would be headed by women. While it is certainly high time for a female leader, this is at very least a step in the right direction, and one that Corbyn has not yet managed.
Secondly, Smith has declared that Brexit does not necessarily have to mean Brexit. He is in favour of negotiating the terms of Brexit (with Labour at the table) and then allowing the British electorate to vote, in full possession of what a post-EU Britain would actually look like. To me, this is a clear dividing line between Smith and Corbyn, who has no intention of revisiting an argument that he did not want to have to tackle in the first place.
Corbyn deserves to be thanked, but moved on
For those who want the Labour party to campaign on a genuinely progressive and left-wing platform, there is a lot to thank Corbyn for. Tens of thousands of young people have been engaged by his campaign. He has moved the debate forward enormously. Many of Smith’s policies would have been unthinkably radical just a few years ago.
To me, however, it is very clear that Corbyn does not have the qualities to lead the Labour party effectively, nor is he able to mount an effective opposition or create a credible government in waiting. There is nothing radical about being in permanent opposition, nor in creating a narrow appeal that might attract thousands to rallies, but does nothing to convince the wider electorate.. No-one reminisces about the impact that Michael Foot was able to have on worker’s rights and tackling inequality across the country.
I have never voted in a general election with any result other than a Conservative Prime Minister. If Corbyn continues as leader of the Labour party, I cannot see this changing.
Owen Smith still has a lot to prove. But in three weeks he has put together a policy platform with more depth than Corbyn has managed to in nearly a year. Over the next month the two candidates will go head to head in live debate, continue to give speeches and present their plans for the party. To me, Corbyn’s words ring hollow against the backdrop of inaction, disharmony and mismanagement that have characterised his leadership so far. In Owen Smith, Labour have a radical and credible candidate who can make steps to reunify the party and begin to create a genuine alternative to the Conservatives.