Light at the end of the tunnel?
Some observations following (the first?) 2017 election from a Corb-sceptic Labour Party member.
1) Labour didn’t win the election, but…
The Tories may have been humiliated and hobbled, but Labour has a lot to apologise for today. Not only were we defeated, we created the conditions that allowed the Tories to damage the country quite badly. Oppositions have to take responsibility for their failures, and Labour has played very carelessly over the past two years. The point of democratic politics is to make the country a better place, not to lose surprisingly well.
Brexit could have been stopped by Labour, and this is something that can’t be forgiven. Labour could, and should, have hung the Tories out to dry since the referendum. We failed to beat the most hopeless and compromised Tory opponents that we have ever faced. Every other Labour leader would have resigned at this point.
Corbyn also can’t take sole credit for Labour’s recent uptick. A lot of voters stuck with us despite our leadership, and not because of it. Referendums polarise, and the country has never been as divided as it is today. It’s a generational split as well as one between the towns and the cities.
There’s anecdotal evidence of Tory switchers voting Labour despite Corbyn, not because of him. Referendums usually leave polarisation in their wake.
But, there is no getting around this; Corbyn’s Labour has surprised everyone. I’ve called this very wrongly personally, and it’s worth digging into this one.
2) The mainstream media was also a big loser
The Sun tried hard to win it again, but they didn’t. The attacks on Corbyn were unsubtle, as expected. He’d given them plenty of ammunition. Along with my #redtoryscum friends, I was wrong about how much of a political liability he would be for a number of reasons;
- the media has never been less trusted than it is today. Mixing metaphors, it’s political biases and long shrill habit of wolf-crying have come home to roost
- consumers are more sophisticated and sceptical than ever. They’re also a lot less deferential, which is good in some respects, but it also means that there are sentient human beings who don’t realise that The Canary is moronic
- the media is getting more and more de-clustered and diverse — a good thing.
We may have reached a point where politics is no longer primarily shaped by the political lobby writers and by tabloid editors.
3) Personal attacks on Corbyn didn’t land
Some of the MSM attacks on Corbyn were probably unfair. The breadth of the attack was practically unfair because it wasn’t even-handed (this was a concentrated and focussed attack that often didn’t include any context).
On the other hand, there was a degree of justification, IMHO, for some of those concerns. There are some parts of Corbyn’s backstory that are too complicated to explain to an audience that only takes a passing interest in politics. Some seem like ancient history, and some of it concerns foreign countries of which voters may know little.
His flirtation with Irish republicanism may be explained away as 1980s pseudo-left dilettantism. His Chavista ramblings may be treated as wide-eyed idealism, but for me, his decision to take payment from the Iranian propaganda channel will forever put him beyond the pale. His political backstory is not easy reading and it’s not attractive. His obscurantism and fellow-travelling is contemptible. Corbyn is a moral degenerate — a near-twin of George Galloway.
There are some real scumbags who have been brought into the Labour family by his political milieu. In 2017, Labour has an anti-semitism problem that it tried to whitewash!
He turns my stomach and I’ll never accept him as a fit leader for a political party, and certainly not for the country.
4) Corbyn’s personality has shone
Here is where I may seem to contradict myself. I have plenty of friends who are Corbyn-ish. They are people that I like and trust on a personal level. I also agree with them on more things than I disagree. In most cases I think they are earnest in their politics. They’re attractive and empathetic human beings who have a simple, straightforward honesty in the way they communicate and behave. They don’t like ‘spin’ on the grounds that it is pointless as well as dishonest. They reject the frenetic managerialism of New Labour. They think that our job as leftists is to simply make our own case, rather then engaging in the sophisticated ‘retail policy’ repackaging of democratic socialism that took place from the early 1990s onwards. I’d agree with them on those things, to a certain extent.
These friends of mine are ones that I often argue with on the grounds that I think their policies are simplistic and, objectively, regressive (see tuition fees for example). I tell these friends that I wish they were more intellectually intrepid, and they tell me (quite fairly) to stop being so pompous. I wish they were more interested in a strong innovative and exciting economy and not just obsessed with welfarism. I wish they would step out of their comfort-zones a lot more, and I also wish they’d stop parroting simplistic far-left talking points on global politics as well (have you noticed how the Saudis have suddenly become the latest imperialist proxy?).
Some Tories don’t vote the way they do because they are callous bastards . They are sometimes honest people who think that Labour are sentimentalist and impractical. It’s a head/heart thing.
I think my Corbyn-supporting friends are deeply wrong to dismiss the moral problem that he presents, but I can’t see me being able to change their minds on this any time soon. And Corbyn himself seems very similar to these friends in many ways. Where they have a blindspot about his morality, he has a deep personal moral flaw. Very good people sometimes do very bad things. In lots of ways, Corbyn seems to have a lot of the hallmarks of a remarkably decent human being and that is an asset in the age of political transparency that we live in today. He’s a nice bloke with a weird support for / carelessness about Stalinists, anti-semites, cranks, murderous theocrats and terrorists.
None of this necessarily makes him a total electoral liability in the modern age, and this is something that I think a lot of us have been very mistaken about. It turns out that he is an attractive and charismatic political leader who, without the moral baggage, and with a bit of intellectual ambition, could be a great political figure.
5) Politics is damaging democracy
Labour has learned that unprincipled electoral bribes are the way to go. Scrapping, and writing off tuition fee debt may become the our equivalent of selling council houses. With the generational following wind of Brexit-resentment, it works.
If the Tories have any (political) sense, they will defuse this particular bomb now.
In “The Political Brain”, Drew Westen chides progressives for their “irrational commitment to rationality”. This was a dig at both the Democrats and New Labour. Blair’s party certainly thought it needed to win arguments as well as elections. It wasn’t a short-termist project. For all of its failings, it was morally rigorous and sophisticated. It’s policies were hard-tested and tightly costed. It wanted to win elections, govern well, and build a sustainable political dynasty.
The Tories have behaved very differently. In his constituency acceptance speech, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron nailed it, saying “calling referendums, and calling elections to suit your party, rather than to suit the country, is something to be avoided.” Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson has felt the need to say (out loud) that she prioritises her nation over her party.
The Tories have been an utter disgrace since 2010. Osborne’s economic strategy was politically self-serving economic nonsense. The Tories I spoke to seemed to think that this was all a reasonable approach to governing the country, and we will all now have to spend decades recovering from this carnage.
We can’t pretend that politics is too connected to the job of running the country well any more. Politicians of all stripes are taking Westen’s advice. Crude populism is not a story that will end well for anyone, sadly.
Corbyn is just another spoke in this wheel. Crude populism, deploying damaging political gambits where long-termist policies are needed. For all of its posturing, the current Labour Party isn’t even particularly progressive in many ways.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel now though. If we can cauterise the Leninists, there is a real opportunity for radical social democracy in the UK — the first in a long time.