The medium and the message
This week, Owen Jones wrote an article in the Guardian in which he gave his strongest criticism of Jeremy Corbyn to date. He is correct that the situation is catastrophic for Labour, and we should welcome that he acknowledges that Corbyn is making the party’s problems worse.
Owen Jones wants a Labour government; he is no Ken Loach, blindly supporting a leader doomed to hand the Tories a massive majority. But I still feel the need to nitpick at one section of his analysis. He writes
“ But a terrible defeat for Labour will be spun as a rejection of the policies Corbyn supporters rightly champion.”
Jones has written about this before, being interested in “the wave, not the surfer”. It’s worth breaking this down a bit, because while there are some pretty obvious problems with the surfer, the wave isn’t going to wash up in Downing Street any time soon either, and nor does it deserve to.
If the answer is “Corbynism without Corbyn”, what would this mean? That the philosophy is unchanged, but the person presenting the message is better at doing so?
Would this message include an indulgence of antisemitism, for example?
Or support for IRA or Hamas?
Or support for Hugo Chavez and his “better way of doing things”?
I’m assuming that anyone pushing for “Corbynism without Corbyn” would say that they would not want this to be continued under a new leader. But if you’re calling for the same philosophy in a more attractive package, this is what you’ll get.
It needs to be understood that these aren’t some optional extras that Corbyn has brought with him; these are all central components of the Corbynist worldview. It should also be a source of shame that anyone, at any time, was prepared to overlook all of the above.
What I suspect “Corbynism without Corbyn” types really want is a firm commitment in favour of some of the issues that won him such support in 2015; anti-war, anti-austerity, and unilateralism.
Taking the last point first, Labour will not win an election on a unilateralist platform; it will allow Conservatives to paint us as weak on security. Nor is it a good idea. The best way to achieve a nuclear-free world is through negotiation between nuclear armed nations. Unilateralism is merely throwing away any leverage you have. It will not make the world safer, and it will not make us safer. The message is wrong.
Scrapping Trident is merely a symptom of Corbyn’s broader confusion; he believes that in order to spread peace around the world, we must undermine western alliances. He thinks the solution to Russian belligerence is to withdraw troops from Estonia, not understanding that this is a defensive deployment; it is us standing in international solidarity with our allies. Corbyn was happy to vote against the Iraq war without the faintest idea of what he would do about Iraqis suffering torture and repression under Saddam Hussein.
Corbyn is not opposed to conflict in the slightest, of course; his involvement with Stop the War, which once called for a war against Israel, and his signature on a parliamentary motion which claimed Serbian war crimes in Kosovo were fabricated proves that. Corbyn, along with Stop the War, is not anti-war, he is anti-west. Changing the messenger doesn’t help here; the message is fundamentally wrong.
Finally, anti-austerity. The vast majority of Labour members and MPs oppose cutting support for the poorest in our society. Even Liz Kendall, hated by the bonko-left, has “almost always voted against a reduction in spending on welfare benefits”. Allowing everyone who opposes Jeremy Corbyn to be branded as in favour of hurting the poor is grossly unfair; apart from anything else, it overlooks genuine achievements, such as the million children lifted out of poverty by New Labour up to 2010. Those dratted Blairites.
Most MPs understand that we lost in 2015 in part because we were seen as too anti-austerity. Voters did not see us as fiscally credible and did not trust us with the nation’s finances. The Welfare Bill was a massive miscalculation aimed at showing the electorate we understood why they rejected us, an attempt to square a circle. It was not a sign that Labour MPs love austerity; many worked very hard behind the scenes to amend the bill, only to find themselves getting abused by supporters of a man who did nothing.
Labour under Corbyn has fallen between two stools economically. Either it has promised things which almost the entire party could support (McDonnell’s fiscal credibility rule, which sounds a lot like Brown and Balls’s attempts; increased workers’ rights), or it has pledged things which MPs know will play into the “overspending Labour” narrative and sink us (John McDonnell again, this time pledging to spend £500bn).
However, the mood music from the top is vague platitudes about a fairer world and the evils of austerity; “slogans, not solutions”, perfectly demonstrated in Corbyn’s risible pledge card:
Convincing the public that we can be trusted with the economy is going to be a long and arduous task. Corbyn doesn’t seem interested in anything other than watery statements about austerity being bad, and until we grip this, no amount of PR will help. We need to win the public’s trust before we can get a hearing. The message is wrong.
The Labour left finds itself in a surprisingly fortunate position. Despite electing a leader with a platform which is either shared with most of the party or wildly unpopular, the left can avoid responsibility for the failures of the Corbyn project by blaming the inadequacies of the man himself. This is a cop-out. The medium has muddied the message. Better PR would make Corbyn less popular, not more.
If you’re calling for “Corbynism without Corbyn”, if you’re interested in “the wave, not the surfer”, the conclusion must be that you want a party that deals only in slogans, doesn’t care about winning economic trust (and, therefore, elections), is weak on security, is unpatriotic, encourages wars by fracturing international alliances, weakens Britain’s standing in the world, and doesn’t mind indulging a bit of antisemitism and support for terrorists.
However good the PR was, such a party would be an electoral and a moral failure. We cannot move on as a party until we understand that the problem with Corbyn isn’t just his communication skills; it’s his politics.