Corbyn’s World

On the Labour Leader, electoral mathematics, immigration and the EU — and the one thing that might take him to No 10.

Photo: Garry Knight

[Dateline: 21st June 2016]

Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union is in two days. Recent polling has shown a strong swing to Leave, then a less impressive one back towards the status quo. If you believe what you read, the polity is almost perfectly divided. It’s not yet clear how the assassination of Jo Cox and our resulting encounter with modern fascism will affect the numbers. Today, it looks as if the vote will go down to the wire. It is a cataclysmic moment in our history: our allies around the world are lining up to tell us to stay in Europe, the Washington Post describing our potential Brexit as an act of national insanity.

In the event that we do leave the EU, David Cameron must surely fall. He will be remembered in history as the Conservative Prime Minister who, after an undistinguished first term, sacrificed his second — and his nation’s stability — in the interest of a party unity he ultimately did not secure. He will likely also be the man responsible for the breakup of the United Kingdom, with Scotland seceding in favour of the EU — always assuming that the world’s largest trading bloc is not torn apart by internal strife in the aftermath of Cameron’s failed gambit. Just about the only thing of which the newly solitary UK will have a surplus is irony.

How, then, is it possible that the new-minted leader of the UK’s only meaningful opposition party does not look like the obvious winner of our next general election, whether that comes later this year or in 2020?

This is the first vital thing to understand if Labour is to climb the mountain to victory: by every measure we have, Corbyn’s party is in a losing position. It’s possible that there is a deep, hidden majority just waiting for him in the non-voting shadows, but if so they didn’t turn out in May. Corbyn scraped through the local council elections with a net gain of eighteen seats. To hear him tell it, that was a win in the face of predictions that he’d lose hundreds. It’s also the worst result for an opposition party leader going into their first local elections since 1975. Iain Duncan Smith, under the less than rousing banner “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man” managed a gain of over two hundred against Tony Blair, then at the absolute zenith of his pre-Iraq heyday. A more obviously frightening metric is the National Equivalent Vote Share. Opposition parties which historically have gone on to win the next general election score around a 14% lead in the NEVS at this point in the cycle. Corbyn’s Labour is getting 1%, comfortably in the losing band. That’s bad news, but the worse news is why: Corbyn did unexpectedly well in the South but leaked votes in areas of traditional Labour strength in Wales and the North. It wasn’t his disimilarity from Tony Blair that was the problem. It was UKIP.

In the 2015 general election, Ed Miliband got handed his hat by David Cameron’s Tories because his support grew in places where Labour was already strong and didn’t carry elsewhere. Scotland fell, and Ed’s Labour fell short. Corbyn inherits the loss of Scotland to the SNP, but has somehow and very much against what you might expect inverted his predecessor’s problem nationally. He took a lead in the polls for the first time in March — by a single percentage point, and it’s not a good sign that the lead didn’t come sooner. The moment was emotionally appealing for anyone on the left, but it’s not nearly enough to get him to Downing Street. Those of us not signed up to Cameron’s agenda tend to take solace in the fact that the Prime Minister has a narrow overall majority in the Commons, but it’s important to remember that he beat Labour by three hundred and thirty one to two hundred and thirty two. The nation returned two fifths again as many Tories as it did Labour MPs.

Map: Brythones/Cryptographic.2014 via Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 4.0

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the Labour leadership, everyone — including his detractors — thought he was running an insurgency from the left. His “new politics”, his rumpled suits and slightly grumpy lack of polish, spoke to a mood that was more contemplative and on point than the Westminster we knew. He wouldn’t be stampeded. He said what he thought and kept saying it. He let Labour’s national supporters direct his time at Prime Minister’s Questions. It didn’t seem to matter that he wasn’t a classic parliamentary duellist because he could set the tone, and the tone was that that sort of adversarial public school rubbish was over and done. It suited him, and it seemed as if it might work. The local council results were actually an endorsement of that style in one way — southern middle England quite likes a constructive lefty, it seems — but the overall dynamic has shifted in an alarming direction. It’s now Nigel Farage who is running an insurgency, one from the unconventional right, which seemingly resonates with those of Labour’s exhausted working class core who feel that Corbyn is not like them, in large part because of his line on immigration.

Farage is a master of setting emotional and political logic on its head. He’s a stockbroker’s son, educated in a top public school and then employed in a City commodities brokerage, with a French name (which he’s turned into an asset, cheekily telling people that it rhymes with “garage” and thereby perfectly summing up his weird sliding class benchmark) and a bunch of billionaire backers, but he picks his ground well, stealing votes from Tory and Labour with equal facility. UKIP voters, in turn, are a perplexing mixture. They are much more concerned with economic inequality than the Tories — even slightly more so than Labour voters; they want to save the UK’s NHS, and over half say they believe in or accept gay marriage. In a 2013 poll, over 70% supported renationalisation of the UK’s energy market and rail network. You’d think they would be Corbyn’s for the asking — but even more strongly, they believe things that are anathema to modern Labour’s espoused identity. They’re overwhelmingly pro-death penalty and anti-immigration, and believe couples should marry before having children. According to a YouGov poll, half of them describe themselves as somewhat or strongly prejudiced against people of other races. Statistically white, male, middle-aged and from the east coast or the Midlands, they look at Jeremy Corbyn and see a man with whom they have nothing in common. The sandal-wearing vegetarian internationalist who once rode around Europe on a motorbike with Diane Abbott reads to the young, metropolitan, liberal Labour that elected him as profoundly authentic. To some of the traditional core, he’s just another London stuffed shirt. Corbyn is anti-monarchist (57% of Labour supporters think the Monarchy is good for Britain, and so do 67% of UKIP voters) and he’s against the nuclear deterrent (58% of Labour voters believe we should have one, and 77% of UKIP voters). He’s against the death penalty, and a former chair of the Stop the War Coalition. He’s been a trade unionist all his life, but never an oily rag worker. He is for the working class, but not of it. Farage might be a toff, but he eats burgers, sings the National Anthem, and says he wants to get the UK’s borders under control.

This isn’t a temporary or sudden conflict in the British left. The EU Referendum and the debate around it are bringing into sharp relief a fissure in the modern Labour party that was already becoming pronounced before Corbyn was elected leader. The issue is between actual working people and the ideological constellation that grows from the original Fabians — paternalist intellectuals influenced by Tolstoy, Thoreau and Emerson, who championed the idea of a quasi-pastoral return to the simple life, and who were devoted to the gradualist adoption of democratic socialism. The Fabians found common cause with the trade union movement and with figures such as Keir Hardie, who became the first leader of the Independent Labour Party. Out of this mixed beginning comes modern Labour, and the two strands are absolutely still present: a theoretical or ideological one which nowadays has an international, urban, culturally liberal flavour; and one born of disadvantage and literal labour which is more local, more conservative of tradition, and (crucially) more driven by need and identity than by high concept. To put it more simply, there’s a large fraction of the core Labour vote that votes Labour out of survival and because it always has, rather than because it has any special allegiance to left political theory. It’s these voters who feel Corbyn’s party is removed from them.

Corbyn on Newsnight

Corbyn, for his part, has allowed it to be known that he sees the same division. At best, he thinks UKIP supporters misunderstand the world and are misled by the party’s populist pint-drinking top dog. He told the BBC’s Newsnight outright that UKIP was a “devil may care” vote and that some UKIP voters were motivated by racism. He may be right, but the comment, seeking to dismiss the legitimacy of UKIP as a political choice, effectively dismisses the concerns of anyone who chooses them. With UKIP now firmly established across the UK and immigration the most important aspect of the Brexit debate, that’s a problem. It doesn’t matter that Corbyn is right on immigration, or indeed that the YouGov poll says he’s right on the motivation of half of the UKIP vote. It matters that he seems to be ignoring or even rejecting a large fragment of his own base — and it will still matter whatever happens on 23rd June.

Labour and its supporters have recognised the problem, albeit late in the day, but their response is conventional and potentially fraught with problems. Tom Watson sounded the trumpet on a new approach to the immigration question last week while Corbyn was thanking immigrant workers in the NHS for their efforts, and Yvette Cooper and Paul Mason have both proposed a Remain and Reform strategy for the EU which leans towards measures to reduce immigration combined with positive approaches to alleviating the problems blamed on it. Tacitly, this is a straightforward political solution not a million miles away from the logic David Cameron deployed in promising the referendum in the first place: “I need the support of this group who believe something I do not, so I will promise to address their concerns soon in exchange for their acquiescence now.” In the present situation, at least, it has not been a huge success.

Even with the addition of some policies to address underfunded local services, it’s a strategy that puts Corbyn in an unpromising box: the measures proposed to reduce demand for low paid workers and fight illegal immigration — more inspectors, border agents, and whistleblowers — play to Labour’s occasional authoritarian aspect, and are uncomfortable at the other end of Corbyn’s vote-gathering equation where he needs the enthusiastic affection of young urban idealists. The creation of a class of bureaucrat-enforcers to catch migrant workers and their scofflaw employers looks grim enough, but worse yet it has the potential to become a genuinely ugly venue for the expression of real racism. For all that it ill-suits the comfortable middle class to accuse the poverty line poor of backward prejudice in refusing to welcome immigrants into areas where public services gutted by austerity already feel strained, to maintain that there’s no racism about the Leave campaign or in its support would be to adopt a culpable and shameful blindness. Since the beginning of June, some of those on the Leave side have bluntly crossed a line. The Leave.eu group put out a cartoon that unavoidably recalls 20th Century Fascist propaganda, and more recently Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster campaign has been disowned by Michael Gove, though Farage for his part promises more of the same. Former Conservative chair Baroness Warsi, previously in favour of leaving the EU, yesterday morning changed her stance “[b]ecause day after day, what are we hearing? The refugees are coming, the rapists are coming, the Turks are coming.”

Warsi deserves credit for her choice. Last week was a crossing of the Rubicon. On 16th June, Labour MP Jo Cox — a prominent humanitarian campaigner and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Friends of Syria Group, who believed Britain should remain in Europe — was murdered. The man charged with her killing later gave his name to the court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. Farage senses shipwreck and is trying to put Cox’s death out of bounds, but cannot dodge the fact that a month ago he gave an interview to the BBC in which he said that violence was possible if immigration was not controlled. The whole debate has shifted in tone from hijinks on the Thames to the queasy realisation that Britain has arrived in a bad place and must now find a way out.

So while Jeremy Corbyn could try to win back the party’s traditional base by becoming a cautious swimmer in the anti-immigration current he has publicly disparaged, the cost would be high. He’d be changing tack on an issue on which he’s been very clear, abandoning a position much favoured by his modern Labour ideological following and his multicultural urban support in London and other cities — votes he can ill-afford to jeopardise. At the same time, he’d be ignoring Cox’s legacy having just praised her compassion, and if there’s one aspect of the Corbyn brand that is crucial, it’s integrity.

The line that better suits Corbyn is surely the high road — one he has to travel anyway, if he’s to pull a victory rabbit from what otherwise may not be a very deep conjurer’s hat. Instead of bowing to pressure on the issue, and rather than dismissing it out of hand, the Labour leader has to offer an inspiring alternative solution to the problems that are presently blamed on immigration. Where a rapid increase in population is straining vital infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, those services must be expanded: the government must spend. Labour has to offer programmes to get the left-behind working class back on its feet, begin to outline not merely a new approach to immigration but to Britain as a whole. In doing so, Corbyn can turn the pressure back against Cameron’s Tories. In many ways it’s a gift: switching the discussion from immigration and benefit fraud to service provision, employment and social mobility speaks directly to the cruelty of George Osborne’s discredited austerity, to the chaos of Jeremy Hunt’s NHS and Michael Gove’s educational crusade. It opens the debate on topics like renationalisation of the railways, and allows Corbyn to articulate a positive vision of a prosperous future rather than chase after the Faustian coattails of Johnson, Gove and Farage. It lays Labour open to accusations of financial imprudence, but the party has to stop running scared of that. If the Corbyn economic plan is to be substantially different from the Tory one, it will include more borrowing for investment, and that is something to say loudly and proudly, or else the big ideas of Corbyn’s new left will get lost in the post.

The Corbyn camp has begun to recognise this, and it seems he maybe moving towards it. What they don’t yet appear to have understood is that in countering the Farage insurgency at the same time as taking on Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn has to become the visionary rather than the critic. He’s no longer able to couch his Opposition in terms of negatives. At the moment, Corbyn is still focused on trying to tell his straying base that they’re wrong to blame immigration instead of austerity, but Farage — an able media animal with the support of several of the UK’s press barons — has defined that territory in his own favour. Rather than continuing to meet anger with analysis, the Labour leader has to undertake the riskiest form of political speaking, and try to displace anger with hope. He has to begin to build in the minds of the electorate an image of how the world should be — how it will be if he is elected — and that image must address the concerns of the country from Walsall to Willisden Green. His vision must be clearly accessible from where we are now by a series of stages and transformations, while at the same time proposing something of sufficient scale and ambition that it is armoured from the inevitably corrosive assault by which it will be met. He has to stop expending energy (and screen time) critiquing a system that is both obviously broken and self-reinforcing, and start offering something else entirely. If he can convey the sense of a desirable better world blocked by bad government, Corbyn won’t need to tell his voters where to put their anger, in the first place because they will already be laying it at the door of George Osborne and the like, and in the second because they will have moved to a ground where the Tories in their present state cannot easily follow: he will have claimed aspiration for the left.

Jeremy Corbyn has to turn from a habitual outsider, scolding the apparatus of conventional politics, into a uniter who moves those politics to a new place. It’s in him to break the mold, there’s no question about that: it was his iconoclasm that got him the Labour top spot in the first place. But there’s a security in critique which is absent from creation, and now Corbyn — for almost his entire professional life a contrary figure defined by resistance to the mainstream — has to propose a change in government that is more than simply the end of austerity; it has to be the beginning of a just nation whose citizens are happy and secure, healthy and educated, and in which everyone is lifted to the fullest expression of their ability. It has to be a place where necessary change to something like the fishing industry is met before it can become a local social collapse by a rising tide of investment and livable alternatives. It has to be a Britain determined to be more than it is, rather than one which lingers on what it believes it once was. If he can do it, he’ll renew the Labour alliance and energise not only those who joined the party to vote for him but the Labour doubters and the nation as a whole. If he can’t, he’ll be washed away by blunt force electoral mathematics, and Labour will be out of government until 2025, a margin of time sufficient to change the face of the country in ways no subsequent left adminstration could hope to undo.

Corbyn’s vision is what stands between Britain and that outcome. It is the only weapon he has that can make possible the sea-change required to put him in No 10. He needs to tell us what it is not by reference to what the Conservatives are not, but on its own terms — and he has to do it soon. If Jeremy Corbyn wants Britain, he has to show Britain his world.

Jeremy Corbyn in 2014, by David Holt via Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 2.0