Monday, 16 December 2019

Labour fight to see who has the loudest voice

In the aftermath of last week’s election, I saw a vox pop from somewhere or other in the north of England in which one gentleman explained that he was a life-long Labour voter who had voted Tory because of Corbyn.  When asked what it was about Corbyn which had led him to that conclusion, he was unable to give much of an answer.  Such brief interviews provide anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, of course, but it does rather look as though ‘Corbyn’ did indeed play a significant role in the outcome, and that those in Labour who are trying to argue that it was all about Brexit and nothing else are somewhat detached from reality.  They’re unlikely to change their minds, though – I have the distinct impression that Labour’s post-election autopsy is going to be more about which faction’s interpretation is shouted the loudest rather than being based on hard data and analysis.
If answering the question, ‘Was Corbyn a factor?’ is easy enough, the ‘why and how?’ are much more difficult questions.  Was it because, as some (even in his own party) are claiming, he was a poor and incompetent leader, was it because of the policies he promoted, or was it because he was demonised in the Tory press?  It’s worth noting that it’s at least possible (or even, as I suspect, highly probable) that all three are true to a greater or lesser extent; there’s nothing mutually exclusive about them.  That won’t stop either his detractors or his fans demanding that others accept their own interpretation of which is correct, making me wonder whether Labour is capable of learning anything from the outcome.
The long-running antisemitism issue may well have been seized on by political opponents who have racism problems of their own seeing an opportunity to promote an anti-Labour narrative, but the way in which the Labour leader responded looked weak, slow and reluctant.  Whether that is fair or unfair is almost irrelevant – it meant that he didn’t give the impression of competence and determination in dealing with the issue.
That he was unfairly smeared and demonised by a section of the press is surely undeniable, as well as being entirely understandable.  Billionaire press barons and their friends who saw him as a threat to their position had every incentive to portray him as a dangerous extremist, and didn’t hesitate to do so, even if a more objective analysis of his policy programme for this election would place him and his party squarely in the mainstream of European social democracy.  But part of what Brexit is – and always has been – about for those most keen on it was taking the UK as far away from that mainstream as possible; it’s part of a long term project of moving the Overton window further in the direction of neo-liberalism.
There’s no doubt that many of the individual policies put forward by Labour were themselves popular, but it looks as if Labour’s ability to deliver them all simply wasn’t believed.  That shouldn’t be surprising – it was a highly ambitious programme, and I have doubted previously whether it was physically do-able.  I wonder, though, whether part of the reason for the public doubt about viability might have been a result of Labour, like the Tories, having spent the last decade promulgating the neo-liberal economic demand that government finances should be balanced.  Suddenly arguing for a programme which implied quite the opposite, whilst still arguing for fiscal rules which suggest that their basic position hasn’t changed looks dishonest.  I doubt that it’s a case of the electorate as a whole doing that economic analysis and reaching a conclusion; more a question of people who have had it drummed into them by Labour and Tory alike that some things are ‘unaffordable’ simply not being in the right frame of mind to believe the opposite.  Moving from ‘two legs bad’ to ‘two legs better’ overnight works in fiction, but not in reality.  There would have been nothing wrong with pivoting the party’s position over the last year or two to an alternative interpretation of macro-economics as a basis for the manifesto commitments, but without doing that, without explaining why so much of the economic establishment is wrong, they failed to lay the groundwork for their own programme.
There is much in what Corbyn has said over the years, as well as in this year’s Labour manifesto, which I could readily support (although there are a few major blind spots, such as the question of nuclear weapons and the support for independence for all nations except Wales and Scotland, to say nothing of Brexit itself).  Whether they have the courage to build on that, or whether the party’s timid careerists will demand a reversion to Tory-lite policies is yet to be seen.  I’m not optimistic.

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