The Westminster bubble was wrong about Corbyn’s candidacy, and it’s wrong about how the left might win the next general election writes James Meadway
Jeremy Corbyn, on current polling, is on course to win Labour’s leadership campaign. Conventional wisdom, as recycled by Britain’s political class, has put this down to a kind of post-election sulk by Labour’s members and supporters. Elect Corbyn now, they insist at increasing volume, and Labour can kiss goodbye to power for a generation or more.
The Westminster bubble was wrong about Corbyn’s candidacy, and it’s wrong about how the left might win the next general election. It’s the left in the party, not the right, that can show a path to Labour’s return to power. Supporting Corbyn is not just about principle or ‘self-indulgence’. It’s about strategy. Here’s how it could work:
1It’s the stupid economy.
The chances of the UK avoiding a financial crisis and recession over the next few years diminish with every day that passes. The only real question is whether the house of cards collapses before, or after, the next general election. With austerity dragging down demand, it’s private sector borrowing that is increasingly keeping the show on the road. Borrowing by households, excluding mortgages, is now rising at the fastest level since 2007. The government’s own forecasters expect household debt to reach record levels before the end of the decade. Throw in the productivity slump, a yawning current account deficit, and rumblings from Greece to China and you’re looking at crash in waiting. If the opposition is organised when it happens, it can win.
2 Austerity will begin to hit those it previously left alone.
George Osborne set out a dangerous political manoeuvre in the summer budget. He is attempting to break the attachment of British society to its welfare state. He’s been very clear he’s seeking to create a new political consensus around a ‘low tax, low welfare’ economy. But until that consensus exists, the cuts he needs to make will hurt and will be seen to hurt. Projections from the budget suggest 13m people will lose an average of £260 a year. 3m households will lose £1k. These are serious cuts across broad swathes of the population. An opposition prepared to actually oppose those cuts would pick up support. The Blairites can’t do it.
The SNP won’t go away. 56 MPs won’t vanish overnight – not with the party currently polling at an extraordinary 56%. Either Labour cuts a deal with the SNP or, this side of independence, it will not return to power. Ed Miliband’s posturing against the SNP before this year’s election fooled precisely no one, and the Tories gleefully exploited the disingenuousness. Better to get over residual unionism and be honest about the situation. The anti-austerity, anti-Trident Labour left is in a far better position to talk to the anti-austerity, anti-Trident SNP than the pro-austerity, pro-Trident Labour right.
4 Where do the Tories go next?
There was no grand swing to the Conservatives in this election. Labour’s vote rose by more, despite the loss of Scotland. But the Tories were far sharper in exploiting the collapse of the Lib Dems. That’s not a trick that can be repeated twice. So where do they go next? Labour to Tory switchers at the last election were tiny in number, just 2% of voters, and, in a creaking economy with austerity grinding onwards, the Tories will seriously have their work cut out to win over many more.
A better bet for them are Ukip supporters. But Ukip’s ambiguities – as the pro-Establishment anti-Establishment party – can, in practice, play left or right.‘Red Ukip’ is a curious thing, but it exists. And the Tories have scarcely settled their own issues on Europe. A Labour party not obviously tied to the Establishment, and able to take a robust line against the neoliberal EU, could win these voters over. The right can’t do that.
5 Labour has a generation to win back.
Tony Blair’s greatest achievement was not the landslide of 1997. The proverbial donkey in a red rosette could at least have got a majority then, such was the depth of real hatred for the Conservatives. Blair’s real achievement was to lose Labour 4m votes in subsequent elections. He won fewer votes in 2001 and 2005 than Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election with. It was a failure by disenchanted Labour supporters to vote that explains the gap between Labour’s opinion poll support and its actual vote this time round. Although more prevalent in Labour’s heartlands, those disenchanted former voters and fed-up supporters are spread throughout the country. It won’t be Liz Kendall or Andy Burnham that can win them back.
6 Left policies are popular.
On issue after issue after issue, the majority of voters are far to the left of the mainstream, from taxing the rich to renationalising the railways and utilities. Of course, it’s a long way from single policies being widely supported to an entire programme of the left being popular. There’s no straight line from one to the other. But it’s the left who can start to pull such a programme together – not burned-out Blairites.
None of this is guaranteed. Could win is a very long way from will win. The uncertainties are enormous. There is the small matter of the leadership election itself. But we’re already seeing the limits of Blair-style ‘triangulation’ in Labour’s disarray over what ought to be the simple issue of opposing Conservative welfare cuts.
There’s no reason to assume some election-winning magic attaches itself to the right and centre. Reheated Blairism, as now being offered by the Labour right, is an unpalatable mess. Its ‘realism’ looks increasingly unreal to anyone outside the whirligig of Westminster. And its failures have opened an extraordinary political opportunity for the left. It’s there for the taking.
Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).