speri.comment: the political economy blog

You wanted it, you got it

New Labour offered change for two decades, without ever really meaning it. Jeremy Corbyn is the near-inevitable consequence

Craig Berry, Deputy Director at SPERI

Craig BerryThe remarkable emergence of Jeremy Corbyn from the relative obscurity of Labour’s backbenches has taken most political commentators by surprise – and indeed Corbyn himself. In hindsight, however, it seems to make perfect sense, especially once the implications of Ed Miliband’s changes to the leadership selectorate became clear, that the debate on Labour’s direction would be driven overwhelmingly by complaints about the Conservative government’s devastating austerity agenda, underpinned by fear about what the next five years might mean for the welfare state and public services.

In this context, the austerity-lite agenda offered by the ‘mainstream’ leadership candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper – let alone Liz Kendall’s enthusiastic embrace of Osbornomics – was never going to cut the mustard. Nevertheless, the party elite have prevented Corbyn even getting on the ballot had the so-called ‘morons’ been a little more careful with their nominations. That so many centrist and ‘soft left’ MPs nominated Corbyn despite not supporting his candidacy, based on the mistaken belief that he could not possibly become leader, is clear evidence of just how disconnected the Labour elite has become from the labour movement and its centre-left supporters.

Although his candidacy would have quickly expired had this error been avoided, the patronising nature of the gesture appears to have paradoxically fed the sense that only Corbyn represented a new, authentic style of politics – uncalculating, unspun and, crucially, under-estimated.

This disposition appears to have shielded Corbyn from scrutiny to some extent. The low point of his campaign came when he suggested that he might, as leader, campaign for the UK to leave the European Union – a scenario that is probably anathema to most of those members and supporters that have now elected him. Corbyn later reversed his position, albeit unconvincingly.

At the same time, his candidacy has helped to bring issues such as the relationship between the monetary system, the banking sector and public investment into mainstream public debates. My personal highlight of the leadership election was when Financial Times columnist Matthew C. Klein conceded that Corbyn’s idea for ‘People’s QE’ ‘could actually be a decent idea’ (it also has the support of former CBI and Financial Services Authority chief Adair Turner).

Of course, this is not to suggest that Corbyn is likely to be elected as Prime Minister in 2020. His leadership may help to broaden economic policy debates, and he may indeed step aside before the next election in favour of a more moderate figure. But the Conservative Party know they have very little to fear from a Corbyn leadership, because he does not appeal to the relatively narrow portion of the electorate they need to hold onto to win another majority under the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. The one ‘known unknown’ that could have disrupted their strategy – Europe – has now become a key dilemma for Labour too.

But the Labour elite has only itself to blame for this predicament. What may turn out to be New Labour’s greatest sin is how its vacuous use of concepts like ‘change’ destroyed what little trust the electorate had left in the mutterings of politicians of any stripe.

As I have discussed in more detail in Globalisation and Ideology in Britain, what New Labour usually meant when it talked about change and newness was how left-wing politics needed to be de-radicalised, because there was simply no alternative to the seemingly exogenous and inexorable process of globalisation. It referred, in fact, to the opposite of change, that is, to preserving rather than transforming the main tenets of Thatcherite economic statecraft.

David Miliband reinforced this phoney change discourse when establishing his Movement for Change (MfC), in anticipation of becoming party leader in 2010. MfC was designed purely as an alternative power base for Blairite (or Blair-ish) activists, who were content to support hyper-local campaigning activity, while leaving the big policy questions to the technocratic elite.

Liz Kendall’s disastrous campaign for the leadership used the discourse of change and newness liberally, but also quite crudely – she often in the same breath slammed Ed Miliband for not changing enough, even when he quite clearly represented something (slightly) different from what had gone before. The Liz Kendall candidacy represented the point at which New Labour doublespeak doubled back on itself, and ultimately snapped; although, predictably, David Miliband’s endorsement of Kendall praised her ‘clarity’ and ‘plain speaking’. His article in The Guardian opened:

There are a number of reasons why politics around the world is splintering. The most important is quite simple. The process of globalisation, defined by the intense interconnections of economics, culture, security and environment that characterise the modern world, is posing fundamental questions about purpose and strategy for the traditional centre right and centre left.

Kendall ended up with less than 5 per cent of votes, but her impact on the campaign was far more profound than either Burnham’s or Cooper’s. She reminded everyone on the left who had become fed up with Labour that, despite Ed Miliband’s well-meaning leadership, the things they were fed up with were still very much present. A right-leaning media hugely exaggerated Kendall’s prospects for victory early on in the campaign, and in doing so handed a rationale for a large group of activists who had up to this point been content to mobilise outside the Labour Party, to instead mobilise within the party in support of Corbyn.

It is hugely naïve to think that a slight shift back to the centre would be a significantly more electable proposition than that now offered by Corbyn. As the financial crisis exacerbated emergent (and resurgent) socio-economic divisions, Blairism – whatever that is – ceased to represent the centre-ground of British politics. The fact that several leading figures from the right and centre of the Parliamentary Labour Party announced that they would refuse to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet – despite his enormous mandate – within hours of his victory, speaks to the hubristic attitude that continues to characterise New Labour politics (although most have cited profound differences on issues of EU membership or national security, rather than economic policy, as the reason for their decision).

Equally, however, Corbyn’s supporters would be naïve to think that the job of rebuilding Labour’s ‘grassroots’ is now complete, or even that significant progress has been made in this regard. Corbyn’s career has largely been that of the professional provocateur, and his politics are embedded not in the economic struggles of the UK’s peripheral regions, but rather the left-liberalism of cosmopolitan London. With Tom Watson also elected on Saturday as deputy leader, and John McDonnell now appointed as Shadow Chancellor, Corbyn’s Labour Party also has an acute shortage of women in leading roles (as he appears to acknowledge). The hegemony of neoliberalism has certainly been dented; but it will be actually be reinforced over the long term if the Corbyn campaign does not now evolve into a much larger and more inclusive movement than was necessary to win the leadership.

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Categories: Economics, Europe and the EU, Politics and policy, SPERI Comment | Tags: , , , , | 2 comments

Articles and comments posted on this blog reflect the views of the author(s) and not the position of SPERI or the University of Sheffield.

Comments (2)

  1. Fantastic piece Craig. The thing that resonates with me is this: “It is hugely naïve to think that a slight shift back to the centre would be a significantly more electable proposition than that now offered by Corbyn”. I find it outrageous that the question of Corbyn’s “electability” has been raked over endlessly, but this question was never asked of the other three (and in Kendall’s case, she was portrayed as the only person who could win over “Middle England”, whatever that is, despite the fact she would alienate anyone who has ideas of their own and doesn’t really like being talked down to and patronised by someone who only speaks in platitudes). Even the BBC and Guardian joined in: bereft of ideas, the standards of British “journalism” have been shocking during this campaign. The problem with the Panorama “documentary” was not that it was a hatchet-job; it’s that it was so utterly, lazily and nauseatingly in line with received wisdom, and didn’t even attempt to develop a new line of critique or analysis.

    So, I’ve been puzzled throughout this campaign as to why Corbyn has been portrayed as “hard-left” and the Blairites (and, by implication, the Cameroons) as “moderate”. Issue-based polls regularly show that the British public, as a whole, are well to the left of the Cameroon-Osborne-D.Miliband consensus on issues like privatisation, taxing the wealthy, the role of the City etc. Surely it would make at least as much sense to describe Corbyn as a moderate, and those people as “hard-right”. As I’ve argued myself in Speri blogs passim, the real centre is not where the Blairites and the Cameroons – and, as you note, the handful of people in English marginals who swing elections – are situated. It’s much further to the left.

    I’m also amazed at the hubris – as you call it – of the number of quite young MPs – most of whom have done nothing other than serve as SPADS and climb the greasy pole from there – refusing to serve with Corbyn. Who do think they are? They are servants of a party, whose membership (50% not including the £3 members) have spoken loudly. If any of them should have learned anything from the experience of Brown and D. Miliband, it’s that you often get one chance in politics. If you don’t take it, it may not come up again. So if it doesn’t all unravel, Corbyn rides high in the polls, and the Tories begin to panic, and Labour does shift back to where most of its members are actually located ideologically, the careerists that have cut their noses off to spite their faces may have permanently ended their chance of front-bench careers. With that in mind, I’m half-seriously inclined to stick a tenner on Andy Burnham being Prime Minister after the next election!

  2. Good article, and I agree with much of what you say (I voted for Corbyn as a £3 supporter). I am not so sure about the EU issue, which divides the left as well as the right.

    You said:

    ” The low point of his campaign came when he suggested that he might, as leader, campaign for the UK to leave the European Union – a scenario that is probably anathema to most of those members and supporters that have now elected him. Corbyn later reversed his position, albeit unconvincingly.”

    Today is the first time that I heard the BBC Radio 4 News even mention that many on the left are uncomfortable with the EU, or strongly opposed to it, but obviously not for the same reasons as anti-EU Tories or UKIP. BBC was reporting on the GMB and now likely TUC position that if Cameron negotiates away protection of working conditions (his main objection to the EU), some unions are likely to campaign against the EU in the referendum.

    Many on the left have also looked at Greece, and the behaviour of the EU bankers towards a democratically elected government. The strongest argument from the left for the EU has been the gains on laws controlling employment, and if they are lost, pro-EU left could change its position.

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