The most left-wing of Labour’s leadership candidates is tapping into some popular sentiment, writes Peter Jones
Voting for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is not quite as moronic as I read one columnist recently opining. In fact it makes quite a lot of sense to rather a lot of people. And indeed what he offers does make some sense, but only up to a point, the point being that what he wants to do with government would bring a lot of short-term relief and smiles but be a failure in the medium to long term. That, however, does not necessarily make him, or a Labour Party he would lead, unelectable, for, in the current political climate, people’s minds are very much focused on the short-term.
The SNP did even better than Syriza, on a manifesto many judged to be to the left of Labour
Tony Blair, when he spoke recently about Labour rediscovering its love of losing through its fascination with Mr Corbyn, seems to have forgotten some recent election results. He was talking about the 1980s when Labour moved leftwards, assisting Margaret Thatcher to rack up huge majorities in successive elections. And, of course, only when he came along, and moved Labour rightwards to appeal to the centre-ground electorate, did Labour get elected.
But that was two decades ago and, if a week is a long time in politics, 20 years is several millennia. Political thinking has changed enormously since then and so has the attitude of voters, particularly since the cataclysm of the financial crisis and the great recession.
What is left-wing and what is right-wing, descriptive tools that have held good since the French Revolution, is now increasingly useless. What is the centre-ground – the constituency that Mr Blair wooed away from the Tories so successfully – is hard to define. Better, I think, for politicians seeking to harvest votes, to regard the electorate as a set of self-defining interest groups, some that will overlap with each other, some that will be repellent to each other, all of which will expand, contract and shift position over time, but which are not necessarily locatable on the traditional left-right spectrum. And some of these interest groups will arise and grow very swiftly. That was the case in Greece, where a party – Syriza, founded as a coalition of left- and far-left parties and even more left-wing than Mr Corbyn – won power. It won 36.4 per cent of the vote, not far short of the 36.9 per cent which gave the Conservatives a majority here in June. How did that happen, Mr Blair?
The answer is, of course, because Syriza rode the wave of protest against austerity. It is also the case that the spending cuts Greece has had to swallow are far more acrid than anything here. Someone with Greek friends told me recently of one who had retired on a public sector pension of €1,000 a month which has now been cut to €400.
Or take our own recent election. The SNP did even better than Syriza, winning 50 per cent of the vote and 56 of 59 seats, an unprecedented landslide secured on a manifesto many judged to be to the left of Labour. How did that happen, Mr Blair?
Again, austerity played a part. The SNP sold the electorate the idea, in the referendum a few months earlier, that independence offered an escape route from austerity. Although that didn’t quite work, they carried on campaigning against austerity in the election and that was mainly why the Nationalists scored so heavily.
There is more than that to it, of course. One important aspect is that the politico-economic model which worked well for the past 20 or so years, delivering jobs and prosperity, now looks to be broken.
Not too many folk cared that bankers were earning lotto-sized incomes and bonuses when their own incomes were rising. But after the crash, and the price of lost jobs, reduced incomes and austerity that average-income people have paid for by bailing out the failed banks and in shouldering a crippling national debt, people do care that top bankers are still raking in huge sums. It does not at all seem right that there is an untouchable golden elite while the vast majority are still feeling pain and much uncertainty.
In these circumstances, clarity of message about political objectives, and especially those seen as righting what are perceived to be wrongs, is extremely important. Ed Miliband failed to be clear and that, rather than insufficient left-wingery, was mainly why he led Labour to defeat.
Mr Corbyn, however, is offering a very clear agenda. Austerity will be halted and even reversed while taxes on companies and the rich will be increased. This is not necessarily economic madness – increasing the incomes of poor people also increases their spending power and since they tend to spend rather than save, the economy is boosted.
Neither is his programme without appeal to people in the centre-ground. He has evidently been studying the success of the SNP and has adopted one of their policies – abolishing student tuition fees. The mistake of Tony Blair and others is to regard this as left-wing. In terms of the electoral appeal of this policy and the interest groups I was talking about earlier, it isn’t.
It is a centrist policy because it appeals to the middle classes who, rather than poorer working classes, have to pay tuition fees. It is one reason why the SNP has succeeded in broadening its appeal to attract support from a wide spectrum of Scottish people. It is as liable to appeal to middle England as it does to middle Scotland.
So it isn’t necessarily the case that Corbyn-led Labour would be unelectable. The real question is whether a Corbyn programme is implementable. The lesson of Syriza is that much of it is not. Elected on a pledge of reversing an EU-mandated austerity programme, it is now having to implement a set of measures that may be slightly different but which are almost as harsh. Even before that, Syriza managed to turn a recovering Greek economy into a recessionary one.
The modern political reality is that, while you can design policies to appeal to enough interest groups to get you elected, they have also got to be policies that will work in the real world. And that world is a cold, harsh, unforgiving place.