Labour lost forty seats to a party that outflanked it on the left - it makes no sense to move right
In recent days, the Labour leadership contest has been convulsed by the news that veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn might actually win. For a significant proportion of the commentariat, both sympathetic to Labour and not, this portends doom for the party.
In an uncharacteristically hyperbolic essay published on this site yesterday, the political historian Steven Fielding hailed ‘Catastrophe Corbyn’, a figure of fun whose ‘whimsical’ opposition to austerity and focus on inequality would ensure Labour was condemned to opposition indefinitely. The Daily Telegraph agreed with him, urging its readers to participate in the Labour leadership and vote Corbyn to ‘destroy the Labour Party’.
For Fielding, and numerous others, Labour lost the general election because ‘many voters considered Miliband’s programme lacked economic credibility’.
Interestingly, he then goes on to say that though this was in part the result of the (at best) vernacular understandings of economics possessed by many of the public (Fielding actually uses the word ‘ignorance’), there is no real point trying to convince them otherwise. The piece is padded out by a series of ad hominem jibes about Corybn’s origins as an MP in the 1983 General Election, an allusion to Foot, and various other invocations of Blairite mythology.
It amounted to a hatchet job on Corbyn, and an argument for the line of least resistance, based on some muddled thinking; don’t try to convince the electorate of anything, fold in the face of the right-wing press (because, after all, look what they did to Ed) and elect one of the other three in the hope that they can fend off the vitriol of a right-wing media which smells blood whilst redressing the party’s ‘credibility’ in the eyes of the public.
Fielding is merely representative of a groupthink which evolved out of Blairism – a selective reading of ‘old’ Labour’s history which took for granted the idea that in a small ‘c’ conservative country, avowed socialism was doomed to fail. ‘Credibility’ – and a technocratic approach to government in the era of the neoliberal state – is all that really matters. Many in the party have railed against such a groupthink – notably the CLPs with their endorsements of Corbyn – but often this is a cri de coeur, as Fielding notes; a plea for Labour’s soul.
But what if Corbyn was a plea for Labour’s head, and not its heart? Fielding’s critique highlighted the fact that the establishment narrative on Corbyn and what he might mean for Labour is based on a series of false premises. To start with the big one – the premise that we know why Labour lost the general election. Well, we don’t. Not in full, anyway.
The evidence yesterday from the British Election Study (BES) that Labour voters were less likely to turn out and more likely to mislead the pollsters in terms of their enthusiasm can be interpreted in numerous different ways. Differential turnout might be due to the fact that Labour weren’t radical enough (a standard left response), because voters felt Labour lacked economic credibility (as Fielding argues), because they weren’t convinced by Ed Miliband, or any other number of other reasons.
The point is, we don’t know. Not definitively. What we do know, unequivocally, is that Labour lost forty seats to a party which outflanked it on the left as an anti-austerity party. Granted, the SNP won seats for plenty of reasons (and one big reason) other than opposition to austerity, but it doesn’t logically follow that the way to win such seats back would be to move to the right.
And another one which follows from this – that opposition to austerity is ‘whimsical’. It’s not even clear if Fielding himself believes this (in fact, he intimates that he doesn’t, given his criticism of the level of public engagement with economics). However, he clearly thinks that Corbyn’s appropriation of the anti-austerity mantle is same-old leftism, traceable back to his roots in the Bennite left and the apparent irrelevance of the Campaign Group.
That might be a more substantial attack save for the fact that that over the past several months three Nobel laureates have made known their opposition to austerity; usual suspect Paul Krugman, almost-as-usual suspect Joe Stiglitz, but rather-less-usual suspect Amartya Sen too, not to mention the IMF’s attack on the EU settlement with Greece. Opposition to austerity is actually more mainstream than Fielding would care to admit.
Which leads to the third false premise, endorsed by both Fielding and Harriet Harman – that the election result amounts to some unequivocal endorsement of Conservative politics. Really?
It’s perhaps not surprising coming from Harman, a political chameleon who negotiated the Blair/Brown transition with aplomb, and who supported Ed Miliband’s welcome repudiation of the Iraq fiasco despite having herself supported it in the first place, but it is surprising coming from a political historian.
The Conservatives have a working majority of sixteen, gained on the back of just less than 37 per cent of the vote, with their popular vote still three million votes short of where they were in 1992, the last time they won a majority and the election shock with which 2015 is often being compared.
Though much ink was spilled on Labour’s defeat in 1992, few took Major’s return to office as a resounding endorsement of his politics. And yet it was a far more commanding mandate than Cameron now possesses. A little perspective is needed – a landslide this was not, and the popular vote for the parties nominally of the left – the Labour Party, the SNP and the Green Party – exceeded the vote gained by the Conservatives by over 600,000.
It’s not clear by any means that the election was a ringing endorsement of either Cameron or his policies; it is true however that it was a rejection of Labour, but the nub of the issue lies in the why and the who.
This takes me to the last false premise in the anti-Corbyn boil-in-the bag election diagnosis; the public. Within minutes of the exit poll, figures within and without the party were invoking ‘the public’ with gusto, invariably meaning an undifferentiated anonymous mass of people who agreed with whatever the individual speaker was saying. In short, instant diagnosis based on imagining ‘the public’ meant outlining whatever personal prejudices the speaker possessed and then adducing the support of a rhetorical public to back it up.
Fielding’s piece was much the same. The issue of the culpability of economic credibility for defeat is an assertion, not a fact. It will no doubt be true of many voters. But it is equally true that there will be many other reasons besides, and it is by no means clear – going full circle – how and for what reasons different social groups weren’t turned on by Labour or, if the BES are right, simply weren’t turned on enough to actually go to the polling station and vote.
The commonly-held critique of Corbyn also assumes that his rivals for the leadership are somehow more capable, or more immune to attack; in short, they are more likely to be successful in electoral terms. Are they? Andy Burnham is in the process of being savaged by the Sun, Yvette Cooper has already been attacked for nothing more than who she’s married to, and Liz Kendall might appeal to some in the right-wing press but has no serious chance of regaining lost seats in Scotland.
The brutal reality is that – Corbyn included – there are no magic bullets in this leadership election; there is no Tony Blair waiting in the wings, and those pseudo-technocrats who believe that The Unfinished Revolution and constantly repeating meaningless mantras like ‘aspiration’ are the answer to Labour’s electoral misfortunes are probably misjudging the nature of the problem – simply because we don’t, in truth, really know the detail of the problem yet.
As such, what follows is simply an opinion and one which doesn’t attempt to justify itself as fact or make any claims to special authority based on some unimpeachable reading of how politics works. It’s just this: Corbyn’s popular with the members, and may win.
This might not be any bad thing. The Labour Party is in a bad position, but it could be worse and it is possible the Tories may yet overreach themselves. Corbyn undeniably has integrity and believes what he says, and he cannot be outflanked on the left by the SNP or the Greens (or, for that matter – if they matter – a Farron-led Liberal Democrats).
It’s likely he won’t win the general election in 2020, but then it’s just as likely (if, I venture to say, not more so) that none of the others will either. With this in mind, a Corbyn victory could help to redefine what it means to support Labour, recapture voters who have abandoned the party, and be a first step in a healing process for wounds which have their origins in the compromises of the Blair era.
Sneering at him, and his supporters, whilst asserting some inviolable logic to ‘centrist’ politics, is unbecoming and unhelpful. Labour are in a hole, and it’s going to be a hard struggle to get out of it. Having in place a leader who understands what it means to lead, to argue, and to contest for a coherent set of principles and ideas might, however, be a start.
Mike Finn is the co-editor of The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015 (Cambridge University Press) and senior lecturer in the History of Education at Liverpool Hope University. He is a member of Liverpool Wavertree CLP and the Co-Operative Party. His next book is Socialism, Education and Equal Opportunity: The contemporary legacy of Anthony Crosland, which will be published by Palgrave in March 2017.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.