A Corbyn victory could help redefine what it means to support Labour

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.

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76 Responses to “A Corbyn victory could help redefine what it means to support Labour”

  1. blarg1987

    The Rapacious Right will do what it always does, and then when people realise they are the ones being screwed over will suddenly jump ship again, as they always do.

  2. Neil Wilson

    “This is not an opinion.. We are borrowing £75B a year. So you are just plain innumerate..”

    It most certainly is an opinion. Because actually the problem is that we are *saving* £75Bn a year to excess.

    Why are you against saving?

  3. Neil Wilson

    “As there are imports and exports of money, your model is frankly – a waste of space.”

    They don’t use Sterling anywhere else. So actually there isn’t any imports and exports of money. To ‘export’ your money you have to exchange it with somebody coming in the opposite direction. Otherwise you are stuck with your Sterling.

    Please learn how the money system works before spouting garbage.

  4. stevep

    I`m no fan of political correctness, but some things need to be said.

  5. stevep

    The vast majority of the public don`t know anything about economics, and won`t know if the budget is balanced or not – only what the media tells them. There`s many ways to slice a cake and share it out, not just the Tory way. Labour`s big challenge is to simplify economics and explain how they would slice the cake and why.
    If Corbyn is the best person to put this across, he`s the man. If Cooper is, she’s the girl.

  6. SocAlan

    I believe, the vast majority of the none voters would have voted for a left wing government. This with further antitory voting would have probably ended in a landslide victory for Labour.
    Ukip fooled a lot of people, it won’t do it next time.

  7. Keith M

    Fair point, but not socialist , as Marx once remarked, there are people calling themselves Marxists, well if that is the case I’m no Marxist.

  8. SocAlan

    The trouble with your argument is:
    The vast majority of SNPs are staunch socialists!

  9. madasafish


    I don’t understand what you are saying.
    The Government spends £75B more than its income .. so it borrows the balance.

    If you think that is saving, pigs fly.

    You are – to put it kindly – sadly misinformed.. Which is a problem if you want to make comments on the economy…

    I’ve just read your post above.

    You are totally wrong..Read some economics.. or tell me which economics paper you have published which supports your view. Your view is what got Greece into the problems it is in today..

  10. Neil Wilson

    “The Government spends £75B more than its income .. so it borrows the balance.

    If you think that is saving, pigs fly.”

    And do you see your bank borrowing from you when you have your salary paid in and are lobbying to stop your salary getting paid in just in case the bank ‘borrows too much’?

    For every liability there is an asset. For every Gilt issued there is a Gilt owner happy to receive low risk income – generally private pension companies looking to fulfil pensions in payment.

    The money is being pushed at the government in the same way that your salary is pushed at the bank. They become ‘borrowers’ as a matter of accounting.

    Because at that point the only alternative to buying Gilts is to leave the money on deposit, transitively, at the Bank of England. Or spend it, which causes taxation, obviating the need for Gilts in the first place.

    Here’s the pretty picture. That waggles at the top offset the wiggles at the bottom. http://www.3spoken.co.uk/2015/04/uk-sectoral-balances-q4-2014.html

  11. madasafish

    So what? It’s still borrowing..

    And if you think interest rates will remain low when borrowing rises, you are nuts. See the Greeks.. slaves of the ER for ever due to overspending..

    And quoting me alternative economics does not wash.. the lenders don’t believe in them – they live in the real world.

  12. Selohesra

    He means investing – in the same way my wife invests in new handbag

  13. OldLb

    How did the banks cause the deficit?

    For a start, it was caused by people not paying their debts.

    So the state so far has lost 10 bn on Brown’s share trading.

    Osbourne has booked at 35 bn profit on the bail out.

    They have taken 500 bn in taxes from the financial sector.

    Instead, how about having a look at the state’s pensions.


    5,010 bn off the books, Labour legacy.

  14. OldLb


    So explain away why pensions are off the books?

    Where’s the assets for the 5,010 bn pension debt?

  15. OldLb

    So when it goes tits up, its not socialist.

  16. Ads20000

    Sadly Corbyn is a natural leader of protest groups – not a party of government. However, I am much less inspired by Cooper and Kendall than even by Burnham so Corbyn will get my second preference regardless since Labour must reslice the pie as you suggest and only Burnham could do this and still win the next election.

  17. Neil Wilson

    Because pensions are always a current production issue. A certain amount is reserved for those who do not have to work to produce it. That is determined by the income those pensioners receive.

    It’s the whole private pension game that is an illusion. You can’t save bread for 40 years so you can eat it in retirement. It has to be produced as a surplus at the time by the workers working at the time and distributed to the pensioner.

    Swapping tokens between ourselves at ever greater numerical value doesn’t address the real issue of how pensions are actually provided for – workers making things.

  18. Neil Wilson

    “And if you think interest rates will remain low when borrowing rises, you are nuts”

    What’s nuts is thinking they will rise. There is no other alternative use for the Sterling at that point. Anything else you do with it, transitively, causes taxation which reduces the aggregate level of savings and the amount of Gilts issued.

    And as we’ve seen even if everybody hoards cash in a bank, the level of aggregate demand drops so low, that the Bank of England starts hoovering up Gilts via QE.

    So you have no mechanism by which the demand for Gilts will drop faster than its supply.

  19. GTE

    The pension debt tells you how much you need to deprive the workers in the future.

    That’s why its relevant.

    You can then see if there is enough surplus, if any, to hand around.

  20. Neil Wilson

    No you can’t at all. The capitalised nominal value is utterly irrelevant to anything.

    If you have billions of nominal assets and nothing is produced, you can’t buy anything.

    It’s only the income paid to pensioners in the current period that matters. The investment to produce needs to have been done years before.

  21. Iain Fletcher

    The irony is, the language used by the critics of the left is stuck in the decade they claim the left is.

    As far as I see it a new, younger, rational left has risen up backed by access to information, with distrust of Blairism from their younger days, that on the whole came to these conclusions on their own. Funny thing is, in this snowstorm of criticism of left wing policy, I’ve read very little that isn’t speculation and ad hominem attacks. Surely one of the grandees can explain to us in primary colours why the things we think are wrong? Is it that hard? Or does it just boil down to “public = tabloid newspapers + 24% of electorate”? That’s not too convincing to me.

  22. Neil Wilson

    “The pension debt tells you how much you need to deprive the workers in the future.”

    No it doesn’t.

    You are assuming that the workers will be forced to hand over production at a fixed rate.

    You’ll find that there are always more workers than there are pensioners and in a democracy the majority rules – eventually.

  23. Gordon Jones

    Bravo sir Bravo!

  24. Geoffrey Feasey

    It was good to read the analysis. However, as a non-member, yet life long supporter, of the party ( 37 years in the politically-neutral armed services) I would like to learned commentators – with perhaps a hint of prophesy – to consider promoting the idea of offering the voters a team with Jeremy Corbyn as the inspirational, trusted leader backed by a team of manifest competence in economics etc. At present, there is no indication of who might be in the team might be: and Jeremy, alone, is so obviously vulnerable to ad hominem attacks.

  25. Jennifer Hornsby

    Some there are who want to be not richer but less poor. They might be got to see that they’ve no reason to embrace capitalism.

  26. Geoffrey Feasey

    So far, so good. But Jeremy Corbyn, alone, is too vulnerable to ad hominem attacks. Might it not be sensible to present a team to the public, even at this early stage, with Jeremy the trustworthy, inspirational leader backed by a team of manifest competence in economic management, etc? As present, ordinary supporters like me find it difficult promote the prospect of a Corbyn-led government in conversations with some of the deep blue Tories with whom I share Cameron’s constutuency.:

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