Catastrophe Corbyn

A party that only shouts about inequality is guaranteed to fail


According to some observers Jeremy Corbyn has a more than outside chance of becoming the next Labour eader. Endorsed by UNITE and other, smaller, trade unions, Corbyn certainly enjoys more support than many predicted at the outset of the campaign.

Corbyn’s unexpected prominence provoked The World Tonight to run a piece on the Labour left, one to which I made a rather sceptical contribution). For, that which passes for the Labour left today is, despite appearances, at its lowest ever ebb. Long gone are the days when the Tribune Group enjoyed a membership of nearly 100 MPs and had decent representation in Labour Cabinets.

The left enjoyed its greatest influence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time that saw founding Tribune member Michael Foot become leader and in 1983 present to the country possibly Labour’s most radical manifesto. It was no accident that the left’s greatest influence came at the same time as one of Labour’s deepest electoral nadirs. For, if some see the left as the party’s ‘conscience’, electorally speaking you can have too many principles. 

Jeremy Corbyn was elected in 1983. He joined not Tribune but the Campaign Group of MPs. The left had split over Tony Benn’s decision to stand for the Deputy Leadership in 1981, one many Tribune members opposed. In fact we can trace the decline of the Parliamentary left to Benn’s ill-judged campaign, one that saw his supporters leave Tribune to form the Campaign Group.

The Bennite ‘hard’ left believed socialism would come by persuading voters of the merits of socialism: this would be achieved by ‘campaigning’, in effect supporting trade unionists in any disputes they had with their employers. They argued that Labour’s Front Bench had always been afraid to make the case for socialism. Once the right sorts of leaders were in place, and arguing for socialism clearly and consistently, then the voters would fall into line.

The advent of Thatcherism persuaded the Tribunite ‘soft’ left that the party needed to make some accommodation with what the electorate thought. Electoral math stipulated that if it was to win power Labour needed the votes of more than committed trade unionists, public sector workers, radical feminists, and ethnic or sexual minorities – the groups to whom Benn spoke. That at least was the logic of Foot’s successor, the Tribune MP Neil Kinnock.

His attempt to appeal to those who had abandoned the party was inevitably condemned by the hard left. For their analysis remained as ever it was: Labour’s job was to shape how such voters thought. Indeed, Benn famously saw the terrible 1983 defeat as a victory for socialism, something to build on.

There is now no Tribune Group: Kinnock’s strategy of accommodation meant it lost its distinctive identity to such an extent Tony Blair was comfortable being a member. The Campaign Group is however still with us, just about, with not many more than 10 MPs on its books. Corbyn’s pitch for the leadership reveals how closely he and his colleagues remain wedded to the hard left analysis of the 1980s. For according to Corbyn, Labour should, first, be rebuilt around the unions and, secondly, become a campaigning organization: finally, Labour should oppose austerity with greater vigour than under Ed Miliband.

This would, however, be a catastrophic course for Labour, just as it was in 1983.

If basing itself around the unions in the early 1980s did not prevent the party from electoral oblivion then the result today will be even more disastrous. In 1979 there were 13 million union members: today there are 6.5 million, just one-quarter of the employed, two-thirds of them in the public sector. Many of these people already vote Labour: the party’s basic problem is appealing to those who are not in trade unions.

Calling for the party to become an outward-facing ‘campaigning’ organization is Labour’s version of Motherhood and Apple Pie. Most recently Ed Miliband brought Arnie Graf over from the United States to help him achieve that very end. But while there were some modest signs of progress, they had no measurable impact on the 2015 result. In any case, the idea that the ‘grassroots’ can by themselves alter the perceptions of enough voters in the right kinds of places to win Labour power by 2020, or even beyond that, is fanciful: it flies in the face of a desultory experience that stretches back to the 1930s.

Corbyn’s belief that Labour should campaign more vigorously against austerity is similarly whimsical. The main reason Labour lost in 2015 was that many voters considered Miliband’s programme lacked economic credibility. This belief was the result of numerous misconceptions about the causes of the fiscal crisis, confusions created and sustained by a right-wing press that exploited most people’s basic economic ignorance. Miliband obviously struggled to address this problem.

However, the notion that the party can win back office by simply telling voters they are wrong – even if they actually are – misunderstands the complexity of the dilemma currently faced by Labour.

A Corbyn win will therefore turn Labour’s predicament into a crisis. We do not need to imagine how the media will respond: look at what they did to ‘Red Ed’, someone who Corbyn believes was insufficiently radical.

This has proved to be a very dull leadership election – three of the four candidates basically agree what went wrong in 2015 and there is a broad consensus about what needs to be done. Corbyn offers a contrast, and is a useful reminder that a more ‘pro-business’ Labour party needs also to attend to inequality.

Yet, Labour will only win office if it convinces enough in the electorate it can competently manage the economy, and that means engaging with popular views about the need for austerity. This involves difficult choices and a nuanced strategy – and even then there is no promise of success. But a party that only shouts about inequality – Corbyn’s main issue, despite only 15 per cent of voters thinking it important – is guaranteed to fail.

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History and director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.

Image credit: Garry Knight (CC)/Flickr. This blog is also published on Ballots & Bullets – a University of Nottingham blog

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60 Responses to “Catastrophe Corbyn”

  1. RoyB

    I dont fundamentally disagree with you at all. The point I was trying to establish is that Thatcher only achieved a “landslide” in terms of seats won, not in terms of votes gained, so enabling her to claim popular support for policies for which no widespread mandate existed – much as the current minority government are doing with much lower levels of support than Thatcher managed. We need to focus on the legitimacy, or otherwise, of governments, particularly those pursuing extreme and divisive policies, if we are to garner support for reform of our dysfunctional system. Otherwise, the rogues will continue with the myth of popular support. I suppose I believe that language matters and its best not to cede the pass with unjustified use of terms such as landslide and triumph – another popular favourite. As for Labour’s discomfort, all of the factors mentioned played a part. Which was the most significant is debatable – personally, I think it was the split on the left, and your preference for the Falklands War I think exaggerates the nationalist impact, but that is very much a matter of opinion and judgment, not hard, historical fact.

  2. stevep

    Good point made. Both analyses could be correct. We`ll never know how many voters switched from Labour to the SNP/Liberal alliance post Falklands. It could well be that in 1983, national euphoria pushed the UK electorate to the right and voters who couldn`t stomach the Tories went with the alliance as an alternative. Who Knows?

  3. Jon Stone

    I’m trying to find a date for when this was written – it says ‘yesterday’ at the top, so basing it on that, what does this article actually add to the debate?

    It reiterates an argument that’s been made constantly against Corbyn, but doesn’t address the counter-argument: that is, how do you expect any of the other candidates to fair any better? Who on earth is going to vote for a Labour party that happily embraces the Tory narrative that the economic crisis was caused by Labour’s own incompetence?

    Kendall says that Labour must bow down to what ‘the public’ (ie. about a quarter of them) have signalled through their voting behaviour. In other words, her strategy is to say, “You know what – you’re right. We shouldn’t be in power. We messed up last time and now the Tories are having to clean up after our mistakes. So vote for us in 2020!”

    I’m baffled – what is the attraction of such a party line?

  4. Jon Stone

    Once again, the counter-question that no one in your position seems to want to address: how on earth do you see any of the other candidates fairing any better? Who is going to vote for a Tory-lite party that embraces the narrative that austerity is the result of its own incompetency? Who on earth is going to be even interested in *listening* to a party who’s starting point is that actually, the other side were right all along? Who is going to care about five years’ of niggling points about the managerial minutiae of austerity politics?

  5. tony cripps

    I notice the article neatly ignores the appalling 2 terms of the Blair ‘New Labour’ government, in chasing the popular vote and getting rid of any vaguely left wing policies, Blair indeed did win 2 elections, but then promptly out-toried the tories, Iraq War, PFi, 10p in the £ tax, Academy schools, kepping the anti union legislation, the sanitizing of the MP selection process, the list goes on.

    If our whole outlook is based around what is acceptable to the Billionaire owned Media then let’s just give in now, when has the vast majority of the media ever sided with Labour!

    There are hundreds of thousands of low paid workers nearly all not in unions, working on crap contracts paying high private rents, getting ripped off by gas and electric industries, and Labour has ignored them, Now to me Labour is standing at a junction it can go left back to its roots and try to re-build, or it can turn right back to New Labour and a potential split from the Unions, or it carry carry on ahead and end in obscurity.

  6. RoyB

    Thanks for a reasoned discussion – a rarity on a blog! I’m not sure about direct democracy, it’s very easily manipulated and subject to passing fads and fashions. But I am sure that Labour won’t succeed by trying to appeal to all and sundry on the basis of dubious focus groups and market research. Politics is not washing powder. It thrives on ideas, commitment and even passion. The dull, dry language that passes for much contemporary political discourse is enough to put anyone off, and while I might disagree with much that Corbin says, I at least know what he stands for, which is more than I can say for the others. He doesn’t seem to be a bigot or a zealot, but a rather interesting man who might just engage with the broader electorate and even start interesting them in politics again. At least we’d be offering a real choice and a counter to the “they’re all the same” lobby. Cheers!

  7. Dan

    How the hell did this article get into left foot forward?! There are problems with Corbyn (positives too) but this article is nonsense! Moreover it is either written and published by stupid people or evil people.

    It is an article that ironically wants to convince it’s readers of its opinions which include saying lefties are wrong to want a party that campaigns in order to convince people of their opinions. In fact it argues that the Labour party should simply represent a triangulated view of the electorate; which makes no sense what if the electorate become Nazi like in their views should Labour just simply represent that view? Right Foot Forward can do one!

  8. Frederick Cowell

    By the same token if Labour tries to “out left the Greens and the SNP” won’t voters who voted for them in 2015 just vote for the real thing?

  9. IRejectFPTP

    I agree with Guido. Why would an organisation calling itself ‘Left Foot Forward’ run an article trashing the left wing candidate? Too many agendas, and none are what they seem. Question everything you see, because never have the people of this country had the wool pulled over their eyes as much as they have right now.
    For the record, i’ll vote for a Labour party led by Corbyn and I dont give a damn what anyone else thinks of him

  10. Wilhelm Fakenameson

    It’s almost like it’s a strawman argument…

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