Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

On Corbyn: What if the rules have changed?

Like many seasoned Westminster watchers I have been somewhat amused by the recent travails of the Labour Party.

There were three candidates of the centre/centre left (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall) all of whom managed to get the requisite number of nominations from MPs (35) to stand in the contest. But there was also a figure that many people had never even heard of who wanted to enter the race. The very left-wing MP for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn.

Enough MPs "lent" Corbyn their nominations in the interests of having a wide debate and hence he also entered the contest.

Since then to say he's been a disrupter to the contest would be a gross understatement. Polls have indicated that he could actually win and the other candidates have been scrabbling around desperately trying to work out how to respond to the rise of the red tide.

Also like many seasoned Westminster watchers I have been assuming that Corbyn has very little chance of winning (despite what the polls say - remember the general election?!) and that if he was to somehow manage to win he'd have absolutely no chance of becoming Prime Minister.

But what if we're all wrong?

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008 I have been wondering when things will change politically. I don't mean in terms of the Tories getting in and implementing austerity or even the coalition (that was bound to happen eventually when the dice fell that way). I mean something much more fundamental. The crisis demonstrated that the way we have our economy (and politics) structured is woefully wrong. The banks took reckless risks with everyone else's money and then when they were standing on the brink the taxpayer stepped in and bailed them out to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds, making a mockery of the term "Moral Hazard".

So far there has been remarkably little actual change in response to this complete and utter failure of our structures, despite the fact that we have all paid the price both literally and figuratively. Growth has been much forestalled, the economy is much weaker than it was before 2008 and many millions of us have had to readjust our longer term plans. But the banks and the institutions that prop them up haven't really changed very much at all.

This is what I mean when I ask if all of us old hands are wrong.

The received wisdom which has seemed to be true ever since Thatcher came to power is that parties, whether of the left or right have to run on the centre ground and also tack towards the direction of the party in power when in opposition (cf Blair in the mid-90s and Cameron in the late 00s). But what if the rules have changed and we just haven't realised it yet? Given how devastating the financial crisis has been, a realignment of politics and a recasting of the rules is actually now overdue. Could it be coming in the form of a 66 year old socialist who can easily be mocked up to look like Obi Wan Kenobie?

However the 2015 general election would appear superficially to contradict this thesis. Didn't the result prove that Labour should have run a more centrist campaign? That's what most of the commentators (including me) have been saying since 7th May.

The truth is the result of the election is a very, very mixed bag and there is a lot of noise which makes it difficult to correctly read any signal that may be contained within it. Firstly there was the UKIP surge which led to them getting 13% of the vote and thus distorting what would have been the results in dozen of constituencies. This affected both Tories and Labour but seemingly more so Labour. There was also the (lesser but still very real) similar effect of the Greens again mostly affecting Labour. Then there was the collapse of the Lib Dem vote which allowed the Tories to capture many more seats than they would otherwise have done. Indeed the Tories increased their vote by 0.8% but managed to get 25 more seats than in 2010 due to these disparate effects. There was also the huge effect of the SNP in Scotland who actually ran on an anti-austerity ticket and almost swept the entire board there.

That still doesn't fully answer what happened with Labour though. They increased their vote by over 1% but actually lost a couple of dozen seats. But by wide consent Ed Miliband was a bad leader. He was uncharismatic, unfocused, chopped and changed during the parliament allowing his shadow ministers to oppose almost all the cuts and then latterly trying to claim Labour could be "trusted" on the economy when he had allowed the Tories to paint them as profligate and set the agenda. On all of these scores Corbyn would be more consistent than Miliband. He is charismatic, very focused and would clearly stick to his line of opposing austerity. He is also a breath of fresh air as Evan Davis pointed out last night on Newsnight after interviewing Andy Burnham (who was typically evasive on various questions as most modern politicians are) Corbyn simply answers the questions. He doesn't faff about trying to triangulate or refusing to accept the premise of the question. Sure, this could eventually trip him up but from what I have seen so far it merely makes him look like he believes what he says and his word can be trusted, unlike so many of his Labour colleagues.

It is also worth noting that in many of the policy positions Corbyn took in the 80s and 90s he has subsequently been vindicated. For example he was in favour of equal marriage and against section 28 when it was not fashionable to be so, he talked to Sinn Fein when the official government line was to claim they were beyond the pale (and dub their voices over with actors on TV) while at the very same time secretly talking to them which ultimately led to the peace process. He is also in favour of policies such as renationalisation of the railways and the energy companies which have high levels of public support. What the political classes try to paint as extreme are actually often fairly popular positions. It is very difficult to read how a leader and a party that fully backed these policies would now fare as it simply hasn't been tried for several decades.

I could be reading this all wrong. In many ways it would be more comforting for me if this analysis is wrong because if it is right then lots of what I think I know about politics and how to follow it is also wrong. Ever since I have been interested in it (and even before that) the rules have been set in stone and those deviating from them have paid a high price.

I just wonder though if we need to prepare ourselves for a shock. At the moment Corbyn is set to win the internal contest. And if he does, perhaps, just perhaps his chances of becoming PM are a fair bit higher than received wisdom would suggest.


The Stigler said...

"He doesn't faff about trying to triangulate or refusing to accept the premise of the question. Sure, this could eventually trip him up but from what I have seen so far it merely makes him look like he believes what he says and his word can be trusted, unlike so many of his Labour colleagues."

But in the real world of politics, that's what you have to do. Burnham has to sell himself to both the floating voters and the majority of the left. If they were honest about their politics they'd say that they support the free market, a bit more distribution than the Conservatives and a decent size public sector to create union jobs. But some unreconstructed socialist doesn't want to hear that and would go running to a Socialist Worker's Party, so they have to do things like throwing the odd bone of socialist programmes at those people. The Conservatives do the same - bit less redistribution than Labour while also trying to keep some of their hardcore on side by throwing something in about the family.

Corbyn is taking the easy choice, perhaps the choice he feels comfortable with, of being honest. But it leads to a narrow band of voters. If the people in Nuneaton or Swindon didn't feel comfortable voting for Miliband, there is no chance that Corbyn can win those seats with his harder left perspective.

Jim said...

The political laws of gravity have not changed. People vote with their self interest at heart, and in a (slowly) growing economy people don't want to rock the boat. They want stability, they want assurance. The last thing floating voters will vote for is someone who represents radical change. We've just seen that less than 3 months ago, you can't have forgotten already. People looked at Milliband, and Cameron, and decided 'steady as she goes'. You really need your head examining if you think those same people will look at JC in 4 years time and say 'Yes, lets throw everything up in the air and give the bonkers guy a go.' Just not going to happen.

What you are seeing is that yes, within the tiny tiny bubble of the Labour movement (relative to the population) JC is more popular than the other nonentities they have to choose from. That says zero about the popularity of JC to the wider voter. We are seeing 'Jez-mania' within a tiny section of society, NOT the wider voter base. If Labour think that their flirtation with JC will transfer to electoral success when faced with a Tory party machine pointing out every little bonkers outburst by him and his supporters over the years, then they are in for a even bigger disappointment than they got in May.

Ask yourself this - who would George Osborne (or whoever is Tory leader into the next election) least prefer to face JC, or say Liz Kendall? JC with all the pictures of him and his Islamic terrorist mates, and being best buddies with the leaders of that Socialism nirvana Venezuela, or LK being all soft focus and reassuring to the middle classes in swing seats?

Tom Mein said...

People will always vote with their pocket in mind. The public sector will always vote labour and small and medium business owners will vote conservative.
Just because people vote for 'No to Austerity', I'm afraid that it does not change the basic laws of economics, if you spend more than you earn it will eventually lead to disaster.

Jim said...

"Just because people vote for 'No to Austerity', I'm afraid that it does not change the basic laws of economics, if you spend more than you earn it will eventually lead to disaster."

As the Greek electorate is discovering.