I’ve been inspired to write this after reading Mark Fiddaman’s hilarious satirical take-down of the anti-Corbyn camp. There’s been a lot of doom-mongering, so this is my attempt to separate the rhetoric from the facts.
The case against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid seems to be based on certain implicit assumptions made by those who remember politics in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Of course the thing about implicit assumptions is that some people (like anyone born later than 1980) might not actually know that you have them. So this is what I think Tony Blair, and his ilk, are implying when they say that voting for Jeremy Corbyn is not a good idea:
- That the primary purpose of the Labour Party must be to make itself electable, rather than being a pressure group in perpetual opposition.
- That the way in which Labour won in 1997 is the only way a Labour government is ever going to get elected.
- That this way of winning is primarily about securing the votes of enough floating voters in certain key marginals, and if this means ditching traditional Labour policies and alienating traditional Labour voters, so be it, because it’s the floating voters who will determine the election result.
I’ve heard various people dismiss the Blair/ Campbell emphasis on being electable as “only being interested in power for power’s sake”. Well, yeah, but… I guess it all comes down to what the purpose of being a politician is. I mean, if you just want to organise petitions, attend rallies, contribute to debates and the like, frankly you might be better suited to working for 38 Degrees. Surely there needs to be certain people within the Labour movement who are genuinely motivated by the business of winning elections and turning policies into laws. Without them, the entire movement is just a pressure group. I think we need to stop being sneery about politicians who are interested in politics. Granted, the parliamentary Labour party could do a lot better at engaging with the grass roots – but at the same time, I don’t think we should blame the politicians for essentially just trying to do their job.
So on the whole I agree with implicit assumption number 1. What about 2: That the way in which Labour won in 1997 is the only way a Labour government is ever going to get elected?
Well… the Labour victory in 1997 was of course the first time they’d won for 18 years. The conventional wisdom (ie right wing politicians and right wing media) would have us believe that this was because Labour had finally moved closer to the centre ground and cast off unpopular socialist policies like Clause 4. While it’s true that Labour had become more centrist by 1997, correlation is not the same as cause and effect. By that I mean, Major’s government was so corrupt, inept and unpopular that they might equally have been beaten by a more traditional Labour campaign. Thatcher didn’t win in 1983 and 1987 just because Labour was too left wing. The Conservatives got about 13 million votes in 1983. At the same time the left wing vote, which was split down the middle between Labour and the SDP/Liberal Alliance, totalled about 17 million votes.* And of course, a divided Labour movement perhaps wasn’t totally focused on election results.
The popular assumption is, of course, that Labour won in ’97 because they realised that the world had moved on and adapted their policies to suit the 1990’s not the 1970’s. It’s ironic that the people who make this claim don’t seem to realise that 1997 is now 18 years ago and that maybe the strategies of ’97 aren’t quite right for 2020. Look at how newspaper sales have declined in the 21st century, and the parallel rise of social media. The strategy of cosying up to Murdoch may still work for a few more years, but the proportion of the electorate who buy his newspapers is declining, while the proportion who get their news from peers on social media is increasing. We might not see the full impact of this change by 2020, but I wonder: by 2025 or 2030 will Jeremy Corbyn’s grassroots activism still seem like harking back to the old days, or correctly anticipating future trends?
So on the whole I disagree with the idea that it’s got to be ’97 style or else electoral oblivion. To keep this blog a readable length I’m going to address point 3: that winning is primarily about securing the votes of enough floating voters in certain key marginals in a follow-up post . If I haven’t bored or infuriated you with my ramblings (or even if I have!) leave a comment and let me know, and check my next post in the next day or so.