Monday, 12 June 2017

Corbyn and a Pyrrhic Victory

by Les May

IT's déjà vu all over again.   No sooner has Theresa May reached for the phone book and started to look up the number of the nearest removal company, than the media pundits are telling us just why last Thursday upset all their previous predictions.  Apparently it was the ‘youth vote’ which overturned the apple cart even though they had been telling us for two weeks previously that it was we oldies who were becoming disenchanted with the Tory manifesto’s plans for social care.  Or perhaps it was we oldies after all and whoever coined the term ‘dementia tax’ deserves a medal.

They are making the same mistake that they made after last year’s Referendum: constructing a narrative which suits their prejudices. Having first constructed that narrative they then came to believe it themselves and it would seem, convinced Theresa May to believe it was true.

After the Referendum it suited the media pundits to construct a narrative that it was all Corbyn’s fault that the Remain campaign had lost.  The story was that Corbyn had campaigned half-heartedly and that Labour voters had turned their back on the party and voted in their droves for Brexit.

This suited both the pro-Brexit, anti-Labour Tory press and the plotters within the Labour party who used it as an excuse for getting rid of Corbyn.

But as I pointed out on the Northern Voices blog in July last year this narrative did have the slight disadvantage that it wasn’t actually true. This is what I wrote with reference to Angela Eagle’s leadership bid:

According to an analysis of media coverage by Loughborough University for the period 6 May to 22 June, Corbyn scored 123 media appearances.   Eagle scored 15, one less than Angela Merkel who is Chancellor of Germany!  Alan Johnson who was supposed to be running the Labour party's Referendum campaign scored slightly better with 19.’

‘… 60% of Labour voters supported 'Remain' and 60% of Conservative voters supported 'Leave.  Dumping the blame for Brexit on a few northern towns where Labour had performed well in past elections and ignoring the vast swathes of the country which were solidly Conservative in the election and solidly for 'Leave' in the referendum, won't wash. Check it out on the appropriate maps if you doubt it.’

Political journalists who promoted this narrative live in a different world to the rest of us. Like media pundits and political nerds, they read the party manifestos, we don’t. So they ‘simplify’ things for us by producing catchy phrases:  ‘Comrade Corbyn’, ‘Dementia Tax’ and ‘Millionaire Pensioners’ are just three.  Even the elusive floating voters, vote on impressions. Means testing my winter fuel allowance and my bus pass are what I expect Tories to do. I didn’t read either manifesto.  I vote Labour because I know that in general it will favour the less well off and I know the Tories will favour the wealthy.  And increasingly the very wealthy. Or at least that’s the impression they give.

If as I suggest people do vote on impressions rather than a deep knowledge of policies, Labour would do well not to feel too self congratulatory. Yes, Labour has shown that putting ‘clear blue water’ between it and the Tories is not a recipe for electoral disaster.

But it is equally true that the Tories did what I suggested could happen in my August 2015 NV article ‘Why Burnham, Cooper and Kendall Deserve to Lose’. They ‘fell over their own feet’. I had seen this happen on two previous occasions; in 1964 when Harold Wilson was the beneficiary and in 1997 when Tony Blair was the beneficiary. Macmillan, Major and now May looked shambolic and generated the wrong sort of headlines for just long enough for it to sink into people’s consciousness.

That Blair’s 1997 and later victories were not entirely due to him having ‘made the Labour party electable’ as he and his acolytes would like us to believe was noted in 2015 by Kenan Malik a contributing editor of the New York Times who wrote His election victories were as much the product of the exhaustion of the Conservative Party after 18 years in power as they were of his political acumen’. Essentially his diagnosis was that Labour's 1997 victory was as much to do with the internal squabbles of the Tories as with Blair making the party 'electable'. His critique was that the Blair years failed to provide a long term solution to Labour's need 'to find a new constituency and a new role'.

In response to Malik’s article in I wrote in September 2015:

Although Malik attributes Blair's strategy of 'triangulation', or stealing policies from one's opponents, as being borrowed from Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign it has a much longer and more informative history. The 'post war' consensus which he identifies with Keynesian policies and the use of the state as a lever for social change was based upon 'triangulation' between a 'One Nation' Tory party and Labour. In fact the consensus was also built around a mixed economy, full employment, strong but not overweening trades unions, the welfare state, decolonisation and the Atlantic alliance. Speaking recently on the Parliament Channel Kenneth Clark described the final two years of the Heath government of the early 1970s as 'like a poor man's social democracy'.

So strongly was this the case that
The Economist invented a fictitious figure 'Mr Butskell' when a moderate Tory, R. A. Butler (Rab), succeeded Labour's Hugh Gaitskell as chancellor in 1951. Today the equivalent figure would be 'Mr Camonblair', who may well turn out to be a hermaphrodite.

Butskell and Camonblair are where the two main parties have reached a kind of equilibrium. But those equilibria are poles apart and whether Mr Butskell and Mr Camonblair would be on speaking terms I rather doubt, with Butskell far to the left in present day terms and Camonblair far to the right from a post war perspective. The emergence of Mr Camonblair may be what Malik means when he argues that the division between social democracy and conservatism has gone. If indeed this were the case then the Labour party has indeed outlived its usefulness.

An alternative view is that these two fictitious figures simply illustrate the futility of arguing about where the centre ground in politics lies. The effect of the Thatcher years was to shift 'the centre' far to the right around a new equilibrium. But it was the unravelling of the post war consensus which allowed Thatcherism to emerge. If, as argued earlier, part of that consensus was 'strong but not overweening trades unions', then union militancy in the late 1970s was as much a factor as changes within the Tory party.

Before Blair came to power in 1997 Labour still called itself a ‘left of centre party’. By 2015 his comment on Ed Milliband’s failure to win the election is that his policies were ‘too left wing’.

It is only from a perspective in which the ‘centre ground of politics’ has been shifted grotesquely to the right during the Blair years that Corbyn’s policies are judged as ‘extreme’ by political journalists, media pundits and the ‘Bitterite’ (John Prescott’s delightful term) faction of the Labour party.

Just as the Labour MPs like Roy Hattersley who entered Parliament in the 1960s and John Prescott in 1970, absorbed the milieu of the ‘post war consensus’ and now look like ‘Old Labour’, the Labour MPs who entered Parliament in the Blair years came to believe that his ‘third way’ was the only way to win over the electorate. In spite of the evidence no doubt some still do.

What Corbyn has done in the past few weeks is to show that the division between social democracy and conservatism isn’t yet dead. It appears that a significant fraction of the electorate is willing to vote for a party which promises to implement the sort of policies which the actor Roger Allam described as ‘our brief social democratic blip’. Perhaps Labour has found that ‘new constituency and new role' that Malik thought it did not have.

But let’s not fall into the trap of inventing our own narrative. Corbyn did wondrously well and has shown his policies can win votes, but a Labour led government means doing even better next time. And that may not be too far off.

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