I have been a member of the Labour Party intermittently since 1970. I left, like many people, over Iraq, and only rejoined when the 2010 election approached. Now we find ourselves with a real dilemma over the leadership. Three candidates are arguing, in varying ways, that we lost in 2015 because we were too far to the “left” (whatever that means these days – not much to most voters I suspect). For them, we will only win, and thus have the power to change things if we aim for the middle ground – accepting much of the Conservative agenda – but transforming it with a human face.
The alternative is proposed by Jeremy Corbyn, whose position is regarded as extreme left in a UK context (where debate is dominated by a right leaning media). However, his politics would be seen as unremarkable in most European countries. Certainly, I see little which I would disagree with in principle – “austerity” was a deliberate choice, not a necessity. The financial crisis and its sequel has proved that capitalism in its present form is irrecoverably broken, and is certainly incapable of serving the needs of most people. Corbyn’s proposals are quite consistent with the views of many orthodox economists, and represent a step forward, not, as many of his opponents suggest, a step backwards. Although I am passionately attached to the European project, I can understand his reservations about our membership of the EU – if what the EU has done to Greece is the real Europe, I don’t want to be part of it, and the Cameron “renegotiation” is, if it is anything, about pushing it further down that road.!
To caricature, the choice we are offered is between abandoning our principles to gain power, and hoping then to do some good; or saying what we believe and having faith that the electorate will be inspired by a radical vision of the future. Certainly, every time I hear a Labour politician explaining how we must move closer to the Conservatives in order to win power, I lean further towards Corbyn.
My view, after having a few of the 5 million “conversations” of which we were so proud in the election campaign, is that people could not see that we were offering a significant alternative. People were not happy, many were very angry, but saw no evidence that we were offering anything really different. We were too timid to say how bold some of our thinking was, we offered a vast menu of good but confusing policies, and refused to defend the very creditable record of Labour in Government (which included rescuing the economy from a near catastrophe – George Osborne inherited a growing economy, and stopped it dead!).
Corbyn offers a bold and radical challenge to this position. What’s more he has extraordinary charisma and authenticity. Unlike most Westminster politicians, and Labour leaders in the last election, he gives every sign of believing what he says, and because of this he deals with real confidence with the journalists traps. I suspect he would do well in the formal confrontations with David Cameron, and would appeal to many people, on left and right, who are looking for a credible radical alternative. As Laurie Penny commented in the New Statesman “the argument that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable is being made by three candidates who can’t even win against Jeremy Corbyn”.
However, it is difficult to see him as leader of the party. He wants to restore democracy to the party (which I support) but how will he lead such a party when it votes (as its MPs are likely to do), against his plans? What are the risks of a leader with no Ministerial experience? How can a leader with his record of dissent unify a party, especially after a divisive leadership campaign.
I have my ballot paper, but I suspect I will not be the only person who will not be posting it until September