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Catastrophe Corbyn

By Steven Fielding.

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 

Published inBritish PoliticsLabour


  1. Anon Anon

    As a recently-joined Labour member who will be voting for Corbyn, it’s depressing to see the same old being trotted out here: a lot of rhetoric about why he, as a leftist, would be a disaster, but nothing about policies or any of his stated positions. It’s no wonder the left can’t win, despite having more popular policies, with the constant barrage from the right-wing press and assorted pundits trying to paint anyone to the left of Blair as some kind of latter-day Lenin.

    But that’s not going to change any time soon, and what with the proposed boundary changes and attacks on Labour’s funding, the best we can do is to resign ourselves to a decade or two of Tory government. In the mean time, we may as well be a proper opposition!

  2. “that means engaging with popular views about the need for austerity”. For those taken in by the sophistry of this piece, Professor Fielding means ‘accepting an entirely ahistorical narrative on the economy; one established by the Tories, supported by the media, and largely unchallenged by Labour’.

    Worse still, the author not only recommends that Labour accept this false narrative, but that it should also pursue “difficult [policy] choices”, by which he evidently means ones that involve immiserating wholly innocent – and mostly weak, poor, and vulnerable – people who played absolutely no role in a financial crisis that led to £1.3Tn of private debt being transferred on to the public balance sheet.

    We already have a government administering the bitter ‘medicine’ Fielding recommends. Offhand, it’s hard to see millions of voters opting for a second-rate Tory administration when they’ve a first rate one in No.10.

  3. Jonathan Biggins Jonathan Biggins

    I do get sick of the repeated myths about 1983. What do we think really lost Labour the 1983 election, a too left wing programme or the Falklands War and the disloyal Right moving to form a new party?
    The march of Kinnock in his quest to “modernise” (reduce party democracy) lead Labour on to lose in 1987 and 1992. He gave up on what he believed in and was then never trusted.
    After 18 years of Tory rule it was hardly a surprise people wanted change, and in the early days Blair set out a vision of hope – we subsequently found out what that soon amounted to.
    Corbyn has that hope but he has the policies to match. A real person, distinct from the machine politics people have become so disenchanted with.

  4. Matthew Rendall Matthew Rendall

    Labour faces a dilemma–that certainly true. Once ideas attain the status of ‘common sense’, any attempt to challenge them risks having the challenger written off. But if you try to build your case within the hegemonic discourse, what hope do you have of changing it? I’d be interested in Steve’s thoughts about how somebody who wants social democracy and nuclear disarmament *should* vote in the next election.

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