Photo: Chris Beckett at flickr.com

Should I vote for Jeremy Corbyn?

In politics, I like to think of myself as principled but realistic. I’m a social democrat, not a Marxist. My political heroes were mostly practical, moderate socialists – intellectual heavyweights for sure, but people who didn’t mind dirtying their hands in getting something done: Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Shirley Williams, François Mitterrand. People who understood the grubbiness of the material world and were prepared to work with it. People who had few illusions about how working people think, or about where extremism can lead.

When I was at university, 25 years ago, I was mocked (in a comradely way) for being the most right-wing member of the Labour club (although, as I remember, I was the only one prepared to join the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, a proscribed organisation in the Labour party at the time). When I left, the committee gave me a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, inscribed with warnings not move further to the right or become any more “careerist” (no worries on that score).

Inevitably, one or two of the wellwishers in that book went on to be leading lights in Tony Blair’s New Labour project. The party moved round me. What I thought of as mainstream social democracy went from being on the right of the party, to the centre and then to the left. Even “Red Ed” Miliband couldn’t put together a coherent social democratic programme – although that had as much to do with lack of confidence as lack of conviction. By about 2000, it was a mark of the hard left to be in possession of, to use Denis Healey’s preferred definition of democratic socialism, “an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions that produce avoidable suffering”.

The definition is, I think, Kolakowski’s. But in his memoirs, Healey went on to expand on his own feeling for what socialism should be:

Socialism emphasises the community rather than the individual, consensus rather than confrontation, public welfare rather than private gain; it puts the quality of life before the quantity of goods. But its priorities are not absolute; it does not deny that the values which it normally puts second will sometimes need to come first, or that it’s opponents may also give some importance to socialist values. 1

Spot on. But that’s Denis Healey, one-time monetarist chancellor and bête-noire of the Labour left in the 1980s. Spout that kind of stuff within earshot of today’s shadow cabinet and they visibly flinch.

Every fibre of my being says I shouldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but the reasons just keep melting away like snow on a hotplate. I think austerity is nuts; Corbyn is the only anti-austerity candidate. I think the NHS has had enough marketisation and privatisation; he’s the only one to rule out any more of it. I’ve always supported renationalising the railways; Corbyn is only candidate to say he agrees (I suspect Burnham and Cooper agree too, but are afraid to say so – hardly a compelling reason to support them). I’m against the cuts in tax credits which, after years of both parties telling people they’d be looked after if they got a job, are cruel and unnecessary. Corbyn is the only candidate who voted against them in the Commons.

Don’t even get me started on the irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

These are not extreme or “hard left” policies. They’re solid, social democratic positions. And I’m willing to bet that they’re shared by a majority, or at least a very large minority, of the British people.

And then, just when I thought I’d found my personal red line, Corbyn ruled out supporting Brexit in the EU referendum.

But, scream Corbyn’s enemies, he can’t possibly win the election! True, all conventional wisdom and experience says it’s very unlikely. (I actually remember 1983). But that argument only holds water if you think any of the other three can win. I don’t.

Liz Kendall is in many ways an admirable candidate, but I’ve already written about how her England-only strategy simply cannot work. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have so far offered little that’s new or interesting. And don’t even get me started on the delicious irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

What passes for Corbyn’s electoral strategy involves winning over non-voters and supporters of the Greens and the SNP. We don’t know if that can work; no one’s really tried it before. Election gurus tell us that non-voters are very hard to mobilise and many people think Scotland has “gone” already. So it looks optimistic, to say the least. But, after an election in which Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP and the Tory vote hardly changed, to say all we need to do is move closer to the Tories is just witless.

The best argument against Corbyn is simply that he isn’t a serious candidate. He doesn’t really want to be leader, still less prime minister. It’s hard to imagine him going up against Cameron at PMQs. He’s too old (71 at the next election). The rest of the shadow cabinet may not work with him. There are some unpleasant people associated with his campaign talking about purging the party. Corbyn himself has taken foolish positions with respect to the IRA and Hamas in the past, which will be ruthlessly deployed against him in the future.

Much more importantly, Corbyn’s policies, attractive as many are to people on the left, don’t add up to a coherent programme for a socialist government. I’m disappointed with Corbyn on policy; I hoped he’d be more imaginative and serious once it became clear he had a chance of winning. Corbyn’s campaign still prefers to chant slogans about the failures of free-market capitalism rather than do the hard work of transforming it into something better for working people. There’s no attempt to develop a serious political strategy that can unite more of the anti-Tory majority around a progressive platform. And I’m still baffled by Jeremy’s reluctance to back electoral reform. (Corbyn is now promising to make his website a forum for serious policy debate. Marina Mazzacuto and Will Hutton’s thinking about an “enabling” or “entrepreneurial” state – refracted into a political programme by Peter Hain – might be a good place to start.)

But if Corbyn’s campaign looks like a protest movement, that’s because it is. It increasingly resembles a typically English, cobbled-together version of the movement against austerity and neo-liberalism we’ve seen in Scotland, Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe. Young people, in particular, are flocking to Corbyn and his campaign seems to be igniting interest and passion in politics in the same way as the Scottish independence referendum did last year. If Corbyn can forge that movement – which stretches from moderate social democrats like me to the far fringes of the Occupy movement — into a political fighting force, that might be better for the left than trying to scrape together a Labour majority from soft Tories and refugee Lib Dems. But that’s a big “if”.

Voting for Corbyn means gambling with the life of the party we love for an uncertain, amorphous return. In normal circumstances I’d never go near it. But these aren’t normal times; across Europe, the future of the democratic left itself is at stake. It might just be worth rolling the dice.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of my Life, London 1989, p 578-9. ↩︎

UPDATE 17 AUGUST 2015: Since this post was published Andy Burnham has announced a plan to renationalise the railways “line by line” as existing operator franchises expire.

7 Comments

  1. Josephine Thomas 6 August 2015 at 9:29 am

    I thought all your comments interesting and pertinent and much in common with my analysis . I will support Jeremy Thorpe because the Party needs the shake -up he is bringing about . 5 years is a long time and we need lively Opposition to Tory Austerity .. As a Leader in an Election ,..
    in 2020. I shall ” wait & see “.
    I would not vote for LIz Kendall. The huge support ,in money & coverage from the Right. ( &. BLAIR ?? ) ….no

    Reply

    1. Thanks Josephine!

      I assume you mean Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Thorpe is disqualified from running on two grounds: for being a Liberal and for being dead.

      Reply

  2. Thank you for this good piece. My concern is that the time to challenge capitalism has come and gone. The conditions for a ‘revolt’ were right in 2008. Corbyn has come 7 years too late and he is destined to fail as a result.

    Reply

  3. Dear Craig, you have articulated everything I stand for and feel about this current contest. I am deeply disappointed that there is no soft left/ social democrat candidate and am having to force myself to accept that Corbyn comes closest, though I still feel uncomfortable about supporting him. Your point about a coalition that stretches from Occupy to Social Democrats is very good. Can it happen? It’s ‘hold on to your seats’ time I think! Thank you again for this excellent post.

    Reply

  4. I would say, leaving policy concerns entirely out of it, that Corbyn is by far the strongest candidate just on a personal level. The word I’ve seen used elsewhere is “gravitas”. He speaks, for the most part, with quiet authority, and he has decades of political experience, albeit not on the front bench. He’s also consistent and personally incorruptible. I believe he can connect with voters in a way the others can only dream of. Polls of the general public seem to bear this out. It might seem like a gamble, but I feel the other three are sure losers.

    Reply

  5. Hi Craig

    I really enjoyed your piece. I’d also class myself as a social democrat (though not a Labour supporter, for other reasons) and have found myself in broad agreement with what Corbyn has to offer. If I was able to vote in the leadership elections, I’d vote for him (with a second vote for Andy Burnham, who out of the other three is most likely to respond to a political wake-up call and realise the nature of the current political landscape).

    BUT:

    A victorious Corbyn needs to play his hand very carefully. It’s fantastically easy for the Conservatives and their tame media to paint him as some 1970s throwback – what he needs to do is focus on the key post-Crash issues AND keep the message simple so in many cases it bypasses the Press completely (New Labour forgets that a large part of its support in 1997 came about because of the public revulsion over “sleaze” – one single word that would stop people voting Conservative).

    Corbin may not want to be Labour leader, but there are many people across the political spectrum who are still seething that the people in finance and business who caused the 2007-08 crash have not been punished and instead it’s the taxpayer that footed the bill for the mistakes of UK plc. And any senior Labour politician that listened to the accusations that they caused the crash by “overspending” and didn’t respond with the truth needs to hang their head in shame.

    In summary – our world has changed since 2008 and I think Corbyn as Labour leader stands the best chance of capturing the zeitgeist for them IF he and his team can keep focus on our economic issues that have arisen post-2008.

    Reply

  6. I suppose it was Corbyn pointing out lunacy of QE for the city started by Gordon Brown (explained well here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4l06RhFoLE4 ) That made a worrying amount of sense to me,

    If he makes it to leader, this kind of information about how at least £850 billion pounds of debt was dumped on us to pay, will be more broadly known, and it’s already had an interesting affect on my centre and centre right friends, who are bewildered by the robbery as much as any one on the left,

    Once there was just capital and labour negotiating – now finance has used its power to print our currency to control everything with debt, get us to pay for their mistakes, and ruin life for both British businesses (only 8% of all lending, also check out SWAPS misselling) and us people, who pay more taxes for less services and pay much more to service their debt, questionable PFI debts (LIBOR fixing affected these) & effective gambling losses, ^oo^

    Reply

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