SUCH HAS BEEN was my sense of déjà vu this summer that, reading the results of this poll in the Independent, I didn’t immediately clock that it dates from last year’s leadership contest, not the 2016 remake. Still, I don’t see any compelling reason to think the poll’s findings – that the public actually agree, by quite large margins, with many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies – will have changed much if the questions were asked today (as long as you don’t tell people they’re Jeremy’s policies, of course).
This has been true for a very long time; people are, on some things at least – the old core Labour things, like wages, public transport, fair taxes, free education and so on – more left wing that the media gives them credit for, or the public’s voting record would suggest. It only tells half the story of course: voters have quite a few policy positions – on welfare, immigration and crime, for example – which Jeremy wouldn’t like at all.
But, these are big policies and they are mostly popular ones. The problem for Labour, as it was for much of the 1980s, is that popular policies only get you so far (as, in a different way, UKIP are finding out now). They can easily be trumped by other considerations. To put it bluntly, even if people like your policies and your principles, they won’t vote for you if they think you’re going to cock it up. At the moment, the voting public think Jeremy will cock it up.
They won’t vote for you either if some of your policies are so unpopular they eat your popular policies for breakfast. If voters think you’ve spent too much time hanging out with terrorists, are soft on Islamic State or will leave the country defenceless, they won’t give a toss about your policies on nationalising the railways, workers’ rights and taxing the rich. Maybe people are wrong to think those things about Jeremy but, like it or lump it, a lot of them do.
Jeremy Corbyn’s big win last Saturday was a triumph for defiant hope. I didn’t vote for him and, with the best will in the world, I can’t pretend to think he’s going to win the next election. But we might still be able to avoid disaster, and pave the way for a more left-wing Labour government in the future, if we can deal with those damaging perceptions – naivety, flakiness and suspect connections – so those popular policies can get a hearing. Too many voters, especially those who have been around for a while, think Jeremy lives in cloud-cuckoo land. He needs to do something about that.
Those of us who didn’t vote for Corbyn need to do something about it too. A split would be self-indulgent and suicidal, and wistfully dreaming that Corbyn might be somehow still be unseated before the election shows a beyond-Corbyn level of naivety. And it’s no use complaining about how it’s “a different Labour party” now. How many of us, meeting someone left-wing in the last 20 years have told them to get involved with the Labour party instead of moaning about it? Now they have. We have 600,000 members, we’re the largest political party in Europe – we need to do something with that.
(By the way, can we find a satisfactory label for Labour people who aren’t Corbynistas? I won’t accept “Blairites” because most us are not, but “moderates” won’t do either as it wrongly implies all Corbyn supporters are “extremists”. “Realists” might be better but sounds a bit grubby and compromising. I’ve settled on “social democrats” here, but I know there are David-Owen-shaped problems with that too. Maybe the search for a label of any kind is part of the problem.)
The American economist Paul Krugman seemed right to me last year when he said the crisis in the Labour party is as much about the “strange, sad moral and intellectual collapse” of Labour’s social democrats as it is about a resurgence of the hard left.
If we’re going to save the Labour party from becoming an irrelevant sect, Labour’s social democrats need to be the bridge between the Corbyn left and the voters. We have begin all over again the hard work of making democratic socialism popular again by reinventing it for the 21st century.
Rather lazily, we social democrats were content to deal with the apparent popularity of Thatcherism by just accepting most of it, rather than by renewing social democracy as a popular political force. We talked about it, sure – I remember David Miliband talking about it constantly – but I’m hard pressed to see any real politics that came out of it. In the end, the “third way” just amounted to watering down Thatcherite ideas and sticking a red rose on the packaging. If globalisation and financialisation has done for Thatcherism – and I think it has – it has brought social democracy down with the creed it tried to hitch itself to. Social democracy has ceased to be a distinctive set of ideas and all over Europe it is in massive retreat as a result.
But look at that list of popular Corbyn policies again. These are solidly social democratic positions which are popular, but we’ve been running scared of them. I understand why practicing politicians were so cautious during the Blair-Brown-Miliband days, but why was there so little thinking behind the scenes? Why have we been caught on the hop by seismic political developments which have actually been brewing for over 30 years? Many of us got involved with politics because we hated Thatcherism, and in that time Thatcherism has produced a society that even Thatcherites don’t seem to like very much. We were right, but we never had the confidence to develop a popular alternative.
This what the serious politicians in the PLP and Labour think tanks are supposed to be doing. I suggest the PLP and those of us who support their aims (if not their cack-handed methods) pack in the the sniping, the plotting and the silly toy-town politics they learned at university 25 years ago (if for no other reason than because they’re not very good at it – who triggers a coup that’s unlikely to succeed without a plan B?) and knuckle down and do some hard work on policy – and, just as importantly, coming up ways to make social democracy make sense to working people in the 21st century. We’re supposed to be the people who are serious about this stuff. Let Jeremy handle the protesting and campaigning. He’s good at that.