Thanks to the last-minute entry into the Labour leadership race of Jeremy Corbyn, what began as a tedious political sideshow by the party that lost the election now has the potential to become an overdue debate about the kind of country we want to live in.
If the first big lie of the 21st century was Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a yarn spun by the US aided and abetted by New Labour and the second was that too much public spending by a Labour government caused the financial crash, a lie which the three establishment candidates refuse to refute, the third is surely that Labour lost the 2015 general election because it was too anti-business and frightened away the middle class.
That first lie is why politicians have lost the trust of the people, and remains a burden borne by even those Labour politicians who did not support the war, the second lie provided the Tories with the pretext to finish off Thatcher’s attack on the public sector and the welfare state. The third lie, easily disproved by the data, available to those who wish to find it, and by the experiences of Labour activists who were trying to get the vote out, was repeated ad nauseam by the initial candidates to replace Ed Miliband. Taking their cue from the New Labour figures that sniped at and undermined Ed Miliband right up to Election Day, they ruthlessly established the narrative that what caused Labour’s defeat was Miliband’s partial, flawed, but real attempt to distance Labour from the Blair-Brown years and to tackle inequality. Attempts to be more like the Tories presented a surreal spectacle to those voters, particularly Labour voters, who had not turned out, or as protest, voted for UKIP, because they thought Labour and the Tories were too much the same.
Liz Kendall represents the distilled essence of Blairism: the abandonment of any social-democratic project and the capturing of the political process by the interests of business. Her pronouncements of the need to ‘balance the books’ are indistinguishable from the economically illiterate prescriptions of Osborne. There’s precious little of the political tightrope walking, known in polite circles as triangulation; her campaign is not that complicated! Who needs trade union backing when you’ve got the Sun? It’s missing the point, however, to label her as a Tory, as some do. In a way, she’s worse than that. She genuinely believes that what she advocates is what a Labour government should be doing. In that sense her campaign is a product of the political degeneration and the hollowing out of the Labour party since the 1990s, although no doubt she’d prefer to be called the ‘modernising ‘candidate
Cooper and Burnham, on the contrary, are busy triangulating themselves into a frenzy. Both are incapable of uttering a sentence which does not contain ‘aspirational’, code for ‘rich’ and not, it appears, the millions of peoples’ aspirations to have a home they can afford, a route into a secure employment and good public services. Tacking right and then ‘left’, both admit that all is not well with the world, while frantically back-pedalling from their former leader’s modest attempts to do something about it. Both have been booed at hustings when they have refused to commit themselves to opposition of the benefit cap, a policy so open to challenge (large benefit payments are made to buy-to let-landlords and to top up the earnings of those on poverty pay) that failure to oppose it is an admission of political cowardice; no wonder Frankie Boyle referred to candidates talking like hostages!
Corbyn’s entry has changed the dynamics of the contest. Having an opponent who says what he believes is an obvious challenge to the ‘triangulators’. Burnham, in particular, must be tying himself in knots. On the one hand it relieves him of the burden of being ‘Red Andy’, but on the other, it limits his chance to use his undoubted communication skills to hone his well-used ‘northern man of the people’ routine, to convince socialist in the party, with an nod and a wink, that he’s really one of them.
More fundamentally Corbyn’s entry means that that the discussion ceases to the one about the details of ‘austerity lite’. Corbyn is opposed to austerity, he supports council housing, public services a living wage, rights at work and trade unions; he is for the defence of the environment and he has a longstanding opposition to nuclear weapons and the Iraq war. Add into the mix the fact that non-members can pay £3 to become supporters and we could have less a leadership campaign than a movement.
The ‘Overton Window’ is a term sometimes used to describe the range of ideas which, in a democracy, are regarded as electorally acceptable. The window may be pushed one way or the other according to circumstance. In the UK, the Overton Window has over the past 35 years been pushed to the right by the Tories, their outriders and sections of the media, notably News International. When in power New Labour did nothing to move it back to the left. By 2015 the three main Westminster parties had converged on political terrain which 40 years ago would have been the property of free market zealots and cranks: the privatisation of water and fuel, the assumption that a roof over your head meant getting onto the ‘housing ladder’ and a lifetime of debt, zero hours contracts, academy schools run by big business, and so on. None of it really works, of course, except for those who get rich as a result. The opprobrium heaped on Ed Miliband was the result of his modest attempt to take on this tyranny of what Tariq Ali has called the “extreme centre”. The same will no doubt be visited on Jeremy Corbyn, if he has any chance of winning.
The media, which generally inhabits the same Overton Window as the politicians, is already having difficulties in dealing with Corbyn’s campaign, as shown by the inane question on Channel 4 News: ‘Was he to the left of Karl Marx?’ It’s not that the journalists are thick, or, necessarily, even consciously biased, it’s just that many of those who entered the profession in the last 20 years lack the personal or professional hinterland to be able to understand properly what Corbyn’s campaign is all about.
Most of the population doesn’t share the elite’s Overton Window. It is consistently to the left of what were until May 7th the major parties on issues such as council house building and the renationalisation of rail, energy and water. It is true that those same people have concerns about immigration and many of them , apparently, support the benefit cap, because no Labour politician has had the guts to take on the right on the those issues. Corbyn is doing that.
Can he win? He’s been regarded by the media and the New Labour establishment as a quirky addition to the contest, albeit a quaint throwback to our recent past, but when people actually start listening to him, his life could be made very difficult indeed. Others, New Labour-loving media grandees such as John Rentoul. Martin Kettle and the increasingly poisonous Dan Hodges are queuing up to make it clear that he cannot, or must not win. Some Labour activists are saying they like him but he won’t win an election. Should their choice be dictated by ‘head or heart’?
It’s a false dichotomy. A party standing on an anti-austerity ticket did rather well in Scotland on May, 7th and only by opposing austerity and outflanking the SNP from the left can Labour win again in Scotland. As for the rest of the UK, campaigning on the basis of ‘austerity lite’ ‘or ‘cutting too far too fast’ wasn’t exactly a sure-fire election winner, was it?
If he does win, it won’t be ‘business as usual’ in the Labour party – or anywhere else, for that matter – and, even if he doesn’t, we may have another Scotland on our hands: a movement out of the control of the professional politicians and the uncomprehending media. Let’s hope so.