Saturday, 15 August 2015

Hoping to be wrong about Corbyn

It looks increasingly likely – to the point where it feels all but inevitable – that next month will see the consecration of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

Corbyn represents a vital ingredient in British political life. The man of principle who sticks to his guns, speaks his mind and maintains pressure on the powerful to stay honest. Or at least less dishonest than they would be in the absence of such scrutiny. One of the principal characteristics of such men, however, is that they never hold authority themselves, but limit themselves to holding authority accountable.

One glance at Corbyn’s track record makes the point clearly: he has voted against his own party’s instructions on 500 occasions. That’s great from the thorn-in-the-side politician, attacking all abuses from a position safe on the backbenches. But a leader needs discipline from his MPs, precisely the kind of discipline that he has, honestly and out of principle, refused to acknowledge.

What’s worse is that many of his positions are unpopular with a large proportion of the electorate. He wants the railways re-nationalised. Now, a great deal needs to be done to improve the state of the railways, but I can’t see how their ownership is the key issue here: I remember the old, dull, bureaucratic, unresponsive British Rail, and I can’t begin to see why anyone would want to go back to those days.

It’s true that the staff might have been better treated. And that’s a crucial point in understanding positions of the kind Corbyn advances: he sees workers exclusively as producers, in this case the railway employees delivering the service, and forgets that far more are consumers, who'd actually like to see a service that is efficient, a lot less expensive than at present and delivered with a smile.

The answer, I think most people would feel, is to find a way to improve conditions for employees, and not just on the railways, and put the financing of the services on a footing which keeps the prices more manageable. Ownership is entirely secondary to those requirements. Certainly, few voters think that state control is desirable, and many would be put off by a party advocating it.

A lot more will come out if and when Corbyn wins. His sympathies with Irish Republicanism, which I regard as legitimate, will be presented as support for the IRA. His past statements about NATO will be cited against him and turned into a warning that if he wins power, the UK will withdraw from the organisation, a prospect that will drive hundreds of thousands into the arms of the Tories. There is even talk of his wanting to re-open coalmines that shut after Thatcher broke the miners’ union – while I regard what was done to mining communities as one of the more shameful acts of her shameful rule, I have also been down a couple of working mines, and wouldn’t wish that working environment on anyone.

So, these are all the issues that leave me feeling that electing Corbyn will make it far more difficult than it already is for Labour to win office again, at least any time soon. The result would be that institutions that I hold invaluable, such as the NHS or the BBC, may well be driven into terminal decline by continued Tory rule.

And yet, I have to admit, I’ve been wrong in my political prognoses before. Simply looking around my local Labour Party, I know the enthusiasm of members for Corbyn is by no means limited to a few hotheads or, worse still, “entryists” sent in by other parties to vote Corbyn for their own nefarious reasons. Good people, intelligent people, back him.

Jeremy Corbyn
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. If I'm wrong. And I hope I am
Could I be wrong in my fears? A suggestion that I might be came in a recent poll which found that, of the four candidates for the leadership, Corbyn scored most highly for being in touch, intelligent, trustworthy and able to beat David Cameron in a TV debate. Why, he even ties with Andy Burnham – on 26% each – as the leader most likely to win the next election.

Interestingly, even amongst voters backing the far-right UKIP, Corbyn tops the poll on 39%. At first sight this may seem odd – right-wing supporters favouring the most left-wing candidate – but there’s no doubt that Labour has bled support to UKIP, and perhaps the cause has been insufficient radicalism: UKIP is certainly radical if nothing else, and though his radicalism is directed to profoundly different causes, so is Corbyn – he’s seen as another way to breach the bubble of complacency and conformism of establishment politics.

Maybe Corbyn will prove me wrong. Maybe he’ll prove a dynamic and mobilising leader. Maybe votes lost to his views and background will be more than made up by those attracted by a new campaigning approach to politics.

I hope that's right and I’m wrong. The alternative’s pretty depressing.


Pa Ca said...

Hi David
'One of the principal characteristics of such men, however, is that they never hold authority themselves, but limit themselves to holding authority accountable.'
If I'm understanding correctly: Yes, it's sad in a way, when people have any kind of integrity it often precludes them from doing anything so distasteful as craving power to the extent that the less integrous (why does this word not have a good accompanying adjective? I'm sure French has one) do.

I'm embarrassingly ignorant on the topic but, in the words of David Mitchell, 'I reckon' that perhaps the railways shouldn't be nationalised but they should certainly be national. Something that runs the length of the country shouldn't be split up into regional companies. Although having a private monopoly would most probably prove worse than having a state one.


Ps. I'm not very good on spotting poetry... Is your caption for the picture poetic? Also, I think you left the last letter off his name in that caption (sorry, aspiring proofreader).

Pa Ca said...

Am I reading his Wikipedia article correctly? He's been the MP for Islington North for as long, give or take a couple of months, as I've been alive?

(Oddly, Blogger is notifying me of posts even if I'm the poster. Useful for any net-savvy goldfish.)

David Beeson said...

Hi Patrick

Yes, French has a good adjective – intègre. We could indeed do with one.

Well spotted on the error – I've corrected it.

Neat point on national but not necessarily nationalised. I'd go with that...

As for "cometh the hour, cometh the man" – I'm not sure where it comes from – it think it may just be a proverbial expression.

Keep well


Pa Ca said...


Yes. It reminded me of la solidarité, versus 'solidarity', '???' so I divined intègre from that but neglected the accent.

Have you heard of Someething New ? A political party set up about 10 months ago. They will never have any elected representation (thanks, Wikipedia, for that phrase) but they have some interesting ideas:

The party is primarily based on the concept of an open-source manifesto,

[...] Something New has no fixed ideology and instead believes in evidence-based policy creation.

Hooray for science.

Hope all is well in Beeson territory


Pa Ca said...

I've noticed a few errors in my own post (and some HTML tags that haven't worked) but I can't see a way to edit the post. Oh, well... :)

osf said...

Hi David,

There's certainly a lot that could go wrong... but for now I'm daring to be more positive about Corbyn - after all, though Burnham and Cooper are good candidates, I don't see either of them having an easy time of winning the next election either.

Corbyn right now is best placed to win back Scotland and the drift to Ukip. But even before that, there's so much vital work that can be done in opposition, and Corbyn with his principles and the movement he's attracted back to Labour just might be able to make a difference.

Obviously there's so much that could go wrong (not least, the fact that everyone is out to get him, including most of his own party), but I'm going to hope that I'm right on this, and you're wrong :-)

All the best, Hakim

David Beeson said...

You're right, Hakim, it's going to be an uphill battle for any leader. I suppose I don't want to make it worse than it already is. The aim has to be to increase the Labour presence in parliament to be a good springboard for next time even if we don't win in 2020.

I agree that Corbyn may well be able to attract SNP and indeed UKIP voters back, and that would be great. I'm just not sure if he won't lose more others than he wins back from them. But I may be wrong – and, like you, I hope I am...

Stephen Milton said...

Corbyn has become the latest ‘anti establishment’ candidate and has tapped into that large reservoir of energetic people who feel that the status quo is unsatisfactory and unsustainable. They are casting around for anything that might offer a plausible alternative – like Golden Dawn in Greece and then Syriza or many of the other extreme left or right wing parties that are gaining traction everywhere.

There is a feeling that we are perched precariously at the edge of a cliff, and these radical solutions offer us the chance to take a great leap forward.

David Beeson said...

Steve, I think your analysis is right. I think it's no coincidence that the surge for Corbyn follows a surge for UKIP so closely – I hadn't thought of the parallel movement in Greece: first Golden Dawn then Syriza. It's radcialism in itself that's being sought.

Taking your metaphor seriously, rather than humorously as you intend it, I suppose a lot of people feel that we need to jump from the cliff to reach the sunlit meadows on the other side. Sadly, such leaps seldom get us all the way across; sometimes, as in the Greek case, they leave us scrabbling for a handhold back on the side we started from; at others thy leave us broken at the moment, as Germany and Russia showed in the last century.

What would prove me wrong would be if Corbyn emerged as some kind of Attlee figure, just radical enough to mobilise people, not so radical as cause great damage. But my problem is that he won't get the chance anyway: if he got 100% of the Labour Party, he'd have 600,000 votes, leaving him about 11 million short. I'm not sure he appeals enough to enough non-Labour activists to close the gap.