While we wait for the results, let’s just run through some of the reasons not to vote for our man Corbyn. He’s an accidental front-runner; he only stood in the first place to broaden the debate and make sure that somebody was standing from the Left. He’s a life-long backbencher with no experience of holding a ministerial or even a shadow ministerial role; he’s got no following in the parliamentary Labour party and very few allies; he’s never had to win over people who don’t like him or defend policies he doesn’t agree with; he’s always had the luxury of saying what he thinks and voting for what he believes in. On top of that lot, he’s not glamorous, he’s getting on a bit, and he tends to talk in sentences and think in paragraphs; ask Rowan Williams how that worked out for him. Plus, of course, he’s a serious and committed anti-imperialist and has been for some time, which inevitably means sitting around the table with some fairly unpleasant people. We may take the long view on this one, and I think we probably should (“The story of the British Empire is that one begins as a terrorist and ends up by having tea with the Queen.” – Tony Benn); we may also take the view that anyone who’s been to a G20 summit has sat around a table with people guilty of far worse. But hostages to fortune there have certainly been; when the Murdoch press starts digging, they won’t have to dig very deep.
Some of us (hi Phil!) have weighed all of this up and decided to vote tactically. But an awful lot of people have gone for Corbyn and stayed with Corbyn. I’m guessing he’ll end up under 50% on first preferences, but not by much; I think the third round will decide it, and I don’t think it will be close. This, when you look at that first paragraph, is hard to explain. I also suspect that quite a few Burnham or Cooper voters will turn out to have given their second preference to Corbyn rather than Kendall – so much for ‘ABC’; that would be really hard to explain. So: what’s (probably) going on out there? There are lots of reasons why somebody might have leant towards Corbyn from the outset, but why have so many people rallied to him, and stuck with him, despite all of the above? Why Corbyn, given everything we know about Corbyn?
1. Because Fuck You
Sorry about the language, but it has to be said. Here’s a very mild example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, from the desk of John Prescott:
Hello comrade! (We can still say that can’t we?)
I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and be brief.
This leadership election is nearly over, and it looks like it’s down to a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham.
I was glad I encouraged MPs to nominate Jeremy to get him into this race because we really needed a debate on Labour’s future.
And what a debate it’s been! People are flocking to meetings, our number of members and supporters has tripled and there’s a buzz about Labour again.
But now you need to decide who’s the best person to lead us back to power in 2020.
Spoiler: not Jeremy.
“What a debate it’s been,” indeed. But now, well… come on, lads, you’ve had your fun… I don’t mind this quite so much from Prescott, who is at least expressing support for one of the candidates (“Andy Burnham”, apparently – no, me neither). But the message from some of Labour’s great and good has been one part condescension, one part indifference to the actual result of the election (as long as it’s not Corbyn) and one part ill-disguised panic at the thought that the grown-ups might not have it all their way. It’s not a persuasive combination. Think of Tony Blair’s disastrous interventions: first mocking Corbyn and his supporters, then pleading with us, then finally acknowledging that we hate him – and pleading with us anyway. Or Peter Mandelson, tutting about how regrettable it is that so many people have piled into the party to vote for Corbyn, then – in the next sentence – saying that what Labour really needs is a leader who can attract people to the party. Or Tristram Hunt actually recommending an ABC vote: You know that candidate who says that all the others are the same? What you need to do is vote for anyone but him – doesn’t matter which one; in fact why not vote for all of them, just to be on the safe side?
I mean, really, how dare they? How dare they tell us who we can’t vote for? How dare they assume that supporting Corbyn isn’t a rational choice made by adults, but some sort of emotional spasm, from which we can be awoken by the calm words of Very Serious People? Who do they think they are?
So that’s reason #1; I don’t think it’s the main reason (for me or anyone else), but I do think it’s there. At some level, having listened to the Very Serious People, I’m sticking with Corbyn because fuck you.
(I do apologise for the language. And not you, obviously, dear reader – unless by some bizarre train of events this post has come to the attention of Blair, Mandelson or Hunt.)
2. Because If Not Now, When?
This, I think, captures something that a lot of us thought at the time of the vote on the Welfare Reform Bill. We have, after all, tried moving Right with New Labour; they had a good old go at the helm of government, and what they did there doesn’t all bear thinking about. We’ve tried stealth radicalism – playing Grandmother’s Footsteps with the media, shuffling to the Left while trying to look rooted to the spot and exude statesmanlike responsibility. (No wonder Ed Miliband always had that startled look.) It doesn’t work: the Left hated the presentation, the Right didn’t buy the policies and the public thought he was trying to put something over on them. It is, surely, our turn. To be told instead that it was time for New Labour Part Deux – and that this would involve moving even further Right, to the extent of dismantling New Labour’s own achievements in government… no. There is surely a time to stand and fight – to say what we actually believe in and try to win people round. And if it isn’t now – when?
There’s another aspect of this. Pace John Prescott, I am aware that there’s an election in 2020. To put it another way, I’m aware that there isn’t another election before 2020. If there was an election in the next nine months, say, I would be panicking: that would be plenty of time for enemies of the new leadership to run around getting their traps laid, but not enough time for cooler heads to prevail. But we’ve got the best part of five years to get this right. Plenty of time to bring people on board, build bridges and develop working arrangements, and plenty of time to exert pressure on anyone who still needs pressure exerted – but also plenty of time to oppose the government, build the party and leave the country in no doubt about what Labour stands for. There are good and bad times to change the leader of the Opposition; this, I think, is a very good one.
3. Porque Ahora Somos Tantos
One of Victor Jara’s songs of revolutionary optimism, “El hombre es un creador”, is sung in the character of a handyman – someone who’s never known anything but work, and can turn his hand to pretty much anything (“I’ll put the flavour in your wine, I’ll let the smoke out of your factory”). After several verses of good-natured boasting, the song concludes with a sudden pull back and out: “But now I’m standing tall and ready to lend a hand – because now it’s not just me, now there are lots of us”. If one man can do just about anything, the song says, just think what we could all do…
This is not a pre-revolutionary moment: the Left in the Labour Party and in the unions is very weak, and (more importantly) so are the unions themselves; levels of industrial action are still at historic lows. But it’s impossible to look at the success of Corbyn’s campaign – public meetings packed out up and down the country – and not think that now there are lots of us – and something’s happening here.
Or rather, that there are lots of us and we’re doing something – and that in itself makes a pleasant change. Younger readers may be surprised to hear that this was once quite a left-wing country, all things considered: I grew up in a country with publicly-owned utilities, local authority-run bus services, government consultation with union leaders and a 33% base rate of income tax, among other things. Prescriptions were free, you could claim the dole if you were out of work – that was what it was for – and there were no beggars; I was eighteen when I first saw someone begging in the street, and that was on a trip to Spain. In the mid-70s the Right embarked on a massive and determined effort of agenda-setting – changing what was politically thinkable, changing the common sense of the country – and it’s worked beyond their wildest dreams. The Labour Party’s responses have been variously
- to deny it’s happening and take a high moral tone about how the voters know best
- to admit it’s happened but take a high moral tone about being realistic and starting from where we are
- to admit it’s still happening but feel helpless to do anything about it; and
- to join in
(You know how New Labour prided itself on being ‘modern’ and not fighting old battles? That’s what that was about.)
What we’ve seen in the Corbyn campaign, quite unexpectedly, is a sustained attempt at agenda-setting from the Left. Quietly and without any fuss, the Corbyn campaign has been pushing the boundaries of political common sense back towards the Left – or rather, back towards what was the uncontentious political centre ground, in the 1970s and 80s. To say it’s a refreshing change is an understatement: it’s positively liberating. I don’t know what’s going to come of Corbyn’s plans to revitalise the party and democratise policy-making, or how many supporters will actually join the party. But something has at least started to happen, and it’s a good thing to be part of.
But none of these is as important as the last one:
4. Because it’s nice to hear somebody talking a bit of sense
If that sounds a bit too populist, we could go with
4. Because it’s nice to be dealing with somebody who’s a competent politician
– it comes to much the same thing.
It seems to me that there are four very simple, fundamental steps to take when drawing up policy on an issue or reacting to a government initiative. First, check for ignorance and misrepresentation: however worried people are about immigrants from Belarus, if there are no immigrants from Belarus there is no need for measures to control Belarusian migration. Similarly, if the government proposes a Free Beer Bill which includes measures to ban the sale of beer, supporting it would not be a good idea. And if the government proposes a Welfare Reform Bill whose effect will be to make a lot of working people poorer, failing to oppose that is not a good idea – even if lots of people don’t realise it will make working people poorer and consequently think it’s a good idea.
Second, if it’s a question of responding to what people want, check for other-directed preferences. In other words, check whether they want something because it’ll be good for them, or because it’ll be bad for other people and they like that idea. If it’s the latter, it doesn’t matter how many of them want it – they don’t have any right to want it, or to have their desire to see other people suffer taken into account. Ethically, it doesn’t matter that the majority can outvote the minority, if what the majority want is to hurt the minority. (This isn’t an absolute rule: it’s possible to imagine a situation where a minority is favoured so lavishly that it would actually benefit individual members of the majority to end their privileges. Imagine the tax arrangements in a certain country being set up to extract 50p a day from every taxpayer, all of which was then donated to a single family; in this case taxpayers would have good cause for resentment of the parasites living the high life at their expense. But this is an extreme and unlikely example.)
Third, quantify. Benefit fraud is a real problem – of course it is: there are greedy people and liars in all walks of life (even politics), and it’d be ludicrous to expect people who are actually hard up to set an ethical example to the rest of us. But how big a problem is it? In particular, how big a problem is it compared to other problems that we could tackle instead?
Fourth, beware making matters worse. Will the cost of intervening outweigh the savings? Will more people suffer if you intervene than if you don’t? It’s always possible for the government to intervene; it’s not always a good idea.
These are very basic principles. What’s been really heartening about the Corbyn campaign is that he’s stuck to them: in every policy area he’s shown awareness that some problems are bigger than others, that governments don’t always tell the truth about what they’re doing, that government policy sometimes creates its own problems and that people’s ignorance and punitive urges shouldn’t be indulged. So he hasn’t stayed within the terms of debate set by the government and their friends in the media, or the rolling agenda set by whatever the papers say the polls say the people say they’re worried about; equally, he hasn’t wheeled out the old socialist verities in a comforting wuffly voice, or denounced the machinations of imperialism in tones of blood and thunder. He’s just talked sense – realistic, logically argued, morally decent sense – much more consistently and on a much wider range of issues than the other candidates. This gives him a certain populist anti-system appeal at the same time as, ironically, making him a much more effective politician: how are you going to get anything useful done, after all, if you’re committed to kicking unpopular minorities and throwing resources at unsolvable non-problems?
Because he’s talking sense; because this campaign’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be, and we might actually be getting somewhere; because it’s time we had a go, and we’ve got a few years to get things in shape for the election; and because… well, thankyou, Tristram, thankyou, Mr Tony Blair and thankyou, your Lord Mandelship, but no thanks. For all of those reasons I voted for Jeremy Corbyn.