For readers not in the UK, some background. When Ed Miliband resigned as Labour leader after the 2015 election defeat, the election process for a new leader went like this. You needed 35 MPs (members of parliament) to nominate potential successors, and there would then be a contest over a few months before party members got to vote to choose one of the nominated candidates as leader. 3 people got the required number of MPs to nominate them, but the candidate from the left - Jeremy Corbyn - did not have enough MPs. Some MPs felt it would be good for balance to have someone from the left standing, so they switched their nominations in order that he too got the required 35.
From this you will gather that the left of the Labour party is pretty weak in parliament. It was also thought to be weak among Labour party members: the candidate of the left in the elections of 2010, Diane Abbott, received little support from the membership. So the general expectation was that Corbyn - who is not a particularly charismatic speaker - would also get little support this time. This expectation has proved completely wrong: polls put him in front, his meetings have been attracting growing audiences, and senior party figures are now panicking that he might actually win (in a similar manner to the reaction of Republican grandees to Trump winning their nomination).
Perhaps as a result, a few people have asked me to write about Corbyn’s macroeconomic policies - in some cases in the expectation that I would rubbish them, and in other cases in the hope that I would provide support. But the real question people should ask first is why is Corbyn proving to be so popular. It is nonsense to suggest that the Labour party membership has suddenly become markedly more left wing than it used to be. Corbyn’s popularity has much more to do with how the party in parliament has responded to both election defeats.
On issues like welfare, immigration, business or inequality, you can see Labour as having two impulses: one to go with its natural inclination, and another to try and woo the floating middle or working class voter whose views seem to be nearer those of the Daily Mail or Sun respectively (i.e. much more regressive). In terms of policy, this tended to produce either inoffensive emptiness, focusing on small differences from the government, or simple right wing appeasement. But perhaps more importantly, in terms of style it produced a kind of defensiveness where the chief goal of their leaders was to avoid anything that could be used against them by the right wing press. And not without reason: when Miliband gave a thoughtful speech where he talked about how you could have irresponsible capitalism that just went for the quick buck whatever the long term or social costs, he was forever after dubbed anti-business. This resulted in an opposition seemingly devoid of any clear policy message.
The issue of austerity is indicative. Labour have never adopted a clear anti-austerity line, even during the 2010-11 period of acute cuts. This is because they knew that much of the press would label this as fiscal irresponsibility, and that the BBC follows the lead of the press and the financial markets on these things. Their actual proposals in the 2015 elections involved far fewer cuts than Osborne promised, but because they were desperate to appear to be ‘tough on the deficit’, they either gave out a confused message or tried to talk about other things. Crucially, they failed to defend their record in government. As a result of their 2015 defeat, many senior party figures are now suggesting it is best for Labour to essentially follow Osborne’s macro plans.
The reaction of most of the parliamentary party to the 2015 defeat seems to be that the pre-2015 strategy was right in principle but had just not focused enough in placating the marginal English voter, which they believe means more appeasement and shifting further to the right. The party membership seems to have reacted very differently to the 2015 defeat. The membership appears to believe that the pre-2015 strategy has clearly failed, and it is time to start talking with conviction about the issues you believe in. This is exactly what Jeremy Corbyn does: he is a conviction politician, who is not prepared to try and be someone else to win votes.
Does that mean the choice is between arguing for your convictions and losing or trying to appease the right wing press and maybe winning? No, there is a way through this dilemma, but it is a way that is alien to most of those in the Labour party, and that is to spend much more time thinking about political spin. Labour lost the election because they lost the battle of spin. Labour did not lose in 2015 because they were anti-business, but because they were perceived as anti-business. They did not lose in 2015 because they had been fiscally irresponsible in government, but because they were perceived to be. They did not lose Scotland because their policies were damaging to Scotland, but because they were perceived to be.
Again, lets use fiscal policy as an indicative example. Labour lost because they were perceived to have been, and perceived to continue to be, fiscally irresponsible. That perception did not just arise because of a biased press or bad luck, but also because of good political judgement by Osborne and bad judgement by Miliband and Balls. Before the financial crisis it was generally thought popular support for a higher level of public spending was too strong, which is why the Conservatives had pledged to match Labour’s spending plans. But Osborne was quick to see that the recession changed things, because he could attempt to blame Labour for the deficit that was bound to arise as a result of the recession, and use deficit reduction to achieve their political goal of a smaller state. Labour’s counter to this in the first few years of the coalition government was to focus on the stalled recovery, but that in contrast was poor political judgement because eventually the economy was bound to recover, and at that point Labour appeared weak. In addition by failing to effectively challenge the Osborne narrative about the past, Labour lost a crucial battle of political spin.
As I tried to argue here, if Labour is to have any hope in 2020 it has to start attacking Osborne’s unnecessary and obsessive austerity, as well as getting the past history straight. There are also reasons for thinking that the power of deficit fetishism for voters will steadily decline. In that sense, on this issue and perhaps others, Corbyn seems to have an advantage.
But, and it is a huge but, as I have also argued on the deficit, you can only successfully run an anti-austerity line if you have a clear and robust counter to the irresponsible borrowing charge. You do have to reassure enough marginal voters, and as a means to that the non-partisan political pundits that determine the political tone in a lot of the media. It is not clear that Corbyn will be able to do this. Firing up the base, as Corbyn clearly does, is only part of a successful winning strategy. There is a strong danger that he will lose credibility on the budget through overoptimistic claims on tax avoidance or misguided ideas about monetary financing. You will not shift the Overton window on austerity and other issues if your position is too easily discredited. Blair and Brown won in 1997 partly by imposing strong discipline on the party, which collectively gave out a clear set of messages to the electorate.
Part of Corbyn’s problem is not of his making (unless you take a long historical view), and that is his fellow MPs. It was their majority that chose not to oppose Osborne’s welfare bill, which epitomised the disastrous strategy that I have described above. It is very regrettable that two of the three other leadership candidates have refused to serve under him. If, following a Corbyn win, the party united around him in exchange for Corbyn parking some of his less popular policy positions, Labour could once again become an effective opposition. If instead his leadership is accompanied by constant public division within the party, there is a danger that this will overshadow everything else.
It seems very unlikely that Corbyn as leader could win the 2020 election. Perhaps the most optimistic yet still plausible outcome is that the period of a brief Corbyn leadership will be sufficient to shift the centre of political debate (the Overton window) to the left on a sufficient number of issues like austerity. He would then step down to allow a new candidate from the centre left to take over before 2020, and win enough popular support by appearing to be less of a risk and a more natural leader, while retaining key Corbyn positions like a strong anti-austerity line. Whether that would happen I have no idea.
Whether Corbyn wins or loses, Labour MPs and associated politicos have to recognise that his popularity is not the result of entryism, or some strange flight of fancy by Labour’s quarter of a million plus members, but a consequence of the political strategy and style that lost the 2015 election. They should reflect that if they are so sure they know what will win elections, how come they failed to predict the Corbyn phenomenon. A large proportion of the membership believe that Labour will not win again by accepting the current political narrative on austerity or immigration or welfare or inequality and offering only marginal changes to current government policy. On economic policy in particular they need to offer reasons for voters to believe that there are alternatives to the current status quo of poor quality jobs, deteriorating public services and infrastructure, and growing poverty alongside gross inequality at the top. That means, whether he wins or loses, working with the Corbyn phenomenon rather than dismissing it.