New Year messages from Jeremy Corbyn bode ill for a broadly based, inclusive, progressive coalition (whether within or beyond the Labour Party) as the way to achieve major reform of our economy and national priorities.
For example, in a new year tweet he says “Let’s make 2017 the year we come together to take on the establishment and build a Britain for all.” So the named enemy is the establishment. If the term means anything, that must include the Queen, the Church of England, other church and faith leaders, the senior ranks of the armed services, the security services and the police, the House of Lords, the Judiciary, senior civil servants, the upper ranks of business organisations and professional bodies of all kinds. Many charities are part of the establishment. Many head teachers across all sectors of education are part of the establishment. Does he really want to “take on” this lot? Might it be that important segments and individuals in this capacious category should be part of the solution, not lumped crudely together as the problem?
Nor is this a flash in the pan. In his scripted New Year Message, he says that he understands why people voting for Brexit didn’t trust politicians nor the European Union because “I’ve spent over 40 years in politics campaigning for a better way of doing things, standing up for people, taking on the establishment….” And no doubt we are given to understand that among “the establishment” that he kept “taking on” was the Labour Government and his own Parliamentary Party against whom he rebelled so frequently.
But it is not only the whole establishment in the cross-hairs. It’s the political system itself. “Every day”, says his New Year message, “I see the political system letting down the people of this country”. The Westminster decisions that, he believes, result in homelessness or low pay and insecurity in the economy, are ascribed not just to bad policies or a bad Government. Corbyn names the political system itself, along with the establishment, as the guilty parties. Not so long ago, in similar sweeping language, he blamed the “failed economic and political model” (see my blog of 14 November 2016 “Corbyn’s sweeping talk post Trump”).
Maybe Corbyn and his advisers have a deterministic vision that popular disillusionment with politicians, the Westminster and Whitehall elite, the political system, the whole establishment and the economic model is an ever-swelling historical tide that will lead a bottom up Labour Party, accountable to its own progressive membership, resembling an unstoppable social movement, to sweep all before it?
There have been so many political upsets that nobody can completely discount another one. But here are some of the snags with this way of thinking.
Firstly, it doesn’t seem to be working yet outside the Labour Party membership. A YouGov poll in December put the Conservatives on 42% and Labour on 25%, the lowest since 2009 and the lowest while in Opposition since 1983. An ICM poll gave the Conservatives a 14 point lead. An Observer poll was better for Labour, but still gave the Conservatives a 7 percentage point lead overall with far higher leads on most subjects including the economy, the EU, Brexit, immigration and (by 37%) terrorism. Moreover, Corbyn should be careful about claiming to understand popular distrust of politicians when according to the same Observer poll he is trailing Theresa May by 16% to 42%.
Secondly, History is a notoriously fickle ally. Nearly all of those who believed that they were riding irresistible tides of history ended up beached and broken. Labour has to make its own history the hard way. Moreover, truckling to populist prejudice, eg distrusting the politicians to a ludicrously unfair extent, or rubbishing the political system, or the whole establishment, is a risky tiger to ride because that suits a lot of nasty populists of a different political stripe.
Thirdly, if you frame yourself as a campaigner outside the establishment and the political system, you have a credibility problem if you claim to be an effective Government in waiting. Being a good Government requires different skills and temperaments from being a popular campaigner decrying the whole system.What prospect is there of making Government work for more of the people if you describe both the political system and the whole establishment as the enemy? Perhaps the opinion polls are reflecting the perception among the people at large that they want their Government and Prime Minister to be able to work with the levers of power, make the economic and political system work better rather than rubbish it, offer credible solutions rather than a posture of campaigning from without?
Fourthly, there is a problem of vagueness about what to expect of you if you ever win power. If you are taking on the whole establishment, what are you going to do with it? What are you going to do to the judiciary? What are you going to do to the Queen and royal family? What are you going to do with the churches? What are you going to do with our civil service and our armed services, and our security chiefs? And if you are against the political system, what is your alternative political system: is it PR? Is it fewer or more MPs? Is it a removal of some of the checks and balances of the current system? Is it diminishing the power of MPs as opposed to party activists? Is it radical devolution from Westminster down to municipalities and local government? It must be something pretty big if it is the system itself that is to change, just as it must be something pretty dramatic if the whole “failed economic model” is to change, but this creates insecurity and anxiety if we don’t know what it means.
Finally, what if Corbyn is wrong to think that radical change is best achieved by positioning himself and his party as campaigners against the establishment and political and economic system? What if the best way is to construct a broad coalition of different kinds of people of different backgrounds and places across the UK, including people of goodwill in different parts of the establishment, making compromises where necessary in order to win power and use it for the common good? The more that the Labour Party is seen as a campaigning organisation accountable to its own enthusiasts and taking on the establishment and the whole political and economic system from outside, the more difficult it becomes to construct that broader coalition.
Can we hope that Corbyn’s messages by the end of 2017 will be different from the New Year ones?