Magazine | October 19, 2015, Issue

Labour’s Leftward Lurch

(Roman Genn)
Jeremy Corbyn, British-political throwback

Since 1974, the British Labour party has had only two types of leader: those who have embarrassed themselves and lost dramatically to the Tories, and Tony Blair. By electing Jeremy Corbyn to guide them into the future, Labour has committed itself to the maintenance of this unnecessary dichotomy.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell outlined brilliantly the sincere threat that unpalatable public representatives posed to the advance of British socialism. “It would help enormously,” Orwell contended, “if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled.” “If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt,” he lamented, “and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly,” then the Left might finally be given a fair chance to convince the public that it had their best interests at heart. Alas, in the absence of such a purge, its message would remain “buried beneath layer after layer of doctrinaire priggishness, party squabbles, and half-baked ‘progressivism’ until it [resembled] a diamond hidden under a mountain of dung.”

Were Orwell around today, he would likely despair at how extraordinarily prescient he had been. For a short while during the 1990s, it looked as if Labour had finally cottoned on to a harsh and unavoidable truth: namely, that while the modern British electorate is deeply committed to certain socialist principles — especially those that underpin the cherished, if ailing, National Health Service — it is no longer interested in sharply ideological leftism per se. Once upon a time, the British public had indeed been happy to entertain governments that were staffed by earnest technocrats and borderline reds. But after the rolling disaster that was the 1970s, their patience for such figures dwindled to the vanishing point. Under the modernizing leadership of Tony Blair, Labour at last seemed to have grasped how to thread the needle and win the game. For a decade or so, the party played the country like a fiddle — pushing here and there, backing off where necessary, and frustrating the down-and-out Conservative party to such a remarkable degree that it seemed impossible at times that it would ever return to power. Even as Blair approached his ten-year anniversary in 2007, the future of the British Left looked bright. But then, a few months later, the whole damn experiment collapsed. Slowly but surely, under the failed leadership of both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, Labour began its slow slide back to bad habits. With the recent election of Jeremy Corbyn, the relapse was complete.

And what a relapse it has been. It’s not just Corbyn’s policies, which hark back without apology to an era during which Labour’s election-season manifestos were cheerfully greeted as “suicide notes.” It’s the man’s entire mien, which, in an ironic nod to Orwell’s pistachio-shirted “prig,” is that not of an aperitive man of the people but of a tweed-wearing, elbow-patch-bearing, inner-suburban geography teacher. To watch Corbyn speak for more than a few minutes is to feel your skin begin to crawl with the unholy and unavoidable fear that you are one wrong turn and a missed bus away from being forced to listen solemnly to an eight-part lecture on Rhodesian divestment. Tony Blair had charm and empathy and preternatural political ability, and he understood instinctively that normal people draw clear distinctions between politics and civil society. Jeremy Corbyn is the sort of man who categorizes art into groups — “canonical” and “heretical”; who considers himself to be a paragon of virtue because he doesn’t own a car; and who thinks it is normal to divorce your wife if she disagrees with you over which sort of state-run school is best for your children. He is, let’s say, an oddity.

Or, put another way, he’s a good old-fashioned political crank, of precisely the type that the Tories love to fight. “There’s nobody in the world,” John O’Sullivan once told me, “who is right about everything. Those people simply do not exist.” “But,” he suggested, “there are plenty of people who are wrong about everything.”

Jeremy Corbyn is one of those men. Such as it is, his foreign policy involves being nice to all of the most vicious enemies of Western civilization (Hamas and Hezbollah are, in his word, “friends,” as were the murderous leaders of the Irish Republican Army) while doing his part to weaken British power. More specifically, this would involve the unilateral abolition of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, the U.K.’s summary departure from NATO, and the opening up of the country’s borders to all and sundry.

Famously, Corbyn is unsure whether evil exists in the world — unless, of course, that evil has an American accent. The first Iraq war, he suggested in 1991, was the overture to a “new world order” — a convenient excuse for “white and western” people to claim “free use of all the weapons.” Sure, Saddam Hussein might have been a touch mean to his people. But the real enemy of international liberalism was the “war machine of the United States,” which sought “to maintain a world order dominated by the banks and multinational companies of Europe and North America.” As for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002: That was deeply suspicious, natch — predicated as it was on the apparently shaky contention that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden, Corbyn wrote in the Communist newspaper Morning Star, was fingered rather too quickly for his tastes. Perhaps, he suggested, the evidence had been “manipulated” to justify “an attack on the Taliban” and “regime change in Afghanistan.” Perhaps.

On the domestic front, Corbyn is mercifully a little less prone to conjecture. Nevertheless, he does appear to believe that the post-Thatcher pro-market consensus has been a horrible, horrible mistake, and that the voters who have demanded its preservation for more than three decades now are on the verge of a dramatic reversal. If the man’s most recent promises are to be believed, a Corbyn-led government would seek to abolish the monarchy; to unify Ireland; to renationalize the railways, the utility companies, and some of the banks; to reintroduce women-only train carriages on that newly renationalized railway system; to raise taxes on businesses and the wealthy; to reintroduce rent controls in London and other major cities; to instruct the Bank of England to print money in order to fund housing, energy, and transportation projects; to abolish the charitable status of private schools; to roll the country’s entire educational structure into a state-run “National Education Service”; and, if he has time, to impose a “maximum wage” on executives and other highly paid figures.

In the meantime, Corbyn’s shadow cabinet will go about formulating some of the most eccentric policy prescriptions of the modern era. The new shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has promised that if he were to make it to the head of the treasury, he would fight for a 60 percent tax rate on the “rich” and — more bizarrely, perhaps — increase the payroll contributions made by those earning more than £50,000 per year by 7 percentage points. Asked a few years ago by Who’s Who what he did for pleasure when not at work in Parliament, McDonnell answered, “Fermenting [sic] the overthrow of capitalism.” This is not a man who messes around.

Nor, for that matter, does Corbyn’s shadow farming minister, Kerry McCarthy, who, in her role as a patron of the British Vegan Society, is a high-profile signatory to a declaration that all animal farming is unsustainable. “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco,” McCarthy told bemused farmers in September, “with public campaigns to stop people eating it.” That should help Labour reconnect with rural voters!

Quite why Labour has chosen this moment to turn the party over to the kooks and the diehards is something of a mystery — especially given that, at all levels of government, the Conservatives are ascendant. In Parliament, Labour has been reduced to just 232 of the 650 seats, and, crucially, it has been wiped out in Scotland, a former stronghold. Locally, Labour has gone from controlling 47 percent of British councils in 1997 to controlling just one in four today. In Europe, Labour has only 27 percent of the parliamentary seats, less than half as many as UKIP and the Conservatives combined. Even in London, a city that could once be relied upon to return Labour politicians to office, voters now seem to prefer the Tory candidates for mayor. If Corbyn is an “indulgence,” as some observers have suggested, he’s a peculiarly timed one.

This summer, in the pages of the Guardian, moderate Labourites such as Tony Blair and David Miliband warned desperately that selecting Corbyn would serve not to reverse the rout but to complete it. The Labour party, Blair submitted in a dramatic phrase, was on the verge of “walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below.” Should it go down this road, he continued, it would not merely be beaten, as it had been under the hardliners of the 1980s; it would be “annihilated.” For all of his efforts, nobody listened — not even, it seems, for a single moment. He must have known how Orwell felt, back in 1937.

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