Today’s Guardian reports how New Labour’s old guard is piling in on “left-winger” Jeremy Corbyn, the MP currently leading the Labour Party leadership race. Rattled by recent polls showing him leading of the rest of the field, it is clear the Labour right-wing fear their stranglehold on the party is loosening. What is noticeable, however, is how Corbyn’s “Labour” critics lack of any substantive arguments, but rely instead on anti-left tropes and ad-hominum attacks. Indeed, remove the paternal tone, and in content these attacks could come from the Tories. And this is Labour’s problem.
To paraphrase the criticism, Tony Blair, David Miliband and Labour’s big money donors are screaming “you need new ideas not old ones”, “history” tells us, and “common sense” dictates that “you are a ´heartless´ ´moron´ if you vote for Corbyn (and disagree with me)”. These scarcely constitute arguments in the traditional sense but one-liners commonly used by the Daily Mail. However, given the attention and support they have elicited from the press, they warrant debunking.
- Always be suspicious of people claiming definitive lessons from history; almost all historical events can be interpreted to support multiple positions. Moreover, Foot is not Corbyn, the Soviet Union is no more, and the UK state controls a fraction of the economy it once did. The comparison with the 1980s makes little sense. But if we must derive lessons from history, there is no reason why the right of the Labour party cannot sit disgruntled on the backbenchers like the left of Labour has these past 25 years. However, knowing what happened to the SDP and the ideological vacuum of most New Labour politicians together with their careerist culture, it seems more likely that those MPs currently criticising Corbyn, will quickly change their tune should he become leader.
- Common sense is frequently wrong: flying is safer than driving, you should tilt your head forward when you get a nosebleed, but just limiting common sense to public knowledge about UK politics, most people are wrong about most things. But regardless, common sense is culturally shaped; if you live in the New Labour bubble you will have New Labour common sense (“Corbyn is dangerous left winger”); similarly if you hang out with the KKK you will consider segregation common sense. New Labour’s common sense has gone untested for 25 years. It is surely now time to test it, I suspect we will not witness apocalypse now.
- Tony Blair – the war criminal – thinks you are heartless you are almost certainly doing something right.
- Labour “needs new ideas, not old ones”? You can hardly call privatisation of the NHS, or the squeezing of the poor new ideas. But anyway, this argument has little to do with the utility of the ideas nor their old age. Rather, this is a function of how the election defeats of the 1980s haunt the party establishment. Indeed, the age of an idea says little about its utility. For example, re-nationalizing the railways: keeping natural monopolies out of the hands of business is an old idea and one that almost all economists (and the public) would still agree with. That the Labour establishment cannot stomach the debate about the role of the state is testament to how well the Tories have disciplined Labour into internalising the idea that anything leftish is automatically electoral suicide.
Ultimately though, the policies that Corbyn suggests, far from being marginal, are supported by the majority of voters. Indeed, the democratic popularity of his proposals is noticeably absent from the barrage of criticism Corbyn now faces. While his critics argue Corbyn’s willingness to rebel against the leadership should count against him, many of the policies he opposed – the Iraq War, Student tuition fees, for instance – in retrospect seem to illustrate a talent for prescience.
What is remarkable about the attacks underway is how the Scottish Labour leaders – the same that oversaw electoral disaster in the face of a “left-wing” party – feel able to criticise Corbyn. In fact, let’s look to Scotland to draw a lesson from history from 2015: if you want to mobilize the dormant, disillusioned electorate, the Labour party needs to stand away from the Tories, not with them.