This is a contribution to Soft Left Politics by Cllr James Valentine.
“An alternative to neo-liberalism” – “Opposing austerity” – “A more equal society” – “Peace” – these are all Jeremy Corbyn themes and repeated by his supporters as evidence for his appeal. That’s to say, he and his supporters propose that his policies, aims and philosophy are an alternative – a break with the past, and that they are distinctive not just from the Conservatives but, more significantly, from the rest of the Labour Party, and all preceding Labour Party leaders and representatives. His is the one true path and those who oppose him – like the 170 MPs who have declared that they have lost confidence in him – should learn the error of the ways, or be deselected.
But in reality how “alternative” are Corbyn’s policies? I attended Conference 2015 and noticed how in his conference speech, Jeremy spoke up for small businesses and the self-employed. So apparently he is not a Marxist-Leninist who is opposed to capitalism per se. But what of “neo-liberalism”? Is there an acceptable form of capitalism which isn’t of the neo-liberal variety? If the market has a role, then what position does the state hold in it? When and where do markets fail and can we identify this, and intervene to correct these failures?
There are all themes which have preoccupied democratic socialists since the Labour Party came into being. Notably, Ed Miliband, born into a Marxist household, wrestled with the problem of redefining Labour’s relationship with business and the markets and attempted to promote policies to suit. He advocated nationalising failed rail franchises and he identified the energy market and the private rental housing sector as to major areas where markets are failing. Miliband promoted the idea of “responsible capitalism” and famously contrasted “producers and predators”.
One cannot necessarily address the Party and nation in the manner of an academic seminar and some of Miliband’s policy ideas seemed a bit tortured and indigestible – “predistribution” for example was hardly a vote-winner. Miliband and Balls were also much too timid in challenging the myth that Labour caused the crash and their public expenditure policy – that Labour should balance the books but borrow for investment – wasn’t clearly enough articulated. But he was far more successful at this stage of the electoral cycle than Corbyn and helped, as an Opposition leader should do, to set the political agenda so that Conservatives for example later borrowed Labour’s “living wage” idea.
None of this is particularly to defend Miliband or his various errors but we should question Corbyn’s “alternative” credentials. By 2015 Labour, post-crash, had reached a point where it had collectively – not just MPs’ but activists, councillors, NPF/NEC – accepted a need directly to address inequality, the problems of globalisation and market failure. Corbyn does not seem to recognise the Party’s policy-making process and there is not much consistency in his pronouncements. He does not oppose small businesses – for modern politicians, close to motherhood – but he does not have much that’s positive to say about big business. The pharmaceutical industry, for which Owen Smith worked for while, is seen as being intrinsically bad, for example. And Corbyn though not an avowed Marxist, hangs around with Marxists. So what emerges is a mish-mash of vague platitudes, which would sound fine at any left-leaning dinner-party but which don’t translate into policies. Likewise Corbyn doesn’t actually advocate Lenin or Trotsky’s methods but he seems to admire them. Given all the talk of a “movement” – you can’t be absolutely sure that he advocates the democratic road to socialism. Corbyn is right to focus on the difficulties of globalisation and rising inequality but, dinosaur-like, he still looks to the past, to command economies under which countless millions suffered, starved and died.
Corbyn also spent much of his 2015 conference speech talking about Iran. We can all applaud the rapprochement that was brokered recently but his support seems uncritical. This is still a regime that hangs gays and members of religious minorities. The appeal for “Peace” more often seems like a surrender mentality – not exactly pacifist (one must stand up for the defence workers) but if the Russians were to invade one of the Baltic states, our NATO obligations apparently stand for nothing.
Corbyn and his followers were opposed to the UK’s tiny contribution to the US-led anti-IS bombing campaign in Syria, and yet they are silent about recent murderous Syrian and Russian actions, directly targeting civilians and facilities like hospitals, using barrel bombs and missiles. More generally there is an obsession with Iraq, notwithstanding the fact that by the time of Corbyn’s takeover, Labour had collectively recognised that supporting the US invasion was a very serious mistake. But Corbyn went through the charade of a formal apology – as if the unfortunate Iraqis could care – and a great cheer comes up whenever Iraq is mentioned at his rallies, so that his supporters can wallow yet again in a warm glow of righteous indignation.
All this should be seen in the light of the specific attacks on Owen Smith by for example, the increasingly hysterical Paul Mason https://medium.com/mosquito-ridge/the-sound-of-blairite-silence-aed2ef726c8a#.a6r7hjoyu and others that he is merely imitating Corbyn – that he’s “Jeremy-lite”. He’s not – he’s simply expressing a Labour consensus but in a consistent way, without Marxist-Leninist baggage, which is true to the Fabian traditions of arguing a case carefully from the evidence. He would I think understand that policy isn’t just about aspiration but about details – the grindingly difficult task of working up policies which can be enacted in law – hence the need to cooperate closely with colleagues. Policies to be convincing must be costed. He also argues for a realistic defence policy which accepts that there are external threats and that we cannot eternally blame ourselves for all the world’s ills. He’s 100% behind the democratic road to socialism; Trotsky’s rehabilitation was never one of his hobbies. And in particular that there are about two million Tory voters who we have to convince if we can have a chance of winning again. That’s why we are indeed faced with a genuine choice, and why I’ll be voting for Smith this week.