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Things can only get better

Enda O’Doherty writes: I have often thought it would be a good idea if newspapers would occasionally republish their columnists’ contributions from a few years earlier to allow readers to check how accurate they have been in their (often confident, sometimes even bumptious) predictions of what is certain to happen next. But for some reason newspaper managements – not to mention the columnists themselves – don’t seem to think this is a good idea. So on this occasion I’m conducting the experiment on myself (and also I suppose on David Runciman, who, I should add, hasn’t given his permission). The piece indented below is one I wrote in August 2015. Quite obviously, there were some things I got quite wrong, or didn’t see coming, principally the Brexit referendum, after which everything in British politics changed utterly. In 2015 I was assuming that the then newly elected Tory/Lib Dem government would last four years and that perhaps David Cameron might happily retire at the end of that period and hand over the reins to the next most powerful person in his cabinet, chancellor George Osborne. But of course Osborne was swept away along with Cameron after the Brexit revolution. In the election called for June 2017 the new prime minister, Theresa May, managed to squander an early twenty-one-point lead and lose her majority. It is certainly true that May, though she had at an earlier stage looked like a potentially unifying figure (that perhaps mythical beast a “one-nation Tory”), turned out to be a spectacularly inept campaigner. It is also probably only fair to say that Jeremy Corbyn emerged, in 2017, as not quite the albatross around the party’s neck that David Runciman (and myself) assumed he would be. The Labour Party also was much better organised and more vigorous and imaginative in its campaigning than many people (like me) had expected. It added on thirty seats, while remaining fifty-five behind the Tories. Listening to the Corbynites at the time one had the impression that this was a fabulous victory rather than yet another rather depressing defeat. This introduction is being written on December 12th, when we know nothing of the election results. The indented text below is as I wrote it four years ago, simply with the addition of a small number of explanatory notes, which are inside square brackets, to refresh our memory about events back then. The passage after the indented paragraphs is to be written on December 13th, and I’m afraid will have to be brief and a bit rushed as I’m working towards a mid-morning deadline. Will it turn out that I am largely right about the “wrong turning” for Labour of the Corbyn leadership or spectacularly, embarrassingly mistaken. The tension is killing me.

“It’s easy to confuse democracy with democracy,” the always acute David Runciman writes in the current issue (dated August 27th) of the London Review of Books. It is indeed, largely because the word is so polysemous. Many of that growing tribe of media commentators mysteriously attracted to the attitudes of the far left (is it just that they’re bored?) felt that because the Greeks, or more precisely three and a half million Greeks out of the almost ten million electorate, voted No [on July 5th, 2015] to the bailout conditions offered to/imposed on them then everyone else in the EU (population 503 million) should have felt bound by that democratic decision and gone back to the drawing board for another hard think. The only thing standing in the way of this common sense solution, we were told, was “the Germans”, or more specifically, Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble, frequently referred to in comment as “Frau” Merkel and “Herr” Schäuble, in a way that the bien pensants seem to think is quite funny and of course not at all racist. As it turned out, it was not just the Germans, and not just the Finns, and not just the Slovaks and the Slovenes and the Latvians, and not just the Austrians who did not feel absolutely morally bound by the Greek Oxi [No] but in the end the talented gambler Mr Tsipras himself and a large majority of his Syriza parliamentary deputies. [The Tsipras government, finding no European willingness to meet it halfway, eventually agreed to a bailout deal harsher than the one rejected in the Greek referendum and in August this was passed through parliament with the support of the opposition and in the context of a significant rebellion and subsequent defection by many Syriza deputies. Tsipras felt he now had no option but to call a new election, which to the surprise of many he won quite comfortably on a lowish poll. The far-leftist split from Syriza, Popular Unity, whose best-known figure abroad was the former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, lost all its twenty-six deputies. Varoufakis however returned to parliament with eight colleagues in this year’s {2019} general election in a new formation, MeRA25 (European Realistic Disobedience Front).] Democracy is one thing (or rather more than one thing), and political reality, and making the best of that frequently difficult and sticky reality, another.

David Runciman, however, is not thinking particularly about Greece but about the British Labour Party, which seems to be about to select young Jeremy Corbyn (66) as the man best qualified to lead it into the radiant future. The benefit of having a political party’s leader chosen by members and supporters rather than by a more restricted or artificial electoral college (MPs, party branches and trade union leaders for Labour, the famous “men in the grey suits” for the Tories) looks like a no-brainer. And that’s exactly what it seems to be boiling down to, since the collective of British Labour Party branch members, with added “new supporters”, appears indeed to have no brain, or a brain that looks as if it is programmed to shut down the body. Runciman’s particular point is that the micro-democracy of the current Labour exercise may not necessarily be good for the British macro-democracy –insofar as it could well have the effect of putting the Tories in power forever. And for this he –a little unfairly it seems to me – blames Ed Miliband and the abrupt manner of his departure [following his general election defeat in May 2015].

Runciman compares the probable election of Corbyn as party leader to the Tories’ choice, in 2001, of Iain Duncan Smith (they could have had Ken Clarke, who would certainly have been a more broadly popular figure, but he was pro-European and didn’t appeal to the party rank and file). IDS was an old-style conservative in a way that David Cameron is not. His Euroscepticism and social conservatism appealed to the constituency organisations in spite of his standing a little apart from them in background: he was, and is, a Roman Catholic, while they are, for the most part, either the ladies who do the flowers for the (Anglican) church, boneheaded farmers or “go-ahead” businessmen, frequently dodgy. Cameron and Osborne are all in favour of money and people who have money and in the past that has often been enough for the Tory party; but there are of course other ways of being conservative, some of them perhaps even slightly interesting. To quite a few British voters at the time, however, Duncan Smith, as his party colleagues soon began to realise, came across as something of a weirdo, and if that was how he was going to be perceived it was quite likely that the electorate wouldn’t notice that Tony Blair, with his earnestness, somewhat piercing niceness and enthusiasm for bombing Iraq into democracy (and also en route to being “received” by Rome), was a bit of a weirdo too, although set against Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard he seemed like Mr Normal. And actually many voters, it appears, quite liked the niceness thing.

“Corbyn’s supporters,” Runciman argues, “are under few illusions that he fits the mould of a mainstream party leader. They know he’s at best an acquired taste and unlikely to be the man to win back voters lost to the Tories in the key marginals. A recent YouGov poll found that barely a quarter of Labour members believed that understanding how to win an election was one of the key qualities needed in a Labour leader (62 per cent wanted him or her to be ‘in touch with the concerns of ordinary people’).” “Ordinary people” of course, in this context, is not to be understood as statistically average sort of people or even as those people who don’t have a lot of money but rather as a vague amplification of “people who think like me”.

Breda O’Brien has been writing on this subject in The Irish Times (today, August 22nd) and as it happens she has been reading the same issue of the London Review of Books as I have, though she seems less taken by David Runciman’s analysis, partly because she too wants to take a swipe at “the mainstream”. One way to understand the apparent popular enthusiasm for Corbyn, Runciman writes, “is as a manifestation of what political scientists call the expressive, as opposed to the instrumental, theory of voting. If voting is instrumental then it’s presumed that voters are primarily motivated by the results they hope to achieve: leaders and parties who can deliver real benefits ...” The growth of expressive voting on the other hand “seems to chime with the world of social media and online communication, where self-expression rules and echo chambers proliferate. The internet is much more effective as a vehicle for expressing disgust with mainstream politics than it is for organising pragmatic reconfigurations of it.” You can say that again, Dave.

Breda doesn’t think a lot of this expressive/instrumental dichotomy, which I find a bit surprising as expressivism is in fact even more clearly in evidence in Ireland than it is in the UK. A quarter or more of Irish people (as polled) seem at this point to be saying that they will vote for Independents rather than political parties in the next general election. That is to say they are not interested in contributing to the making of any particular possible government to run the country or the economy (Fine Gael and Labour, Fine Gael and Renua and the Social Democrats and Labour, Fine Gael and the same and a few more odds and sods to make up the numbers, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin and a batch of Independents). What in fact they are saying, by voting for the hospital candidate or the turf candidate or the make our RTC a university candidate, is that they have opted out of being active citizens of the Republic of Ireland and retreated into an emotionally satisfying local form of expressivism, or indeed simply that they have worked themselves up into a such a great lather of contempt for “them” that it must be indulged or they will burst. There are other in Ireland usually far left forms of expressivism too (“I’m a radical, me”) but we won’t go there just for the moment.

Breda suggests that the Corbyn surge may be less to do with “expressivism” and more to do with the fact that many people actually agree with his policies (the two, I would argue, are not entirely different things when you think about it). I have little doubt that the people who either have long been members of the Labour Party or have, for £3, newly declared themselves to be supporters and who are voting for Jeremy Corbyn agree with Jeremy Corbyn. The point is: how many other people do? For it to be an instrumental rather than merely expressive act to vote him in as Labour leader would require there to be a hell of a lot. Let us not forget that the reason this leadership contest is taking place in the first place is that Labour recently lost a general election rather badly, with a leader perceived (or painted by his enemies) as being firmly left-wing (“red Ed”). But of course Ed was a lot more moderately (or sensibly) left than is Jeremy.

It seems now that many Labour members realise that Corbyn will never take the party into power but they no longer care. The people have let them down and they are in a huff. There will be no more trimming, no dissimulation. There will be socialism, or at least socialist words. It should of course be no surprise that the Labour left has the wholehearted support of veteran Trotskyists like Eamonn McCann (Irish Times, August 13th) in this voyage to nowhere. For Trotskyists, worse is always better: sharpening the contradictions, don’t you know.

Perhaps the greatest single argument against this fat-headed experiment in verbal radicalism however is that it has all been done before. In 1980, after the resignation of Jim Callaghan, who had lost power in the previous year, the British Labour Party elected Michael Foot as its leader. Labour initially performed strongly in opinion polls (Thatcher was very unpopular) but as the party left wing increasingly asserted itself through takeovers of branches and constituency organisations and purges (deselections) of sitting MPs it didn’t like and some of the party right defected to the newly formed social democrats (SDP) that trend was to be spectacularly reversed. In the June 1983 general election Labour went to battle on a “real socialist” platform (MP Gerald Kaufman called its manifesto, “The New Hope for Britain”, “the longest suicide note in history”). The party lost sixty seats in what was its worst general election result since 1918. Michael Foot, a man of some intellectual distinction whom almost everyone seemed to like, was sixty-seven when he became party leader and on the cusp of seventy when the general election took place. Jeremy Corbyn, who by all accounts is a rather likeable chap too, is now sixty-six and will probably be seventy when he leads whatever remains of Labour into battle in the next election, quite possibly against a forty-eight-year-old George Osborne. It will be a fun time indeed for Daily Telegraph readers but I think I will try to be somewhere else when it is happening.

So, it turns out that David Runciman was not all that wrong about Jeremy Corbyn and the great new direction in the British Labour Party, hailed by so many for so long. So what now? Will we have that “You were right, I was wrong, I should apologise” moment? Not bloody likely. My best bet at this stage would be that the people who have made Corbynism possible will try to keep the thing alive without the man (a well-earned semi-retirement with a few speaking engagements to university socialist societies). And so on to another heroic challenge and ignominious defeat in 2024. It may be, however, that there are still forces in the British Labour Party that will seek to plot out another route (it may require a plot). We have, after all, been here before. The Michael Foot debacle in 1983 led to a handover of leadership to, first Neil Kinnock, who certainly did the party some service, and then, in 1992 to John Smith, who looked every inch a future prime minister until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1994. This led to the party leadership falling to Tony Blair and Labour becoming New Labour.

If Kinnock was a necessary and welcome practical correction to the (unelectable) illusions of Michael Foot socialism and John Smith a continuation of that corrective process, it is arguable that Tony Blair and “New Labour” were something of an overcorrection. Certainly, the party was more electorally successful than ever before, or since (three election victories in a row). And it had achievements to be proud of in office: to mention just one, it increased spending on the health service substantially (by 10 per cent annually is a figure I have seen) in every year it was in office; these funding increases stopped dead once Labour was replaced by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010. There were debits as well as credits: the bizarre cult of “excellence” and the constant sucking up to big money were distasteful to many but of course the worst mistake, or scandal, can be summed up in one word: Iraq.

After the predictable and predicted debacle of election 2019 it is only to be expected that the engineers of defeat will still wish to hang onto the ball. If Labour ever wants to count for anything again in Britain they should not be allowed to. But the old forces of New Labour are not qualified, either practically or morally (particularly after the disloyal comments during the election campaign of Blair and Blunkett), to dispossess them. That must be done by the party as a whole, from left to right, acting together. British Labour for a long time prided itself on being “a broad church”, which might draw its leaders from the party left (Wilson, Foot, Kinnock) or the right (Gaitskell, Callaghan, Smith) but in which all currents would be represented in cabinet and where a powerful minister would be allowed to make his or her mark according to his or her ideological lights.

I would tentatively suggest that, with Scotland permanently gone as a source of seats, Labour, or more precisely the Labour leadership, if it is ever to be electable again, will now have to tack towards the centre – which is not to say that it has to become a party that is inhospitable to or has no place for radical thinking. There is of course an alternative: left Labour can go on listening only to itself, perfecting, with all the best in new media communication, what David Runciman called the expressivist impulse. Or it could think about making some positive, practical changes to people’s lives.

After eighteen years of Conservative government in the last decades of the previous century, all the talk in Britain was of the creaking state of the health service and in particular of hospital waiting lists. What this term means in practice is that a person who notices possibly worrying bodily symptoms (and, humans being humans, delays doing anything about them for far too long) is then told by the doctor that tests, or the necessary “procedure”, can be arranged in, well, something between ten months and fifteen months, by which time it may well be too late to do anything about the problem and all that is in prospect is “palliative care”. After a number of years of Labour government, under the chancellorship of Gordon Brown, there ceased to be very much talk about waiting lists at all. They became largely a forgotten thing as the necessary money was poured into the health services year after year. New Labour courted, and endlessly praised, the rich, and one often had to hold one’s nose; at the same time it taxed the rich and transferred wealth, in the shape of services, to those who were not rich. And people were told by the hospital doctor that, yes, it looked like there was indeed a tumour in the bowel but it was early days and there was every likelihood that it could be successfully tackled. Another ten or fifteen years of life perhaps. Maybe socialism is about more important things than life and death. And maybe it isn’t.

12 and 13/12/2019