This lunchtime, with a sore throat, I spoke at a debate at my college.
Back to the Future?
Motion: “By looking backwards Jeremy Corbyn threatens the future of the Labour Party”
I spoke against the motion. I spoke without notes, but this is roughly what I said:
“First of all, in response to one of the speakers for the motion, it seems to me that even the Parliamentary Labour Party is largely united. The willingness of Lord Falconer and Hillary Benn even to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet suggests a level of unity which I found rather surprising. So, Corbyn hasn’t torn the PLP apart yet, which many of us on the right complacently predicted.
Now, I have heard a lot about this just being ‘protest politics.’ The assumption here is that we are living through a temporary Corbynmania which will die down soon enough. The assumption is that Corbyn is merely a repository for other people’s votes. I don’t think so. What I am seeing is a politician who has a support base of his own, and a big support base at that. This is not a mere protest. When I think of protest politics, I think of the support UKIP achieves at Euro elections, or the dip in the poll figures for Labour and the Conservatives after the expenses scandal. I don’t think of a mass movement of committed socialists rallying round a fellow committed socialist and attempting to take over, at every level, a political party. Support for Corbyn is more than just protest politics.
Let’s now have a look at why the Labour party lost the 2015 election. The assumption is that they lost because of Ed Miliband or because they were too left-wing or because they were untrustworthy. I am not so sure. In England, for example, support for Labour increased by 3.6%. However, in England this failed to translate itself into seats because of UKIP and the Greens. North of the border, the SNP caused problems for Labour.
The real problem for Labour in ’15 was the growth of parties with some kind of vision or alternative to the status quo. The message for Labour, then? Be socialist!
A further point worth making is that the most explicitly centrist party in ’15, the Lib Dems, suffered badly. The Lib Dems, with their moderate, centrist stance of promising to “borrow less than Labour, but be fairer than the Tories” saw most of their incumbent MPs defeated. Does this suggest that the public wanted a centrist party?
The Conservatives won in ’15, but it was a technical victory, not a moral victory, as Peter Hitchens has said. David Cameron won not because he won, but because Labour lost. He won by running a very efficient and smooth campaign, but not by promising radical change or reaction or presenting any kind of vision or moral dimension to his policies (if he in fact had any policies!). In fact, I recall a member of a BBC audience asking Cameron for a moral justification for his policies, and he could not give one beyond “I think there is a moral dimension to having a strong economy!”
What we could see from Jeremy Corbyn is a radical, moralistic, socialistic pitch which, I suspect, would sweep up those who voted SNP, Green, and possibly UKIP, at the last general election.
This is a History Society debate and so I probably should try to ‘use’ history in my argument. There are a couple of election victories I might point to, one is an example of why Corbyn may be successful, and another is possible counter example.
The former is that of 1945 and Clement Attlee. I don’t think I need to say anything here. Attlee had a vision and he won a moral victory (not that his policies were right or just) over Churchill.
The counter example is Tony Blair in 1997. Blair had no vision whatsoever. Blair won a series of technical victories, albeit two landslide technical victories. Why? I suspect because the Conservative party under John Major, William Hague, and Michael Howard, was so inept and so divided that people decided it was a good idea to make themselves believe in Blair.
This distinction of Hitchen’s between technical and moral victories may or may not be useful. What I will say is that moral victories are rare. By a moral victory, I mean one in which it seems as though the winning side have really won the arguments and have reached out to hearts and minds. For example, Attlee in 45 and Thatcher in 79. The technical victories are more common, e.g. Major and Cameron.
So, moral victories come along very rarely, but it seems that they become more likely after a series of technical victories.
If Jeremy Corbyn has managed to put together a shadow cabinet and has remained in office this long already, I would suggest he has weathered the storm. It seems to me that he could last until 2020. The potential for him to rejuvenate the Labour party and win a moral victory in 2020 is huge, especially if the Conservatives assume that they can elect a Cameron lookalike and thinkalike to succeed Cameron.
The upper echelons of the Conservative party are quite obviously scared. Why else would we be seeing these ridiculous videos about Jeremy Corbyn being a threat to national security produced by the Conservative party? The answer is that they are scared that he will reach out to hearts and minds and win a moral victory over the non-Conservatives in 2020. I think that we on the right have been a bit complacent. Jeremy Corbyn could indeed be a very effective Labour leader.”
My side of the debate – the opposition – won with 25 to 8 votes.