Don’t worry. I am not about to launch a Don’t Underestimate Jeremy Corbyn Association or predict that he will reach Number 10. It is difficult to see that happening, as the new leader of the Labour party is of the hard left, with some unsavoury views and suspect connections. The lesson of the general election in 2015 is that there is a substantial bloc of opinion – centrist, often moderate ex-Labour or Lib Dem – that will, when it comes to it, reject a risky opposition. Combined with the natural Tory vote, those voters did for Ed Miliband in May.
If the Tories get this right, and do not spend too much time celebrating, or haring off playing silly, too clever by half, games, there is the opportunity for them to build an even bigger winning coalition of interests next time. That is a big “if”, however. To the Tory tendency to produce (or preside over) an economic smash after they win an election (1970, 1987, 1992) one must add the charge of complacency. Perhaps it is a function of the Tory disposition. Scepticism and realism are useful qualities in a governing party but the Tory leadership class has a habit of not anticipating danger or not fretting enough about opponents. Margaret Thatcher was not like that, but then she was a new fusion, a restless radical whose Toryism was confined to her belief in the invincibility of the nation state, although she compromised on that in Europe anyway.
Tory complacency could also be encouraged by the behaviour of my trade – journalism – in the hours since Corbyn became leader. It has been a thrilling few days for hacks writing about the shambles. I am not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. The Corbyn operation is inexperienced; it has made terrible errors; and it hates the mainstream media. But hating the media class is not a crime. Many Britons hate the media and its pretensions.
It is not surprising, as much of what the media class (I’m a member) has told the public in recent years has turned out to be utter nonsense. Peter Hitchens’ recent blog post on this is typically apocalyptic about the implications, although fascinating nonetheless.
I am not preparing an individual charge sheet (personally, I’ve called some of it right and some of it wrong). All journalists who provide analysis, or commentators who write opinion, are wrong sometimes but hope to be right more often, which is not straightforward, particularly when the political situation is as febrile and as fast-moving as it is now. That’s not my point. It is, rather, that the general, broad impression created in recent years by the media has been pretty unconvincing. New Labour had fixed the economy. Oh no, it hadn’t. Gordon Brown was a giant. Nope. The Tories were finished. No, they weren’t. And more recently, the Scottish referendum was going to be a breeze. Then the Nationalists lost but benefitted from a great wave of support that swept away Scottish Labour. In England, too, much faith was put in the polls during the general election and all but a handful of commentators bought the idea of another hung parliament. Then Corbyn couldn’t win the Labour leadership. He just did.
Perhaps many of us in the media, which likes to see itself as a zeitgeisty and knowing trade, are so busy running around doing the job of covering the circus that we fail to appreciate the extent to which the deep public disquiet about elites has extended to journalists. We were hardly a popular bunch to begin with. Then there is social media, which although it is hardly flawless, has removed the media’s monopoly. Simultaneously, the old model of politics – Clinton borrowing Republican campaign techniques and pioneering innovations, Blair copying it and parts of the media declaring this all to be super smart and exciting – is bankrupt. Politics has gone bust, hence the rise of populist parties here and in Europe; hence Trump, UKIP, Sanders and the SNP. For the Tories, it took a ruthlessly disciplined Lynton Crosby campaign, mistakes by Labour and the help of the electoral system, to pull the Tories through in 2015.
Even so, the world is changing fast and politics and economics are in a deeply unsettled phase, as electorates digest globalisation, demographic disruption and technological change. In that context, any capitalist or pro-market person who thinks that improvements cannot be made, to ensure capitalism is not a crony corporatist racket, needs their head examining.
Perhaps, probably, Corbyn will crash. But the 2015 election took place when economic conditions were benign. The Tories will be extremely lucky indeed if they get through the next five years without some manner of downturn punctuated with an epic punch-up over the EU. That being the case, here are five areas where the Tories had better have decent answers to the questions Corbyn will pose, in case the media and political class wisdom turns out to be tosh again.
1) Tax credits
The precise impact on the lower paid of the government’s tax credit changes remain to be seen. That will not stop the opposition, led by Corbyn, from mounting a robust, populist campaign against the reform. Look, they will say to millions of the working poor and the lower paid, the Tories won by claiming to be the party of working people and now they are out to hammer you. The Tory answer, that inflation is low and there is a national living wage being introduced, is going to come under intense attack, with Labour using the f-word, fairness, constantly.
Contrary to the received wisdom, Corbyn since the weekend has done exactly what he should have done on the question of the EU and the referendum. Labour has been unthinkingly, pathetically pro-EU for years now. All he has done is to say, sensibly, that he wants to see what Cameron comes up with. He can monitor the government’s negotiations (which do not seem to be getting very far) and at least create an impression, with a lot of noise, that he is rallying other left-wing forces elsewhere in Europe against the boss class and political leaders out to, as he sees it, slash workers rights. At the same time, the Tory party faces a struggle to maintain discipline and order in its own ranks as the settlement and vote gets ever closer.
3) The economy and banks
The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has some extremely dangerous ideas. Stalin would have made a more pro-City Chancellor. But he also has a way of talking that makes complex economic problems sound as though they are easily solved by the state. Many of us know it’s nonsense, that if you jack up taxes, wealth will leave in a mobile, global economy, which will mean lower investment and reduced growth. But it sounds like ancient history to a lot of young voters in the UK’s cities who see shiny blocks of housing going up around them, containing flats that they think they will never be able to afford unless they strike it lucky. The idea that there is a quick way to redistribute this wealth form the affluent to the low paid is appealing to those who do not have a lot to lose. McDonnell and Corbyn will also focus on the banks, who are still hated. While there is rather a lot of change coming in banking – thanks to digital start-ups – the public isn’t seeing it yet. Again, the Corbynites will present a simple story. Theye will say that the government should have broken up the megabanks (a proposition with which plenty of free market types agree) and under cover of that popular sounding policy introduce all manner of mad ideas, against profit and private enterprise, into Britain’s national conversation. Are the Tories ready to explain why Socialism doesn’t work rather than simply relying on assertion and good luck?
Corbyn’s past statements will be flung at him and the Tories have already produced some well-aimed propaganda about the security risk that Labour poses. When it comes to his opposition to the renewal of Trident, though, and his misguided dismissal of the need for military reach in conventional forces, it could resonate in surprising ways. Especially, if Labour can make an argument about inefficient defence procurement, and the bill for Trident, stick. Post-Iraq, many middle-ground Britons wonder whether the old certainties of the defence debate require a rethink. That does not mean they’ll back Corbyn. They might like hearing it discussed and seeing the old consensus challenged, though.
5) The Constitution
The Tories are extremely vulnerable here, having missed the opportunity to remodel the United Kingdom after the seismic events in Scotland. How about if Corbyn says the following. “Comrades. For years New Labour, held prisoner by Gordon Brown and Scottish MPs, clung to the unfair and outdated idea that Scotland could have its own Parliament and still send MPs to England to run the UK. I’m for the UK, but let’s modernise it. Let Scotland have devo-max. Let England have a parliament based on the Commons (or even a cheaper building!) and scrap the out-dated House of Lords, stuffed as it is with political cronies. There are good men and women in there, of course; so let them stand for election to a new senate of the nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, sorry, Northern Ireland. Comrade, let’s work together to do what the Tories won’t. Let’s modernise the UK. Justice for all parts of the UK, England included. We will now sing Jerusalem.”
How would the Tories respond if Corbyn proposed that? Do they have even the beginnings of an answer? Nope.