Jeremy Corbyn, an awkward unclubbable left-wing activist who thinks Venezuela is the model of how a society should be managed, is coming closer to winning the leadership of the Labour Party. Of all possible responses from Labour to its humiliation in the recent general election, the Corbyn surge is the least-expected. The Conservatives cannot believe their luck. The focus-group centrists of Labour are banging their heads on their keyboards in despair. The great mass of disinterested onlookers are going ‘what? who? why?’, before changing channel. And Corbyn surges on.
On the face of it this appears to be nuts, something that calls for psychological rather than logical explanation. Doing what hasn’t worked but doing it more is an ageless human error pattern. When you are in a hole it makes sense to stop digging, but only if you know you are in a hole. Otherwise it can seem like a sensible escape plan. Perhaps that is the explanation: the universal tendency not to learn from experience.
The Corbyn surge could equally be seen as what happens when a spontaneous and unstable coalition of the unreconstructed and the idealistic forms a temporary majority. The raw-faced trade union bosses and professional leftists who cleave to Corbyn are certainly unreconstructed. But today more than ever being unreconstructed casts a powerful nostalgic spell. It’s not just a leftist thing: there is another Jeremy who is just as unreconstructed, and for his part Jeremy Clarkson gets a million Facebook likes every time he hoicks up his dreadful denims. As for idealism, it is currently in short supply in mainstream politics. Realism, managerialism, careerism, imagism, yes. Idealism, no. There is space free for idealism.
The response of the commentariat has been to go for the psychological explanation – the idea is that those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. Jeremy Corbyn’s policy offer fits that dramatic progression to perfection: Corbyn wants more tax, more public debt, nationalisation, and no nukes – a four-legged electoral madness monster. The accepted reading of Corbynism is that it is a cast-iron guarantee that Labour’s present insanity is taking it into a new and possibly fatal cycle of electoral failure and internal fission. But is the accepted reading accurate?
Those Corbyn policies again, one by one. Are they as electorally nuts as at first sight they seem? They clearly challenge the consensus of centrism; could it be they could also command a broad base of support?
The no nukes line is easy to deal with, because it is obviously not nuts. As a policy you may love it or you may abhor it, but there is a perfectly rational argument that the vastly expensive Trident device is undermining the UK’s financial ability to sustain a broad defence capability fit for the real world. This is an argument that is routinely made in the defence establishments of the UK and its main allies. You may vote for or against this idea, but dissing it is not a serious response. And it has the additional attraction that all sane people want to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world.
Corbyn also wants higher taxes. Yes, but those are taxes on rich people, and particularly upon banks. These are surely electorally attractive targets, especially the banks. It remains the case that the taxpayer bailout of bank irresponsibility has up to today cost every single adult in the UK over £2,000 (that’s actual money spent, not the amount of money committed which was much higher), much of which will never be recouped. The government promise to ‘sort out’ the banks has been abandoned: banks have grown bigger and riskier since 2007, and bankers no less rapacious. The Corbyn fix is as superficial as it comes, but if new taxes are only to be paid by the bad guys then politically he is right on the money.
Then public debt. Corbyn’s call is for an end to austerity, and who likes austerity (leave aside the fact that we haven’t actually had austerity yet)? But voters no longer like debt. Cunningly, Corbyn proposes to pay for higher spending through a variant of quantitative easing, which shifts the bill on to the Bank of England’s balance sheet and away from the taxpayer. It’s a sleight of hand, but does that matter when quantitative easing is the very trick George Osborne has been performing for the past five years? If it’s good enough to line up Osborne for Number 10… Enough said.
Nationalisation is the toughest one. Virtually nobody believes in general nationalisation. But Corbyn has chosen his targets. The Post Office, perhaps water supply, perhaps some elements of rail service (Network Rail is still effectively nationalised); these would command some support. And vaguely, he speaks of nationalising ‘the energy companies’. If that means the power-supply industry, he is not as controversial as he sounds. The energy suppliers are now more regulated than at any time since privatisation. The environment of incentives and controls is so profuse and so complicated that the biggest concern of energy wonks is ‘policy crowding’ – the lack of space for any new government control. To a large extent the electricity industry is already state-controlled. What difference would nationalisation make, apart from costing money (but see quantitative easing, above)?
The Corbyn surge becomes even easier to understand when you consider his potential voters beyond the party. It is commonly believed that power is won from the political centre, but there are different ways of cutting that. Many people in ‘the middle’ are passive conservatives who could vote for any of the main parties, people who by definition would prefer secure jobs with stable organisations and decent pensions to follow, people for whom excited talk of the hard entrepreneurial edge of creative capitalism is just a form of babble, people who in short have lost out somewhat as the economy has changed. This is the forgotten middle that fears the near future, for the very good reason that it has experienced the recent past.
For the forgotten middle, Corbynism is not so much a descent into madness as a return to normality, a place where education is free and houses affordable and re-applying annually for your own job has never been heard of. True, Corbyn carries with him a dreary entourage of clapped-out trade union power-seekers and international progressive activists, but their capacity to dismay may now be lessened. In 2020 the median potential voter age will be 46; those voters have no memory of the Three Day Week or the Winter of Discontent.
Above all Corbyn is a recognisable human, a type, a sort. You know what you are dealing with. Is anyone prepared to stand up and list the core principles of Cameron, or Osborne, or Kendall, or Cooper, or Burnham? Perhaps it can be done, but it wouldn’t be a pretty paragraph, and it wouldn’t ring true as a description of a normal person’s identity.
Corbyn is different. His core principles are all of a piece. He is like someone so many of us will know distantly, perhaps a teacher of some unglamorous subject, chemistry say, or geography. Intelligent, hard working, a little bit disappointed at a deep level (disappointed not in himself, but with the way people are). Possibly a little quick to anger, certainly more committed to his students than they ever will be to him. Honest, dependable, a decent bloke despite always banging on about Israel or something should he manage to get you in a corner. He is so painfully ‘real’ he could have stepped out of a Mike Leigh film.
Is that enough for him to win? The intransigence that is necessary for a high political career is there, although not the flexibility, or the insight. Electoral calculation is quite alien to Corbyn, a reason that people are drawn to him, and a reason that in the end they probably will not vote for him. But by that point he may be Leader of the Opposition. And if he makes it that far, he could teach his opponents a thing or two about the power of the forgotten middle.