28 August 2015

The Corbyn crisis is the result of Labour’s intellectual dishonesty


You could not make it up. If you tried, no-one would believe you. Four months ago, the Labour party was challenging for government. Now, it is descending into farce. This must be the most ludicrously ill-run leadership campaign in political history, and it will have a ludicrous outcome. Let us suppose that at the beginning of the party’s leadership election campaign, a writer had submitted a script for a TV comedy based on what was about to happen. His ear well-flea’d, he would have been told to take it away and add some[ital] verisimilitude. Now, reality cannot keep up with comedy. The Labour party has become a work of light fiction. It is not clear how it could recover its seriousness.

Those who regard themselves as the custodians of Labour’s electability know whom to blame: Jeremy Corbyn. They regard him as Labour’s id, a morass of self-indulgence who has escaped the control of the superego; the pleasure principle of socialist fantasy, revolting against the reality principle of government. Although one can understand why they feel this way, they are guilty of intellectual dishonesty.

There is one obvious example. Until the past few weeks, Labour was happy to seek the support of left-wing youngsters, but on one condition. They were not to be allowed anywhere near policy-making. That would frighten the voters. But as long as they contented themselves with delivering leaflets and reading the Guardian letters page, the Labour hierarchy was content with them. Now, thanks to Ed Miliband’s £3 reform – an unprecedently potent posthumous poison pill – the young socialists are able to elect an ageing Leftie. This is not just comedy. It is slapstick. That said, why should the Corbyn-istas be criticised for expressing their beliefs?

After all, Jeremy Corbyn has one merit, which explains his popularity and his likely success. He says what he thinks and thinks what he says. Mr Corbyn is a socialist. Indeed, it would not be unfair to call him a Marxist. He believes that a capitalist society wastes vast amounts of human potential while exploiting and oppressing poor people in poor countries, wrecking the environment and encouraging militarism. He is in favour of a revolutionary transformation.

So what do the others believe? Well, in one respect, they overlap with Jeremy Corbyn. Many of their supporters, and at least one of them, hate Tories, behaviour which could only be justified if the Tories were as guilty as Mr Corbyn believes (he himself is not a hater). On the face of it, this is strange. Here are middle-class people, who could not be accused of being revolutionaries, yet are consumed with anger.

There are two explanations. The first is that large numbers of Labour supporters are closet socialists who regard Toryism as illegitimate. Many of them cannot come to terms with the fact that after thirteen years of Tory government, the social order was largely unchanged – to the extent that an Old Etonian was able to become Prime Minister. They know that if Labour is to be electable, it has to do a deal with the English middle classes. But they resent both that necessity and the middle classes’ lack of gratitude.

The second, that between them, Margaret Thatcher and Tory Blair have destroyed Fabianism and Croslandism. The Fabians believed in the inevitability of gradualness: that society would naturally evolve in a socialist direction. Crosland argued that it was not necessary to eliminate free enterprise. Instead, Labour governments could finance socialism out of higher tax payments from the private sector. With this intellectual ammunition, Labour supporters with no revolutionary impulses could confidently and complacently assume that year on year, the state would own a higher proportion of the nation’s wealth while controlling a higher proportion of its activities. A pretty comprehensive form of socialism would result, without any need for a revolution. Many Tories feared that Crosland was right. In the 1970s, Keith Joseph lamented the ratchet of socialism, under which nothing was ever reversed.

Then came Margaret Thatcher, who did not only reverse the ratchet. She broke it, and created a new political world. The angry Labourites have never forgiven her. But Tony Blair understood that changed world. He knew what Labour had to do to win elections, and it did not involve resurrecting Fabianism. A lot of the angry Labourites have not forgiven him either.

The angry-with-Tories but worried-about-Corbyn Labourites believe that they have one defence against a charge of intellectual dishonesty. The poor need us, they will claim. If we go in a Corbyn-ite direction, there will be no hope of winning elections and no-one to look after the poor. There is only one problem with that argument. It bears absolutely no relation to Labour’s actual record in government.

When they had the chance, Labour ministers were far keener on subsidising the poor than in uplifting them. One or two brave individuals – including Tony Blair – could see that the welfare state had become an ill-fair state, encouraging idleness and dependency, in which poor people were trapped on sink council states – barred from all routes to aspiration. Again, the odd labour figure, most notably Andrew Adonis, could see that bad comprehensives were destroying children’s life-chances. Most other Labourites lost no sleep over bog-standard comprehensives. They saved their resentments for good schools.

There is a reason for this. People from poor backgrounds who fight their way to prosperity often stop voting Labour. Many Labourites have a feudal attitude towards those at the bottom. Let them live on welfare, in municipal housing. Let their children go to schools which will only prepare them for life on the dole. They will be “our people”: our tame core vote. The poor you always have voting for you. But if they try to better themselves, they might also think for themselves. That is another reason for Labourite anger. They know that the changes which this government is introducing are cultural as well as legislative: a mortal threat to Labour’s dependence on political serfdom.

Serfdom socialism is an unlovely spectacle. Because of that, the Labour party is not only in a mess. It deserves that fate, and there is no obvious escape route.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.