29 July 2015

Why Jeremy Corbyn is winning the Labour leadership race


In recent days the Labour tribe in the UK has gone from a state of mild panic to being in a condition approaching total freakout. Not only has the public service trade union Unison just nominated Corbyn for the leadership, which is an astonishing development, but party members also seem to be flocking to his banner. A private poll snaffled by the Daily Mirror’s Jason Beattie suggests that Jeremy Corbyn has opened up a lead of 20 points, according to a leaked survey of Labour members, with Yvette Cooper (still behind him on second preferences) emerging as the Stop JC candidate.

That is a private poll, shout all the experts. It means nothing and should be ignored until full tables are published and its provenance explained. Perhaps that is true, but the recent general election in Britain suggests that the old rules about polls are, at the very least, open to question.

The secret squirrel work done for the Tories by Jim Messina was carried out in concert with a mysterious, super-rich, hedge fund industry quant who traveled with the Tories to US and applied his brain to rethinking internal polling to improve message targeting. Their efforts turned out this time to be far more effective than conventional polling.

It seems to have involved constructing a sophisticated computer model that fed in numerous bits of research on personalities and social attitudes, reams of external polling, canvas returns, assorted bit of jiggery pokery on probability and techniques borrowed from the hedge fund industry. It told the Tories what was was working so they could fine-tune. And it told them ten days or so out that they were “in” in the West Country and that the Lib Dem collapse was really happening. The leadership then scaled up visits by Cameron accordingly and did the same in Twickenham, Vince Cable’s then seat, where the Tory leader popped up a few days before polling.

On election day, Messina’s range fluctuated somewhere between the low 300s and as high as the low 330s. The numbers on the likely haul of seats by the Tories were adjusted upwards during the day.

My point is that private polling and research, if done well, should not be dismissed and can be a highly effective tool, although when it is mentioned in the media it still comes with a health warning.

That means that rather than complaining about the leaking of this latest poll, sensible Labour should be asking itself why Jeremy Corbyn is winning right now, as he seems to be.

It is happening and will be difficult to stop. A worried friend, who leans to the left, got in touch the other day to say that he has encountered a group of twenty-somethings at a work-related social gathering and despite them each being academically bright they were all for Corbyn. How on earth can this be?

Pro-Corbyn meetings are packed, with hipster left-wingers laughing uproariously when Ed Balls losing his seat is mentioned.

And the Financial Times carried the extraordinary news today that more than 65,000 new full members have signed up to Labour since the election. Another 28,500 affiliates have joined and more than 21,000 are paying the £3 for a guest vote. Who are these new 114,500+ members of the Labour selectorate? Although some of the £3 voters are Tories having fun they can’t all be.

Even the most optimistic Blairites do not believe that the new members are overwhelmingly modernisers desperate to save the Labour party. A good number seem likely to be left-wingers who have had it with conventional politics and are even prepared to drive away centrists. Online Harriet Harman, who has tried to hold the party together in recent months, is taunted and called a Tory. In this way, in a mad climate of recrimination, the Labour party is in danger of being destroyed – yes, destroyed – from within.

In this maelstrom, Corbyn’s appeals rests, it seems to me, on much more than his explicit rejection of highly-spun politics as it has been practised for the last two decades or so. It is not just that he looks and sounds different from the airbrushed suits that dominate the party leaderships at Westminster.

Corbyn also explicitly rejects globalisation, capitalism and the notion that we as citizens are powerless in the face of global corporates, international institutions and forces out with our control sweeping Europe and the globe. Whereas Ed Miliband, who shared quite a bit of that analysis, said he wanted to reform markets in response, Corbyn wants to smash markets, nationalise industry and interrogate the EU after its treatment of Greece. Corbynism would be a full-blown economic disaster, with no Ed Balls to restrain the leader.

One can understand why all this excitement might appeal to otherwise intelligent young people, if they are sick of what they have been fed about politics by the parties and the media. Of course there are similarities with what happened in Scotland, where joining “Yes” seems for many to have been about vaguely wanting “hope”, about anger with remote elites and about fury at being told by those elites, by established leaders, by bankers, by commentators, what they can and can’t do, what is and is not possible. In England, the Corbynites are mining a similar seam.

Although here, I am reminded of a recent essay by John Harris in the Guardian about the festival of radical ideas that still takes place alongside the Glastonbury music festival. Yes, hundreds of youngsters gathered in a marquee to debate living wages. TTIP, radical feminism and the supposed collapse of late period capitalism. Meanwhile, outside that afternoon, 75,000 went to see Lionel Richie play Glastonbury on the main stage.

That is always the problem for the radical Left. People would rather go and see Lionel Richie. I wouldn’t if you paid me and I would rather see John Harris talk, even though we disagree on much. But still, turning Corbynite ideas into a platform that will deliver a majority in a general election will be as difficult as persuading all those Lionel Richie fans to watch Owen Jones perform instead.

Winning, though, doesn’t seem to be the point for many of these people. Like Farage supporters, they are abandoning what they see as the whole rotten game and enjoying a spasm of righteous rage. The more optimistic among them hope that having brought the system down, a new politics will rise from the wreckage. Yeah, right…

In such circumstances the Tories will win for ever, surely? Not necessarily.

Scotland demonstrates that there is a big appetite for rejectionist anti-austerity politics, if it is given an upbeat populist sheen. Here is the irony: the SNP is marketed and spun to within an inch of its life while lambasting New Labour for spin and lies.

England, of course, as the general election demonstrated, is much more sceptical and still on the whole makes a pragmatic, practical choice unhindered by ideological attachment.

But the economic situation will not be benign in perpetuity. That being the case, and with another recession inevitable at some point (that is the business cycle), the disruptive forces unleashed by new technology are going to do strange things to employment, the shape of the economy and notions of security. The growing power of technology giants and the rise of robotics promises much that is liberating and exciting, although it will pose serious problems in terms of excessive concentrations of power and the threat to democracy. Eventually,  those concerns could go mainstream.

Capitalists, if they care about the economy, a stable political settlement and their fellow citizens, are going to have to tune into this stuff and have a better answer than shrugging and saying “nothing can be done to protect people, it’s the weather, get used to it.” Today’s generation of leaders doesn’t even seem to have begun to consider the consequences or the scope such an abrogation of responsibility offers crazy populists of the left and right.

In a similar context, Teddy Roosevelt was the mainstream master in the early 20th century, a period of rapid industrial and technological change. Roosevelt was not only on a confused moral mission (he was a big game hunter while being an enormously influential conservationist.) He was also practical, and he understood that if capitalists either operated a racket, or were perceived by their fellow citizens to be operating a racket, then the basic market system would be vulnerable to challenge. His job, as he saw it, was to represent the public interest against vested interests, be they a crooked police force when he was a reforming New York City police commissioner or vast, monopolistic concentrations of interest in the oil industry, steel and banking when he was President.

I am not suggesting that Corbyn will single-handedly destroy the market system. Even if he wins the Labour leadership, he will not sweep England with his hard-left programme. His campaign is more evidence, however, that the established British party system is coming apart. Unionist parties have just three seats north of the border and UKIP scored almost four million votes in May. The UK’s governing party, the Conservatives, last had more than one seat in Scotland 18 years ago. Labour is dead in Scotland, which was previously its heartland, and dead or dying in prosperous parts of England. Even with the economy doing well, and Labour’s Ed Miliband polling badly, the Tories won despite failing to break 37% of the vote.

In such a madhouse it possible though that Corbyn will create further chaos and unpredictable upheaval. A new party of the Left could emerge (Labour or some other name if the modernisers can get control of the copyright.) That party could rather easily get four million votes, matching the block of UKIP voters, or possibly far more. Just as the rise of UKIP has had an enormous impact on the British debate on Europe, forcing Cameron into a referendum he did not want as his party felt it needed to counter Farage, a distinct new Left movement would exert a gravitational pull on the centre-left more broadly and on the national conversation about taxation, ownership, profit and constitutional reform of the voting system and the House of Lords. The rise of Corbyn is already forcing terrified Labour moderates such as Andy Burnham to say all sorts of silly stuff. We still await a proper sensible Labour critique of Corbyn and why he is wrong, although Liz Kendall has come closest.

For now, it is deemed amusing. Yet, while the Corbynista declamations against profit (greed they call it) and high pay, and financiers, and markets, and war (what is it good for?) sound ridiculous and extremist now to many people, at the next financial crisis or in a downturn it could resonate with a bigger audience given media exposure. Governments do panic in a crisis, and introduce undesirable measures that cause economic harm, responding to a public clamour fuelled by social media outrage.

Remember too that those pro-Corbyn youngsters – locked out of the housing market, and angry that the government has stacked the system in favour of older voters – are literate in social media. They also have media savvy spokesman such as Owen Jones, and the Nationalist Mhairi Black MP in Scotland, and are intent on creating a movement dedicated to smashing the established order. Imagine what they will say when the next downturn comes.

Once British capitalists have had a good laugh at the rise of Corbyn and the dottiness of his supporters, and written off the Left and declared the Tories winners from here until 2055, they had better have a good response ready that revivifies the case for markets in a time of technological and political transformation.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX