Tuesday 10 January 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's Populist Turn

I love me some ironies, and one is doing the rounds about Jeremy Corbyn. Whether you're a fully paid up admirer or critic of his leadership, we can all agree on one thing: we know where he stands. It was his simple anti-austerity message that powered him into Labour's top job and saw it confirmed amid one of the biggest shit storms ever seen in British politics. And yet on a number of pressing problems and Westminster hobby horses, there is uncertainty about his positions. Everyone knows where Jeremy stands, but no one knows where Jeremy stands - a political quantum state worthy of Schrödinger himself.

This is perhaps a touch unfair as the two respectively denote principles and detail. It's the latter, not the former that's hazy. Nevertheless, if Corbynism is to have a lasting impact on the party and politics long after the leader's departure from the scene we need detail now. And a bit of detail is what we got with today's first policy speech since the populist turn was mooted. Unfortunately, Corbyn 2.0 didn't get off to a flying start. An about-turn on EU free movement post-Brexit was widely trailed overnight. What? Apparently, Labour is not "wedded" to it. This was immediately spun as a change in Jeremy's long-held and principled views on immigration, while in fact he was just speaking a truth about Labour's position: while his leadership is comfortable with an opposition to immigration controls, the party as a whole has only recently adopted this position and would lurch back to pandering rather than challenging the bullshit said and written about newcomers. In other words, it's a hint that the policy could change at some point even though his views haven't.

As readers know, I'm all for nuanced discussion of issues and policy, but a major announcement is probably not the place for it. I can understand why Jeremy and his team are trying to square the circle. We all know about those "genuine concerns" fanned by assorted papers and politicians for decades, and a large number of people in the party - not just the PLP, not just "the Blairites" - support border controls too, albeit for a number of reasons. This convoluted fuss is about facing both ways, of being principled and trying to manage the party but not satisfying partisans of either camp. Jeremy has repeatedly defined himself as someone who argues for the cultural, social and economic benefits of immigration and he has an opportunity to go all out and challenge received wisdom on this issue. And he should - Labour under his leadership cannot hope to make much headway unless it lances the immigration boil, and in no uncertain terms he must abandon the liberal position and take up a class position, such as attacking anti-immigration rhetoric as a tactic of divide and rule. It's what a good populist would do.

What a mess, eh? Yet Labour still carried the day. The populist turn has given us the high pay cap, and this is exactly the sort of thing Corbyn's leadership needs to do more of. Not just because I agree with it (which I do), but because a) it's eye catching, and b) it puts the government on the back foot. Eye-catching isn't a good in and of itself, after all being noticeable didn't make Nigel Farage anything but repugnant for the vast majority of voters. But it's clear, connotes a system rigged for the rich, taps into a deep sense of unfairness that has hitherto been exploited successfully by the right, and is the sort of thing that might fire the latent Labourist imaginations of voters that have drifted from the party. Or at least cause them to take another look.

Second, as May is making a play for some of Labour's rhetorical ground with the shared society wheeze, Corbyn's counter-stroke immediately puts her on the defensive. How can one be for fairness if she's not willing to tackle a very visible manifestation of inequality? What is also of interest is attaching "progressive" conditions to government contracts, and making sure workers have representation on remuneration committees - an idea so bolshevist that it's common practice on the continent. But again, there was some confusion in the presentation. Is the cap compulsory or voluntary? Is it required of public sector contracts only? How can it be implemented? Yet the populist power of the message is such that these were drowned out by the principle of the thing. On Channel 4 News this evening, for instance, Telegraph deputy editor Allister Heath was forced to indulge a bit of post-truth bullshittery of his own to defend the indefensible salaries and perks of our most handsomely remunerated, predict disaster if it ever came to pass, and so on.

If this is what the new left populism is going to look like, then good. Tilting the centre of political gravity in a socialist direction will later put Labour in a better political place. In fact, we can only hope to win if we make the political weather. Today, however, the leadership got lucky. The high pay cap was the take home and the confusion around it and immigration will be forgotten, but this cannot be counted on again. A clear message demands clear and consistent messaging. If this doesn't get sorted, then the populist experiment is doomed before it properly begins.


Anonymous said...

Corbyn said some good things yesterday. He hit the right note with high level pay, and made strong points about using the tax system to encourage/reward good corporate behaviour.

But.....he managed to muddle the message and his delivery is lifeless. Plus, he really isn't the sharpest tool in the box, something that sustained scrutiny and sharp questioning is going to reveal in very short order.

Still believe he is ill equipped to lead a major political party but some of what he brought up yesterday should be fertile ground for Labour. Against that his meek acceptance of brexit and failure to make any meaningful gesture towards managing immigration are things that could impact the party from two different directions.


qwertboi said...

I think what happened here was that Corbyn went 'off script' and expressed a personal opinion.

OBVIOUSLY, the well-trained journalist (who'd read the Labour Party briefing notes) noticed the 'deviation' and had to push it. BUT - and this is politics - the enemy press prioritised it to maximise the opportunity to diminish and ridicule Corbyn. The PLP (mostly) behaved well in resisting the enemy press'invitations to distance themselves from Corbyn's non party policy 'opinion' and reignite the atrocious disloyalty thatharmed the party these last 7 months. (Blanchflower and the superb Richard Murray can constructively critique Corbyn's off message conversation point).

Corbyn will, I hope, learn an important lesson from today and discipline himself better in the future. He's not a farage or a trump who are never ridiculed for their opinions, but the leader of Europe's largest political party and the nearest thing to an effective threat to the neoliberal hegemony and is thus terrifying its mouthpieces who will afford him no slack.

Stay 'on message' Jeremy, stay disciplined and keep it simple. Even with yesterday's errors, your anti-austerity USP is today in places it doesn't mormally reach - and your approval rating and the party's electoral prospects are sure to improve.

Ed said...

In fairness, you can fault JC for his 'meek acceptance of brexit', or for for his 'failure to make any meaningful gesture towards managing immigration', but you can't really fault him for both. If Labour's policy was to go full-steam against Brexit like the Lib Dems (who know it can't work, but think they could make some electoral hay with that line), they couldn't simultaneously be promising tight controls on immigration from EU countries. It's one or the other. It's not been an impressive sight, to put it mildly, to see all those Labour politicians who accused Corbyn of sabotaging the Remain campaign or at least not showing enough enthusiasm for the EU back in the summer lining up to attack him for not taking a hawkish line on immigration (Guardian columnists like Toynbee and Freedland and the FT's leader writers have been doing exactly the same).

Reasonable point on delivery, though. That's one issue with this would-be populist turn: you really need to sound angry when you're delivering those lines, and Corbyn isn't the angriest of politicians. Either he needs to learn how to do it, or they need to get other front-line politicians to step in.

Roger McCarthy said...

Sorry but 'high pay cap' shows disturbing lack of understanding of how capitalism works.

Real rich people don't get that way by just having oodles of money paid to them as wages - in fact they scorn such terms as wages and salaries in favour of 'compensation' or 'remuneration' or 'emoluments'.

'Cap' 'wages' at 1 million and they will simply shift to increasing use of share options and payments into pension pots and the many other creative ways which corporations find to enrich their executives.

Whole notion is simply absurd and product of an utterly mediocre mind which still sees capitalism through prism of some ancient Boulting Brothers film and not the endlessly protean global system it actually is.

Igor Belanov said...

The whole idea that there should be something we can call 'Corbynism' that provides ready-made answers for a range of political issues seems to me to be somewhat disturbing.

I got the impression from Corbyn's two leadership campaigns that the idea was that the party would be democratised and that the general outline of policy would be decided by the membership, at least. So far various internal party issues and broader policy questions have been ignored or sidelined, including such things as mandatory reselection and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Others don't even seem to have reached the agenda. Meanwhile, people appear to be waiting on what Corbyn has to say, despite the fact that he has never been any kind of intellectual and many Labour politicians have made it quite clear that there is little they agree with.

I would have thought that it was about time that the party sorted out its own policy-making channels and whatever 'isms' result represent some kind of collective effort.

Gary Elsby said...

I'm not that sure of the pay cap.
Perhaps Labour should look more towards the pay gap between Directors and owners and their workforce with a reasonable differential between the two.
I'm doubting the Labour 'populist' approach hoping that there is enough anger in the masses to make this work.
The media approach though is duly noted and had me going all day.
On reflection, I know of no policy 'wedded' to immigration and free movement f which gave me the opportunity to write my own in the General Election of 2010.
My view was that free movement, which was causing trouble for Labour before 1995 (1998 being the delayed gate opening from Romania), should be managed rather than having a controversial free for all.
I personally have no problem with free movement but it has been used as a weapon to batter the left with by the populist right wing.
My view suggested a controlled immigration policy based on the criteria we have for EU funding and each Country should allow so many per-cent with Germany taking the most.This would allow authorities to manage any squeeze on infrastructure, especially if a hold was put in place every so often.