Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
– Paradise Lost, John Milton
It’s an odd situation for the odd couple now at the top of the party. Presumably Corbyn and McDonnell thought (at the beginning at least) they were just getting another run out for their leftist ideas.
Little did they suspect that the Blairites had nothing left to fight them with. Or that their procession to power would be met with such little resistance. The soul it seems had already left Labour’s body.
It’s as though the party had been living on a set of ‘learned’ regulations, whether or not the needs of those doing the teaching suited the party as a whole or not.
As Paul notes:
Darwinian ‘natural selection’ didn’t point to a ‘survival of the fittest’. It suggested a survival based on the ability to adapt. No-one could look at Labour over the past 20 years and say “there’s a vibrant and competitive market for new ideas and different approaches”.
Monocultures are notoriously vulnerable to sudden events. Finally in a position to confront its own unresolved inner conflicts, Labour now threatens to sweep Blairism from the annals of its own history.
Understandable, given the divisions and exclusions from power. But it would be a big mistake. What the Blair/Brown dual monarchy lacked in democratic instincts it compensated for with focus. They got things done. Here’s a few, top-of-head examples.
Brown’s decision to set up an independent Central Bank helped nail inflation, apparently for good. They renewed a school estate that the Tories had allowed to decay, via a massive capital investment programme, the length and breadth of the UK.
Labour also massively invested in and modernised the NHS without resorting to privatisation. When they came into government in 1997 the Cancer waiting list was 11 months. People were dying because they had to wait too long for life saving treatment.
When they left office in 2010 cancer patients just had a two week wait. There are people alive today (many of them who will have voted Conservative in May) who have absolutely no clue what the Labour party has done for them.
It’s not as though the former Blair supporters don’t feel the conflict themselves. As Alex Evans admits…
Truth is, I feel deeply conflicted about the result. I voted Kendall, Cooper, Burnham because I want Labour to win elections; yet my main feeling about the Blair and Brown eras is one of disappointment. Sure, there were successes – but bloody modest ones, given the scale of the 97 landslide. I want a radical alternative for the 21st century.
Alternative, yes. That’s what oppositions are supposed to offer. But an alternative to what? Looking at the House of Commons there are some indications of where a serious Labour party should look to cause trouble.
There’s the disappearance of 1 million public sector jobs in last five years. Osborne plans to double that within two budgetary cycles.
Welfare reform has sliced the numbers claiming disability benefit and capped housing benefit. Dwindling stocks of social housing are being recycled into the housing market. The Tory reform is almost completely embedded, and up to now it has been largely unopposed.
Housing is politically insoluble for the Conservatives. In southern England (just one of several crucial area for a Labour fight back) that means tackling planning, which Green Belt Tories have little or no political appetite for.
The NHS been distracted from its primary healthcare task by reforms that few people inside the system understand and have created a staffing crisis that may take another five to ten years to fix.
Osborne’s northern powerhouse model of devolution handily palms responsibility for administering cuts off to large, Labour controlled councils who have undertaken the task with some relish. They are shortly to be given their reward by being asked to cut more.
In education the Tories are moving in the opposite direction by removing schools from local democratic oversight via the Academy model once championed by Labour themselves. Teacher Francis Gilbert was once a Blairite fan, but now argues that:
…not only does the program not raise academic standards but, as a recent National Audit Office report shows, actually nurtures secrecy, poor financial management and, in an ever growing number of cases, corruption.
All seemingly undetected by the Miliband radar. This sotto voce rewiring of the modern British state has been conducted via a form of Nudge warfare in which nothing appears to be changing until everything has changed. One synaptic nerve cut after the other.
The upside for Corbyn is the opportunity to start from scratch, and to source, test and evaluate new ideas. And yes, undertake some unlearning of old Blairite nostrums and bromides. It’s not that there’s any big rush either.
So what’s the downside? Most of the electoral logic of how a Corbyn led Labour party will recover doesn’t quite stack up. He may get a recovery in the party’s Scottish Parliamentary seats, but still register as minus figures. Nicola’s upgrade effect remains potent.
As The Historian notes:
[The] Corbynites’ mistake here is to imagine that the SNP is indeed the Left-wing party that it claims to be, rather than a centrist party of ‘the nation’ with radical trappings (and the occasional Left-wing policy).
Seat gains from converting Green voters are negligible, and any recovery against further UKIP encroachment is a strictly a prevention measure not a cure. The youth vote has already been curtailed by the Tory’s Individual Voter Registration reform in the last Parliament.
The only viable front which holds out the possibility of big Labour gains is the huge one with the Tories, the very crossover constituency Mr Corbyn and his large band of followers seem least interested in.
This afternoon Mr Corbyn was oddly effective in his gentlemanly exchanges with David Cameron. Pitching detailed questions from ordinary people had the effect of slowing down the exchange and making the PM’s generic responses look oddly evasive.
His weak point at PMQs however lay not in his own crowd-sourced performance, but the lack of any broad political message from his backbenchers. That may just because of his commitment to bottom up policy making.
Nothing lasts forever, especially not public popularity. IDS got 61% of the Tory party leadership vote and lasted just two years. Podemos is faltering in Spain and Syriza have yet to get the public’s verdict on their own anti austerity U turn in Greece.
Corbyn’s anti charisma may be impeccable, but in the final reckoning Mr Corbyn will be judged not just on his capacity (or otherwise) to re-invigorate and recharge Labour, or indeed whether he’s Prime Ministerial material.
But whether he (and his party) can connect with and give life to the underlying issues taxing a broad swathe of UK citizens, and begin to call this post Blairite Tory government to some account.
Describing the world as it’s lived by ordinary people is at least a useful beginning.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty