Humble pie is a difficult dish to eat. I have had to eat a very large helping when it comes to the Labour Party, after their success in the general election. But now Labour’s Autumn conference is over, I need to venture back into the fray.
On reflection, I got two things badly wrong. The first was the leadership’s competence under Jeremy Corbyn. I based my scepticism on the ineffectiveness of Labour in parliament before the election, amongst other things. The second was that Labour would be able to defy the conventional wisdom about the “middle ground” by bringing large numbers of new voters into the fray. That was based on all manner of past experience. Basing conclusions on evidence is all very well and good, but the danger is that it leads to driving through the rear mirror. Also I had little direct experience of what was happening in the party, and was relying too much on journalistic sources, even if much of this came from Labour insiders.
During the election the leadership showed increasing command of the political game. They produced an excellent manifesto (in terms of its political usefulness, rather than as a programme for government) and showed a really good grasp of modern campaigning techniques. Since the election, Labour’s parliamentary game has been much better. And Mr Corbyn pops up on the radio sounding relaxed and in command of his brief. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, appears terrified of any encounter that involves her having to answer questions or explain herself. She delivers carefully worded set-piece speeches, and then runs for cover.
All those Labour activists that I dismissed as delusional must be feeling vindicated. If there is a bit of euphoria going on, that is completely understandable. Is there hubris? Clearly there is among some supporters, but I have underestimated the leadership before and I don’t want to do it again. It looks more to me that they are moving from Phase I of their plan to Phase II in a highly businesslike manner.
It is not surprising that many Labour supporters think that an election victory and government are within their grasp. There are quite a few sceptics, who pore through the entrails (or “evidence”) to show how difficult or unprecedented this might be. The Tories did well in northern working class seats, for example: can Labour really hold onto these at the same time as making further progress in metropolitan seats? And so on. But for once I’m with the Labour optimists. The Conservatives are now in complete disarray. They may be able to avoid some of the mistakes of June’s election, but without consistent, strong leadership they will be starting from a much weaker position. Labour, meanwhile have built up more credibility, and can catch a sense that it is time for a change from that conventional wisdom that leftists call “neoliberalism”. Labour can do it.
When trying to think back to a precedent in British politics I struggled a bit. Tony Blair, also up against a Tory party that had lost the will to win, used a completely different strategy. His revolution was of style only; in policy he closely matched the Conservatives, except for a few, carefully chosen policies that he could put on a small pledge card. I have called it “the same, only different” after an advertising slogan for a product I have long forgotten. Mr Corbyn promises a real revolution. True he is vague about the details. And the manifesto was considered quite moderate by many – in line with standard European socialist thinking, it is said (though what has happened to those European socialist parties doesn’t bear thinking too hard about). But the core ideas are a radical departure from conventional wisdom, even if that wisdom is looking rather tired.
It then occurred to me what it reminded me of: Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1970s. Mrs Thatcher too took over her party’s leadership in opposition, after a humiliating defeat. And she struggled at first to impose her authority, and to present an electorally favourable image. She stuck to a radical, if vague, policy vision, which broke from the consensus. But the government (also in minority) was in disarray, and she managed to secure a victory after an election forced by a confidence vote. All this looks very like Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party. Are we on the threshold of 18 years of Labour rule that will transform Britain?
There are some shadows. First there is Mr Corbyn himself. He is now much more confident and energetic. But there are two questions. How long can he keep up being all things to all people? It doesn’t seem to matter what he actually says, people project their wishes onto him. He draws in Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike. Some people think he will abolish student debt, or implement electoral reform, though he has never said he would. I haven’t seen anything like it since the early days of Tony Blair. The second question is how long he can keep going physically? He is in his seventies. He can do one more election, for sure – but not Mrs Thatcher’s three. Securing a successor who can maintain the momentum looks very hard. I might yet be surprised on this – but I have seen younger leadership prospects come and go (remember Lisa Nandy?). They may be attractive in their way, but they lack weight somehow. Rebecca Long-Bailey is now talked of as the rising star. How long will that last?
The second shadow is over the party itself. Any successful political party is a coalition of people who don’t really like each other – but Labour have taken this to an extreme. Close to the heart of the new party is a group of people who are, shall we say, not very nice. The online (and sometimes physical) abuse of people that disagree with them is shocking. The BBC correspondent Laura Kuenssberg needed a bodyguard at the party conference. On the other hand, this looks like the flipside of the drive and ruthlessness that is responsible for the party’s unexpected success. These are people who have been fighting against the odds for their whole political lives. The danger is that the many thousands of newer members, who still have some belief in decency and pluralism, get put off. I have to be a bit careful here. A lot of my information comes from the usual unreliable sources. And the party leadership may be more on top of the problem than I think. And at the moment, it needs to be said, Labour is more united than it has been for a long time. But that is partly because they are choosing not to bring divisive issues, not least Brexit, to a head.
And the third shadow is policy. It may constitute a radical departure from neoliberalism, but that doesn’t make it the right direction to address the country’s many problems. A lot of it reads like a throwback to the policies of Labour in the 1970s. There may be some talk of decentralisation, helping communities and giving people a voice – but the overwhelming ethos of Labour is for big government solutions imposed by a insightful elite, as it always has been. A National Education Service, for example, is their answer to Britain’s education issues. To be fair, though, their new ideas on rent controls are about giving local politicians the power to intervene, rather than trying to impose the same solution on everybody. Am I underestimating the leadership again, as I did before their manifesto? I need to be careful.
I am a bit torn. One part of me wants to give Labour the benefit of the doubt – and hope that genuinely innovative policy ideas lurk behind the 1970s camouflage. Another part of me is a bit scared. I see a ruthless elite clinging to power by undermining our democratic institutions, as their policy solutions fall apart and people turn against them. For now the jury is out.