Understanding the Corbyn Phenomenon

by George Hatjoullis

The political and media class seem surprised by the extent of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the election to choose a new Labour Party leader. They should not be. They seem equally appalled and alarmed by the victory. They should not be. The consensus view (of this class) is that a Corbyn led Labour party is unelectable. It is quite electable. The political and media class should not prejudge the British electorate. It is quite capable of making up its own mind and the ability of this class to read the electoral mind has been found wanting. Readers of my relevant blog posts should already be aware of this but let us recap.

On May 3, 2015, just before the election, I published a blog post entitled A Grand Coalition: Labour and Conservative . At this juncture the polls were indicating no majority government and no workable coalition. So I suggested a grand coalition between Labour and Conservative parties. It was slightly tongue in cheek and designed to demonstrate that the problem was the average elector could not see much daylight between the two parties. The Labour Party was not pink but rather a slightly paler version of blue. This was the central problem of Labour’s bid for power and the legacy of the New Labour era. However, Miliband did not grasp this until very late.

On May 9, 2015, just after the election I published British Politics just got interesting. This was my take on what had happened and what it meant. The blog post had one brief paragraph on Labour which I will reproduce here:

Labour did everything wrong. They chose a poor leader. They fudged every issue trying to be all things to all people and fell between all stools available. They need to go back to the drawing board and start again not just on policies but who they are as a party. New Labour is tainted by Blair. His support, as I did Tweet, was the kiss of death. They cannot go back to old Labour run by anachronistic unions. They need to re-invent themselves and probably will. This is going to be an interesting metamorphosis to watch.

Almost prophetic. Where I may have erred was to assume they could not go back to old Labour run by anachronistic unions! Perhaps under Corbyn the unions will be less of an anachronism. The need for re-invention was however immediately clear. Those that represented New Labour (i.e. all but Corbyn) believed they needed to take Labour further right to blur the distinction between Conservatives and Labour further. This was as big a mistake as made by Labour in 1983 when it responded to Thatcher by trying to take Labour further left. I developed this theme in my next blog post.

On July 27, 215, I published UK Politics: the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. This is worth reading if you have not done so and reading again if you have. In this blog I suggested that many previously judged apathetic voters were in fact anything but apathetic. They were frustrated by the lack of a serious choice in British politics and the Corbyn phenomenon was a determined attempt to create some choice. I argued that the alleged un-electability of a Corbyn-led Labour party was irrelevant to all but the career politicians that had hitched their star to New Labour. I also argued that it was untrue. It was a misreading of the election result. The country did not reject Miliband’s Labour because it was too left-wing. It rejected it because it was not sufficiently different from Cameron’s Tory party and the judged Cameron’s Tories more competent ( a judgement I share). Events is Scotland and the phenomenon of the £3 labour voters suggest that a sizeable proportion of the population. hitherto unengaged, wished to engage but further to the left!

The Corbyn victory was far more dramatic than just a £3 a vote phenomenon. Corbyn won the in the first round and in all categories of voter (unheard of). He has a mandate from the membership to create a distinctive shape to Labour policies and put clear daylight between Labour and Conservative (and Liberal Democrat). This implies a shift to the ‘left’, whatever this means. It may mean little more than rejecting monetary and fiscal orthodoxy or, colloquially, austerity.This is less of a shift to the ‘left’ than one might imagine. It is also more popular than one might imagine.

The economics aspect of my blog posts has been a rejection of monetary and fiscal orthodoxy as an ideology. This is not say that there are not occasions when pursuing conservative monetary and fiscal policies is not appropriate. It is merely an assertion (and I hope demonstration) that it is not always appropriate. An ideological commitment (as can be found in the eurozone) is not appropriate and policy needs to be more pragmatic. In my most recent blog post published September 4, 2015, Rendering Corbynomics Safe I explain and elaborate on conditions in which deviation from orthodoxy makes good sense and can be rendered safe. On macro economic policy Corbyn may find a welcome in the country and be thanked by the electorate. The problems, if they arise, will arise in micro economic and social policy, and in foreign and defence policies.

Corbyn has been declared a threat to national security. I suspect this is in part because he does not want UK troops fighting in foreign lands. I am not sure that this is an unpopular view. More controversially, he is against renewal of Trident (our independent nuclear deterrent). This could prove a sticky wicket for him and one he needs to negotiate very carefully. He is also openly welcoming of refugees. This is a divisive issue but hardly something specific to Corbyn. His view and that of Yvette Cooper are hardly different.

On social policy he could score some points. If the conditions allow for some easing of austerity (which I believe is the case) he can reverse some of the welfare cuts imposed by Cameron. However, this is where the micro economics starts to infringe. The Tory agenda on welfare cuts is not simply about austerity. It is about moral hazard. It is about removing incentives not to work. The key phrase relates to people in work not being worse off than people out of work. It is a ‘poor law’ mentality and philosophy (and I addressed in a recent blog post The Return of the Poor laws). It sounds appealing though is not quite so simple and is a dangerous development. Corbyn will challenge this and this may be where the electorate punishes Corbyn. Expenditure on the health service however is always popular.

For me the big issue is the Unions and specifically restrictive practices and strikes. It is not the existence of unions that is the problem but how they function. The old combative unions were important in getting workers rights enshrined in law. They are now enshrined in law and ironically are well protected by the EU. It is the UK that chooses to opt out. The role of unions, it seems, is thus reduced to using their monopsony power to get a bit more cake for their members. This is dangerous (as anyone of my generation will recall). If Corbyn is able to restore this power and decides to do so it will be a retrograde step. It is abuse of union power that destroyed old Labour. If Corbyn can grasp this he may yet end up in Downing street, albeit as leader of a left leaning coalition.

Corbyn’s problem is the parliamentary Labour Party. There is little talent and that may not wish to work with him. If he can get take control of the parliamentary party then he has plenty of scope to put daylight between Labour and Tory. The trick is not to put too much daylight. The electorate will reward a more pragmatic attitude to macro economic policy and more compassion in welfare policy. It will not reward a return to labour unrest. Moreover, he must not go too far in upsetting the ‘Man’, which to say whoever it is that controls UK foreign and defence policy. Modest ambition will yield power in some form and probably benefit most of the population. Too much zeal will be catastrophic for all.