Left-Wing Economic Views are not Jeremy Corbyn's Real Problem
Right now the greatest political show in Britain, at least if one goes by media coverage and Facebook chatter, is the Labour leadership race. British educational institutions are prodigious producers politically ambitious would-be politicians who end up going into consulting, finance, or law, so it has always shocked me that Leadership fights within major UK parties are almost invariably between indistinct individuals who have never once held a job either in the private sector or outside political party employment. So it is with the Labour party, which features Blairite Liz Kendall, who despite being only just over forty, has worked for the Labour party for 22 years, and Brownite Andy Burnham, who has the distinction of having started work as a parliamentary researcher one year later than Kendall, in 1994, yet of beating her into the Commons by almost a decade. Also running is Yvette Cooper, who despite degrees from Oxford, Harvard, and the LSE in Economics which could have gotten her almost any private sector job she desired, chose to also work for the Labour party for twenty-three of the last twenty-five years. At least she spent 18 months as a newspaper correspondent.
This is not meant to be a hit on the British political class. For all the complaints in the British media about them, most voters seem happy with the status quo, much as Massachusetts voters are. Well most of the time. Occasionally voters in Massachusetts have been known to gent antsy with their one-party government, as in 1990 when they not only elected a GOP governor but increased the Republican Senate Caucus from 5 to 16 of 40 seats, the highest number in 60 years. A similar event is happening in the UK, and it is an important context for understanding the question that seems to be perplexing the British left-wing establishment. Namely how a complete lunatic who looks like he wandered out of a Woodstock reunion is currently leading the race for Labour leader.
Forget all the complex explanations, often the simplest answer is the correct one. All one has to do to figure out why Jeremy Corbyn is winning is to look at his opponents. Does anyone one of them look like someone you could imagine as Prime Minister? Would you even want one of them as Prime Minister? The fact that the other Labour candidates, ostensibly the party's best shot at recovering power, have been reduced to running on the platform that they have more appeal to swing voters than Jeremy Corbyn, a guy who proudly was photographed with Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams at lunch last week and has likely not been seen in a suit since the 80s, is all the indictment one needs of their appeal.
They are not individuals so much as representatives of vague ideological positions given their complete lack of biography or personality - the "Blairite", the "Brownite", "The Leftwing but not as leftwing as Jeremy Corbynite". This has led many to question whether if they cannot in fact beat Jeremy Corbyn, might he not in fact be better for the party in a general election? After all, he generates real enthusiasm, especially among groups that take their failure to win elections as evidence and excuse for the claim that they are unlikely to turn out to vote. Furthermore, he will "aggressively challenge the narrative of austerity", whatever that means beyond plagiarizing Paul Krugman's latest column for the House of Commons record. Wouldn't that contrast be potentially dangerous for the Tories?
Maybe. The Tories have more dangers lying in wait for 2020 than it appears, two of which are named Theresa May and Boris Johnson, one a caricature of a hard-line Home Secretary who seems to have forgotten it was only supposed to be an act, and the other a privileged bully whose inebriated victory speech on election night should cast fear into the heart of any Tory mad enough to want to fight a general election under his banner. Their economic recovery is also far more fragile than it was sold as in May, undermined second-hand by the impacts of the Chinese slowdown on the United States and global capital markets, as well as many of the policies being instituted by Ms. May. In the event anything goes wrong, either because the Tories did something stupid, or because someone else like Frau Merkel, or Comrade Varoufakis indulge their desire to see the world burn, the incumbent government will be blamed for it. Which is why Labour likely made a massive tactical mistake in supporting the government's welfare changes. Either things will go well, and no one will care about the poor, or things will go badly, and everyone will blame whatever the Tories did. That Fox Hunting legalization sure crashed the property market now didn't it?
Yet embracing a populist economic message is easier said than done for leftwing parties. There is, in fact, a major popular swing in developed countries away from Neoliberal economics, but only a Vox writer, or Syriza member could be foolish enough to mistake it for a move to left. Rather it is a "Nationalist" trend, which involves an increased suspicion of the "other". To the delight of radicals, it does include an increased skepticism of multinational corporations, outsourcing, and the wealthy capitalists who love it, but it is matched with an equally strong aversion to immigration, especially of the poor or asylum seekers, to bailing out others, and to the weird intellectual fads that this generation of Lefties has embraced. As such, the rise of the Swedish Democrats and Danish Peoples' Party is part of the same upsurge that elected SYRIZA. Voters are unhappy with their economic state and blame the elite, but they blame the elite for selling them out to foreigners, for subsidizing cheap foreign workers through the welfare state working people built, and then it's ensuing collapse as an excuse to get rid of it. Labour can talk about protecting the NHS all.it wants, but if it prioritizes putting the entire population of Eritrea on it as a form of social justice, no one will take such protestations of fealty seriously.
And for good reason. In the developed world Left itself has changed since the 1970s, and the average Leftist is far too Bourgeois to ever react to genuine populism with anything short of terror. Lefties might like to talk about the poor in abstract, but since the 1970s they have cared far more about pet social issues than about economic policy, and when faced with a choice of surrendering either social or economic leftism to achieve power, have 100% of the time chosen to dump the latter. Blairism confirmed a softer and gentler Thatcherite consensus in the economic sphere while setting off one of Britain's greatest cultural and social revolutions, especially on issues of gay rights. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it provided the perception to many of those left out of the economic revolution that they mattered less to the Labour party than a female Oxbridge-trained Barrister or a gay stockbroker to the Blairite Labour party. Not least because it was to a degree true. It is therefore impossible to separate the new leftwing economic populism from social conservatism not because its proponents are socially conservative themselves, most are in fact indifferent, but because they are suspicious of social liberals generally. Two decades have taught them that the choice between economic and social leftism is a zero-sum game, and that anyone talking a socially liberal case will sell out their economic interests in a heartbeat. It is class-war, 21st century style. What any left-wing party therefore confronts among the "lost" voters is not so much a caricature of social conservatism, as Brown mocked and Miliband pretended to pander to, but rather a profound suspicion of social liberals, especially when they come from elite backgrounds.
Jeremy Corbyn's problem is not that he proposes to fight a class war. Plenty of leaders have done quite well in that task, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, even the Chavista regime in Venezuala which has moved in the opposite direction from European leftists, going from early pioneers to for gay rights to imitating Putin's crackdown on "subversive" LGBT organizations. Corbyn's problem is that he is proposing to fight a late-20th century class war in the 21st century. This is doubly foolish. Not only has the left never actually one such a contest, but late 20th century class wars are, as the American example shows, inherently "culture wars" on social issues. And contrary to the talk about austerity, or Joseph Stiglitz enthusiasm, that is precisely the sort of class war Jeremy Corbyn intends to fight. His entire career has shown him far more concerned with global issues of "moral" and "international" justice, than with the sort of assault on income inequality in defense of a strong middle class Stiglitz or Krugman advocate.
As such, worries about his economic views are beside the point. They are extreme and would, it is true, be a serious obstacle to a Labour party under his leadership getting much over 33% of the vote. But they won't matter because Jeremy Corbyn is going to be struggling to get to the high 20s due to the fact that he has internalized every fad of the last few decades, Worried about Nuclear Power due to bad Commie Not Real Communist maintenance at Chernobyl? Jeremy has you covered, though he thinks Iran is only exercising its rights under current international law. Still angry over the injustice of the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty? Well Jeremy is incensed to, and is willing to break bed with those prepared to kill over it. Think that the Balfour Declaration was pushed through by those evil non-existent Jewish Members of the War Cabinet? Jeremy agrees with his friends in Hezbollah and Hamas on that one too?
Ultimately, Corbyn's problem is not just his fringe positions on these issues, which not only are unpopular but go against the actual trend in European electorates. Rather, it is that they make him hostage to unsavory people. If he becomes PM can he credibly deal with the devolved government in Northern Ireland? Would they trust him? And if he comprised would not Sinn Fein feel betrayed and would he not then be held hostage politically to any misbehavior on their part? This is doubly true of Hamas and Hezbollah, attacks by either of which would be rapidly followed by Tory attacks replaying his "friends" remarks until Labour fell towards 1930 lows.
Those are probably Corbyn's most easy to explain views. The issues of the day in social liberalism have always been faddish, and such fads in Western society are generational, and technology has made generations shorter than ever. At the same time they have become utterly indecipherable to anyone outside of the class elite of the select generational cohort that embraces them,
If the issue of the 1980s was Nuclear Power, the 1990s multiculturalism and affirmative action, the noughties Iraq, and the early part of this decade Gay Rights, all of these were issues that were easy toe explain, and had clear consequences. Contrast that with the current issue du jour, "Feminism". Not "Feminism" in the historic tradition of those who risked their careers and very lives for equality of opportunity and within the family, but in the weird, Marxist Post-Modernist theoretical sense which is built around jargon that means absolutely nothing to almost anyone born more than five years outside of the period 1991-1995. One need only gaze at the list of books that Buzzfeed helpfully listed as "introductory reading" and see whether one can comprehend anything on the page to get a preview of how a lot of "lingo" of a Corbynite Labour party will appear to many of the lost, working-class, voters Corbyn hopes to appeal to. Even his critics will struggle to comprehend what he is saying, which is the reason they will respond to it as they generally have to the current Feminist challenge, with mockery of its complexity rather than through engagement with its critiques.
That is the real problem faced by Corbyn. Not his economic views, but that as Labour party leader he would never be allowed to talk about them. Not while leader of the opposition, and definitely not during a referendum campaign. Statements that might not raise eyebrows from others, such as saying Karl Marx was significant(sadly true), will be blown out of proportion. Even on economic issues of principle, he will appear a heartless psychopath, as when he divorced his wife over her desire to send their child to a grammar school.
What will become impossible is the debate Labour claims to want, namely one over the question of austerity. Those on the Left who think the Tories may fear a genuine intellectual challenge overstate their case, but are not entirely wrong. While they may nevertheless feel confident fighting the next election on economic issues, they would much rather fight it on Hamas and Hezbollah, the IRA, or Radical Feminist critiques of society. Doing so would free them from having to defend their record by simply allowing them to point to how insane their opponents seem.
On the other-hand embracing populism would allow Labour to build political support for higher minimum wages, greater house construction, and government investment generally. There is a nice, juicy target in the form of the issue of a third runway for Heathrow which makes perfect economic and environmental sense, but is being blocked do to the location lying in the middle of several Tory constituencies. Running on building it and reducing wait times would be the sort of class warfare Labour could win. But that sort of populism, while allowing Labour to turn sentiment against the ruling class, would also require Labour to embrace aspects they are less comfortable with. An influx of cheap labour especially from new EU members has all but driven native Britons from entry-level service jobs, with hardly a single native English speaker at a Starbucks or Costa in London. Labour has tried to thread a needle by providing a common enemy for both poor English and poor Romanians in the elite, but has nevertheless championed the economic interests of that elite because in a number of cases, including most prominently the EU and poor migrants, the economic interests of the elite have been transformed into the social values of the Left. As to another concern, that of English citizens who have seen their towns become almost foreign with an influx of strange looking people who wear strange clothing, worship in strange buildings, and keep to themselves, the Left, and Labour, reject the idea that homogeneity can have any value whatsoever and malign anyone concerned with it as a racist. An economic message might help Labour to appeal to English working-class white males, but not if the perception is that the party remains anti-English, anti-white, and anti-male.
Corbyn's opponents have not tried to make this case, prefering instead to fight on economic ground where they are in a weaker position, both regarding their own party electorate and the median general election voter. Partially this is because the Labour party at the grassroots level has created an environment of groupthink on "social issues" whereby those who disagree remain silent so as to avoid trouble with the really extreme advocates of one issue or another who will disrupt any assembly and make any meeting about themselves in order to get their way. This has created a perception that to challenge such orthodoxy is more trouble than it is worth, and Tim Farron's recent experience of non-stop questions as to his religious views of the morality of homosexuality stands as a warning. But Corbyn's views are unpopular in isolation, and toxic in combination, and someone should get up there and point that out. Either Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall would have more grounds to challenge him as female candidates on a host of issues, while Burnham would could simply show a picture of Corbyn with Gerry Adams at a debate. But all want the second preferences of his supporters and none want to alienate a small but extremely committed interest group. And so his foes will be left wondering how they are losing to this guy.