• Who Is Jeremy Corbyn?

    For New Zealand students of current affairs, the contest for the leadership of the UK Labour Party involves four names that will mean little – and, in that, they will not be too different from observers of the contest in the UK itself. Yet the emergence of one of the four candidates – Jeremy Corbyn – as the unexpected front-runner is worth a second look, not least for the lessons it might offer to left-of-centre parties around the globe.

    Corbyn is a parliamentary veteran who has spent 32 relatively low-profile years on the backbenches – eleven of them, as it happens, while I was also in parliament. His reputation is that of an old-fashioned leftie – and he may have skeletons in his cupboard, especially involving his links with suspect overseas organisations.

    Yet the polls show him leading his middle-of-the-road, “safety first” rivals by a substantial margin. His candidature seems to have enthused Labour voters, both actual and potential, to the extent that over 100,000 new members have joined the party, and his public meetings have attracted huge audiences.

    His surprise success has produced an outraged reaction and dire warnings from the Labour party’s usual power-brokers. Tony Blair has predicted the end of the Labour party if Corbyn is elected. Other leading figures have tried to sabotage the election itself or have refused – without actually having been made any offers – to serve in a Corbyn cabinet.

    These reactions reflect what are no doubt genuine fears about his likely appeal to the wider electorate – though, unexpectedly, the polls show he is now the most popular of the candidates, not just with Labour voters, but with voters generally.

    What is surprising, however, is that the critics focus on the supposedly extreme nature of Corbyn’s policy prescriptions, especially in the realm of economic policy. Yet, as 40 reputable economists have declared this week in an open letter, Corbyn’s economic policy may be at odds with current orthodoxy but is really no more than common sense.

    It seems, for example, that – shock, horror – Corbyn and his advisers do not believe that austerity is the proper or effective response to recession. This is more or less the position reached by the IMF and endorsed now by a growing number of (in some cases, Nobel Prize-winning) economists. It is in essence no more than mainstream Keynesian economics. We can see the consequences of its rejection in the problems faced by an austerity-ridden euro zone.

    Corbyn also takes issue with the peculiarly British version of austerity – the insistence that the wealthy should be spared, with the help of tax cuts and quantitative easing, from taking any responsibility for recovery, while the burdens are heaped instead on the most vulnerable, whose job prospects and living standards have taken massive hits. Corbyn seems to assert, reasonably enough, that a serious effort to bring about a sustainable recovery requires that every shoulder should be put to the wheel.

    A Corbyn government would also recognise, it seems, that there might actually be a case for government playing its proper role in achieving a fair, balanced and productive economy. It’s enough to make the blood run cold! Yet surely, it makes sense for a government to use – alongside the private sector – its powers and resources to do the things that the private sector cannot, or at least will not, do.

    And, Corbyn asks, why is quantitative easing fine when used to bale out the banks yet not for investment in new productive capacity and jobs? The fact that questions and policies such as these create so much alarm and despondency among Labour’s erstwhile and would-be leaders tells us more about them and the current state of the Party than it does about the merits of the policies themselves.

    Oddly enough, the one point about a Corbyn economic policy that should raise an eyebrow is his acceptance that priority must be given to eliminating the “deficit” – though, like so many others, he seems to confuse the government’s deficit with the country’s. We must assume that this commitment is there as a concession to the ignorance of an electorate that has never been told that to treat the government’s deficit in isolation is an economic nonsense. And getting the economy moving properly is, in any case, the most effective way of getting that government deficit down.

    The Corbyn economic policy platform, in other words, is comfortably in line with what is fast becoming the new consensus – less doctrinaire and more common sense than the old orthodoxy. The other three candidates who have said nothing of consequence about the real issues of economic policy and have accordingly left a vacuum for Jeremy Corbyn to fill have no one but themselves to blame if they have been left floundering in his wake.

    Whether these factors will actually produce a Corbyn leadership remains to be seen, but he has certainly re-vitalised the Party and enthused potential Labour voters. By opening up a long overdue debate, he has re-defined the political landscape and offered new hope to those who have been conditioned to believe that “there is no alternative”. Labour leaders elsewhere, not least in New Zealand, will – or should – be watching closely.

    Bryan Gould

    22 August 2015.

     

     

5 Comments

  1. Alan says: August 23, 2015 at 7:09 amReply

    Hi Bryan,

    Good column – I would say that NZ students of current affairs need to be well aware of the four names, in particular Corbyn, if they are to call themselves actual students of current affairs.

    For this student of current affairs, the ructions and arguments against our own Labour party has been interesting in that it seems to have repeated itself over there in the fallout from the British General Election. Very similar arguments, similar media framing, similar lines of attack.

    This should be no surprise: the National party pay the same consultants, CrosbyTextor, even to the extent of CT recycling “Brighter Future” slogans (I idly wonder if they simply shipped over the same hoardings for Cameron to use at times…). From “Welfare to Work” sloganeering and policy recycled through MSD, to the blatant lying about where the UK’s asset base is being stripped and shipped to, our own business sector rub their hands with as equal glee as those in the City in London.

    Anti-Corybanites, so to speak, must be up in arms at the recent Open Letter which included a significant amount of “Establishment” voices (no less than some ex-Bank of England governors) putting paid to the rampant scaremongering levelled at Corbyn in terms of the economic policy.

    We have the same brand of “austerity politics”, just nauseatingly being shunted through under the radar, sometimes it is obvious, other times not so much. Australia has been advised to follow Key’s ‘leadership’ in this area, and their failure at selling it has been characterised as not adhering to the one rule Key advised the Queensland Premier (before that leader lost his seat in a rout), which was to introduce such policies incrementally, and by stealth. The end result is the same, however: a total aborgation by the Government of its fundamental duty to its most vulnerable citizens. Removal of the word “State” when discussing housing to the flagrantly propagandised “Social Housing” is nothing more than a simply mind trick designed to get voters thinking of anything but a government duty to this section of society. I imagine it assuages someones guilt somewhere down the line.

    Notable in that debate was John Armstrong criticising the policy not for the end result, but for the packaging – the policy is in trouble not because the substance of it is flawed, but because it hasn’t been sold correctly. Too often people don’t read between the lines of our own Establishment so-called criticisms.

    But so too then with the British Establishment figures – there are many parallels as they go through their own upheavals, and the leadership contest and the voices against are despairingly similar in too many ways to the voices against our own Labour party – and indeed anything on the Left by and large.

    It is therefore a Party election that should be watched with very close interest. This student of current affairs is certainly watching very, very closely!

  2. Jeremy Callaghan says: August 23, 2015 at 7:18 amReply

    Bryan, Corbyn’s old-fashioned leftism may be just the reason for his appeal. It suggests principles and policies based on social justice rather than on greed and grab. And, as you say, old-fashioned leftie economic policy seems now to be the new orthodoxy. The 41 economists who wrote their open letter include a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee and they declare (amongst other things) that Corbyn’s “opposition to austerity is actually mainstream economics”.

    Perhaps UK society has had its fill of the old-fashioned righties – Blairite or Tory – and is looking to Corbyn to define a new consensus which isn’t afraid to incorporate valuable thinking from the past?

  3. Jim Rawe says: August 24, 2015 at 12:28 amReply

    Thanks Bryan. There is nothing so radical and worrying about JC’s economic proposals, unless you’ve spent much of the last decade or more building a political career around an accommodation with the neoliberal ‘free market’ consensus that values ‘incentives’ to the very wealthy over all else.

  4. Patrick Holt says: September 11, 2015 at 4:32 pmReply

    It should be obvious by now, although it is still eluding the majority of the press here, that when something like this happens, particularly on the left of politics, where lefties often feel battered and unloved even within the supposed party of the centre-left, let alone in the press or when canvassing, where the despised, written-off side of politics suddenly grows like wildfire, far beyond the Campaign Group’s wildest dreams, confounding the expectations of the entire extra-parliamentary left too, it means that something has changed in a big way among the electorate as a whole, and that everyone has been assuming illusions as reality. This is not something that any kind of conspiracy, Trotskyite or otherwise, could have pulled off. This comes from the people. That is the unpalatable truth that Blairites cannot stomach – that they are in fact far less popular than they have always believed, and that old-fashioned Labourism, the good old, Old Labour centre, is vastly more popular than they are, when they have spent their entire political careers working on the assumption that Old Labour means Loser.

  5. Bryan Gould says: September 11, 2015 at 9:49 pmReply

    Couldn’t agree more.