That is what worries me most over the hero worship in some quarters of Jeremy Corbyn and his heavily re-worked Labour Party. I fully buy the idea that there is much to admire in what he is doing and he is getting a lot of things right. I just don’t buy the idea that he has the kind of thinking we need to adjust successfully to the future. I think that many on the left are backing him far too uncritically and failing to recognise the major weaknesses in his thinking. This is going to leave us in a very week position if he either fails to get elected or fails to deliver if he does.
Let’s start with the positives. Privatisation of public services has clearly gone way too far and the damage is widespread. We are paying far too much. For example, £180 billion – yes billion is being shelled out on PFI contracts that are way over price and there is no way out of that without paying even more in penalties. We are not getting what we’ve paid for. The government paid Carillion on time to employ contractors to deliver government services. Carillion didn’t pay those contractors for months, demanded discounts and then went bankrupt leaving utter chaos. The Directors got bonuses for doing that. Everyone else got screwed: employees, service users, taxpayers, small businesses, the NHS, future pensioners, and the government. A pattern has emerged whereby when profits are made the contractor gets to keep them. When losses are made they come back to the state. Corbyn is right to want to bring back in house all those services which are about public welfare and he is right that there are massive savings to be made when he does. The top paid Chief of an NHS gets paid under £500,000 a year for managing a complex service under huge pressure. Carillion were still paying their Chief Executive £800,000 a year after he was sacked for incompetence. That’s hardly private enterprise efficiently cutting costs to the bone is it?
Corbyn is also right that austerity has been inflicted on the wrong people and that we’ve lost a lot by “freeing up” irresponsible capitalists. The 2008 crash was caused by de-regulation of the financial sector that resulted in it placing bets that were 3 times the value of the entire world economy on obscure financial products. But they got bailed out from the worst of their pain by £400 billion of QE money and $3,000 billion from the States. As a result stock markets are booming and profits are hitting historical highs. Workers are still not back to the same level of wages they enjoyed in 2008. Benefits have been slashed. Local government services like care have been shattered. Yet nothing meaningful has been done to prevent a fresh crash. And the damage of de-regulation didn’t stop there. The fire at Grenfell Tower was caused by allowing building companies to employ their own regulators and suppliers to employ their own testers of the safety of fire panels. Local fire officers were powerless to implement actions to prevent a disaster they predicted because of an ideology that treated them as pesky worriers about health and safety that were getting in the way of efficient business practices.
So I have no problem in admiring Corbyn’s stance on these issues. He is right and deserves our full support as he argues for proper investment in the NHS and proper regulatory frameworks.
But that doesn’t blind me to his obvious failures. For many people the biggest of these is on Brexit. Labour under Corbyn simply failed to fight for Remain with any conviction. If they had made a determined effort to do that we’d have been spared all the chaos, uncertainty and nationalist nonsense of the past 18 months. After the vote he simply gave in on the most important points. The Labour Party started telling voters that it would deliver them a jobs first Brexit. There wasn’t even support from Labour for staying in the Single Market and a clear opportunity to win a vote for that in Parliament with the support of the Remain Conservatives was frittered away. Instead we have Corbyn saying he can help us to leave the Single Market and get something almost as good if not better. If Boris Johnson said that he’d be ridiculed. Where is the evidence that Corbyn has set up a good alternative deal with Brussels? Where is the evidence that anyone in the EU will accept the UK having full access to the markets but not obeying the rules? What makes him think he can replace our largest market? Is he sharing the far right’s fantasy of trading again around the world? Does he not know what was in the TTIP deal the US wanted even before Trump took over? How is he going to protect UK workers from vicious new competition once we are outside the EU? Where is the evidence that socialism in one country is possible in a global world? Does he not understand the value to ordinary workers of being shielded inside a trading zone that tries to maintain workers rights and high standards?
The failure of leadership has been enormous and unforgivable. Last week he hinted that if public opinion changed that he might be prepared to think about a second referendum at some future date. That is weak following not leadership. A leader tells the public that we must have a genuine vote on the reality of the final deal and doesn’t keep repeating that we have no choice other than to follow the outcome of a referendum based on politicians’ promises that have already proved to be false.
It would be nice to think that this is just a curious lapse from Corbyn but the truth is that it isn’t. He has been ambivalent about the EU from the start because he recognises it as a project of the liberal political centre and he thinks that he needs to be free of it if he is going to establish a socialist Britain. Leave aside for a moment whether he is right or wrong on this and whether it is a desirable thing to achieve. Ask instead a different question. Is this the kind of thinking that reflects an understanding of where the world is heading in the next 20 years? Does Corbyn’s political philosophy offer evidence of understanding the amount of new and radical thinking that is going to be needed to deal with an economy built around robotics, bioengineering, small decentralised energy generation, online employment, de-plasticisation of society, and a circular economy? Does he understand that the central battle of the next 20 to 30 years is about human and planetary survival in the face of a global environmental crisis and the need to find ways of globally managing a global economy, a global society and a global ecology?
My answer is a resounding no. To me Corbyn comes across as still putting forward the Alternative Economic Strategy of 1970 without adding much if any new thinking. A bit of lip service to ecology. A bit of lip service to women. But let’s get on with the serious working class stuff first.
I think we need better than that and we need it fast. I am worried stiff that he is going to saddle us with a bad Brexit because of weak and inconsistent opposition to it. I am worried that he is going to lose the next election because he isn’t articulating a sufficiently forward looking vision. I am worried that if he does get in he is going to mess up because he’ll be handling post Brexit chaos without the intellectual analysis that is needed to have any serious chance of steering our way through it.
We need better than this. Some of the new thinking we need is in evidence within the Labour Party. Whenever it comes to the fore it is important to support it and to strike alliances on the ground to work together on common issues. The same is true of the Liberal Democrats. And some of the determined and honest Remain Conservatives. It is true of a lot more people in the Green Party, in the SDP and in Plaid. I continue to believe that the current ecological, social, economic and technological crisis is so dramatic that we can’t afford to think and act from within political tribes and that we need to strike alliances with anyone who is prepared to think with an open mind about what it will be necessary to do to adapt. We are in a battle with reaction to change that is particularly vicious and ugly. We are not going to win that battle by insisting that everyone shuts up and gets behind Corbyn uncritically.