Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
Look, I’m just going to come right out and say it: I like Jeremy Corbyn. In a world full of sleekit, image-conscious politicians, he’s genuine. He didn’t enter Parliament for popularity or power or pelf. He lives frugally (I’ve only ever seen him arrive at meetings by bike or public transport) and has spent the past 30 years taking up all manner of unloved causes, from Irish republicanism to – well, to British republicanism.
Many of Corbyn’s Labour colleagues remark on his humourlessness; some call it sourness. But I don’t see why that should count against him. Earnestness, in politics, is often the flip-side of conviction. There has always been an honourable place in the House of Commons for Roundheads.
An honourable place, too, for the Bennite tradition which Corbyn represents – if not exactly a large place. If we had proportional representation, Corbyn might lead small socialist party along the lines of Germany’s Die Linke or Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance. First-past-the-post ensures that that tendency must instead find expression within a much wider Labour movement.
Fond as I am of the fellow, I am not one of the #ToriesForCorbyn who have sprung up across social media – and who, reportedly, include the Prime Minister. I can see the tactical attractions, obviously. A Corbyn-led Labour party would probably split. Even if it didn’t, it would sink to a 1983-style defeat. Against such a party, the Conservatives might be mediocre, pedestrian, self-serving and still stroll to victory.
Which is, of course, precisely the problem. Politics depends on credible opposition. Take away the fear of losing office and governing parties become flabby and often corrupt. If my appeal to your patriotism fails to move you, let me appeal to your Tory loyalism. Look at what absence of an opposition did to Scottish Labour in its rotten burghs. Do you want to risk a similar fate for our party?
What must Labour do to get back into the game? Four things:
1. Get comfortable with the profit motive
When did you last hear a Labour politician use the phrase “for private profit”, without a sneer? If you think about it, though, every penny the government spends needs to be generated by the private sector. Tony Blair understood this. He offered the country a simple bargain: Labour would allow entrepreneurs to succeed so as to produce a surplus that ministers could then use to expand the public sector and the welfare state. Peter Mandelson summarised the compact in a phrase which is, these days, rarely quoted in its entirety: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.” Do we need to remind Labour that, of the seven leaders it has had since 1976, six failed to win a single election? Perhaps we do, for many in that party appear to regard the Tony Blair as some sort of Tory cuckoo in the Labour nest. But if the old freebiemeister was, as so many in his party now claim, an aberration, then so was winning general elections.
2. Get comfortable with British (and English) patriotism
This should be the easy one. Three of the four leadership candidates acknowledge, at least in theory, that Labour lost votes because it exuded snotty disdain. Corbyn alone is overt in championing every national cause except his own – Palestine, Venezuela, Ireland etc. Still, I’m not sure that the party has properly got over its fastidiousness. Gordon Brown, for example, being a latecomer to British patriotism, tended to reach for the most unconvincing, ham-fisted expressions of it – such as his idiotic proposal to ban flag-burning.
3. Understand the appeal of Conservatism
I don’t mean copy the Tories. I mean stop treating Conservatism as some sort of moral disease. It shouldn’t take too much effort to understand why decent, generous, compassionate people might vote for a small-government party; but quite a lot of Labour supporters are unwilling to make that effort. I wrote on this site not long ago about the Left’s asymmetric hatred, and I don’t intend to repeat all my arguments. If Labour wants to win, it won’t do to respond to such articles by saying “Yeah, well I know plenty of Tory haters”. That simply signals an unwillingness to consider the accusation.
4. Understand what “austerity” actually means
This follows from 3. Governments cannot spend what they don’t have, at least not indefinitely. State expenditure is limited, not by some kind of Right-wing hard-heartedness, but by the availability of money to spend.
To repeat, I’m not expecting Labour to ape a series of conservative beliefs. The party could fully internalise all four of these suggestions while remaining solidly on the Left. It could still push for socialist policies which I and other ConHome readers would oppose: opposition to selection in schools and contracting out in healthcare; broader welfare entitlements; higher taxation and higher spending (though not higher borrowing); mansion taxes or other imposts on assets; pacifism; a shift in resources from defence to foreign aid; heavier eco-regulation.
For what it’s worth, I think a Corbyn victory is unlikely. Winning support from the obsessives who turn up to local Labour meetings is not the same as winning support from the membership at large. In any case, Corbyn will surely lose out when, as happens in Labour’s internal elections, second-preference votes are counted. Then again, as Labour supporters will be quick to remark, what do I know about it? I’m a ****ing Tory.
None the less, I recognise that Britain has been luckier than most countries in the temper of its main progressive party. Across much of Europe, the Left was bloodthirsty and revolutionary, determined to pull down the old order, to topple priests, to execute kings. Our Labour Party was more interested in building people up. It was the political voice of a broader movement – a movement caught up with brass bands and temperance pledges and working men’s libraries. An optimistic, cheerful movement that sought to take power away from remote elites and disperse it more widely.
This generally isn’t what the cheerless CLP activists who talk of “finding Labour’s soul” have in mind. But the people’s party won’t win office again until it learns to trust the people.