Nick Timothy is Director of the New Schools Network and a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May.
Our armed forces are in action in Iraq and Syria, the security services believe a terrorist attack is “highly likely”, the Eurozone remains sclerotic and a threat to our economic recovery, the deficit is still high, and there is a migration crisis brewing across the English Channel. The Labour Party, meanwhile, is riven by a row about Jeremy Corbyn attending a Christmas party.
Of course, the party in question was hosted by the Stop the War Coalition, the group that said “Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East” after the recent terrorist attacks. As though they were keen to show that this comment was not a one-off mistake, they later said that ISIL are “closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades [of the Spanish Civil War] than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.”
It is no coincidence that the battle inside the Labour Party is being fought, at the moment, over foreign policy. Foreign policy is, arguably, where Corbyn and his allies are at their most extreme, but it is also the one place in which there is a clear proposition, consistent with Labour’s philosophy and traditions, appropriate for the challenges of the moment, that those opposed to Corbyn can unite around. In his speech supporting military action against ISIL in Syria, Hilary Benn articulated something – Labour’s history of internationalism – that many Labour MPs believe passionately and take pride in. He showed that Labour politicians can put party lines to one side and act in the national interest. And he stood up to the bullies of Stop the War and the Momentum brigade. But, as well as helping the Government to win the vote on bombing Syria, the other thing Benn’s speech did was expose the fact that there is little else the non-Corbynites in the Labour Party have to offer the country.
“Non-Corbynite” is an inelegant phrase, but it is difficult to know what else to call them. Are they the Labour Right? Not many of them really are on the Right of the Party, if that is defined in relation to the common ground of British politics. Are they Blairites? How out-of-touch, old-fashioned and unpopular that sounds now. They are certainly not modernisers, because they don’t know what to do about the problems facing modern Britain.
And this is the crux of Labour’s problem. The reasons for Corbyn’s victory in Labour’s leadership election have been lost amid a lot of chaff. Clearly, Ed Miliband’s changes to the election rules, the idiotic decision of MPs to put Corbyn on the final ballot paper, the role of the unions, and the nastiness of the Hard Left were all relevant. But surely one of the biggest reasons Corbyn won is that he – unlike any other candidate – had, at least superficially, a coherent vision for the future. That vision – which features retrograde left-wing policies including more spending, more borrowing, more taxes, rent controls, and the renationalisation of whole sectors of the economy – might be wrong, extreme and dangerous, but it was something the other candidates lacked.
Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna came and went. Liz Kendall was touted as a Blairite but proved to be a pale imitation of the man who won three elections. The only consistent message from Andy Burnham was that he quite likes football and comes from the North. Yvette Cooper’s memorable pitches were to propose exclusion zones around abortion clinics – an important issue but hardly a philosophy for government – and a late call for Britain to accept thousands of refugees from Europe. Not one of them had a big idea or a coherent set of policies to tackle the problems of today. The deputy leadership campaign was even worse: that was a contest between an old-fashioned, unreconstructed union organiser against a candidate whose main attribute is communicating whimsically on Twitter. Old politics, of course, defeated new media.
Since the financial crash, Labour have been frozen like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming juggernaut. They realise that British politics has changed enormously, but they do not know what to do about it. In the have-your-cake-and-eat-it politics of the early 2000s, in which it was widely believed that the economic cycle had been ended, interest rates, inflation and taxes would stay permanently low, spending could stay high, borrowing didn’t matter, and economic stability was guaranteed, there often seemed to be little point in the Conservative Party, and election results proved it.
But we now find ourselves in an age of austerity, in which politics is not about how to divide up a magically-growing pile of gold, but about how to reduce spending, still protect the public and run good services, and make the economy work at a time of grave global insecurity. Yet the Labour Party still can’t agree whether it spent too much during its time in government and will need to spend less if it ever returns to office. And so the question the non-Corbynites have to answer is, what, today, is the point of the Labour Party?
When the financial crash happened, many people foresaw an existential crisis for capitalism. But the existential crisis has not been for capitalism, nor for its traditional defenders in conservative parties across the west. The existential crisis is taking place on the Left, which is split between those who saw the crash and its fallout as an opportunity to smash the system – such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and Corbyn’s Labour at home – and those who realise that such a course of action would be a disaster. Across Europe, conservative parties are winning elections while the Left is splintering.
So the trouble for the more moderate figures of the Labour Party is that while they know they disagree with the Hard Left they have no idea what to actually do. What is their mission? What is their purpose? Do they accept that they need to spend less? Do they really believe they can make a difference while still spending less? Would they cut as much as the Government? Would they cut in the same ways as the Government? How would they run public services? How would they protect the public? How would they get the economy growing faster? There is no clear answer to any of these questions. And the picture is even more confused since George Osborne slowed the pace of spending cuts and left Andy Burnham, the Shadow Home Secretary, proposing more police spending cuts than the Government.
This is the mess Labour are in. The last time things were this bad, in the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher used to say “there is no alternative” – because she was right and everyone else was wrong. In today’s Labour Party, there is no alternative, not because Corbyn is right but because nobody else can think of what to do. If there is a point to Labour during an age of austerity, nobody sensible seems to be capable of saying what it is – and that, not Jeremy Corbyn, is the reason for the Party’s predicament.