Owen Jones’ recent piece ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer‘ has generated a fair amount of discussion, along with some controversy; being lauded – with unabashed hypocrisy – by many of his political opponents; and decried by many people who seem to generally agree with him. I think it’s worth reading, personally; as it raises some important points which nobody should be afraid of giving thought to.
Firstly though, it’s not surprising that ‘Corbyn supporters’ have tended to react dismissively – there is evidently a concerted effort being undertaken by numerous people throughout the media to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, particularly with regard to the current Labour leadership contest; and much of this is deeply cynical. Jones’ questions are not of a piece with this, however. Instead, as he outlines, his intention is to “address the weaknesses” Corbyn’s political antagonists are “honing in on”. For Jones, this is evidently about more than just Corbyn – it’s partly about his aim to see the Labour party become a positive force for good; but also his desire to avoid another defeat for the Left of the party, which would be racked-up alongside “Labour’s 1983 electoral disaster” under Michael Foot. As Jones says:
“If Labour ends up being routed, then there’s a very good chance those ideas will once again be associated with calamitous defeat for a generation. A snap election is entirely plausible, and — as things stands, thanks to the actions of all sides of the Labour party — Labour faces electoral oblivion”.
Some of Jones’ questions can be answered; but some can’t – and it would have been better if he had asked them of all Labour supporters, rather than solely Corbyn’s. Moreover, most of the problems Jones identifies seem to require the same solution – namely an improved media communication operation for Corbyn’s part. However, some of the points Jones makes in criticism of Corbyn are valid, while others are debatable, and some are wrong – if not problematic in their own right. So, let’s look at the questions he asks, one by one.
“How can the disastrous polling be turned around?”
As Jones writes:
“Labour’s current polling is calamitous. No party has ever won an election with such disastrous polling, or even come close. Historically any party with such terrible polling goes on to suffer a bad defeat.”
This is not an adequate depiction of matters. What has precipitated the current polling is the attempted coup, launched in the wake of the EU referendum; and the disarray which has followed. Prior to that, there was little difference between the popularity of Labour and the Conservatives.
Ipsos Mori monitors voter-intention trends, on a monthly basis. Between 11th – 14th June 2016, 35% of people intended to vote Conservative, while 34% of people intended to vote for Labour. This was essentially unchanged a month later: between 9th – 11th July 2016, the percentages were 36% and 35% respectively. Ipsos Mori do not have a subsequent poll at the time of writing; but it is obvious, at least, that voter intention was steady up until this point. Labour’s popularity had in fact improved to this level from January 2016; and been stable prior to the coup. It also stands to reason that the number of people willing to vote for Labour would decrease in present circumstances. This has a self-evident solution – the conclusion of the leadership contest, and the establishment of party unity; not that this is straightforward. Nonetheless, that’s the upshot.
However, the broader issue is how many people would be willing to vote for Labour in a General Election; and, more specifically, what might change peoples’ allegiance from the Conservatives to Labour. So what would? Several causal-factors are plausible; but the primary one will be economic circumstance. This is not difficult to prove – on the contrary, voter-intention trends during the five years of the coalition put this beyond doubt, as can be seen by tracking the change in public opinion from Spring 2013 onwards; which is when the economy began to recover and grow again, having followed two recessions and a period of stagnation between 2010-13. Voter allegiance also changed dramatically, and instantaneously, in the immediate aftermath of the recession during 2008. Again, the data on this can be accessed via Ipsos Mori.
Can, or will, something similar be a factor in the upcoming years? Almost certainly. Thanks to the recent EU referendum result, it now falls to Theresa May’s Conservative government to invoke Article 50, and begin Britain’s formal departure from the European Union. This will probably lead to the break-up of the UK; and precipitate four-years, minimum, of economic recession and turmoil. It takes two years to negotiate withdrawal from the EU, and another two years to renegotiate a new treaty. That’s without taking into consideration how much of this might be contested; along with the fact that there is currently no clarity on what precisely the new agreement would comprise (something akin to the EU-Norway treaty seems probable; but its possibility has been disputed). Needless to say, perhaps, but all of this is beyond Corbyn’s and Labour’s control.
Another citation Jones makes here, though, is the prospect of a “snap general-election”. This is not currently imminent; nor does it seem particularly likely. The fixed-term Parliament Act ensures that a General Election could only take place before 2020, on very specific conditions:
- if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the whole House or without division; or
- if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.
Given that neither of these are presently applicable, there’s no current basis for presuming a General Election will take place for four years.
Let’s consider it hypothetically, however. Suppose Labour did lose a General Election this year? Well, nothing substantive would change. Corbyn would surely step aside in the wake of an election defeat. His detractors would have gained what they wanted; the overall result would be an additional year of Conservative government to what was expected anyway – enacting policies which those at the forefront of bemoaning Corbyn themselves appear to support. This is hardly the apocalyptic scenario being depicted by Corbyn’s critics. If anything, it serves to demonstrate how counterproductive the Labour coup itself really is.
Perhaps the addendum to Jones’ pessimism about Labour’s electoral prospects is his view that “a lifetime of Tory rule” may beckon. How plausible is this scenario? Not very. It requires ignoring the fact that David Cameron resigned in the wake of the Brexit vote; that Boris Johnson and George Osborne chose not to contest the Conservative party leadership at all; that the last remaining challenger – Andrea Leadsom – withdrew from the final round; in order to suppose that present circumstances are currently roseate for Theresa May. Again, this overlooks the obligation on Britain’s current Prime Minister to initiate a withdrawal from the EU, with all of the fall-out that this entails.
It also means leaving aside the other salient fact, however, that every single Conservative party leadership contestant, including May, ruled-out holding a General Election until 2020; despite the disarray among their opponents meaning the circumstance couldn’t be more advantageous. Moreover, David Cameron had spent the previous years gerrymandering – purposely removing young voters from the electoral register; and seeking to redesign the electoral boundaries in his party’s favour. Why would any of this have happened if the people involved were assured of their long-term prospects? Perhaps it would have done, regardless – but the indications suggest otherwise.
Further to this, Jones alludes to the former Labour leader, Michael Foot, attracting “huge rallies across the country in the build-up to Labour’s 1983 general election disaster”. Jones is not alone in making this point of comparison to Corbyn. It is something which needs a more thorough consideration, however. As Red Pepper magazine note, “Labour’s 1983 election campaign” has often been cited “to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left”. There are several factors underscoring the 1983 election result which are invariably ignored by people citing it, though – and Jones does not differ. One is the damaging impact that candidates from the Social Democratic Party, which had split from Labour, had on Labour votes in marginal constituencies; another is the effect which the Falklands War had on boosting the popularity of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. A further one is the aftermath of the late 1970’s years of turmoil and discontent, which had seen the Labour government of its day decline in popularity.
To put it succinctly, Foot did not lose because he was too left-wing. Instead, a combination of factors resulted in Labour’s defeat. One of these, however does bear consideration – namely, the poor election campaign Foot’s party had overseen in 1983. It’s on this issue that Jones does level a valid criticism at Corbyn. In fact, most of the questions Jones asks – and the criticisms he makes – revolve around this same theme: the shortcomings of Corbyn’s communication with and through the media. This is not something which can justifiably be rejected as a charge; but even so, that doesn’t mean everything Jones says about it is accurate.
“Where is the clear vision?”
Jones is right that Corbyn’s media operation is not currently as effective as it needs to be. But even this is not quite straightforward. Jones asks “Where is the clear vision?”; adding that “‘Anti-austerity’ just defines you by what you are against. What’s the positive vision, that can be understood clearly on a doorstep, that will resonate with people who aren’t particularly political?”. This is a fair question to ask. However, Jones then quotes Corbyn outlining precisely what he is aiming for:
“An economy that doesn’t cut public expenditure as a principle, that instead is prepared to invest and participate in the widest economy in order to give opportunities and decency for everyone. A welfare system that doesn’t punish those with disabilities but instead supports people with disabilities. A health service that is there for all, for all time, without any charges and without any privatisation within that NHS. And a foreign policy that’s based on human rights, the promotion of democracy around the world.”
Jones then concludes: “I’m not at all convinced that this is a vision which will resonate with the majority of people. Compare and contrast to the Tories’ messaging”. Well, firstly, the Tories messaging evidently didn’t resonate with the majority of people either: 36% of the electorate is a minority of voters; and it seems reasonable to assume that most of these people would vote Conservative regardless of any message. Secondly, Jones can’t have it both ways here: it cannot reasonably be said that there’s no effective message; and that it’s the substance of the message which is the actual problem.
As it happens, there is – certainly – a lack of clarity on messaging; and this is one thing which New Labour did get right, albeit for the wrong reasons. This is something which Corbyn does need to improve on – but there is, self-evidently, a difference between saying that a message needs improved expression, and that the political commitments themselves are wrong. If the latter is your view – fair enough; but say so, and explain why. It can then be discussed properly. As it stands, it can’t. All which can be deduced is that Corbyn needs to improve his media operation.
So what needs to be done? Jones himself answers his own question on this, in fact:
“An effective media strategy means appearing on TV and radio at every possible opportunity, and lobbying for appearances when they are not offered; reacting swiftly to momentous events like a change in Prime Minister; having message discipline underpinning a coherent vision; planning ahead, so that you are always one step ahead; sending press releases in good time so they can be reported on, and so on. Such a strategy does not seem to be in place.”
This is a fair criticism to level at Corbyn; but surely it denotes the need for improvement, rather than a change of leadership?
The same can be said of an additional question Jones asks: “What’s the strategy to win over the over-44s?”. As he notes:
“When I asked Jeremy Corbyn in my recent interview what his strategy was, he came up with some sensible starting points: respect for older people (this needs fleshing out in policy terms), dealing with pensioner poverty, and social care. The problem is — that’s the first I’ve heard of it. Where’s the strategy to relentlessly appeal to older Britons who are so critical in deciding elections? There’s no point having a vision unless it is repeated ad infinitum, rather than being offered after being prompted: it will go over everyone’s head”.
So there’s the solution then, surely: better messaging and media communication?
It’s on this issue that Jones’ criticism begins to become problematic, though. He asks, fairly enough, “What’s the media strategy?”; but then opines:
“Sadiq Khan was not standing on a radical left programme in his London Mayoral bid. Nonetheless he was remorselessly portrayed as the puppet of extremists by his opponent and his ally — the capital’s only mass newspaper, as well as several national newspapers. He managed to counteract it, and won. His ratings are extremely favourable. The press lost”.
So what did Khan do? Nobody citing his election in order to criticise Corbyn, or even simply positing him as a point of comparison, ever explains. Was it Khan himself who proved decisive? The answer here is probably not. For one thing, London is evidently not representative of the UK as a whole. However, so far, the only person who appears to have undertaken a proper analysis of the votes cast in this mayoral contest – there has been virtually no media interest in the Bristol mayoral contest, and its equally significant election of Marvin Rees – is the New Statesman journalist, Stephen Bush; who concluded that “victory in London was Jeremy Corbyn’s, not Sadiq Khan’s”. So what was his reasoning for this?
“A lot has been written about Khan’s victory being a rebuke to Corbyn’s approach to politics. But if you look at where he did best, with the exception of his home seat of Tooting, he largely did exactly as you’d expect a generic Labour candidate to do, with his margin of victory down to exactly the kinds of voters that Corbyn has added to the Labour tent”
This is obviously only a snapshot of one complex election; but nonetheless, it is apparent that Khan benefited from the influx of support which Labour gained in the wake of Corbyn being elected to lead the party. Personally, I do not see this factor as something which should be taken for granted – but rather, as the beginning of a change for the better, which should be embraced by Labour.
However, Jones also contends that:
“Corbyn often seems entirely missing in action, particularly at critical moments: Theresa May becoming the new Prime Minister, the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, the collapse of the Government’s economic strategy, the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, soaring hate crimes after Brexit, and so on.”
How true is this? Not very. Nor does does it seem a particularly fair criticism to make, given that all of these occurred in the aftermath of the Labour coup. Nonetheless, Corbyn took issue with Johnson’s appointment during the first Prime Minister’s Questions session after Theresa May became the new leader of the Conservatives; asking:
The Prime Minister is rightly concerned that:
“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly…than if you’re white.”
Before appointing her new Foreign Secretary, did she discuss with him his description of black people as “piccaninnies” and ask why he had questioned the motives of US President Obama on the basis of his “part-Kenyan” heritage?
Theresa May did not answer the question. Furthermore, Corbyn had also spoken out against the rise in hate-crimes following Brexit; again in Parliament.
Jones’ allusion to the “collapse of the Government’s economic strategy” presumably refers to the 2020 budget-surplus plan being abandoned by George Osborne. Corbyn’s shadow chancellor did make a public statement about this. By contrast, the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change presumably received no statement from Labour, as the Shadow Secretary for this department, Lisa Nandy, had deserted her post. It does not seem justifiable to fault Corbyn for making no real comment about this administrative change, amidst the chaos which followed Nandy et al’s puerility.
As a last point here, what was Corbyn supposed to say when May became the Prime Minister, exactly? Was it not covered by what he asked of her during Prime Ministers Questions? If not, Jones doesn’t explain what he has in mind here; and it will have to be left aside.
“How are the policies significantly different from the last general election?”
It’s not particularly easy to answer this, because Labour does not currently have a manifesto; so a like-for-like comparison cannot be made. However, even as it stands, the obvious point of difference is that Miliband’s Labour were committed to the continuation of austerity, whereas Corbyn is opposed to it. Moreover, under Corbyn, Labour is developing policies in consultation with the party’s membership. This is evidently a work in progress at the time of writing. Corbyn’s own priorities indicate what his overall intentions are, and can be accessed on his personal website. So, the nascent information is there for people who are genuinely interested in it.
It could also not be clearer what Corbyn’s current ambitions for a Labour government would be: abolishing tuition fees, establishing a living wage, ensuring an adequate supply of council housing, for example. So when Jones suggests that “surely there needs to be a clear idea of what sort of policies will be offered,” this is fair enough – but again, Corbyn has evidently made clear what sort of policies he would pursue. That they haven’t been given word-for-word definition is not something which seems realistic to expect at the present moment in time; especially given the current circumstances. Could they be advertised better? Yes; but this seems a fairly straightforward matter to resolve once a more concrete framework of policies has actually been defined. At present, that is not applicable.
Again, however, Jones’s criticisms of Corbyn become self-contradictory. He outlines several policies from Labour’s previous manifesto – such as deficit-reduction, and renationalisation of railways; and then suggests that these are unlikely to gain any traction among the public. This seems to be much of a nothingness as criticism: either these are good ideas, or they’re not. If not, then they can – and should – be discussed, and discarded. Simply pointing out that Corbyn’s Labour have retained some of Miliband’s commitments, however, doesn’t really mean anything. Would anyone seriously suggest that these policies caused Labour its losses in the General Election of 2015? Surely not. It also begs the question why, if Corbyn offers nothing more than Miliband, has there been such a histrionic outpouring – on a daily basis – since Corbyn was elected to lead the party? Clearly, something doesn’t add up.
Moreover, irrespective of any similarities, there are significant differences between Corbyn’s Labour and Miliband’s – the fact that Corbyn actually opposes the damaging policies of the Conservative government is unarguably the key one. Indeed, Jones should know this better than most, as he was frequently scathing of Labour’s passivity in the face of iniquitous Conservative policies, between 2010-15. See, for instance, his article about Labour’s decision to abstain when the coalition government re-wrote the law, in order to avoid reimbursing workfare participants who had been unlawfully sanctioned; or his previous, even more fulminant, condemnation of Labour’s rhetoric towards people in receipt of benefits under Miliband’s leadership.
Needless to say, Corbyn did not abstain when the workfare law was rewritten; nor did he fail to oppose the government in 2015, when it introduced yet more benefit-cuts to Parliament in a bill which the majority of Labour MPs abstained on at its second reading. It seems obvious, from this fairly limited example alone, that Corbyn’s leadership marks a significant change of course for Labour. This is borne out by Labour’s subsequent critiques and opposition to the government’s policies during the past year.
“What’s the strategy to win over Scotland?”
The problem that Labour have in Scotland is straightforward to elucidate, yet remains almost universally ignored – namely, an upsurge of nationalism, boosting the popularity of the Scottish National Party. This is not something which Scottish Labour are currently confronting; let alone effectively.
Significantly, Jones demonstrated this himself, in a piece he had written during August 2015. Specifically:
“Scotland cannot be won back straight away, even if this is a test Jeremy’s opponents will set. As things stand, Labour face being wiped out in next May’s Holyrood elections. The SNP won 6 Westminster seats in 2010; in 2015 they won 56. Huge Labour majorities became huge SNP majorities. The SNP’s lead in Scottish opinion polls is astronomical. Scottish Labour as a party currently remains a husk. The idea such a profound political shift simply be suddenly turned around — even though Jeremy is by far the best candidate to do so — in a matter of months is fantasy land stuff.”
Jones’ own proposal, however, was for Labour to offer an “uncompromising apology” to the people of Scotland, for something which he doesn’t outline; before “grovelling”, and subsequently “relaunching Scottish Labour as a new grassroots insurgent movement that can take on the SNP from the left”.
This misses the point, by a significant degree. Labour have confronted the SNP from the left – and it hasn’t worked. At the recent local elections in May 2016, the Scottish electorate voted predominantly for the SNP and the Conservatives: two parties committed to low-tax, and spending-cuts; as their government, and its opposition. Labour need to begin confronting the SNP from the standpoint of left-wing unionism. This is not simply about winning votes – if Scotland does become independent, what would almost certainly follow is a dramatic decline in the standards of living for many people. This is not something which has received any honest debate so far. Indeed, it appears not to have received any real discussion, from any quarter in the media.
Moreover, despite their rhetoric, the SNP are not committed to social democracy. Quite the contrary, they have governed Scotland for a decade; and while they have overseen some progressive policies – such as ending prescription charges – they have also been responsible for imposing austerity policies on Scotland; and have privatised public services such as the Calmac ferry service, Scot Rail, while cutting college places, and reducing local government funding. All of this remains generally uncontested.
Why have the SNP been able to undertake these policies, with barely any notice arising? Perhaps, at least in part, because neither Labour – nor the Conservatives – have disputed them during recent years, given that they were wed to much the same policies. Corbyn has confronted this, however – specifically objecting to the inadequacy of nationalism to address social problems.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the SNP have been able to pretend that Labour and the Conservatives were indistinguishable; as evinced when the party’s deputy leader, Stewart Hosie, said: “Given their toxic alliance with the Tories for the last two and a half years, people in Scotland would be forgiven for thinking that Labour’s focus is not what they can do for Scotland – but what they can do for their Tory allies”; adding “the general election is Scotland’s opportunity to hold real power at Westminster and to deliver on the priorities of the people who live here – ending austerity, protecting our public services and investing in jobs.”
The SNP is in government in Holyrood. What has it actually done to end austerity, protect public services, and invest in jobs? Is Westminster really to blame for Scotland’s problems? Holyrood has tax powers which the SNP do not use, when they could raise revenue. Why not? Because what motivates the SNP is nationalism; not socialism. The SNP cite austerity as part of this framework – that poverty and inequality is inflicted on Scotland by England and the British Parliament; instead of being an aspect of the economic system which the SNP themselves support. The SNP’s anti-austerity stance is a pretext for independence, not greater equality.
As before, Jones should know this better than most, as it was made plain when he interviewed the Scottish National Party’s MP, Mhairi Black, earlier this year; who said as much – that she would opt for Scottish independence over a socialist United Kingdom.
Labour will not revive itself in Scotland by pretending that up is down, black is white, and independence is an apolitical issue, or a solution to economic problems. It is not. Nationalism should be confronted – so should the SNP’s actual record in government. This does not have to comprise the toxic animosity which has bedeviled political discourse on the issue of Scottish independence during recent years; instead Labour should make plain that it, and unionism, offers people something better.
It may be of irrelevance by 2020, however, if Scotland undertakes a second independence referendum and votes to leave the UK; it could also be rendered immaterial if the Scottish National Party was to enter a governing coalition with Labour. As it stands, there are too many unknown factors to evaluate, which preclude offering a concrete answer here. Be that as it may, there is a need for Scottish Labour to confront nationalism properly.
“What’s the strategy to win over Conservative voters?”
Not to put too fine a point on matters, but you can’t win Conservative voters over – they are Conservative voters. Their support cannot be gained by Labour. Swing-voters are a different matter – they vote from self-interest. The only factor which is liable to see them switch allegiance in significant number is an economic downturn which jeapordises their income; and it seems insensible to adjudge otherwise. Think about it – why would they vote for a change of government, if they believe their interests are being served by the current administration? Consider also the longevity of British governments: 18 years of consecutive Conservative governments, followed by 13 years of Labour administrations; succeeded by at least 10 years of Conservative government. It takes a lot to precipitate a change.
It does not appear as if particular policies of one kind or another can achieve this. Quite the contrary – in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election, Labour conducted a focus-group inquiry into the reasons why swing-voters opted for parties other than Labour. With regard to the Conservatives, the reasons given were divorced from reality.
Oddly enough, several media outlets – quoting inevitably nameless ‘Labour sources’ – claimed on successive occasions that this report had been undertaken in secret, and had only come to light through being leaked to the press. ITV news made this assertion in January 2016; while the New Statesman reiterated it in March 2016. In reality it was published by the Independent, in October 2015.
As it noted:
“The damning findings, obtained by The Independent, show that swing voters who have deserted Labour see the party as standing “for down and outs, not people like me.” The research found that Labour’s only strength is its values. While the party is viewed as “nice,” it is still “in thrall to the undeserving” and “in denial about its ‘appalling’ track record on the economy”.
“Labour’s research found that swing voters were relieved that the Conservatives won this year. Some said the Tories would take the tough decisions needed, “especially cracking down on immigration” – the main issue for many – and wanted “benefit scroungers” to be “penalised.”
Leaving aside the inherent vulgarity of these sentiments, they are demonstrably devoid of reason. Labour had pledged to put ‘controls on immigration’, to be ‘tough’ on benefit claimants (specifically the unemployed), and was openly committed to essentially the same economic plans as the Conservatives. It clearly did not result in electoral success. In fact, I can personally attest that I was left reluctant to vote for Labour precisely because it made such problematic commitments.
The flip-side to this is the fact that Labour’s vote-share fell among those aged 65-plus, who are the highest turnout group. As Ipsos Mori note, “this group is where the Conservatives were most successful, gaining a 5.5 point swing from Labour since 2010”. Perhaps needless to say, but with the exception of proposing to end Winter fuel allowance for the most affluent among them, Labour had pledged to continue the Conservatives’ policies towards pensioners. It clearly made no substantive difference.
Labour can evidently not win-over people who subscribe to Tory myths on the economy, benefits, and immigration by attempting to placate them. They tried, and failed. What seems to be more pressing is for Labour to confront these fictions; and target people who might vote for the party, because they agree with its values and aims, but perhaps don’t currently support it; or else do not turn up and actually cast a vote in elections.
So, what can also be considered here is Jones’ question:
“how can the enthusiasm of the mass membership be mobilised, to reach the tens of millions of people who don’t turn up to political rallies?”
Perhaps Jones is thinking on too large a scale here. There are at least three galvanising prospects which are immediately apparent – one is through increasing voter-engagement. Labour suffered particularly badly from a poor turnout at the last General Election: they were expected to receive 35% of the vote – in the event, they gained only 30%. Turn-out is vital. Labour’s vote lay primarily among people aged 18-34, voters in social class DE, private and social renters, BME voters, and young women. This is Labour’s vote-base, and there’s no purpose in taking it for granted – not when turn-out is low among all of these groups. The young are half as likely to vote as the old. This can only really be remedied by making the Labour party more inclusive – and ensuring that their input is properly valued, and represented.
So, another possibility is the ability to revitalise constituency Labour parties and local representation, ensuring that good, local MPs can contest elections; rather than scions of nepotism or partisan cronies being parachuted into safe-seats, and essentially given tenure, no matter how mediocre they might be.
A third is through funding: Labour’s financial resources were reduced by a further instance of David Cameron’s gerrymandering. This is not merely a replacement for lost income, however; but in so far as any money in politics is clean, membership fees are as pristine as it gets, and can provide Labour with financial support that does not have any corrupting strings attached. Perhaps a fourth factor to be considered here is more debatable – the power of enthusiasm; which is vital if people are to overcome the pessimism which buttresses conservative policies: the view that nothing can be changed, so nobody should try, is insidious. It can only be overcome if people have cause for hope.
“How would we deal with people’s concerns about immigration?”
This is the most problematic of Jones’ questions. It is also where Jones’ criticisms of Corbyn are at their least valid. As he contends: “Britain just voted to leave the European Union in what, above all else, was a vote on immigration”. In reality the referendum was not a vote on immigration. The fact that many people believed otherwise is significant; as Jones continues:
“Labour has to at least engage with where people are at. In my proposed strategy blog last year, I suggested Labour offer an ‘immigration dividend’: ringfencing the extra money EU immigrants put into the economy and using it to invest in communities with higher levels of immigration. To his credit, Corbyn has occasionally spoken about reinstating the Migrant Impacts Fund, abolished by Cameron’s government — but only intermittently, to the extent where I doubt the vast majority of the electorate are even aware of this position. So how could the leadership devise a strategy to respond on immigration?”
The answer is by confronting anti-immigration sentiment properly; and addressing the causes of it effectively.
The majority of British people have just voted to relinquish their own freedom of movement, in the mistaken belief that a) immigration damages Britain b) leaving the EU will mitigate that. Neither are true. So why do many people believe otherwise? Perhaps because much of our political discourse centres on the myths about immigration, rather than the reality underscoring it.
Does immigration cause job losses? No. Does it cause homelessness? No. Does it cause poverty, or low wages? No. So what does cause these problems? Poor employment rights and work regulations; exploitative employers; weak regional economies; and a failure to invest in housing development. These are what need to be remedied.
The one problem immigration does generate is placing pressure on public services – but then so does austerity; far more so, to much less popular chagrin. Corbyn has broached these issues, on several occasions. For instance, speaking in April 2016:
“Learning abroad and working abroad, increases the opportunities and skills of British people and migration brings benefits as well as challenges at home. But it’s only if there is government action to train enough skilled workers to stop the exploitation of migrant labour to undercut wages and invest in local services and housing in areas of rapid population growth that they will be felt across the country”.
And again, more expansively, in June (the delivery differs slightly from the text):
“On migration, we cannot deny the inevitable; we live in a smaller world. Most of us in Britain know someone who has studied, worked or retired abroad. We have reciprocal arrangements with the European Union. Our citizens, well over one million of them, live in other EU countries and EU citizens come to live and work here.
But it is not that simple, I’ve already talked about how some industries are affected by the undercutting of wages and the action that can be taken to tackle that. But some communities can change dramatically and rapidly and that can be disconcerting for some people. That doesn’t make them Little Englanders, xenophobes or racists. More people living in an area can put real pressure on local services like GPs surgeries, schools and housing.
This isn’t the fault of migrants. It’s a failure of government. The coalition government in 2010 abolished the Migrant Impact Fund; a national fund to manage the short term impacts of migration on local communities. By abolishing it, David Cameron’s Coalition undermined the proper preparation and investment that communities need to adapt. We are clear, we would restore such a fund and it could be funded from unspent [EU funding].
We cannot and should not want to close the borders. Not for European citizens wanting to come here, tens of thousands of whom work in our NHS. And not for British citizens who want to take advantage of opportunities elsewhere in Europe.
But we do have to make sure that public services are able to sustain the communities we have here, part of that is through a Migrant Impact Fund, but partly too it is about reversing the damaging and unnecessary austerity policies that this government continues to impose on our communities and our country”.
The message here could not have been clearer. Should it need further explication, Corbyn was asked by the BBC about Labour voters’ attitudes towards the impact of immigration on their communities. As Corbyn replied:
“Let’s not turn this into blaming people who travel, work and migrate around Europe. Let’s instead ensure governments respond to the needs of all communities; and that unscrupulous employers that are grossly exploiting migrant workers and trying to limit their rights need to be dealt with.”
Corbyn had also stressed the need to reform the Posting of Workers Directive, in order “to close a loophole that allows workers from one country to work in another and be paid less than local workers doing the same job. Although the instances are relatively few, such incidents undermine community cohesion by exploiting migrant workers and undercutting local workers”. So, if Jones’ criticism of Corbyn on this issue is essentially the same as the aforementioned need to improve his media communication, fair enough; if not, then Jones doesn’t really have a point.
In fact, Jones’ overall views on this subject coincide with the narrative that Labour has lost a significant number of votes to Ukip due to ‘concerns about immigration’; a theory pushed with more vigour than accuracy by the likes of Matthew Goodwin, and the Guardian columnist, John Harris. By all accounts, there’s no real basis to this vein of contention. The polling firm, Populus, conducted a survey of who intended to vote for Ukip at the General Election of 2015; and reported that:
“Studying how Ukip supporters voted in 2010 demonstrates why the party represents a threat to all Westminster parties, but particularly the Conservative Party. Just 14% of current Ukip supporters voted Ukip in 2010. That leaves a very large proportion of voters moving from other parties to Ukip, and the largest source of these new Ukippers are ex-Conservative voters. 45% of current Ukippers voted Conservative in 2010. 14% voted Liberal Democrat, and 10% voted Labour”.
Moreover, the theme persistent in Goodwin/Harris’ articles – that working class voters, specifically, have deserted Labour for Ukip – does not withstand any real scrutiny. Looking at the data provided on the General Election of 2015, by Ipsos Mori, 41% of people in social class DE voted Labour, while only 17% voted for Ukip (the Conservatives gained 27%, by point of contrast).
Jones and his peers seem to believe that Labour can only prosper if it engages in open hostility towards migrants – and for that matter, misleads the public about immigration by making pledges it cannot possibly keep. Aside from the ethics of this, it is myopic; and almost certainly destined to prove counterproductive. As noted previously, Labour did engage in anti-migrant rhetoric during the General Election of 2015. It bore nothing for them; save to further embed myths surrounding the issue in the political mainstream. Moreover, 65% of Black/Ethnic Minority voters supported Labour. Does the need for their continued support not count for anything? Is it not liable to be jeapordised by adopting the rhetoric of anti-migrant politics?
There needs to be a more compassionate and truthful discourse on the subject of immigration. It does not cause the social problems which are widely attributed to it; and the actual factors behind these need to be countered with better investment in infrastructure; job creation; and decent, secure employment. This is the actual bedrock of working class identity in society: work.
Ukip should not be ‘love-bombed’, as Jones has suggested elsewhere. Instead, they should be confronted. Ukip are wrong about immigration – as they are about the supposed relationship between same-sex marriage and inclement weather; the putative dangers posed to moral decency by women wearing short-skirts; the workings of EU fishing policy; and any other permutation of flat-earth theory they care to devise. Nobody pretends that Ukip has a point, except when the subject is immigration. Why? There is no valid reason.
There is, however, an elephant in the room here; and it’s unhelpful – though nonetheless valid – for Jones to frame his questions and criticisms as a series for Corbyn’s supporters alone to answer. Every single enquiry Jones makes can – and should – be asked of Corbyn’s opponents and detractors within the Labour Party. They have a case to answer.
They presided over successive General Election defeats, in 2010, and 2015. They oversaw a wipe-out of Labour’s Parliamentary seats in Scotland. They have launched a coup plunging Labour into disarray, and a damaging second leadership contest – which is what has precipitated the current dire polling – during the onset of a national economic crisis. They alienated swathes of Labour’s supporters during their period in government – causing an unprecedented decline in voter turn-out between 1997-2001; very nearly losing office in 2005.
They ignored warnings of the looming financial collapse that began in 2008; which is what caused their removal from government. They took Britain into a disastrous war, which damaged the reputation of their senior politicians beyond repair. They cut benefits for lone parents during their first year in office. They also privatised the benefit service’s medical agency, paving the way for Atos’s work capability assessments and the cruelties they bore. They abrogated civil liberties. They assisted in the US programme of torture. They initiated the privatisation of comprehensive schools; privatised prisons; and constructed immigration detention centres which were also outsourced to the private sector. Whole swathes of the country were abandoned to economic decline; which is something that played a key role in the outcome of the EU referendum.
Labour then spent five years in opposition, variously crossing picket-lines, abstaining as the government rewrote the law – having fraudulently deprived workfare participants of income; pledging to be ‘tough’ on unemployed people – before going on to abstain, yet again, on a Bill which was openly designed to impoverish the very people Labour is supposed to protect. Their leader was demonised by the press between 2010-15; and was undermined with endless whispering campaigns conducted by the same MPs behaving in like manner towards Corbyn.
So then, what is their plan? It appears to consist of nothing more than appealing to Tory voters in the South East by adopting Conservative policies; and Ukip voters in the North, by engaging in anti-immigration rhetoric. Where will this lead? What does their media strategy comprise, beyond empty platitudes; and an endless stream of malicious gossip? There is nothing else in evidence so far.
My personal view is that it’s true enough Corbyn may not lead Labour into government, no – and certainly not without major improvements; but that no-one else can. Moreover, it will not be Labour, nor Corbyn, who are operative herein – what will decide the outcome of the General Election in 2020 is whether or not the public desire a change of government; and what will ultimately determine this is the state of the economy. The factor which, without any doubt, will underscore that is Britain’s departure from the European Union.
It is not simply a question of whether Labour can win a General Election, however; it is also a matter of whether they deserve to govern. Jones asks if people are prepared for “a lifetime of Tory rule?”. Many people did not get through five years of Tory rule; as the spate of suicides and premature deaths of benefit claimants attests. This process did not begin with the Conservative-led coalition government – it has merely been taken to an extreme by the Tory party. Many of the most harmful Conservative policies are in fact a continuation of Labour policies; formulated while they were in government. This trajectory needs to be opposed; and brought to an end. Those seeking to supplant Corbyn will not do so – as they demonstrated, repeatedly, between the years 2010-15.
There is another question, however, for people to consider here: if Jeremy Corbyn really is the useless ‘unelectable’ leader which the media and his internecine detractors insist, then why are they continuously trying to convince people of this with false claims, smears, innuendo, and the very lowest type of misinformation? Until people have an answer to that, then the subject of ‘electability’ remains a pointless discussion. If Corbyn is popular, and the Labour party is not, then it isn’t Corbyn who is the problem. More to the point, the Britain of 2016 is not the same as Britain in 1983. It’s time people faced up to this reality.