First published on the Huffington Post
Those of us in the Labour party who have been staunchly sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership from the beginning often stand accused of not taking him or his supporters seriously enough. At Progress, we are keen to rectify this perception, and apply rigorous intellectual scrutiny to the Corbyn project.
That’s why in this month’s Progress magazine, the main feature – alongside fascinating interviews with shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and the Labour leader in the House of Lords Angela Smith on holding the government to account over article 50 – is an essay on The Corbynite Ideology.
Rather than the normal ‘it’s all going wrong’ type piece that some have come to expect from Progress – regardless of how fair or true that might be – historian Richard Carr of Anglia Ruskin University looks in depth at the Labour leader’s world view. What Corbyn really believes, who continues to inspire him – spoiler: Tony Benn – and what gets him out of bed in the morning – another spoiler: Stop the War rallies.
Carr starts on their ‘all trade bad, all immigration good’ stance:
‘The Corbynites and their predecessors see capitalism in transnational terms as having produced economic losers from Berlin to Bangkok. The very concept of national borders has always been innately troubling to the hard-left. Their view is global rather than European. Why, after all, discriminate on matters of cartography when the evil of globalised free markets affects all of mankind?’
This explains Jeremy Corbyn’s lackluster approach to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. For him, ‘freedom of movement’ is a principle for everyone and not just for (predominantly white) Europeans; a view which Seumas Milne apparently confirms privately. John McDonnell has publicly said he believes the nation state is ‘irrelevant’ and ‘inevitably in this century we will have open borders’.
This position of having borders open to people but closed to trade and opportunity, which Carr identities as the Islington North MP’s ideology, is a real problem. First, it is not Labour. As Starmer says in the aforementioned interview: ‘The Labour party has always operated immigration rules. The idea that we wouldn’t have immigration rules is unthinkable.’ Secondly, it is not where the public is. Worse, it is 180 degrees away from their instincts. Carr hypothesises, ‘if forced to choose, the British public would likely plump for the opposite of the hard-left’s core worldview: greater control over the borders and an openness to free trade’.
Finally, it is just not modern. The world is not binary in this way. The global aspirations of Islamic State and the like mean open borders are intolerable. Even for the most pro-migration voters – and I include myself among them – some checks are required to keep countries safe. Equally, open economies, which benefit hugely from immigration, need the knowledge of who is coming in and going out to ensure the good provision of public services, to defend labour market standards and to facilitate community cohesion. Simultaneously, trade is not a necessary evil but a welcome exchange. It is essential to drive innovation, productivity and growth. While there can be bad trade deals and bad trade terms, trade itself is rarely the problem.
In Brexit Britain, Labour cannot simply rely on Europe to deliver its social democratic settlement. The moderates and modernisers need to get their thinking caps on, and quick. Rather than starting with Benn and the 1980s, Labour should be guided by two principles: first, trade should be ‘free and fair’; second, immigration should be managed under the principle of ‘fair rules without prejudice’.
But forget the voting public for a minute. Corbyn – and his would-be successor McDonnell – are met, due to this philosophy, by a predicament among their own supporters. The ‘open borders’ position will surprise few, but how this informs their view of the EU – as an elite white club which excludes the rest of the world – is only just becoming clear. For those inspired by Corbyn in 2015, being a Europhile is part of their liberal Hampstead/Hebden Bridge cultural identity. The disappointment at the Article 50 three-line whip is palpable.
The realisation is materialising among Corbynistas that these hard-left ideologues are outdated and uncompromising. More importantly, not very liberal. Their patron saint, Tony Benn, is remembered as a cuddly icon who would not have hurt a fly and so his status as someone who inspired fear in much of the Labour vote, let alone the Tories, has gone. But the ‘siege economics’ he propagated lives on in Corbyn and McDonnell and will give those considering voting for Corbyn’s Labour similar cause for concern. Greg Rosen, in a piece that accompanies the Carr essay, reminds readers why it was so unpopular at the time.
When you take out the Trotskyists, Maoists, tankies and rag bag Communist party members, the Corbynistas – the young, their parents and lecturers annoyed by tuition fees – do not like the fact that Corbyn is less a latter day Charlie Kennedy and more an affable George Galloway.
Mixed with his anti-west activism – chronicled by Grace Skelton – there is little for the British working or middle class to actually agree with. I think Labour will win both Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, but the grumbling from the voters in both places towards our leader is not about his competence but because they just do not like his politics.