‘We need a different kind of politics’, states the slogan on the front of Jeremy Corbyn’s website. This message resonated with thousands of people, young and old, skeptics and idealists, who flocked to Labour in waves to vote for a teetotal, vegetarian, rebellious and bearded backbencher. They came because they thought he was different, because he was ‘authentic’ and had ‘conviction’, because he’d finally be the one to draw a ‘real dividing line’ between Labour and the Tories.
However, a few months after studying Mr Corbyn’s policy platform, his speeches and ideas, there seems to be a great deal of continuity as well as change in his approach. His new uncritical acceptance of Europe is Blairite; the centralised role of the state echoes Gordon Brown and ultimately, the people of England play a very minor role in the destiny of their nation. Blue Labour’s biggest concern with Jeremy Corbyn is not that he is too radical, but that he is not radical enough. Our biggest danger then, is that we’ll be faced with ‘Continuity Corbyn’.
I admit this may be hard to swallow. After all, Blair and Corbyn were on opposite sides in the fight against militant in the 1980s, and Corbyn spent decades voting against Blair and Brown during their terms of office. How can their politics overlap? Let’s start by looking at the composition of the shadow cabinet. Corbyn, a middle aged white male from Islington, appoints a series of other middle aged white men who he’s been friendly with for years to run Her Majesty’s Opposition. Sound familiar? Tony Blair was hot on the Islington set, although there was a little more discussion about ‘Blair’s Babes’ and some high profile ethnic minority appointments. With even less diversity at the top of our party today, we can’t be too surprised if our politics lacks genuine originality.
At the heart of any political project is an economic model. For both New Labour and for Corbyn, Croslandism – redistributing the proceeds of economic growth for social justice – reigns supreme. Ultimately, Corbyn and Blair work on the assumption that public spending is the best means of solving our country’s problems, and that this should be paid for through an increase in tax revenues. Under both systems, the rich and powerful – particularly bankers in the City and millionaires – would be expected to contribute a whole lot more to the public purse. True, they may have done this with different attitudes – Blair was notorious for salivating over the rich whereas Corbyn is more likely to spit on them directly – but ultimately both would take from the affluent and use it to expand the state, particularly on welfare. For both parties, this is the raison d’etre for taking office.
Of course you can overstretch the comparison. Blair and Brown always put a bigger emphasis on economic credibility. Their first big move in office was to create independence for the Bank of England, a move that would be very different to Corbyn ordering it to print money for the people through quantitative easing. But the essential assumptions behind those policies are the same. Both believed that the chief way to improve the country is to do things for people, often by giving them fiscal transfers. They both have a strong belief that the centralised state is the most effective means of doing this, and that other people should pay for those things through taxation.
Blue Labour calls for a very different approach, building on Labour’s traditions before Attlee’s government of 1945. For Blue Labour, true radicalism is built on regenerating local economies through the introduction of regional banks, vocational education and the reform of institutions to give more power to people. In short, the best way to transform lives is not through tax and spend, but by the engagement of people and their communities. It’s less about doing things to them or for them; it’s about building powerful civic engagement.
Ultimately, New Labour and Corbynites remain suspicious about the involvement of people in helping to run institutions, which is why they are given few responsibilities in their respective political programmes. Corbyn often obscures this by talking a lot about building a ‘movement’ and bringing back party democracy. Yet ultimately, the role of the movement is simply to get Corbyn and his government elected, so that they can get on with the business of doing things for people from the top down (a new national education service, the removal of caps on benefits, an expansion of the NHS).
Similarly, he might want to give more policy making power to Labour members, but those members represent a tiny fraction of the population of the country, their views are often very different to people outside of politics, and by definition members are more likely to agree with Corbyn given the scale of his victory. In fact, Corbyn’s party democracy is seen by some as a cover for ignoring polls about what the public actually thinks and reducing the power of MPs who have been democratically elected to represent the views of their constituents as well as the party.
Neither has Corbyn said much about the community work of Arnie Graf, the community organizing guru brought over from the United States to help Labour reconnect with local neighbourhoods. Graf was charged with building genuine power and change in the streets outside of Westminster by working with local people inside and outside the party, but when Corybn talks about democracy, he talks more about a formal vote on the conference floor than he does community campaigns.
Corbyn’s supporters might want to point out that their leader’s commitment to people is demonstrated by nationalisation. If he’s prepared to take on private companies and give trains, energy and other public services back to the people, surely he trusts them? I sincerely hope so. However, it strikes me that when our services were nationalised, train services weren’t more responsive to people. Whether it’s been privatisation or nationalisation, there has still been a real centralisation of power in the way these services have been run, because ultimately they were operated by bureaucrats rather than the passengers who use these services, or the staff who provide them. To be fair to Corbyn, he has talked about introducing some worker and passenger representation into a nationalised service, but it’s hard to see how that could be meaningful if the service is ultimately a national rather than a regional one. Ultimately the concern is that, like Brown, Corbyn will be too concerned about potential postcode lotteries to allow regions much control on how things are run.
On the face of it, foreign policy is perhaps the area of starkest contrast between Corbyn and New Labour. Blair was committed to foreign military intervention and keeping Trident, whereas Corbyn is a pacifist who believes that killing animals for food is a moral step too far. Yet they are both internationalists who see Britain as a small player in a globalised world, they both believe we should be a moral force on the international stage and are committed to universal humanism, believing more in global values than patriotism. More recently in the European debate, Corbyn has moved closer to his predecessor. Previously openly critical of the EU as a free market project, Corbyn had the potential to fight for a better Europe, making his support in the upcoming referendum conditional on workers’ rights. Now that stance seems to have slipped, and Corybn has all but declared that – like Blair – he’s prepared to stay in Europe whatever the price.
Like Blair, Corbyn is also committed to the free movement of people. They share a belief in the total free market of people that starts with the EU and eventually moves outwards over time. Both of them want us to take on more refugees from Calais as well. People who have concerns about the levels of immigration to this country are, they believe, ultimately wrong or misguided and need to change.
This leads us to our final point of crossover. Although Brown and particularly Blair started off with a very close relationship with the media, by the end of their premiership this had broken down. Blair had developed a deep hatred of the Daily Mail, and Brown felt furious and betrayed by what he felt was unfair press coverage. When you believe the media is distorted, you can’t help but feel that the polls must be reflecting that, and that the people themselves are suffering from a kind of false consciousness, whereby people are being misled into believing things against their own interest.
Certainly by the end Brown seemed to believe that he was not properly understood and hard done by. This attitude towards the press and the people has already been reflected by Corbyn. In his acceptance speech as leader, he took a hit at the media for its behavior, failing to distinguish between different news outlets or particular journalists. It seems that he may well end up telling the people that they too are wrong for believing what they read in the press, and however much truth there is in that, it’s probably also true that it’s a refusal to accept that certain ideas and personalities might not be desired by the country.
So what can we salvage? Despite all of these concerns, there are things we can take from Corbyn and build on. With the scale of his sweeping mandate, he’s obviously tapping into something, a reaction to New Labour, that we can learn from.
Firstly, Corbyn’s moment was made possible by the financial crisis of 2008. His narrative, that the market can fail and break communities, is salient after the crash of Lehman Brothers. In that sense it marks a break from the New Labour years (also picked up by Ed Miliband) during which time Blair believed in light touch financial regulation to ensure high profits, which could then be taxed and redistributed. Corbyn therefore reflects a rebalancing of our attitudes towards the market after Blair. Even if some people think the new leader goes too far, he’s unlikely to be taken in by any argument that the market should remain unchecked and rule supreme, and that’s got to be more healthy than the alternative mindset that culminated in the crash.
Relatedly, Corbyn is prepared to talk about responsibility and contribution at the top. He has good grounds for arguing that bankers caused the crash, so why should bin men, nurses and the disabled pay for it? There is an inherent sense of fairness there that people respond to. Those values should be built on to make sure they apply to people at every level of society. Could Corbyn talk about responsibility to someone who was causing anti-social behaviour on a council estate for example? Could he prioritise someone for housing who had worked hard in the area their whole life above a newcomer from Eastern Europe who was poorer? Blue Labour would suggest that Corbyn is right to talk about responsibility, contribution and community to those at the top, but they should apply to all of us, not just some.
Another area of common ground with Blue Labour is investment, particularly in manufacturing and housing. Corbyn believes that to truly rebalance our economy we will have to invest in areas outside of London that are in decline, as well as sectors beyond banking and financial services. Blue Labour agrees with this, going further than New Labour did with the Regional Development Authorities by calling for the reform of mainstream banks to work in the public interest. We need to wait for more detail on Corbyn’s plans, but at the moment it looks like he would choose a national investment bank that is run by Whitehall. Blue Labour would prefer a regional system like in Germany, however once again it remains to be seen whether Corbyn would pay the price of regional variation and a lack of control from the centre that this would entail.
Corbyn won this summer with a landslide, running on a platform for change. Blue Labour often agrees with him in areas that represent a genuine break with the past – a healthy skepticism of markets and a right wing EU, greater responsibility at the top and his rhetoric about the need for a change in our politics. Yet there are points where it all too easily slips into a pattern of the past – a politics that in policy actually appears to remain overly centralised and state-centric, shutting people out rather than pulling them in. It will be up to Corbyn to decide which way he wants to go, but I hope he manages to break with our immediate past. After a leadership campaign dedicated to change, he owes all of us a bit more than Continuity Corbyn.