The press denunciations of Labour’s leaked draft manifesto have been predictable. “Corbyn’s misguided bid to turn the clock back,” spluttered the Financial Times, “Corbyn’s fantasy land”, the Mail. The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer ranted, “Labour’s plans would literally and morally bankrupt our country.”
There’s been plenty of the same from the supposed centre left. One Labour MP told the Financial Times, “It’s old-style tax-and-spend, the kind of thing that went out of fashion when I was a child.”
But the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was more subtle, describing the draft as “a treasure trove of things that should be done, undoing those things that should never have been done and promising much that could make this country infinitely better for almost everyone”.
The problem, Toynbee goes on to argue, is that Jeremy Corbyn, because of his “lifetime of backbench rebellion”, can’t persuade voters to back this manifesto.
“The long-term danger”, she concludes, “is that good policies in this manifesto will wrongly go down in history as ‘rejected’ by voters—when all they will have rejected was Corbyn.”
There’s a contradiction in this argument. The policies in this manifesto include plenty of measures—for example, reversing the privatisation of rail and energy—that were studiously avoided by the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But Toynbee strenuously defended these governments against criticisms from the left.
Embracing the neoliberalism pioneered by Margaret Thatcher was at the heart of the New Labour project.
It’s inconceivable that the likes of Yvette Cooper or Dan Jarvis—two of the Blairite clones touted as potential replacements of Corbyn—could have come up with the sort of manifesto that Toynbee is praising.
Whatever its limitations from a socialist perspective, only a leadership like that of Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who fought against Thatcher and Blair, could have produced it.
New Labour was based on the idea that you could reconcile neoliberalism and the social-democratic objective of reducing poverty and inequality. This idea died on 15 September 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers marked the biggest financial crash for nearly a century.
Not only did the crash destroy Brown’s premiership, but it unleashed a new era of austerity as neoliberal capitalism tried to save itself by slashing jobs, wages, and services.
Crisis and austerity have generated an enormous backlash, as voters hit out at the elites who have impoverished them.
The biggest beneficiaries have been the racist and populist right. Corbyn, along with Bernie Sanders in the US, is one of the few politicians of the reformist left to try to offer an alternative that can tap into the justified anger against the establishment and turn it against the system.
The old centre left have no comprehension of any of this. It is they who stick to old formulas such as denouncing “tax-and-spend”. They sing the praises of Blair for winning three elections when he is nothing but a discredited war criminal who has spent the past decade feathering his own nest.
The centre left have seized on Emmanuel Macron’s election as French president as a sign that the “populist” tide is beginning to recede. Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, tweeted, “Macron wins by landslide, the centre holds in Europe, a defeat for nationalist xenophobia.”
It’s not hard to win a landslide if you’re running alone against a noxious fascist. As soon as he won, Macron was confronted with a public refusal by German chancellor Angela Merkel to contemplate any relaxation of the austerity that reigns in the eurozone.
The suffering that Europe’s austerity regime causes will generate new revolts. The only question is who will lead them. Will it be the racist right and the fascists or the radical left?
Anyone who seeks to develop a challenge from the left will have to face the kind of vilification directed at Corbyn. But somewhere—as there was briefly in Greece two years ago—there will be a breakthrough for the radical left.
Why not here and now?