For New Zealand students of current affairs, the contest for the leadership of the UK Labour Party involves four names that will mean little – and, in that, they will not be too different from observers of the contest in the UK itself. Yet the emergence of one of the four candidates – Jeremy Corbyn – as the unexpected front-runner is worth a second look, not least for the lessons it might offer to left-of-centre parties around the globe.
Corbyn is a parliamentary veteran who has spent 32 relatively low-profile years on the backbenches – eleven of them, as it happens, while I was also in parliament. His reputation is that of an old-fashioned leftie – and he may have skeletons in his cupboard, especially involving his links with suspect overseas organisations.
Yet the polls show him leading his middle-of-the-road, “safety first” rivals by a substantial margin. His candidature seems to have enthused Labour voters, both actual and potential, to the extent that over 100,000 new members have joined the party, and his public meetings have attracted huge audiences.
His surprise success has produced an outraged reaction and dire warnings from the Labour party’s usual power-brokers. Tony Blair has predicted the end of the Labour party if Corbyn is elected. Other leading figures have tried to sabotage the election itself or have refused – without actually having been made any offers – to serve in a Corbyn cabinet.
These reactions reflect what are no doubt genuine fears about his likely appeal to the wider electorate – though, unexpectedly, the polls show he is now the most popular of the candidates, not just with Labour voters, but with voters generally.
What is surprising, however, is that the critics focus on the supposedly extreme nature of Corbyn’s policy prescriptions, especially in the realm of economic policy. Yet, as 40 reputable economists have declared this week in an open letter, Corbyn’s economic policy may be at odds with current orthodoxy but is really no more than common sense.
It seems, for example, that – shock, horror – Corbyn and his advisers do not believe that austerity is the proper or effective response to recession. This is more or less the position reached by the IMF and endorsed now by a growing number of (in some cases, Nobel Prize-winning) economists. It is in essence no more than mainstream Keynesian economics. We can see the consequences of its rejection in the problems faced by an austerity-ridden euro zone.
Corbyn also takes issue with the peculiarly British version of austerity – the insistence that the wealthy should be spared, with the help of tax cuts and quantitative easing, from taking any responsibility for recovery, while the burdens are heaped instead on the most vulnerable, whose job prospects and living standards have taken massive hits. Corbyn seems to assert, reasonably enough, that a serious effort to bring about a sustainable recovery requires that every shoulder should be put to the wheel.
A Corbyn government would also recognise, it seems, that there might actually be a case for government playing its proper role in achieving a fair, balanced and productive economy. It’s enough to make the blood run cold! Yet surely, it makes sense for a government to use – alongside the private sector – its powers and resources to do the things that the private sector cannot, or at least will not, do.
And, Corbyn asks, why is quantitative easing fine when used to bale out the banks yet not for investment in new productive capacity and jobs? The fact that questions and policies such as these create so much alarm and despondency among Labour’s erstwhile and would-be leaders tells us more about them and the current state of the Party than it does about the merits of the policies themselves.
Oddly enough, the one point about a Corbyn economic policy that should raise an eyebrow is his acceptance that priority must be given to eliminating the “deficit” – though, like so many others, he seems to confuse the government’s deficit with the country’s. We must assume that this commitment is there as a concession to the ignorance of an electorate that has never been told that to treat the government’s deficit in isolation is an economic nonsense. And getting the economy moving properly is, in any case, the most effective way of getting that government deficit down.
The Corbyn economic policy platform, in other words, is comfortably in line with what is fast becoming the new consensus – less doctrinaire and more common sense than the old orthodoxy. The other three candidates who have said nothing of consequence about the real issues of economic policy and have accordingly left a vacuum for Jeremy Corbyn to fill have no one but themselves to blame if they have been left floundering in his wake.
Whether these factors will actually produce a Corbyn leadership remains to be seen, but he has certainly re-vitalised the Party and enthused potential Labour voters. By opening up a long overdue debate, he has re-defined the political landscape and offered new hope to those who have been conditioned to believe that “there is no alternative”. Labour leaders elsewhere, not least in New Zealand, will – or should – be watching closely.
This article first appeared on Bryan’s own blog