Want a blow by blow account of what happened at the first meeting of Labour’s Economic
Advisory Council? Before getting on to that, I thought it might be the right time to answer one comment that I have heard a lot since I accepted the invitation. Not the ‘it will damage your reputation’ line which I have talked about before, but this rather more practical one: as the new Labour leadership are almost bound to fail at the polls (see Hopi Sen for example), why waste your time?
There are two responses which I think are perfectly OK in themselves. First, election forecasting five years out is not a precise science. I do not underestimate the obstacles that the current leadership will have to overcome, but if defeat was certain would newspapers like the Sun be wasting front pages with character assassination? If general election defeat were certain under Corbyn they should be quietly hoping that the current leadership survives to fight it.
Second, with so much wrong with current government policy, it is important that the opposition has effective arguments. As we saw with cuts to tax credits, government policy can be changed. The better the arguments of the opposition, the more that might happen.
But neither of these are the best response to the ‘why bother’ question. Suppose the pessimists are right. What will happen next? There is a danger of lazy thinking here. The thinking goes that (1) the current Labour leadership will adopt a far left programme, (2) they will fail to deliver in the polls, and (3) the centrists will return in triumph and start afresh with policy. If we accept that (2) is right for the sake of argument, both (1) and (3) are way off.
Corbyn and McDonnell have to compromise with the parliamentary party. Compared to this, confrontation will only reduce what they see as progressive opportunities. Far better to play a longer game, where they seek to gradually shift policy to the left from the top but through consensus. If you think their primary objective involves cementing their position in the party by not compromising on policy, starting an open war with the rest of the parliamentary party and wholesale deselection of MPs then you still have not got over losing the election. (Of course this may not be true of all their supporters, and one of the tasks they have to deal with is in handling that.)
As a result, the platform they end up adopting will be one that nearly all Labour MPs can sign up to. Just as important, it will be one that most of those who voted for Corbyn can sign up to. The big divide will not be on the merits of the policies but on whether those policies and the leadership can win a general election. So suppose the pessimists are right and they fail at the polls, and Corbyn steps down. Who is more likely to win the subsequent election for leader of the party? Someone who accepts the majority of those policies, but appears to have more charisma and less history? Or someone who has opposed both the leadership and their policies over the previous few years, and wants to shift policy dramatically to the right?
I think the answer is pretty obvious. As Hopi Sen notes, public opposition to the current Labour leadership from within will not be forgiven by party members, so it is political suicide. The media will do their level best to hype any hint of division, but for the most part they will find it hard work. That was why the leadership election result was so dramatic a moment. It showed that you cannot lead the Labour party on a platform which is Conservative-lite when the Conservative programme is well to the right.
Which means, in turn, that a good deal of the policy positions and ideas that the current leadership develops over the next few months and years will survive, even if they personally do not. So for this reason as well, helping to contribute to that platform is not a waste of time, even if the poll pessimists are right.
As for that blow by blow account of the first meeting, you didn't really think you were going to get one did you?. But in case you feel really let down, here is a picture instead.