Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

New! Lecture on 23rd May at Bush House, 44-46 Aldwych on my book 'The Lies We Were Told' with discussion from Rachel Shabi and Aeron Davis. Book here.

Monday, 26 September 2016

The total failure of the centre left

We have already begun to hear laments that Corbyn’s second victory means the end of Labour as a broad church. This is nonsense, unless that church is one where only people from the right and centre of the party are allowed to be its priests. Alison Charlton (@alicharlo) responded to my tweet to that effect by saying “It's the soft left, like me, who shouldn't be priests. We're rubbish at it.”

That I think captured my thoughts this last weekend. As Steve Richards writes “The so-called shadow cabinet rebels must be the most strategically inept political group in the history of British politics.” And although they were never the tightly knit group of coup plotters that some Corbyn supporters imagined, their collective thinking was completely flawed. It was self-indulgent folly by the minority group that I call the anti-Corbynistas to constantly spin against Corbyn from the start: as I predicted, it was totally counterproductive. But it was equally naive of centre-left MPs who nominated Owen Smith to believe that all they needed to do was adopt the leadership’s economics policies.

Forget all you read about Smith not being experienced enough, or about how he made gaffes (journalists just love gaffes), how he could have run a better campaign and so on. This is stuff and nonsense. Just as with Sanders in the US, Corbyn’s support is the result of a financial crisis the after effects of which we are still suffering from and where the perpetrators have got away largely unscathed. The crisis came as a complete surprise to the political centre, and only those on the left had warned about growing financialisation. Yet these warnings went unheeded by the Labour party, in part because the left had become marginalised. That is why politicians like Sanders and Corbyn can talk about the financial crisis with a conviction that others cannot match, and their supporters see that. The constant UK refrain about entryism is, frankly, pathetic.

In those circumstances Owen Smith had a mountain to climb. I wrote on 1st August a list of things he needed to do to win. Crucially he failed to back reducing the number of MPs required to nominate a candidate for leader, which in practice excluded any successor to Corbyn from the left being able to run. I wrote “If Smith wants Labour members to trust him, he has to show that he also trusts them in the future.” I also suggested he should now offer John McDonnell the job of shadow chancellor to show he meant to unify the party. How naive I was, some retorted: didn’t I know McDonnell was hated by much of the PLP. Of course I knew, which was partly why it was a good idea: at least I was trying to show some imagination that seemed absent from the PLP. Team Smith even seemed unable to acknowledge McDonnell’s positive achievements, like the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) and the fiscal credibility rule. No wonder he lost.

There is no getting away from the fact that the vote of no confidence is going to be fatal to Labour’s chances at the General Election. Of course Corbyn’s performance had been extremely poor, and he ran a deeply flawed Brexit campaign. But the no confidence vote was a do or die act, and the chances of it succeeding were always minimal. That is political ineptitude: sacrificing your party’s election chances for slender odds. All MPs can do now is help minimise the scale of that defeat, and if some feel that given all that they have said about the leadership that is best done from the backbenches Corbyn supporters should respect that. They should use the spare time to think about how to revitalise the centre left, but keep these and other thoughts out of the public eye. Talk of sacrificing being part of the single market so we can end freedom of movement is not a good start. As Chris Dillow argues, they are not even worthy of the label Blairite.

What Corbyn needs to do is clearly set out by Owen Jones here. To say he has a mountain to climb is an understatement. He carries the weight of the no confidence vote. Even if the PLP now unites behind him, much of the media will act as if it does not. He risks being outflanked in the traditional heartlands by UKIP: if voters think their problems really would be reduced with less immigration (and which politicians are telling them otherwise?), they will vote for the party that talks about little else. In the new heartlands of London and other cities, anti-Brexit feeling may well find LibDem clarity on the issue attractive. (Corbyn’s margin of victory in London was small.) Corbyn's ridiculing of warnings about the economic cost of Brexit (despite the advice of his EAC) does not set him up well to capitalise on any bad economic news.

In short, if he manages to defeat the Conservatives in 2020 it will be one of the most remarkable achievements in UK political history. Even to come close would be a great success. For what it is worth I hope he does, if only because it would force the centre-left to finally recognise their failure since the financial crisis.


  1. I did some adding up on the weekend of the newspaper circulation figures for the right-wing dailies from the numbers on Wikipedia for 'UK newspaper circulations'.

    For 1997 when Blair came to power, the annual average total was 9,413,393 (Sun 3,877,097 / Daily Mail 2,344,183 / Daily Express 1,241,336 / Daily Telegraph 1,129,777 / The Times 821,000).

    The total for those five daily newspapers in 2016 is 4,661,455, which I make a nice, round 50% fall in circulation across those 19 years.

    The Blairites manqué are still begging to be taken seriously by an industry which has fallen off a cliff. It is time these Labour MPs took some expert advice on economics for the first time in a decade, and to stop feeling they need to supplicate to a written press which by 2020 will have become largely blunted through pixelation.

    As David Runciman said at the LRB in his review of Blair's memoir 'A Journey':

    "In 1993, as Labour’s relatively new shadow home secretary, he gave a speech in response to the murder of James Bulger that brought him to national prominence, and served as a kind of template for his response to 9/11...‘The headlines shock,’ he said, ‘but what shocks us more is our knowledge that in almost every city, town or village more minor versions of the same events are becoming an almost everyday part of our lives. These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name’...Blair’s approach was lapped up by the tabloids, who started to see him as possibly one of their own. The analysis supplied by the speech was wrong, as even Blair now recognises (‘faulty’ is the word he uses) – this one murder did not reveal anything about the true state of British society, only at best something about some small part of it – but that was neither here nor there. Blair had found a way to make it all fit together."

  2. I think the PLP actions show a) why economically were in this mess b) the level of control by vested interest business people over politics c) that our democracy needs reforming drastically
    a) the meme that if its good for business its god for the economy was always false,it is only one halve of the equation & by favouring on halve stagnation was always going to happen!& all the emergency tools being used are only making matters worse!
    b) small cliques control our politicians (mainly money men) who want to protect there interests not enhance humanity & this knee jerk reaction was all about protecting that interest & privilege
    c) we need PPR a national register £500 democracy tax going & if parties can't be split up then 50 individual place in parliament for those that stand has independent MP's,for every vote £1 is paid per year to that person/party & no other contributions are allowed,& postal votes to be put under far more scrutiny these will reduce corruption & the chance of corruption. & hopefully stop either side of the equation from dominating(however the damage done by the present policy of whats good for business is good for the economy must first be undone ) to at least start off from a position of some equality,otherwise even these proposals will fail to start the dynamo of economics turning once more!

  3. Whilst I agree with much of your piece, particualrly with regard to ineptitude, I can't agree with the following:

    'Forget all you read about Smith not being experienced enough, or about how he made gaffes (journalists just love gaffes), how he could have run a better campaign and so on.'

    It's not just stuff and nonsense, Simon, he ran an appalling campaign. You're broader point is, however, on the money.

    'He risks being outflanked in the traditional heartlands by UKIP'

    No he doesn't. See recent local election results and the link below. Any other candidate would, but Corbyn's positioning was far more savvy than you credit during the referendum.

    1. Reserve words like "appalling campaign" for Trump. Smith ran a respectable campaign.

    2. Appalling meaning bad, dreadful, inept. Its a perfectly apt description of Smith's campaign.
      Besides, even if we accept your definition of appalling, there are grounds for attacking Smith's campaign, the sexist gaffes, the false data around immigration in his constituency, his support for Prevent, his arrogant behaviour towards his opponent, his constant fibs.

    3. Yeah, Smith's campaign, while bad, doesn't really deserve to be called appalling. I dunno if I'd call it respectable either, just kind of inept.

  4. UKIP has little future though. To state the obvious, it was set up as a single issue party and it has achieved its single aim and thereby eliminated its raison d'être.

    This has a big effect, not only on its backers and senior members who were genuinely committed to that narrow aim and are basically Tory otherwise, but also on its coherence and unity of purpose, and on its support among the anti-EU tories who probably provided most of its organisational and administrative capabilities. It, and even its voters, will find it much harder and more uncomfortable to appeal to racism and anti-immigrant sentiment once those can no longer be masked by the EU issue, especially since it has never agreed on or been much interested in formulating a complete and coherent set of policies.

  5. The volume of unsolicited external advice the Labour party is receiving on how it might restore its fortunes is, for me, damning evidence that it is finished as an effective political force capable of providing a credible government-in-waiting.

    The mainly left-of-centre PLP did fail seriously to respond to the fall-out of the financial crisis, and this failure contributed to Jeremy Corbyn’s (and John McDonnell’s) victory last year. However, there is no basis for any sort of workable compromise between the form of Marxist-Leninist democratic centralism that has now emerged and has confirmed the Corbyn-McDonnell supremacy and the required leadership and organisation of a party in a representative parliamentary democracy. If 80% of the PLP was deluded when they thought that expressing no confidence in his leadership would persuade Mr. Corbyn to resign, he and John McDonnell are equally deluded if they think they can impose this form of Marxist-Leninist democratic centralism on the PLP.

    And even if some form of “arrangement” is cobbled together there is no way it will attract the supporter of the millions of additional voters required to secure power. If a party can’t be seen to govern itself there is no way a majority of voters will entrust it with the responsibility of governing the country. Indeed, any evidence available suggests that Labour will shed many more voters and seats at the next election.

    1. I don't think you quite understand democratic centralism: it has always been a tool of the right of the party, one celebrated by Blair, Mandelson et al.

  6. Love the line about those backing the no-confidence vote: "political ineptitude: sacrificing your party’s election chances for slender odds."
    But I don't see how the global financial crisis is central to Corbyn's victory.
    Smith won among Labour members pre-2015, and there is no evidence of people from the centre-left shifting left post the GFC. The left opposed New Labour pre-GFC. Their disagreements with the centre left go deeper than financial regulation.

  7. Informative and I agree with your spot-on conclusions except I think what you seem to imply about immigration. Freedom of movement in (or with) the EU simply has to end because it is politically untenable. The economic arguments are not crystal clear as the tabloids would have it, but immigrants being scapegoated as if unemployment and low pay are all about supply and demand in the labour market itself is historically common and the scapegoating works. It's worth tossing that policy overboard in order to get the left elected to get other things done. Otherwise, mass immigration is being treated as the left's top priority! As policies go, it is a Corbyn -- unelectable.

    This holds true even when half of recent immigration is non-EU, because the public knows the EU bit is the bit we cannot change while inside the EU no matter who we elect. It holds true even if we lose unfettered access to the single market.

    Effect on long term economic growth from less trade? Yeah, but how much less trade will their really be? (Outweighs the dubious economic benefit of stopping immigration? Sure, but the politics get in the way. The right will never ever put down this weapon of scapegoating, so we must take it away from them. Keeping the right out of power allows economic performance to be improved.)

  8. The more I look at the current situation the more convinced I become that the Labour right are running a scorched earth policy. What else can explain figures such as Neil Kinnock coming out of the woodwork to say that Corbyn is a disaster and will never be Prime Minister. It was obvious that Corbyn would be re-elected so all they were doing was damaging the party's standing.

    It's also worth reflecting on Chris Leslie's comments on John McDonnell's speech today and what they indicate about where the Labour Right - who were supposedly backing Owen Smith's radical agenda- really are on economic policy . He ridiculed McDonnell's plans 'the magical money tree' and said that the plans would mean that the government would have to double income tax, national insurance, council tax and VAT. An astonishing comment which says a lot about how far the Labour Establishment has really shifted in its economic thinking.

  9. " But the no confidence vote was a do or die act, and the chances of it succeeding were always minimal. That is political ineptitude: sacrificing your party’s election chances for slender odds."

    That was the whole point! The part of the PLP who engineered the coup would rather Labour lose in 2020 than have Corbyn as PM. The no confidence vote served double duty. It helped to make sure Corbyn won't win and a 2020 loss gives them another chance to argue Corbyn shouldn't be leader. Even if Smith won the leadership but lost the 2020 election (or whomever the PLP gave the leadership to 5 minutes after Smith won) it would be worth it because they would be able to change the Party rules so that a Corbyn could never happen again.

    The worst possible scenario for the coup plotters is Corbyn winning in 2020. They will do everything to stop that from even being remotely possible. I think they would even try and sabotage a more mediagenic, charismatic Corbyn approved leader if he or she was to become leader in 2018.

    1. "The worst possible scenario for the coup plotters is Corbyn winning in 2020 ..."

      Perhaps, but they were and are correct that this is scenario is about as likely as the entire Tory parliamentary party being hit by a meteorite. You are living in fantasy land my son.

      Corbynistas have condemned the UK to a Tory government for decades. Allowing party activists - highly unrepresentative of actual voters - to decide the leadership rather than MPs - formal representatives of those voters - was always going to be a recipe for unelectability.

  10. There's talk of a general election in 20I7. I can think of three reasons why Mrs May would not call one.
    She would need to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliament Act which requires two-thirds of MP’s (around 435) to vote for repeal. Can she muster that number of repealers?
    Even if she did succeed in repealing the Act, the electorate could view it as opportunism on her part (like her subdued role in the Remain campaign?) and not give her the votes she needs for a big majority.
    It is in her interest to keep Mr Corbyn in charge of the Labour Party for as long as possible. Unless the polls change dramatically, Labour will be hammered in a 2017 election. That might then act as a wake-up call to Mr Corbyn’s supporters that he is not the man for the job. By doing nothing she avoids all the problems of repeal, any charges of opportunism and she keeps Mr Corbyn as leader until 2020, when he will be 71. She will be 63.
    She might get even more lucky: the high probability of a poor showing by Labour in the 2020 election might still not shake the faith that Mr Corby's supporters have in him. She may then be able to keep him as Labour leader until 2025, when he will be 76.
    Now it may happen that Labour’s many new members will get out on the doorsteps in the next three or more years and persuade voters that the Conservative newspapers they buy by the millions---around four times as many as Labour newspapers---are churning out false impressions of Britain.
    It may also happen that younger voters will finally buck the trend of many decades and turn out in large numbers to vote Labour.
    In which case Mr Corbyn could win in 2020.

  11. There is much truth in the accusation of strategical ineptitude. There is no doubt that Brown and Miliband utterly failed culminating in the ridiculous Ed Stone. But I think you have been drawn into believing the PLP was acting as a sentient organism. This myth has been the bedrock of the Corbyn campaign. In reality I perceive the PLP as a fairly fluid group with small pockets of organisation. The idea that there was an organised coup is not as believable as the fact that the PLP knew that Corbyn is just a hopeless leader. (It is his fan club that has kept him where he is not his leadership skills.) The PLP were more than happy to jump off HMS Corbyn when the chance came. New Labour is often called a project. (As if it was a blip!) Quite rightly so as it had structure and strategy. Whereas everything since has not. Until Momentum's parallel surge, the party was weak but Momentum's wishful thinking and narrow political tolerance (as displayed in the withdrawal of support for pro-Corbyn Ann Black) can only result in yet more disillusionment for Labour members.

    1. I strongly disagree about Miliband, he moved the party left while keeping it electable and thus enjoyed a comfortable poll lead for several years. (And for what it's worth his personal popularity was the same as Cameron's by April 2015) He only lost because the Tories' internal polling showed them they could rely on the prospect of a hung parliament with Labour needing SNP votes to frighten English voters into voting against Labour to protect their wallets. It was the Scottish independence referendum that sank Miliband, as it was a party political broadcast for the SNP. If Balls had been anti-austerity maybe that would have prevented the GE defeat, maybe not.

  12. Nah.

    The centre left lost in 2010 when Charlie Whelan engineered the successful defeat of its candidate for leader.

    In the 2015 leadership election the selectorate gave up trying to compromise and decided they may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and elected a Bennite. Shamefully, some economists stayed silent as this happened.

    There was and is no strategy that now leads to Corbyn's removal. Morally it was and is the right course to try and remove the Chair of the Stop the War (sic) coalition, but nobody well informed thought or thinks there was or is any chance for success.

    So, Labour will be led by an IRA apologist at the next election. Good people will no doubt try, and fail, to stop that. While others will stand by.

  13. Corbyn's re-election is the first good news since 9/11.

    Though I'll never see the Guardian as a left-wing paper again.

  14. I have encountered quite a few people who seem to willingly marginalize themselves, turning what, in my opinion, are often small disagreements into trenches.

    Some "others" soon become "those people." There is "us" and there is "them," the root of problems. Everything "they" are becomes an occasion to fight. "Their" language is poison, their models and approaches are wrong on all levels.

    It's as if some people don't reject an idea, but a state or way of being. Some of my classmates are so bent on attacking rightwing policies that, by extension, every decision appears neoliberal, just as every argument, every study and every theory...

    What you see, professor, is people making an identity statement. It's their equivalent of buying a car they can't afford. And, yes, it is silly. In my view, conflicts are opportunities to grow and learn, but that requires sharing some ground, talking a similar tongue. It requires listening... But, what if you're deaf?

  15. The MPs made two mistakes: thinking that they could nominate Corbyn without the risk that he'd win, and thinking that he would resign if they voted no confidence in him. Bad mistakes with hindsight, yes, but generally seen as reasonable at the time.

  16. Outsiders tend to underestimate how difficult being good at politics is. Parties tend to win elections and/or not lose them when a small group within that party come together and are exceptionally able at politics.

    The team of Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Gould and Campbell, which came together in the 90s and 00s, were an extraordinarily effective team. Chris's piece points to what they saw and understood about the 'political situation' of that era (and how their descendants have not picked up on the changed conditions)

    The effect of a great team like that is at least two fold; they raise the tide so that large numbers of their party's candidates 'get in, who don't have the depth of experience and degree of ability, and secondly a very good team make it look easy to those newcomers and to observers/commentators.

    This is covered by another good piece by Chris 'Rather Good at That'. Seeing how easily it looks, others (the next generation) think "I'd be rather good at that" and worse, commentators and 'ordinary members'start making faulty assessments, "I think s/he'd be rather good at that" - which is the point Chris makes about Cameron but which cd equally well be made about Clegg and David M.

    This faulty assessment is the barrier to a Party finding within itself those who have real political skills (and not copycat skills) and the right analysis of the times (and not an outdated interpretation).

    Bill le Breton

    1. Yes. Miliband's analysis was right in so far as the party had to move left of New Labour to win back millions of lost working class votes, but apparently thought the press could vaporise them if he didn't endorse austerity. Then the SNP used it against him and denied him a Commons majority via imminent SNP seats scaring English voters off Labour.

      Corbyn lacks political skill sure, he can't win over anyone who isn't a Corbynista already. But he and Smith and the PLP are all stuck in the 1997-2007 analysis where mass immigration doesn't jeopardise Labour victory. Yes it does, by giving the Tories an easily understood and popular argument that they will help voters economically, with many national newspapers behind it. Maybe if Merkel is defeated or if there is a new surge of Syrian refugees and the continental European voters go apeshit over it then Labour will finally stop supporting mass immigration, as an electoral liability, and get on with doing something important

  17. There may have been a tactical case in the context of the leadership campaign for saying John McDonnell could remain as shadow chancellor, but given his 2003 comments on the IRA it would have been electorally stupid (I would take any bet that a majority of the British electorate will never support a party where the second most senior frontbencher praised those who made it their priority to kill members of the said British electorate), and, crucially, morally repugnant.

    1. With all due respect, I think this kind of thing is the failure of imagination I talked about. Do you think McDonnell would have accepted. If he had, how long do you think he would have lasted in Smith's shadow cabinet? I also think voters views are more nuanced after the Good Friday agreement.

  18. Corbyn simply does not have the management skills to lead a team.

  19. Simon, I hope you will offer us your thoughts on John McDonnell's speech to Labour conference this week.

  20. Hi, I was wondering what the status of the EAC was? Is it all over? Or maybe on hiatus? Have any of your ideas fed into the policy announcements at Lab16?

    1. yes the EAC is a great idea, except it shows up the leadership's inability to lead with it falling apart. Do think we need Progress/the Blairite faction to update New Labour, ie; best of New Labour and confidence it had in managing the economy, but not be so reliant on markets, policy that didn't look towards the Mail/Sun and against its own members and a road map to the kind of state it wants rather than just Thatcherism with the proceeds towards good causes that are now undone by austerity

  21. I have to say, Steve Richards has emerged from this period of British political history, as perhaps the finest political columnist of the day. I prefer those more aligned with my own politics, of course, but he's by far the most balanced and mature of the 'neutral' columnists, far more sensible than The Guardian's regulars these days.

  22. How many people writing here are unemployed and threatened with sanctions? And/or have had to pay bedroom tax and have had their life saving disability top up payments mined by the former prospecting chancellor.

  23. Paul Krugman as always took this one right: Any support for the EU can at best be luke warm, the EU being a non democratic hapless entity, unable to learn from the failures it's obsession with austerity and reform causes. And thats exactly how Corbyn positioned himself during the brexit campaign: lukewarm, halfhearted support to vote remain; it's the best you could do. PLP got nothing of that however, nothing. The vote of no confidence was simply crazy, insane I'd say.


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