Labour's Electability Problem Has Nothing to Do with Jeremy Corbyn's Policies

His critics seem to believe that if they keep repeating the fact they want to win an election, it'll happen.

30 September 2016, 11:29am

(Photo by Simon Childs)

Something weird is going on, and it has to do with electability. So much of the Labour Party conference had that stifling, locked-off air of a political cult: the same phrases, repeated as if under hypnosis; the shambling mindless march forwards of a dismal and undisputed dogma. Not Momentum, with their wacky hair and their crazy inoperable ideas like human rights and socialism; not the creepy student Blairites all but fellating the cardboard cutouts of their lubriciously grinning great leader; but the party establishment.

In his speech to conference, Sadiq Khan said the word "power" 38 times, repeating again and again that Labour needs to form a government before it can put any of its policies into practice. Tom Watson received a loud cheer for insisting that "we need to win elections". All of this was taken as a tacit critique of Jeremy Corbyn – which is strange, because he did the same thing, confirming that his party is "about winning power in local and national government, to deliver the real change our country so desperately needs".

For some reason, this was read as a sop to his critics. Labour is an electoralist party, and while sectors of the broader left have always been suspicious of these tactics, there is absolutely nobody in the party who would dispute a truth so banal as it needing to be in government to put its policies into practice. So why does everyone feel the need to keep going on about it?

The obvious, proximate reason is, of course, the fact that, as things stand, Jeremy Corbyn has roughly zero chance of becoming Prime Minister, and it's hard to imagine anything other than a crushing Tory victory in the next general election. It's easy to blame this on his own party's disloyalty, and the endless petty squabbling certainly hasn't helped, but a diagnosis is not the same as a solution, and it's hard to square with the fact that Corbyn's poll ratings were abysmal from the moment he became leader. Which really is strange, because by any rational metric it simply shouldn't be the case. For all the right-wing's attempts to paint him as an ideological outsider, Corbyn is, far more than anyone wants to admit, a man of the dull political mainstream.

Significant numbers of voters, when questioned, support policies that have become his political keystones: 66 percent of the country supports renationalising the railways, and 84 percent want a publicly-run NHS. At the end of last year, less than half of the country supported British intervention in Syria, while clear majorities support rent controls and oppose new grammar schools and renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. There's even broad majority support for more radical proposals that Labour is only beginning to investigate – 62 percent of the country, for instance, supports a universal basic income, paid to everyone in and out of work. People like Corbyn's policies, they want the same kind of country he wants, and they're massively, resolutely opposed to giving him a chance to build it.

It shouldn't be at all contentious to say that voters don't know what they want. People don't suddenly develop new powers of reason and self-assurance when we walk into the polling booth; we're all still scared, blind, trapped and reckless, the same people who cling to bad relationships because they sucker themselves on to our neuroses and self-loathing, who wake up most mornings with a brief flailing terror as we forget to suppress the fact that we have no idea what we're doing with our lives, who kill each other in the daily thousands for reasons too stupid to fully describe.

Statistically, some of the 62 percent who back a universal basic income must also be part of the 66 percent who want to cut all benefits from people who refuse to take the first job offered to them. Most people take positions provisionally and arbitrarily, based more on psychopathology than politics: just watch Hillary Clinton supporters talking about how much they love Donald Trump's tax plan when they think it's from her, or attendees at the Israel lobby's conference denouncing Netanyahu's racism when they think it's from Trump. Policy polling is stupid; it won't ever tell you what people want, because there's never any definite answer. All the bluster about needing to win an election is really just a mask for the political class's quiet terror; it has no idea how to actually make that happen.

The Labour right's plan to make itself electable again is simple: it declares, like a five-year-old child wishing for a pony every night, that it wants to be electable. In the leadership campaign, Owen Smith seemed to endlessly confuse wanting electoral success with being able to deliver it. The thinking seems to be that if charmless nobodies like himself or Tom Watson keep talking about how much they'd like to form a government, how they want it more than anything in the whole wide world, eventually the public will give in and let them do it. But the real work being done by all this grim repetition is to make it seem that if their politics are identified with electability, any opposing policies are inherently unelectable.

This simply isn't true, but it's allowed the notion to spread that Labour's route to power must involve reversing the leftwards tilt under Corbyn, embracing war and privatisation and xenophobia and evil in all its many forms. Especially on immigration this has become an obsessive tic for much of the party: at the height of the referendum debate Tom Watson broke ranks by demanding an end to free movement, as if that would somehow help the Remain side scrape a win. More recently, Chuka Umunna has done the same thing. Former advisor to Tony Blair John McTernan, meanwhile, has defended the "vital service" landlords provide by owning somebody else's home. Much of the PLP has sneeringly identified its working-class base as "the people who like bad things" – racism, Sports Direct, McDonald's, nuclear annihilation – and hopes to gain their favour by themselves being as bad and as petty and as vicious as possible.

The idea is to win over Tory voters to Labour, which seems a losing proposition when the Tories are so adept at winning over Tory voters to themselves – as Corbyn pointed out at conference, nobody is happy with second-best. Electability really is a problem for Corbyn, but his issue isn't that his politics are too left-wing or that he's too different from the Tories; the problem might require us to do something more than prance about repeating tautologies, and actually think.


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