Why Jeremy Corbyn Is Best Placed to Solve the Economic Crises of the Future
All the people calling him a "throwback" haven't stopped to consider what is likely to happen to the British economy in the next decade.
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Jeremy Corbyn's rise is motored by a surge of ordinary people getting involved in party politics. But for many in the media and Labour establishment, the emergence of a 66-year-old cheese aficionado from Wiltshire as one of the most recognisable politicians in the country is deeply threatening.
One of the most cutting criticisms you hear is that Corbyn is a "throwback" or a "dinosaur" – a politician better suited to a time of soot-blackened factories and flat caps. A man who is, to put it bluntly, constrained by the ideas of yesterday.
Writing for the Telegraph Leo McKinistry described him as a "permanent rebellious adolescent" whose "views have remained frozen ever since he attended his first demonstration in the late 1960s"; one of his rivals – Yvette Cooper – said he was offering "old solutions to old problems". He is talked about in terms of the Labour heroes and failures of the 1980s: his detractors say he's the new Michael Foot, and even his supporters post memes invoking the memory of their hero Tony Benn.
Like most of the mud thrown at Corbyn, this is pretty much the opposite of the truth. The people saying he's only fit for the past seem to be unaware of what the future might actually hold: yet more economic cluster-fuckery.
In the not unlikely event of an economic downturn before the next general election, Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader would be uniquely placed to benefit from it. Even leading Tories concede as much. Ken Clarke – a former Conservative chancellor – recently spoke of how any recession between now and 2020 could make the Government "very unpopular" and with it a Corbyn government more likely. In a similar vein, James Meadway, an economist with the New Economics Foundation, wrote of how a recession in the next several years would make Corbyn a highly credible Prime Minister in waiting.
Meadway sees the chances of another recession before the next general election as likely. Others, such as the chief economist of HSBC, are inclined to agree.
That's because right now it's private borrowing that is powering growth, with household debt rising at its fastest level since before 2008. Even the government's own forecasters expect personal debt to reach record levels before the end of the decade. "Throw in the productivity slump, a yawning current account deficit, and rumblings from Greece to China and you're looking at a crash in waiting. If the opposition is organised when it happens, it can win," says Meadway.
That is something Corbyn's rivals simply can't offer. Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall agree with the government on the fundamentals of how to run an economy. Were it to hit the buffers in the next five years, they would be left pointing out how wrong the Tories had been, having gone along with them when it really mattered. In the event of all that, disaffection would energise the SNP, UKIP and the Green Party rather than Labour.
Corbyn, on the other hand, is offering and entirely different economic programme to the austerity model that could lead us into oblivion once more. In the UK, economic crises haven't coincided with major parties offering genuine change since the 1970s. That doesn't have to be the case again. If he can muster a large enough movement behind him, then the political overhead of a potential recession could be a Corbyn premiership.
And to be honest, that alternative is already looking attractive. It would mean not only scrapping tuition fees but bringing back student grants; ensuring that all workers, irrespective of age, earn a living wage of £10 an hour – including apprentices, who at the moment earn a shameful £2.73; it means establishing a "Living Rent Commission" to implement rent controls and protect tenants in the private sector as well as bringing down the housing benefit bill. It means, in short, a future that might actually be exciting compared to one of dull work, debt, crap living conditions and cosseted managerialism.
Of course, any potential Corbyn victory in five years time would depend on events beyond his control. If a recession didn't happen, we'd be looking at a totally different situation.
But that is how politics works. Gordon Brown would have likely won the 2010 election were it not for the global financial crisis two years earlier, and it was the ERM crisis of 1992 which really killed John Major's electability, rather than a smiling Tony Blair's masterful game of "head tennis" with Kevin Keegan making the voters swoon.
When Lehman Brothers collapsed in October 2008, and the British and US governments chose to nationalise swathes of their domestic banking systems, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic openly spoke about how close we had come to the end of capitalism itself. That didn't come to pass, as we now know, but it was those events and the disaffection they generated which led to the emergence of Corbyn-mania as much as the rise of the SNP and UKIP, and radical social movements and political parties – both left and right – across Europe.
For a generation that has only known neoliberalism – an economic model based on low wages, weak unions and high corporate profits – what Corbyn is offering is a break with the present rather than a return to the past. That orthodoxy seemed to have died in 2008, but it has walked on, zombie-like, ever since. That same necrotic quality can easily be applied to Britain's two historic parties of government, and it seems particularly relevant to the Blairities, whose brand of "modernising" swallowed whole the myth of markets knowing best. Their vision of the future is a Labour government of 20 years ago. It is they, not Corbyn, who are constrained by the past.