The Left in Britain: Debating the Merits of Corbyn and Smith

by Benjamin Studebaker

The British Labour Party is having another leadership contest, just one year after current leader Jeremy Corbyn defeated three rivals, 59.5% of the vote. Corbyn’s opponents have rallied behind a single challenger, Owen Smith. Smith’s supporters claim that Labour cannot win an election under Corbyn while Corbyn’s supporters claim that Smith is a Trojan horse for a Tory-lite party establishment. As the campaign has unfolded, Corbyn has sought to reassure supporters that he has a credible electoral strategy while Smith has sought to persuade Labour voters that he is a strong advocate for the left. Who is right and what is going on? Let’s have a think.

The Case for Smith

Corbyn supporters cannot deny that the national polling figures for Labour are very bad at the moment. Labour is now below 30% in the polling average and has failed to capitalize on the Brexit result, which should have been easy to do–by agreeing to hold the referendum former Prime Minister Cameron effectively gambled with the country’s future to appease Conservative backbenchers. He lost, and Britain has already begun to pay the price. In addition to the pound’s steep fall, the British economy contracted in the last quarter and the Bank of England has been forced to cut the interest rate down to the bone. The Conservative Party has played fast and loose with Britain’s economy and future and ought to be paying a price at the polls. Instead its lead increases:

British Election Polling August 2016

The Conservatives are blue, Labour are red, UKIP are purple, the Lib-Dems are orange, the SNP is yellow, and the Greens are, well, green. By contrast, Labour routinely led in the polls throughout the first Cameron ministry:

British Election Polling for 2015

Labour went on to lose the 2015 election anyway, as it hemorrhaged support to the SNP in Scotland and to UKIP in England and failed to take enough support from the collapsing Lib-Dems. But given what has happened in the last few months and where we are in the election cycle, it is remarkable how poorly Labour have done in the polls.

Corbyn has also taken some public positions that are deeply unpopular.  While there is significant popular support for many of Corbyn’s economic policies, many of his foreign policy positions are deeply unpopular with the electorate:

Corbyn has tried to radicalize the Labour Party on both economic and foreign policies issues simultaneously, and in so doing he may have overplayed his hand. While there were some good arguments to be made for deciding not to renew the Trident nuclear weapons program, the public was heavily opposed to Corbyn’s position and this has allowed Labour to be painted as weak on security issues. While Corbyn did succeed in reducing support for airstrikes in Syria, he did not win a majority of the public over to that position:

In taking principled stands on these issues even when those stands are unpopular, Corbyn burgeons his reputation for authenticity but may also be prioritizing fights that cannot be won and making it more difficult for the left to gain credibility with the wider public on other issues where it stands a strong chance of making gains against the government, like top tax rates or union rights.

The arguments for Smith all hinge on the same fundamental claim–that Labour has to make more of an effort to match prevailing public sentiment if it wants to win. Smith supporters view the Labour Party as largely the same kind of thing Tony Blair viewed it as–a catch-all party that can and should be viewed as the natural party of government, a party that can regularly attract a broad swathe of support from a wide array of demographics  and classes. Blair achieved this by conceding battles he believed Labour could not win and adopting Conservative positions on those issues to remove them from play. This is called “triangulation”. Owen Smith believes that Labour needs to triangulate on several issues, including immigration, foreign policy, and national identity.

The Case for Corbyn

Corbyn supporters believe that triangulation has debilitating long-term effects on the party. When positions are abandoned for strategic reasons, the public’s view on them goes unchallenged, right wing views become more deeply entrenched, and eventually many new members of the Labour Party seem to abandon the position for real. Recently Owen Smith triangulated on immigration, agreeing with the majority of British voters that there are too many immigrants in parts of Britain and that this is is responsible for wage stagnation:

I think in some places the way in which we saw rapid influx of – in particular Eastern European migrants after the accession of those countries to the Europe – definitely caused downward pressure on wages, definitely caused changes to local terms and conditions for some workers in some sectors.

The more politicians agree with and substantiate the claim that immigration is responsible for wage stagnation and decline in quality of services, the harder it becomes to challenge the claim. There’s a very different story that Labour could tell–it could point out that successive British governments have allowed trade union density to fall precipitously from 45% to less then 25%, severely debilitating the negotiating power of British workers:

If immigrants and British people more generally were in unions and protected by strong labour laws, immigration would pose no threat to wages. Labour could also point out that the quality of public services are declining because austerity has reduced the share of GDP the government spends on them. The Conservatives have been cutting the NHS for years and plan to continue cutting it to 7% of GDP by 2020:

Meanwhile, the United States is now spending 17.5% of GDP on healthcare. It’s astounding how efficient the NHS is and how well it competes despite receiving less than half of the proportionate level of funding the American healthcare sector gets. The British government has decided it wants a cheaper, less effective healthcare system, and it is blaming the consequences on immigration and getting away with it because Labour triangulates on immigration. It did so under Ed Miliband too–Miliband criticized the Cameron government not for scapegoating immigrants, but for failing to meet its immigration cutting targets. Miliband spent 5 years reading public opinion rather than leading it, and the consequences here are clear–UKIP’s vote share increased from 3.1% in 2010 to 12.7% in 2015, and a year later we have Brexit, with 37% of Labour voters backing Leave:

Corbyn opponents have blamed the result on him, but it took years of triangulation by Labour for hostility to immigrants and foreigners to become a mainstream, tacitly accepted feature of British political life. The Leave campaign was able to pin stagnant wages and declining public services on immigrants and the EU, promising £350 million per week in new spending on the NHS, a promise that has since been exposed as undeliverable. The Conservative Party nurtured this narrative for years to distract from its own policy failures, and the Labour Party triangulated rather than challenge it. And yet we are told that the Brexit result is due to Corbyn’s failure to rally the troops in the weeks leading up to the vote. The British political establishment continues to refuse to recognize the long-term, structural roots of the problem, one which they have enabled and abetted for many years.

Smith has a detailed plan that includes many good policies that have been popularized by Corbyn, but without Corbyn the Labour Party establishment would never have had the courage to advocate for these policies. For too long the Labour Party has allowed the public discourse to shift steadily rightward without offering meaningful resistance, prioritizing its short-term electability over the long-term viability of its core platform. When Corbyn says he wants Labour to be a social movement, he means that Labour ought to reshape public opinion rather than conform to it.

Smith’s plan is also missing some of Corbyn’s most well-loved policies. The British people want to bring back British rail, British gas, rent control, and local authority control of schools. They want to not merely reverse the Conservatives’ cut to corporation tax, they want an outright increase. 44% of them even want to institute a maximum wage of £1 million.  Why abandon popular policies? Because Smith doesn’t really believe in them, because he himself is a product of the triangulation of the past and has a long record of supporting privatization. Smith’s plan is also missing some of Corbyn’s most inventive policies, like the National Investment Bank and People’s Quantitative Easing, in which the government would cooperate with the Bank of England to use monetary stimulus to directly finance fiscal stimulus. These policies may not yet enjoy public support, but perhaps the party can lead the country there. In the early days the Labour Party did extremely poorly in elections, but it fought to change public opinion and over many years it managed to do so:

Smith’s supporters do not have the appetite or patience for this kind of long-range political project. They emphasize that immediate electoral defeats for Labour will enable the Conservative Party to inflict lasting damage on real people, and all of this is true. But is a Corbynite agenda as unpopular as they think? The trouble is that from the beginning the Parliamentary Labour Party has sought to undermine Corbyn, and this makes it difficult to know whether Labour polls poorly because Corbyn is unconvincing or because the PLP has fed a public perception of disunity and dysfunction. The media has played a role–a recent study from the LSE indicates that 74% of British news coverage featuring Corbyn either doesn’t communicate his positions to the public or actively distorts them.

Smith supporters like to remind Corbyn supporters of “the longest suicide note in history”–the left-wing 1983 Labour Party Platform that triggered a party split and resulted in a horrifying defeat for Labour and the continued implementation of Thatcherism. But the world may be a different place than it was in the 80s–in those days the left was affiliated with the Keynesian postwar consensus, which was discredited in the minds of many voters due to its association with the difficulties of the 70s. Today it is the neoliberal economic policies and ideology of Thatcher and her descendants within New Labour and the Conservative Party that are leaving Britain’s working people behind. This is creating broad social discontent which manifests politically as anti-establishment politics. Working people believe their interests are being ignored by the political establishment, and they will listen to parties and politicians proposing changes that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. Unfortunately they are every bit as willing to listen to reactionaries like Nigel Farage or Michael Gove as they are the left, and if the left doesn’t start to provide a compelling alternative to the prevailing policies of the last several decades, it risks becoming just another face of an establishment that has abandoned working people. If that happens, instead of leading Britain off the neoliberal ship, the Labour Party will go down with it.

As long as the British left believes it lives in the 80s, it is moribund. It must recognize that it no longer defends a declining ideology, but potentially rising one–if it has the courage and the patience to lead the public. Even in the United States, a self-avowed socialist named Bernie Sanders very nearly won the nomination of the Democratic Party. This decade is like the 30s, not the 80s, and the left can rise again from its slumber if it has the courage to try. But it mustn’t expect things to be easy. Labour lost in 1931, it lost in 1935, but when it won when the war was over, it completely changed the country. The public is not going to believe in the Labour Party if the Labour Party doesn’t believe in itself. The 80s mentality and the triangulation it encourages is defeatism, it strengthens far right political movements and is poisonous for the long-term future of the British left, and it has to go. Owen Smith means well, and he might stand a better chance of winning the next election, but he can’t transform the country because like the rest of the Labour Party establishment, he’d rather read the public than lead it. It has to be Corbyn–not because he’s so great, but because there’s no one else willing to try, and the stakes are so high.