“What if the rise of Corbyn, a man with a political philosophy, is not an aberration, but the future?” – Douglas Carswell
For someone who is supposed to be a political dinosaur, a fossil, a cantankerous relic from a long-gone political age, Jeremy Corbyn can sure talk a lot of sense when he puts his mind to it – and when the pressure is really on.
Sunday’s long set-piece interview on the Andrew Marr show (see video above) proved that Corbyn could withstand tough personal scrutiny and difficult questions designed to throw him off-balance, and not only get through the encounter intact but also managing to leave his centrist rival candidates for the Labour Party leadership looking somehow diminished and superficial.
None of this is to say that Jeremy Corbyn has the right answers – he doesn’t – or that he is the Saviour of British Politics. And none of this changes the reality of what Britain was like the last time people like Corbyn had their hands on the levers of power, back in the 1970s. But of the four people competing for the leadership of the Labour Party, Corbyn is the only one who seems to make his supporters actually feel good about their candidate and their party.
Why is this? Well, in this age of sanitised soundbite politics, you really can’t place enough of a premium on a politician who dares to say what he or she actually means, someone willing to think out loud rather than simply regurgitate pre-rehearsed talking points.
Or as Michael Chessum puts it in the New Statesman:
In defiance of all conventional wisdom and tactical expectations, it is Labour’s left wing that might now lead it out of the wilderness. Perhaps, after decades of watching transparent “positioning” by successive Labour leaders, what the public really wants is an electoral alternative that is based on having ideas and fighting for them.
Labour have tried the other approach, the one championed by Ed Miliband – that is, droning on endlessly about equality without proposing to do a damn thing differently – and it got them nowhere. The majority of British voters may not currently be in the same place as Corbyn, but there is no shame in wanting a leader who actually believes in something and has the ambition to win people over to a different way of thinking.
In fact, the more one sees of Jeremy Corbyn, the more impressive he seems – and the more superficial the many criticisms and hit pieces warning against his candidacy start to look. In the Andrew Marr interview, Corbyn was composed, assured and quick-witted. But more fundamental than this, he was confident in – and unapologetic for – his socialist beliefs. For all the scaremongering from his rivals, Corbyn managed to make his significantly left-of-centre opinions sound reasonable and pragmatic.
More impressive still is Corbyn’s willingness to spell out what his left-wing government would seek to do with power. It is possible to listen to Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper talk for hours and come away none the wiser about what aspects of modern Britain they would keep, which they would build on and which they would sweep away and change. Not so with Jeremy Corbyn, who is now advocating the creation of a National Education Service for Britain, a bold re-imagining of the education system comparable to the creation of the NHS.
By forcefully advocating a National Education Service to mirror the National Health Service, Corbyn achieves two goals. First, he justifiably slams the Tories for failing to do nearly enough to re-equip Britain’s unskilled adult workforce to better participate in the modern globalised labour market. And second, he manages to make his calls for a more centralised and government controlled education system sound positively sensible and business-friendly, painting the Tories as the party of “managed decline”, a term that conservatives and libertarians are more accustomed to throwing at Labour.
From Jeremy Corbyn’s article in LabourList, outlining his vision for a National Education Service:
The savage cuts to further education courses are also narrowing the opportunities of those now awaiting their GCSE results. A country that doesn’t invest in its people has taken the path of managed decline. The only global race we will win is to the bottom.
In a fast-changing world where new technology is making new industries and making others obsolete, we need an education system – a lifelong learning service – that offers new skills and understanding throughout our working lives.
The UK already lags behind countries like the US, Germany, Japan and France on productivity. How can we build and expand the sectors of the future, with the skilled workforce that requires, if we cut back on opportunities for lifelong learning?
If this doesn’t sound like the speech of a foaming-at-the-mouth socialist who knows nothing about what business needs, that’s because it isn’t. Corbyn correctly identifies the need to improve lagging British productivity, and the fact that we will never make the transition to being a high-skill, high-wage economy as long as so many of our fellow citizens are trapped in dead-end jobs without viable pathways back into education and training.
This is no throwback to the 1970s – Corbyn is not proposing that Britain raise protectionist barriers to insulate our workforce from the ravages of global competition, or our heavy industry and manufacturing from cheaper overseas rivals. This is not about the state-run mediocrity advocated by previous Labour governments, but a clear-eyed recognition of the fact that our economy cannot and should not be preserved in aspic, and that therefore we must make it as easy as possible for people to re-tool and re-equip themselves as they move from shrinking and stagnating sectors to the high-growth industries of the future.
Quite how the National Education Service would work is a matter for lively future debate, but there is no denying that the principle is visionary – in fact, it makes even Michael Gove’s welcome reforms to education look rather small and unambitious by comparison. After years of dull political centrism, our benchmark for the possible has been steadily reduced until even the most pedestrian of tweaks to existing services are seen as either groundbreaking or calamitous, when in reality they are neither.
David Cameron’s Conservative government is certainly guilty of lowering the bar for what is possible when it comes to political reform. But as Jeremy Corbyn has shown us, the Tories could yet redeem themselves during this term in power. Recognising that a well-educated and flexible workforce is to the benefit of us all, there is no reason why small government Conservatives could not build on the idea of a National Education Service with more market-oriented solutions. For instance, a Tory-built NES could be based on private education providers and universities providing much of the training,with the government taking a more backseat role by issuing vouchers to all citizens.
Presciently, this blog has consistently called for a revolution in the field of education. First, during the nadir of Ed Miliband’s dismal leadership:
Set us a scientific, industrial or geopolitical goal that will make Britain the envy of the world and require our universities, research laboratories and high-tech firms to work together to solve new problems, add to human knowledge and grow our economy. Tell us that an incoming Labour government will take immediate action to make a British state education the best in the world bar none, surpassing even Finland and South Korea: an Apollo Program for education. Try to convince us that you believe Britain can be more than just that rainy outcrop of Europe with nationalised healthcare and passable public services.
And again, after George Osborne’s most recent budget:
If the British workforce was better educated, more highly skilled and more flexible, more people would be capable of taking higher value-added jobs which command higher wages. This in turn would mean less competition for those jobs demanding lower skills, meaning that the people who took those jobs – which in an ideal world would only be those at the beginning of their careers, those working part time to support further study or those who find their personal fulfilment outside of work – would not be engaged in such a race to the bottom for pay and conditions.
This is the hard work that must be done to transform Britain into a high-skilled, high-wage economy. It will require a genuine revolution in our education system, innovative new partnerships between universities and industry, better protection and exploitation of intellectual property, and many other radical government policies – though it is an Apollo Program for education which Britain needs most urgently.
As this blog has consistently claimed, there is clearly significant political capital to be won by proposing policies that aspire to do more than just balance the books and eventually achieve a budget surplus. And this is what was missing from both the Labour and Conservative campaigns in 2015 – the idea that the British people should be called to do something big, something inspiring, a national endeavour worthy of our country.
This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign has taken off. This is why, contrary to those who say Jeremy Corbyn is too old and too ornery to beat his more youthful and centrist opposition, the MP for Islington is enthusing a whole generation of young leftists (and others) who previously had precious few role models to look up to. When the mainstream Labour leadership candidates elicit so little genuine excitement, Jeremy Corbyn is fast becoming the Bernie Sanders of British politics.
Like the self-avowed socialist American senator from Vermont, Corbyn remains unchanged in the face of the past twenty years of recent political history, yet uncannily adapted to the issues and anxieties of our times. The market-accommodating compromises of the New Labour era mean little to Corbyn, just as Senator Sanders refuses to be bound by the centrist triangulation and GOP-flattery (“The era of Big Government is over!”) of the Clinton and Obama years.
But more importantly, both men – Corbyn aged 67 and Sanders aged 73 – can fire up a crowd of committed young activists in a way that the bland, youthful, perfectly manicured, telegenic mainstream candidates can only dream of emulating. Both refuse to fight futile campaigns on the other side’s turf. And unlike their rivals – Burnham/Cooper from the British Labour Party and Hillary Clinton from the American Democratic Party – both Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders can sell an authentic, plausible vision for the future, one which isn’t tortuously calibrated to avoid causing offence to anyone.
By proposing a National Education Service for Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has just made himself the most radical and potentially consequential figure in the Labour Party since Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan. And for that service alone – for actually daring to stand for something – he deserves to win the leadership contest this September.