Where is the Conservative Party’s Jeremy Corbyn? I don’t mean an ornery old relic from the 1970s with dubious facial hair – the Tories have plenty of those. But where is the charismatic Tory personality who – like Corbyn does for his supporters – makes their fellow conservatives walk a little taller?
Owen Jones is happy at the moment. Cheerfully, blissfully happy. Almost too happy for someone who only months ago felt trapped in a Thatcherite, “neo-liberal” dystopia ruled over by the faceless, unaccountable grey men of the Establishment. But what a difference a few months and a resounding election defeat makes. What a difference Jeremy Corbyn’s presence on the ballot makes.
Read or listen to Owen Jones now and the excitement is palpable. This is not Cleggmania revisited, where the former LibDem leader briefly surged in the 2010 general election campaign by simple virtue of sounding like a human being (in contrast to the wooden Gordon Brown and the plastic David Cameron).
Nick Clegg’s brief spell of popularity was based on style, on appearing like a decent bloke. But Jeremy Corbyn’s surge in the Labour leadership election is the product of style and content – of sounding authentic, but also refusing to draw from the same deck of centrist policies automatically adopted by nearly everyone else.
No wonder a generation of young people who came of age during the tyranny of Consensus Politics, when holding strong political beliefs and refusing to apologise for them mark a politician out as a heretic unfit for high office, are finally sitting up and taking notice.
When introducing Jeremy Corbyn at a London rally this weekend, Owen Jones’ enthusiasm was infectious:
The one word Jeremy almost never uses is I. He says we. And he doesn’t mean the royal ‘we’. He means us. He means all of us, and not just people in this room and in the overflow rooms and those who are gathered around the hall, he means the millions of people who need a voice. And that’s what this is all about.
Whatever happens on September the twelfth – and we must keep building, we must keep registering supporters to make sure he is elected as leader of the Labour Party – but whatever happens, whatever happens, we’ve won already. Because a movement is born. This genie is not going back in any lamp. We are reborn now as a movement. We are a political force once again. Across this nation, in every village and town and city you can see this movement emerging. We must now build the biggest progressive political movement this country has seen for generations – no pressure, but that is what we’ve got to do.
[..] For a long time, the Left – sometimes, with good cause – has been attacked for just having slogans, for knowing what we’re against but not knowing what we are for. But how wrong we are now proving them. Because it is this campaign with a vision. It is this campaign with the optimism. It is this campaign with the hope. We are the ones offering a vision of a society, a society that’s run in the interests of working people, and it is our opponents who are out of ideas, out of optimism, out of vision and increasingly running out of time as well.
Out of ideas, out of optimism and out of vision. Remind me, what were the Conservative Party’s key election promises in 2015? No, seriously. I read that manifesto from cover to cover several times while blogging the general election campaign, but three months later I couldn’t tell you. I’m looking at it again now, and still I cannot easily summarise the thing, much less sell it to anyone. Owen Jones’ words sting because there is a painful barb of truth in them.
Perhaps it would help if the Conservative Party actually had some convictions of its own – ones it wasn’t willing to chuck overboard for perceived political expediency, like gutting Defence to continue blindly throwing money at international development. And perhaps it would help if there was a senior figure within the Tory leadership willing to boldly make the conservative case without watering it down or apologising for it (“we’re only shrinking the state because we need to tackle the deficit“).
In America, young conservatives crowd into town halls to hear Ron Paul, or Ted Cruz. People wear T-shirts proclaiming that they Stand with Rand (Paul, junior senator from Kentucky, son of Ron). These politicians all have their flaws, but they can also draw an enthusiastic young crowd without making reckless promises to spend other people’s money.
Meanwhile, the American Left now has Bernie Sanders holding up a mirror to the equivocations and triangulations of Hillary Clinton. In Britain, the Labour Party has Jeremy Corbyn, and the SNP has Nicola Sturgeon north of the border. So why can no British conservative achieve the same enthusiasm, in years of power or opposition? Where is the Jeremy Corbyn of the British political Right?
At the moment, the Jeremy Corbyn of the political Right is Nigel Farage. You can splutter into your cornflakes and protest all you like, but it’s true. Who else on the political Right can pack a village hall for a hustings or a Q&A session? Who else can bring a crowd to their feet not by their bumbling persona (Boris Johnson) but through the sheer force of their ideas? Theresa May? George Osborne? Think about it for a moment, and answer honestly.
If you don’t like the fact that Nigel Farage is currently the standard-bearer for the radical, charismatic political right then it is incumbent on you – on all of us – to find and champion an alternative. Someone plausible. And if you seriously think that such a person is going to emerge from the Conservative Party between now and 2020, please explain exactly who they are, and how this might come about, because I am at a loss.
How will someone like Michael Gove or Sajid Javid depose the big beasts jostling to replace David Cameron, seize the Tory leadership when the time comes, and then fill the cabinet with enough like-minded fellow travellers to significantly shift the Conservative Party from its current bland, centrist course? How will a libertarian standard-bearer like Daniel Hannan exert any influence marooned, as he is, in Brussels?
Do you see a John Redwood Resurgence in the near future? A Bill Cash Craze? Of course not. The small government, libertarian wing of the Conservative Party is in an even more depleted state than the Hard Left wing of the Labour Party.
Jeremy Corbyn gets by with his limited rhetorical powers and charisma because any fool can get a room full of people clapping along by making extravagant promises to spend other people’s money. Selling red-blooded socialism to Labour’s activist party base is like serving ice cold water in the desert – there’s near endless demand for it, and people will swallow it unquestioningly.
But the arguments in favour of small government and fiscal conservatism are intellectual, not emotional – and though powerful, they do not sell themselves quite so easily. The left-winger may look at a case of poverty or injustice, swell with sympathy and then seek to tackle the immediate problem in front of them by showering it with taxpayer money, remaining either ignorant of or unconcerned with the bigger picture and the systemic or behavioural impact of their policy.
The small government conservative or libertarian, on the other hand, is just as concerned with individual suffering as the socialist, but understands that the best answers rarely come from centralised state solutions, and are never funded by extracting punitive sums of money from the most productive people in society while simultaneously insulting them and accusing them of being callous and selfish.
This means that the political Right’s standard bearer must not only have the answers, but must also be endowed with near superhuman levels of patience and charisma, just to cut through all the noise and hysteria of the virtue-signalling Left, in order to be heard. So again: who, within the Conservative Party, UKIP or elsewhere, is remotely qualified to pick up the torch?
Maybe there is no one. Maybe there will not be anyone for another decade, or a whole generation. And goodness knows how much more damage left-wing policies and institutions, left unreformed by centrist governments, will wreak on our country and our fellow citizens before that time. But now the Hard Left have a candidate to make them excited again, I want one too.
I want a standard bearer for the Right who actually makes me feel excited, not resigned, when I enter the polling booth. I don’t necessarily expect that person to be elected by a landslide on the first attempt, and to immediately implement their entire agenda in full. But neither do I expect – as presently happens – all of the soul-sapping compromising and watering-down of core principle to take place before the candidate even gets their name on the ballot paper.
Jeremy Corbyn has not done all of his compromising upfront – he is proud of his beliefs, and does not seek to apologise for them. And he doesn’t talk and answer questions as though he is responding to the twitches of a focus group’s instant polling dial. That’s why he is surging in the polls. That’s why previously dejected Labour activists who support Corbyn are suddenly walking a little taller again. That, I think, is why Owen Jones is walking round with such an infuriatingly wide smile on his face at the moment.
It cannot remain this way if we are to be successful in advancing the cause of smaller government and greater individual freedom and autonomy. We cannot allow the Left to monopolise inspiration and ambition, however far-fetched, while we conservatives occupy and embody the dull, managerial, technocratic and remote politics of austerity.
And conservatives will never win a real mandate for change so long as we are content to be the party of last resort, the failsafe option voters pick when all of the other choices are too wacky or offensive to contemplate.
So don’t watch footage of people cramming into overflow rooms to watch a videolink of Jeremy Corbyn giving his stump speech and laugh smugly at the ‘dumb lefties’ taking leave of their senses and consigning their party to electoral oblivion. Rather than lapsing into complacency, ask yourself why it is that the Conservative movement has produced no one since Thatcher – and even then it has been mostly in retrospect – capable of inspiring anywhere near the same degree of excitement.
If David Cameron’s Conservative Party was voted out of office today, what will future historians and political commentators say about this government fifty years from now? What will be the Cameron / Osborne legacy? What edifices of stone, statute and policy will remain standing as testament to their time in office? Try to picture it clearly.
Are you happy with what you see?