If Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer to the Labour Party’s creeping irrelevance, the party must make peace with capitalism and free markets once and for all – and then decide what it stands for.
Is Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones the great new hope of the British Left?
No, of course not. This is still the same odious man who poured scorn on the Tower of London poppy display and who thinks that the Union flag – our national flag – is ‘provocative’ and offensive. But between the usual self aggrandisement and marvelling at his own peerless ethical virtue, a small but noteworthy sliver of realisation crept into Jones’ latest column.
Jonathan Jones is a committed Labour centrist, you see, and it is driving him absolutely crazy to watch Jeremy Corbyn’s acolytes seize the mantle of principled socialism for themselves, leaving him looking like just another rootless, ideologically compromised member of the establishment.
All of which led to this mini tantrum in the Guardian:
I can’t listen any more to rhetoric that contrasts the idealism of Corbyn’s supporters with the supposed cynicism, hollowed-out power worship and futile pragmatism of the centre-left. I am a Labour centrist supporter not out of cynicism but out of principle, because I believe the only ethical politics of the left today has to be moderate, reasoning, and sceptical. I am Labour, but I am not a socialist any more.
But it’s what Jones writes next which is really interesting:
I don’t think that after the fall of communism you can reject the capitalist economy root and branch or want to subject it to strong state control as Corbyn does. Markets are human, they have a powerfully creative side as well as a harsh unjust side, and to believe otherwise is to indulge in the same folly that killed the hapless peasants who Stalin labelled capitalist “kulaks” and saw fit to starve and shoot. The anti-market obsession that has overtaken the thinking left since Lehman Brothers is a treason by intellectuals whose hypocrisy is glaring. It’s like the old Monty Python gag. What has capitalism ever done for us – apart from the clothes, the food, the computers, the films, the pop music, and all the other stuff people swarmed the Berlin Wall 26 years ago to get their share of?
Remember, this is Jonathan Jones. The man who praised the “radical mood in these countries” following the BBC leaders’ debate before the election, who eagerly anticipated a rainbow coalition of left-wing parties running the country, and who thinks that Leanne Wood is “eloquent”. And yet such is Jones’ fear of Jeremy Corbyn that he is willing – through clenched teeth – to utter these words in praise of capitalism.
If Jeremy Corbyn is pitching himself as the Labour leadership candidate standing up to capitalism and looking forward to a Paul Mason-esque post-capitalist world, his three desperate rivals are failing to offer a convincing counter-narrative of their own. Jeremy Corbyn is completely unelectable, they clamour, so vote for us because we are unlike him and more palatable to the electorate.
But from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership challengers through Tony Blair to (potentially) Gordon Brown tomorrow, nobody has the courage to give clear voice to that which they will only hint, but which Jonathan Jones actually dared to say: that the market is both good and essential, and that it has done more for mankind than all of the world’s centrally planned socialist policies put together.
If Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer to Labour’s irrelevance, whoever ends up taking the party forward will need to explicitly make peace with capitalism, and undo the bad blood created by Gordon Brown’s brooding statism and the hand-wringing “predators vs producers” equivocation of Ed Miliband. And this will require explicitly praising the virtues of capitalism, and potentially letting the Jeremy Corbyn-led wing of the party split off and float away back to the 1970s.
This does not mean that the remaining rump of the Labour Party should then cast itself as just another centrist alternative to the Tories – British politics desperately needs real ideological variety and choice. But the future ideological lines will be drawn over how to make capitalism work for all the people, with laissez-faire small government types on one side, and bigger government interventionists on the other.
Those on the New Left will argue for a large, active government to watch over its citizens in a paternalistic manner, ensuring that they are educated and equipped with the skills required to prosper in a globalised economy – perhaps taking up Jeremy Corbyn’s idea of a comprehensive National Education Service.
But the future state will do the bulk of its work through private companies and subcontractors – these tiresome arguments about whether the state should directly employ doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers will be the preserve of the Jeremy Corbyn Old Left, a small breakaway party free to argue for unadulterated socialism but increasingly irrelevant to the national conversation.
Where internationalism and the battle between the nation state and supranational institutions fits into this new divide remains to be seen. At present, the consensus among both sides is to press ahead with the weakening of the nation state, and the transfer of sovereignty from the national level to various unaccountable international institutions. But potentially great electoral rewards await the side who first acknowledge the democratic deficit created when local and national governments divest their sovereignty to international organisations, and who propose a workable remedy to this corrosive issue.
It would be a foolhardy political pundit who dares to make a bold statement about what British politics will look like in five years’ time. But Jonathan Jones has, quite unintentionally, given us a blueprint for where the Labour Party needs to go after the Jeremy Corbyn era is done – whether that be in a month’s time or in five years. Because if Corbynomics is not the answer, the Labour Party needs to decide what they actually stand for in the year 2015 – or 2020, if Corbyn wins the leadership and tries it his way first.
Sniping at capitalism while conspicuously enjoying the fruits of all that it provides has proven to be a deeply unconvincing platform. And it won’t become any more convincing, or win Labour any new voters, by the time of the next election.
So can a Labour Party at peace with the free market still stand for anything, and be a party of clear principle and ideological coherence? Absolutely. But it won’t happen by chance, it will require careful and determined consideration.
Fortunately, Jonathan Jones has already given the Labour Party step one: stop worrying and learn to love capitalism, or at least accept its necessity. Which of the Labour leadership rivals will follow his lead?
Which of the rival candidates will stop criticising Jeremy Corbyn for being “unelectable” and actually dare to say that he is flat out wrong, that capitalism works while the system which he advocates is a dangerous relic best left to history?