Published on October 1st, 2015 |
by Eleanor Newis
Labour Conference 2015: The New Politics?
On September 20th, the left-wing Syriza party returned to governing Greece after winning the third round of elections in the country this year. This victory, already dampened by a 45% abstention rate, was conditioned by Syriza accepting surrender terms for a third economic memorandum between Greece and the European Union. The agreement commits the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, to many political and economic changes, many of which directly oppose the progressive Thessaloniki programme that he campaigned on with his party – changes he felt he had no option but to accept. Now, the Labour party conference this year was awash with optimistic, enthusiastic, left-wing thinking; it was a conference ringing of change, of Jeremy Corbyn’s “new politics”, and full of people drawn to the Labour movement to fight the Conservative government’s austerity. Yet, were any of them watching Greece?
Tsipras has in the past said many good and sensible things about Corbyn, and favours his policies and attitude; he has also acknowledged the difficult road Labour now has ahead of them. The reason I begin with a consideration of Greece, and of Syriza, is because they are the only thing close to a Corbynite administration in Europe – and they have obviously been heavily reined in by the EU. Now, this example is cautionary, but not as cautionary as the few other pundits who have picked it out seem to think: the UK is, as Corbyn told the conference “a rich country”. There is no reason why the UK should find itself in an economic position even closely resembling that of Greece. So, I would say that actually, the key lesson we can take from Europe, is that the people of Greece swung to the left; they didn’t, as we normally expect in economic crises, move to the right. This is very significant, as are the added examples of Scotland and Spain. Yes, the Syriza administration has been cowed by economic and political agreements; but its intentions and its campaign demonstrate that though many in the media seem to doubt Corbyn’s “new politics”, its appeal isn’t unproven; there are indications of electoral appetite for it.
So, I would take the right-wing press’ condemning of Corbyn with a large bucket of salt: they are basing their predictions, not on circumstance and a wider conception of history, but on a narrow view of what they think the British electorate are like. This is ill conceived: a whole nation’s political leaning is not bred into them, British people are not automatically centre-right voters, and instead their views are formed by events and experience. If these things alter, so will their views – see the example of Greece. So, though only time can tell for sure how Labour’s new thinking will be received, history, which is the next best thing, offers some positive as well as warning indicators – contrary to what much of the media are saying. Corbyn found time yet again at the beginning of his conference speech to refer to the media’s attitude towards him, saying one journalist had said his neighbours often saw him riding “a Chairman Mao style bicycle”,and also referring to the journalist who had linked his ancestry back someone who ran a workhouse, joking “I apologise for not going back in time and having a chat with him about his appalling behaviour.” I don’t know who this journalist was, but I’d be interested to see if they mentioned in the same article that David Cameron is apparently descended from a slave trader – just wondering.
Anyway, Corbyn soon moved on to talking about more important things – which is more than can be said of some right-wing journalists. It was, for the most part, a speech reminiscent of traditional Labour, what Corbyn calls “a modern left”; there were policies such as fighting the Trade Union bill, the bartering of workers’ rights with the EU, campaigning to get people back on the electoral register after two million of them are knocked of it by the Conservatives’ new proposals, and solving the housing crisis with lower rents to make less housing benefit possible. There were also plans to “end the stigma, and end the discrimination” of mental health, and up funding for mental health services, particularly for young people. These policies are of course welcome to many new Labour members, and to those who felt that the party had become detached from their initial reasons for joining it: this was reflected in the various standing ovations throughout Corbyn’s first conference speech.
But, I really think that these policies are not only welcome to those people; this is, again, why I began with Greece. There are many people in the UK who have suffered under the Conservative government, and Labour’s new clarity on being anti-austerity might just reach them. There is a danger that the success of Corbyn’s administration relies upon the belief that to win in 2020, Labour should abandon the tussle over the centre-ground, and concentrate on recruiting new voters, the many who abstained in 2015 and who remain politically unengaged. This is a precarious position, it has an element of risk, which can’t be denied: if these people can’t be reached, or don’t vote Labour when reached, then this “new left” is in trouble. The test of whether it has worked will only come in 2020. Policies like renationalising the railways and fighting cuts to tax credits for self-employed people might not find much favour with floating voters. There are, of course, voices emanating from the Labour party itself expressing this worry: fringe events at the conference included the expected rallies about anti-austerity, but also progressive events which attracted people unhappy with the new leadership. It is necessary for these groups to talk to each other if Labour is going to succeed over the next five years; remember also that many people bought 2015 conference tickets before Corbyn’s election, possibly hoping to see someone like Liz Kendal at the leader’s lectern.
Corbyn declared to the conference, “there is a lot of policy work to do”, and he couldn’t be more right. His alteration of Labour policy-making to ensure members and supporters help decide policy is a wise decision: involving those who dissent is his only sensible option. Yet, the recent revelation that a passage in his speech had been written in the 1980s and offered to every Labour leader since Neil Kinnock is very telling: for years Labour has shied away from such a definite left-wing stance. Now, with a new leader, new members, and a brand new economic crisis overseen by a Conservative government, maybe the time is right to take that stance. If Corbyn can keep his party together, he could inject a much needed element of debate into British politics – and challenging the consensus on austerity will at least mean a discussion that our country has not had for decades. So, this conference offered hope of debate, of change – as well as undercurrents of uncertainty and warning. In my opinion, next year’s conference will be even more interesting. For now though, many Labour members have had the rousing speech they may have waited years for – and so will many Conservative supporters. I should out myself (probably too late now), and say that there are few things on which I disagree with Corbyn. Yet, even if you do disagree with him, note the rarity today in British politics of his words: “Some people have property and power, class and capital, status and clout, which are denied to the many. And time and time again, the people who receive a great deal tell the many ‘be grateful to have anything at all’.” He maintains “you don’t have to take what you’re given”. Now, hate him or love him, it’s been a long, long time since someone stood at a lectern a said that – outside of the TUC – and it can’t be a bad check and balance to have those words in Westminster.