By Dave Cohen
“I want to talk today about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. I know I’ve been a divisive figure in the past, but I’m sure everyone across the political spectrum will agree on one thing, which is, the last thing anyone wants to hear right now is another speech by me about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
This time though, it’s different. I promise. I realise, in criticising Jeremy, I’ve been making a basic mistake. I’ve been reacting emotionally, taking it personally, because I thought the changes that have happened over the last three years were all about me.
Initially, they were. The 2015 leadership election was specifically about breaking with New Labour. But the 2017 General Election was about something else, and only now are we beginning to see what that was.
I’m not going to talk about our record during 13 years of power, what are seen as our achievements and failures. We knew mostly what we wanted to do, and did what we could to achieve it. But there were two crucial areas where we didn’t set the agenda. The first was economic policy. Rightly or wrongly, we felt we had to break the myth, and it’s always been a myth, that the Conservatives are better at running the economy than we are. To do that we felt we had to play by their rules. We spent money on services and investment, and redistributed income, but we should have been bolder.
One of the reasons we weren’t bolder was because of that second area, the Tory press. After what they did to Neil Kinnock we understood that the newspapers, run largely as they are by a small rump of ideologically right-wing prejudiced zealots, had to be neutralised. We couldn’t beat them, but we had to work out how to live with them.
Ed Miliband made the crucial break with our policy. When he took on the Murdoch press, then the Daily Mail, I thought he was playing a dangerous game. I never felt we could do what he did, but when I saw what happened when he stood up to the bullies, I realised he was right.
When it came to the economy, Ed stuck reluctantly to the Tory agenda. What lost him the election was that by 2015, it no longer mattered how accurately we costed our economic policy. We were playing catch-up to the coalition’s disastrous austerity, and swing voters were never going to vote for a slightly less painful version of that.
Which is where Jeremy came in. In the leadership election, while the other three candidates were still talking about how to manage the economy better than the Tories, Jeremy was saying to hell with that, how much worse can we possibly be than George Osborne? Corbyn made the second break from accepted Labour policy when he attacked the Osborne-Cameron economic disaster, and this resonated with millions of voters, far more than Ed Balls could have managed with his accurately detailed but dull-looking financial statements. Jeremy deserves credit for that.
When it came to the 2017 election, the Tories had given up completely on financial prudence. The press were too busy arguing among themselves, and there wasn’t a soul left in the country who believed Labour could be any worse at running the economy than George Osborne, with the possible exception of George Osborne.
The result of that election surprised everyone. The only argument had been whether the Tory majority would be in double or triple figures. Len McCluskey, who had already been talking about how many seats Labour would have to lose before deciding whether Jeremy should stay on, was one of many from across the spectrum who thought we would be thrashed.
What none of us had factored in – me, Len McCluskey, the press, even Corbyn himself, was that tribal affiliations to Labour run deep.
The party is always bigger than the leader.
I’ll be honest, those tribal affiliations helped me. In 2005, a lot of traditional Labour supporters were angry either with our involvement in the war against Iraq, or our embrace of multiculturalism and the European Union’s new rules on freedom of movement. A lot of people who normally vote Labour refused on that occasion, but not enough to stop me winning that third General Election.
That deep-seated loyalty to Labour helped Jeremy bring us closer to the Tories in 2017 than was thought possible, and it cemented his position as leader of the party.
I’m not happy with that. But finally, I accept it. That’s where Labour is now.
What happens next, with the Tory party almost utterly destroyed as far as the public can see, and the real possibility of Corbyn as Prime Minister of a minority Labour government?
For most who don’t follow politics closely, that looks on the surface to be a good alternative. And actually, if you look at Labour’s domestic wish-list, there’s not a lot Jeremy and I disagree on. Spending more on the NHS, bringing millions out of child poverty, tax breaks and help for the poor – even John McDonnell’s boldest policies will take more than one five-year term to restore the health of the nation’s economy to 2010 levels.
There’s also not a lot to distinguish between our approaches to foreign policy.
On the surface, they couldn’t be more different, but there are crucial similarities. We both approach foreign policy from what we believe to be a moral standpoint. And, however much you may want to see a negotiated compromise between two opposing countries, there are times when you feel you have to take sides.
In my case it was the side of the Eastern European Muslims, then joining with the US against Saddam. Jeremy has chosen to back Russia’s support of President Assad in Syria, and President Rouhani and the Ayatollahs in Iran. I don’t think either of us will ever persuade the other to agree to the opposite view on these issues – but we both acknowledge our beliefs are equally and firmly held.
I’ve noticed that when I disagree with Jeremy on foreign policy, and the issue of anti-Semitism, it has the opposite effect to what’s intended. The view of the majority of the membership, and I now accept a lot of Labour supporters across the country, is “if Tony says it, it must be wrong.” I understand that. For better or worse, in this country I am forever tied in with freedom of movement, and the Iraq war.
Even so, for the thousands of members and many MPs who are against me, but strongly disagree with Jeremy, this is an almost intractable problem. Many have left the party, but have nowhere to go. As the new Labour rulers say whenever a non-Corbynite member leaves, good riddance.
There is one issue, though, where I am certain I have the support not just of Labour voters and MPs but most members. Even those who voted Leave, are coming round to the idea that the Tory Brexit we are sleepwalking into will be a disaster for the country. Jeremy’s refusal to highlight this, or engage seriously with the subject, I think is mistaken.
I’m not asking Jeremy to change his views. No one can accuse him of being a softy Europe lover: if he starts to properly attack the Tory Brexit plans, and opens the debate about what our country should become, it would amount to a massive shift in the stalemate that has ground us down and made the country ungovernable for more than two years. If there’s one politician who could persuade people to think again about allowing Tory Brexit it’s him.
And yet he’s entrusting all the economic arguments to the very people who inflicted the chaos of austerity onto this country. Gove, Johnson, Davis, Duncan Smith, May – each played a crucial role in the most economically disastrous government in the history of all Conservative governments.
All the pointers are to a Brexit that would trash everything he believes in – but Jeremy’s response appears to be – “yes, it’s true I’m hitching myself to a dangerous campaign that could end in disaster, but don’t worry, I have truth and morality on my side, I’ll be able to persuade Boris and Nigel that once we’re out of Europe, we’ll be able to build a workers’ democracy with increased business regulation and massive government investment in our public services.”
Imagine a Labour leader, taking the nation into such an enormous risky endeavour with such naïve faith in his ability to change the views of people who fundamentally disagree with him.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well.
The question now, I understand, is no longer ‘how do we replace Jeremy with someone who could win?’ Instead ‘given that Labour will probably win under Jeremy, what can we do to make that victory work for the majority of Labour voters and the rest of the country?’
The answer is obvious to me. If you’re still a member of the party, bring up Brexit morning noon and night. Contact your local Momentum group and tell them to bring it up at Conference. Ask your MPs to ask Jeremy what plans he has for the day after Brexit?
If you’re no longer a member, but long for the day when Labour are back in power, start organising in your communities – at work, at home, in your schools and hospitals. You will all know someone who voted Leave and is worried about what will happen, or someone with an EU passport whose future here is still uncertain. Talk to them, take up their case, let them know we’re not ignoring them.
We may not be able to stop Brexit, but with the Tories no longer interested in the outcome, it’s up to us to take responsibility and talk about how we’re going to rebuild Britain – and by us I mean Labour.
Remember – the party is always bigger than the leader.”