I’ve resisted for a little while any comment on last week’s election. It was a seismic event, watching at 10pm on election night, and knowing by 10.01 that it looked likely we’d have a hung parliament. Then watching till 4, rejoicing in seats gained, sadness in one or two cases at seats lost, but a sense deep down that at least the terrible tide the referendum prompted, and the vote confirmed, was finally if not turned then stayed. For too long there’s been a sense that the tide had overwhelmed the liberal attitudes of old, and we against all better judgements were set on a catastrophic Brexit course.
London and other cities, and above all the young, spoke out. Some extraordinary vote registering had gone on below the radar, press and opinion polls were hardly aware. May was a disaster, and remains so, the Tory campaign and manifesto likewise, and Corbyn came out of a shell many of us thought was the real Corbyn to reveal a performer, yes, a performer, with a sure touch, and a degree of ordinary human sympathy, and humour, which struck a chord with me and many another.
Talk to the under 30s and most, almost to their surprise, were voting Labour. Not just the Corbynistas who took to the barricades two years ago. I could have voted Labour, voting tactically, living as I do in a constituency where the Lib Dems have little chance, but old loyalties held me back.
Let’s assume we can stay and even reverse the Tory tide. What will replace it? The centre is recent times has not held, and there’s a pull of gravity to the left that could take us too far.
The gulf between the Corbynite left and the traditional liberal centre is a big one – a gap in practice, outlook, traditions, as well as pure politics. But, accepting all the risks, could a new devil (who may yet cast off a horn or two) be better than the old disastrous devil who has been calling the tune too long – and still of course aspires to. I’ll be returning to these words in coming months, and checking if they are wise, or foolish, or somewhere inbetween.
For my part I’ve little time for the old trade union connections, for industrial warfare which is a hangover from another age, for pseudo-socialist alternatives such as Hugh Chavez, which have over the years drawn Corbyn in. I’ve no principled objection to renationalising the railways, where the free market finds it hard to operate successfully, other than cost. Energy generation and distribution would be a lumbering giant in the hands of the state.
Student loans are a vexed question: I’ve supported the principle until recently (and indeed in an earlier version of this post), but it’s more than apparent that the system needs radical reform. Levels of debt are spiralling. The rate of interest, 3% above RPI, is now 6.1%, and average debt on graduation £44,000. To quote the Independent, based on a lower debt on graduation of £33,000, ‘a graduate on a salary of £55,000 at the end of the 30-year period (after which loans are written off) will have paid back just over £40,000 on £33,000 borrowed, with a remaining £58,000 unpaid.’ The debt is extraodinarily high when you’re starting out, and you carry it with for thirty years. Then any balance is cancelled.
The state will lose vast sums because many loans will simply be written off after thirty years. Graduate debt in the UK is higher than in any other country in the English-speaking world. Scrapping the whole damned system is one option. A contributory system, with lower levels of interest and repayment, is another.
What I don’t know is how Corbyn proposes to replace student loans. But I can see very clearly why it’s a major issue for young people.
As to Labour’s tax proposals, they transparently won’t bring in anything like the revenues the Labour manifesto suggests. Higher tax rates for the affluent have natural justice of their side, but aren’t likely to be effective in raising significant revenue, and taxing companies – increasing corporation tax – can easily be counter-productive. But I don’t for a moment share the Tory obsssion with tax reduction at all costs.
So why support Corbyn – albeit a tentative and watchful support ?
1] Relax the austerity obsession. Improved infrastructure (not including HS2) can only improve economic performance. And cuts to social welfare have to be pared back, and the NHS funded maybe on LibDem lines – an extra 1p in the pound on income tax. The national debt (approx 82% of GDP) looms large, fed each year by a budget deficit, the elimination of which keeps being postoned – Brexit being the latest culprit. Far better to prime the economy, and as a consequence increase the tax intake, than pursue the black hole of the May/Davis nexus.
2] Bring compassion back into politics – bring the poor, the unemployed and the disabled back into the heart of things. They have been stigmatised too long, though the fault is not with them. The dependency culture is in great part a right-wing figment, an excuse for putting them both out of both mind, and as far as possible, out of sight. The budget deficit has driven cuts in recent years – but a highly inequitable treatment of the less fortunate cannot be the answer.
3] Enlist and keep on board, as Corbyn has done, the young, to counter-balance all the caution and backward-looking disposition of the over-60s who to their shame have closed minds and ranks in support of a spurious UK – or English – identity.
4} Support the immigrant population, and allow future immigration to be dictated by the requirements of the economy – from Europe, from India, and elsewhere. Not least students coming to our universities. To be open to refugees, to be open instinctively – which doesn’t mean we open our ports, but it does mean our first response is to help and not to stigmatise.
5] Implicit in so much of the above, to maintain our close ties with Europe, with the EU, with EU institutions, maintain our trading links, and that wider humanity, concern for the individual, for rights, for equality, for the environment, which is so much the European tradition. We and Europe are so much more effective in a world of big power blocs (USA, China, Europe) if we speak with one voice.
6] Related to the above, maintain our influence in the world, which Brexit would, in the name of a spurious sovereignty, surrender: where better to exercise our sovereignty than within a continent where we’re listened to, where we share traditions. What chance when we argue our case on our own, a small island with an inflated idea of regaining glories which belong to vastly different world?
Corbyn is wary, more than wary, of globalisation, more than wary of big business. His old socialist instincts worry me. But it’s chance I’ll take. The Brexit route is guaranteed to bring disaster, and I don’t believe that the Labour right, or the wider country, would, come a future election, allow a luddite Corbynism to prevail.
But there is risk here. Under Corbyn we might find ourselves pursuing a new identity politics, where we close our minds to the impact of automation, try and hold on to old industrial practices, hold back the rise of new companies and new industries, and resist the changes in communication and trade that business, and big business, will inevitably take forward. Getting the balance right between the old and new will be vexed and require all our attention, and debate, and financial support for those who suffer. Likewise keeping our focus on the environment, and climate change, and the population and resource issues which have to be addressed.
The Trump and Le Pen agendas are there to remind us what could happen – and Corbyn will surely be well aware of the dangers of trimming in that direction.
But I have to trust that the young, the under 30s, the under 40s, will haul him back. It is their world, even more than mine, and we have to trust them to make it work. Who will lead when Corbyn is gone, and will she or he will retain their support – they are big questions. But a ball has been set rolling, and while I don’t trust all the routes that it might take, we do finally have a counter-course to stay the Brexit obsession.
Politics will never take the course we anticipate. Never has and never will. But we can work to set a direction, and argue both in political and practical terms to hold that direction as best we can.
No mention here of the Lib Dems, where I remain a member. They will pull strongly to sanity and to the centre, and will now be under a new leader. Their role is this regard will be similar to the Labour right, the new Labour rearguard. Just how the centre of British politics works out in the year, and years, to come is another of the great imponderables.
But to quote Nigel Farage, at least there are signs we might yet ‘get our country back’. Farage of course had never lost his – he’d conjured a country which simply didn’t exist.