Jeremy’s Magical 1970s Nostalgia Tour

Having a drink with a left-wing friend of similar age recently, he pointed out what is so exciting about the current impetus behind Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign: the left just simply isn’t used to winning. Nobody under their mid-50s can remember a time when the strength of the labour and trade union movement could be rallied to bring down governments and force employers to their knees.

For those of us a few years younger, the left-wing experience is one of endless defeat. I was part of the generation of teenagers mobilised into political activity by Thatcher’s unexpected victory in May 1979. Our first experience of politics was a shock swing to the right, and from then on our only political experience has been to see left-wing ideas and movements in continual retreat.

I joined the Troskyist organisation, the Militant Tendency, which as an entrist movement, deliberately embedded itself inside the Labour Party, and rapidly took over the youth section, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). We expected the revolution to come any day now, and confidently awaited the backlash against Thatcher’s brutal economic policies. So we reeled in shock when Thatcher won again in 1983. However, our leaders were confident: the far-left has always quietly relished poverty (while pretending to hate it), because they believe it will mobilise the workers to join the revolution. Under Thatcher, mass unemployment grew and grew, and so (we expected) would the pressure for revolutionary change, as capitalism unravelled.

1983 also saw the election of the Labour MP we in Militant considered closest to our position: Jeremy Corbyn. Comrades confidently told me that he expressed sympathy with our policies: though that was quite likely exaggerated: Corbyn took care to distance himself from the far left, for obvious reasons. Corbyn had been active in Labour and trade union activism during the glory days, and like us, waited impatiently for their return.

Our belief in the proletarian revolution took its most severe knock two years later, when the mighty miners were defeated in their year-long strike, and returned to work. That was the point when many of us began to drift from the movement. We weren’t just losing elections: history was clearly not moving in our direction. In 1986 came the battle of media unions against Rupert Murdoch, as he built a brand new plant employing new, computerised print technology, and broke the might of the print unions, which had resisted technological change for so long. By now, I was working and supporting a family, and politics seemed increasingly irrelevant. Not only was Thatcher winning the battles, but the public was increasingly supportive of her brave, new world.

Although my views hadn’t changed much, I had become alienated by the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the hard-left. One of the breaking points for me was when a comrade reported me for smoking a spliff at a party, and I was threatened with expulsion. “Normal” young people who liked sex, drugs and partying were not at home among the hard-faced socialist puritans, who insisted that such behaviour was detrimental to the revolution; and we drifted away. Those who remained active were increasingly unrepresentative of the youth: humourless, dogmatic, authoritarian; so convinced by their own beliefs that they were prepared to trash democracy when it gave the wrong answers.

There were two final, crushing defeats for those who believed in state ownership and control of the economy: first, the various experiments in socialism were exposed as useless. The Soviet Union’s economic model didn’t work. Communist Russia, it turned out, was largely propped up by exporting expensive oil to capitalist countries. The USSR unravelled, not (as the idiot US right likes to believe) because of Reagan’s bloodthirsty wars, but because it went bankrupt when the oil price crashed. China had already begun switching to a market economy in 1979. Cuba, apparently an economic island miracle, also collapsed when Soviet welfare vanished. It was later rescued by Chavez’s Venezuela, but that country is now the world’s worst performing economy, thanks again to an oil price crash. Socialist economics, it turned out, only worked for countries with lots of expensive oil. Even Fidel Castro, quietly in 2010, accepted that Cuba’s socialist model had failed, and slowly opened the door to markets.

So the 90s began dismally for those of us on the left. Now, we believed, global capitalism could sweep the world uncontested, bringing dictatorship and poverty everywhere it went. “Globalisation” became a scary new buzzword for the left, as did “neoliberalism”. The latter didn’t really catch on, but has now been successfully resuscitated as a general-purpose bogeyman by the new left.

And here was the second great defeat for our thinking: the world got richer. Much, much richer. Not only that, but the greatest falls in poverty happened in the poorest parts of the world. None of us, in 1990, would have predicted the meteoric rise of the Chinese, Indian and Latin American economies; less still the incredible, ongoing economic progress in much of Africa. China’s current financial meltdown is worrying, as well as overdue and long expected; but it is a blip compared to the past 3-4 decades of global economic progress.

Here’s the one, hard fact that destroyed my faith in state ownership: between about 1990 and 2014, the prevalence of world hunger fell by 42 percent. This took place at a time of soaring global population. To admit we were wrong may be difficult; but to try to turn back the clock, and risk reversing progress on global hunger based on a refusal to change our world view would be an act of sheer evil. We were wrong. I was wrong. The “system” that we hated – whatever you want to call it – has filled empty bellies.

So, for most of us once on the hard left, our socialism evolved into social democracy. I still believe strongly in redistribution of wealth, and that poverty can and should be eliminated in a rich society, but we have learned that socialism can’t create wealth, but international markets coupled with social democracy can. We have also learned that experiments in socialism inevitably come with authoritarian attacks on free speech and democracy. The extremes of politics, left or right, are populated by bullies that believe any suppression of liberty is acceptable in pursuit of The Cause.

Jeremy Corbyn, protected by an MP’s salary from having to notice that the world was changing, clung in there, voted with his conscience, and was largely ignored by everyone. He is for sure a genuinely good and principled man; but a possible Prime Minister? No. There are good reasons why he has not been anywhere near an influential position since being elected to Parliament. But he appears to be set on one thing, and one thing only: the reconstruction of his 1970s left-wing dreams. To wipe out the past four decades of defeat and start again. A return to the long-discredited ideas of his youth. A look at his politics reveal him not as a progressive, but as somebody who has had his fingers in his ears and his eyes shut since about 1983.

One danger warning came when he talked about the possibility of reopening Welsh coal fields. At a time when environmental activists rail against fracking (which is far cleaner than coal mining), this is absurd. At a time when global warming is the greatest threat to humanity it is borderline insane. But for those who haven’t moved on, Thatcher’s defeat of the miners must be avenged. Screw climate change, we need coal mines, like the good old days, when we were young and chips still came wrapped in newspaper. Anybody with a hint of environmental understanding will know one thing when it comes to fossil fuels: we need to leave them in the ground. Sure, he pays lip service to solar power: in fact, he wants a panel on every roof (sadly, solar doesn’t work too effectively north of the Midlands, but doubtless this policy excites green-thinking technophobes). But without googling, I can guarantee that Corbyn is anti-nuclear. Nuclear power is the only known way to cut fossil fuel use drastically in the very short term; but nuclear was seen as bad by the left in the 70s (when climate change wasn’t around to complicate things), and so it must be bad now, too.

The environment isn’t the only area in which Corbyn and science part company. His voting record includes support for the junk medicine of homeopathy, as well as for “herbal remedies”. This would once have worried some on the left, but today’s left has also, in large part, parted company with science. So our new messiah believes in discredited Victorian “medicine”? Who cares?

But if his environmental and health ideas are exactly where they were four decades ago, his economics are idiotic. We had nationalised industries in the 70s, therefore we must have them today. Never mind that nationalised industries were inefficiently run, created crap (but expensive) products and services and cost the taxpayer a fortune. In the 80s, we protested loudly as government-owned organisations were sold off, one after the other. But the catastrophe we predicted never came. Privatisation became a swear-word for the left, but in practise, it improved many services beyond recognition. The idea that we would have to go to a government monopoly for electricity, gas or a phone line is just silly now. And yet, Jeremy’s magical 1970s nostalgia bandwagon requires it. And so, he plans to nationalise the energy industry: he refers, incorrectly, to the current energy market as a “cartel”. But a state monopoly is a big step worse than a mere cartel. And the projected cost of letting Jez take us back to his youth? A snip at £185bn.

Jeremy also wants a national investment bank, to be funded by printing endless new money (or “quantitative easing for people”, as he calls it). These plans have been shredded by the press – even the Guardian’s economics editor gently dismissed the idea. We know from long, hard experience what happens when endless money is printed to buy things for the masses: see Zimbabwe for more details. One needs to understand the hard left mindset to understand where this comes from: to them, state ownership isn’t a tool for improving things, but a religious mantra. To accept that state ownership just doesn’t work very well is to admit that the socialist experiment has failed. And the true, starry-eyed believers can never do that. Jeremy grew up surrounded by nationalised industries, and he wants to die with them, dammit!

To take economic insanity a step further, Corbyn proposes the popular – but discredited – tool of rent controls. While these sound nice, they are the ultimate lesson that economies don’t tend to do what you tell them. Rent controls have several problems: to begin with, they disincentivise investment in house building, which leads to rapidly worsened housing shortages. They also disincentivise landlords from investing in improvements, which means rent-controlled properties become run down and ghettoised. Rent controls discourage people from moving to smaller properties as their families leave home, which means that over time, old people end up living in places that are cheap but too big, while young people are squeezed out by the lack of property. Rent controls favour the incumbent over the newcomer, which makes them a very effective tool against young people and immigrants. Unwittingly, Corbyn’s policies would be as effective at keeping immigrants out of London as Farage’s. But hey, he’s nice, and Farage is nasty, so who cares if immigrants end up homeless and squeezed out of our city?

Oh, and did I mention he’s a semi-closeted Eurosceptic? The moron-left, having screamed at Farage, is happily rallying around somebody who believes in basically the same thing. I really don’t care whether the EU is unravelled by stupidity from the left or the right. It has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to Europe. It is fundamentally a progressive project. While the left has been obsessing about the right-wing nationalism of UKIP and the BNP, nationalism has crept in and infected the left too, and this is potentially far more dangerous.

Jeremy Corbyn is doubtless a good, moral man. The same could probably be said about Chairman Mao, whose Great Leaps Forward starved tens of millions of Chinese people while trying to feed them. It says something that Corbyn’s support appears to concentrated among two groups: those of his own generation who remember the 70s as a time when their knees didn’t creak (sorry Mum!) and those too young to realise that everything he proposes has been tried before, and didn’t turn out well.

Will he wreck Labour’s prospects, as so many are saying? That’s by far the most likely outcome. He has no base of support within Parliament, and would be a disrespected and divisive leader. Electing Corbyn almost certainly means George Osborne or Boris Johnson will lead another Tory government from 2020 to 2025. But there is a small chance that his populist messages could attract a groundswell of support and drain votes from UKIP as well as the SNP and the Greens. And if you think another ten years of the Tories sound bad, wait till you see the rise of authoritarian nationalism in both left and right varieties. Like the 70s? No – more like the 30s.

7 thoughts on “Jeremy’s Magical 1970s Nostalgia Tour”

  1. It is not clear how:
    1) state ownership of industries that the UK had in the 1970s would have had any impact at all on global hunger had they not been privatised.

    2) socialist attacks on freedom of expression would be materially different from our current form of authoritarian attacks on freedom of expression. Or that JC would mount an attack of freedom expression (except for non-dom press magnates – and I’d strongly suggest that a greater plurality of ownership would be a progressive not regressive step).

    3) anything JC has said in recent years would lead one to conclude that he is in favour of suppressing liberty (with an honourable exception for Mssrs Blair & Bush after due process in the Netherlands). If anything, his support for homeopathy (aka the right to kill the credulous with woo) suggests the opposite.

    4) being sceptical of the nuclear industry’s claims over safety & costs is anything other than prudent. These claims have been shown to be wrong time & time again. [I don’t agree with his conclusion on this but that’s a different matter to rubbishing why he should be sceptical.]

    5) the use of the word “cartel” instead of “oligopoly” materially alters the characterisation of the energy, banking & train “markets”. True, it’s slang but the informal meaning is close enough.

    6) a state monopoly has to be worse than an oligopoly in all circumstances. Monopolies like the Swiss train system (state owned & run, the horror!) are far better in every respect (to the passenger) than our glorious mish-mash.

    7) a market cost has to be paid for nationalising any company/industry, especially ones that require subsidies to carry out day-to-day operations. Any government could let the market “work”, and pick up the bankrupt companies for the nominal £1 (each).

    8) a G7 nation’s economy can be seriously compared to Zimbabwe’s. Distributing money to people is simple Keynesianism at work; it was used to end the C20 depression and should, according to many economists (including the Nobel winning beards & noted “lefties” like Anatole Kaletsky – see, I can do “appeal to authority” as well), be used to help end ours. Even had all the QE employed to support bonuses in the City been distributed to us plebs, our economy was so weak the idea of an inflationary death spiral is simply ludicrous.

    9) rent controls must fail here when they work successfully in other similar countries.

    10) old people being stuck in bigger houses than they need is the consequence of rent controls. It’s happening now. But because people like us hope to inherit those over-sized homes, this isn’t deemed to be a problem.

    11) keeping some people out of London is a “bad thing” of necessity. To those of us not living in that place, it sucks the economic, political and artistic lifeblood out of the rest of the country. Rebalancing the country is not an evil to most in the UK (even England).

    12) someone being sceptical (about anything) is in someway inappropriate. You rightly castigate those who slavishly lap up “received wisdom” on other subjects. I don’t detect the overtly xenophobic tenor from JC as I do from NF; one may be critical of the EU (i.e. a sceptic) without crossing over into thinly disguised fascism.

    13) JC is remotely like Mao. If you have evidence that would show JCs murderous intent, post it – I expect better than thinly disguised insinuation when I read this blog.

    Personally, I’m not a Labour member & so I haven’t voted for JC or any of the other candidates, nor did I vote for them in May. I also have doubts that he may win a GE. However, I do think he is the person best placed, outside of our “elites”, to reframe the debate in England at this moment in time. I’d also hesitantly suggest that the treatment JC is being given in the media is reminiscent of another “unelectable” party of much more recent times. They did OK in May.

    1. Thanks for the mega-comment. Let’s see…

      1) I wasn’t referring to the UK: was referring to a sharp increase in global free trade after 1990, which correlates with a steep fall in hunger and a rise in prosperity in most places.
      2) Corbyn’s support for Leveson is very worrying. It would mean the introduction of a state censor for the press – completely out of place in a democracy. Whether or not the media owner is British is irrelevant.
      3) I’m fully in agreement with him that Blair should stand trial for war crimes.
      4) The relative records of nuclear and coal are pretty clear. Even if you fear the worst, coal is many orders of magnitude more dangerous.
      5) The energy market isn’t a cartel or oligopoly. It’s not a very good market because people don’t tend to shop around, but technology could fix that – for example, smart meters that switch to the best tariff.
      6) I’m not opposed to state monopolies where they’re the best fit. Regarding rail, I’m not decided whether the new system is any better or worse than the old British Rail
      7) …
      8) Not comparing UK to Zimbabwe: more pointing out that the richest country in sub-Saharan Africa became one of the poorest.
      9) I’m not aware if rent controls have ever been “successful” – depends on your criteria.
      10) You accept that rent controls would lead to empty rooms, which would be criminal at a time of housing shortage.
      11) London exports wealth to the rest of the UK. Not sure how it “sucks” culture – it’s one of the world’s most culturally creative cities
      12) Corbyn certainly isn’t a xenophobe, but he’s nationalistic in his rejection of the EU, and his policies would be xenophobic in effect.
      13) He’s not like Mao, but like Mao he proposes policies – with the best intentions – that would impoverish people

      1. 1) Perhaps but saying “Here’s the one, hard fact that destroyed my faith in state ownership: between about 1990 and 2014, the prevalence of world hunger fell by 42 percent. ” explicitly tries to link state ownership not free trade (I wouldn’t contest this claim) with the fall in world hunger. To me, at least, you didn’t say what you meant to say.

        2) We have censorship of the media already but arguably it’s worse than the state censorship we also have at the moment because we can’t vote most of our current censors out of office. Or punish them for, at least, being completely out of control of – what should be – an important part of the democratic process. I remain sceptical of the bleating of journalists who might have to (1) verify a story before printing it (2) print an apology of similar prominence to the unfounded assertions they made (3) may have to print something that damages the business interests of their owner or his friends

        4) Short of a large quantity of coal falling on someone’s body, exposure to coal cannot kill in minutes nor can human error render vast tracts of the world uninhabitable for decades to come in a short period of time. I’m also unaware of coal rendering entire ecosystems unfit for humanity due to an earthquake and consequent flooding. The climate change problems of coal are all too real though so there is a grave danger from both coal and nuclear power to humanity; I’m not convinced that swapping one for the other is a great decision.

        5) An oligopoly is “a market controlled by a small group of firms”. That is exactly our retail banking, utilities & public transport systems in a nutshell. Colloquially, as many are not versed in economics jargon, a cartel fits most common understanding of the situation.

        6) I am not comparing our current rail system to BR but to at least one extraordinarily good state run & owned system; unless you’re implying that the Swiss (and other similar nations) are some kind of ubermensch, it’s not clear why the UK couldn’t also aspire to a similar outcome.

        8) Sure but one of the richest African countries is not the same as saying one of the richest countries in the world would have to become one of the poorest. Especially as, and I’m open to corrections, the UK isn’t also the target of huge sanctions.

        10) I accept that we already have huge numbers of empty rooms at this time *without rent controls*. It is not obvious why that number would vastly increase by introducing them. Many of the current empty rooms are “acceptable” though because they are the “assets” of parents which people want to inherit and so are in no way a blight on society.

        11) If that were true, one would expect the gap in wealth, facilities and jobs between London and the rest of the UK to diminish as it was exported over time. Not holding my breath…

        13) One of Mao’s most famous policies was to starve people (we quaintly call them “benefits sanctions”) – which of JCs policies would go further down this Tory path?

  2. I think much of your commentary may be confusing correlation and causation. For example, falls in world hunger may relate more to improved crop technology (including GM food) than the political system purportedly running the country (Zimbabwe may claim to be socialist, but in practice it’s run to line Mugabe’s and his henchmen’s pockets). The important aspect of social democracy, I’d say, is the democracy bit. The thought that you might be voted out of office and have to account for what you did acts as a disincentive to use the country’s output as a means of lining your own pocket wholesale (apart from Russia, partly because Putin is good at rigging elections).

    I’m not convinced that privatisation of the formerly public utilities (other than BT) is as successful as you claim. The regulatory system favours investors over consumers, giving rise to endless complaints about rising prices (and fat cat salaries). BT was more successful, but mainly due to technological advances since it was privatised. Rail services in continental Europe (which are largely still nationalised) in my experience work better than British ones. I’d suggest the ownership is less relevant than the size and culture of the organisation. RBS hasn’t changed its culture since Gordon Brown nationalised it (unwillingly) a few years ago.

    I do agree that rent controls won’t work: the fundamental issue that needs addressing is the shortage of housing in the South East, particularly in London. Successive governments have paid lip service to this, but done nothing to ease planning rules, or develop the necessary skill levels.

    On GM food, nuclear power and fracking, I think the key issue (which you tend to gloss over) is an effective regulatory regime. This is more or less in place for nuclear, following various disasters (3 Mile Island, Chernobyl), though Japan needs to rethink its construction regulations following Fukushima. In the US, which has a more laissez faire attitude to regulation, fracking has caused serious water pollution problems in the areas where it has been tried. I also think GM needs regulation, mainly to reassure people that the food they eat is safe. Simply trying to stop information getting out (as Monsanto and Starbucks did in Vermont when Bernie Sanders tried to introduce a bill to label GM food as such) won’t work.

    In more general terms, whilst we can’t go back to the 70’s, when trades unions had the power to bring down elected governments, I’d suggest we have gone too far the other way. Now corporations and international financial markets have the power to bring down elected governments (Microsoft and Google have faced down the US government), while ordinary people are increasingly saddled with a low wage and insecure economy. Meanwhile in the US, much of the right wing “anti-science” (specifically climate change denial) is instigated by the Koch brothers as a means of reducing regulation of its (highly polluting) business.

    I also wouldn’t accept that the “mainstream” Labour party has been any sort of guardian of free expression in recent years (nor have the Tories, but I wouldn’t expect them to be). I’ve voted LibDem in recent years (more happily when Charles Kennedy was leader), but I’d reconsider with a new leader.

  3. Interesting to read a non-hysterical critique of Corbyn from a progressive perspective. Corbyn’s flaws may well be as you describe, but I can’t help feeling a strong sense of schadenfreude at the squealing of the blue-suited Blairites who are wondering what the hell is happening and how they can stop it.

    Corbyn’s relative popularity is despite his radical background, not because of it. He is leading because he is the only candidate to declare a range of views which are essentially moderate, social-democratic, and shared by the majority of the Labour membership (and supporters of other parties), such as opposition to “austerity”, opposition to illegal wars, and belief in redistribution of wealth to help the poorest in society.

    I can’t see Corbyn winning a general election (or any of the other candidates for that matter) but my hope is that he will at least shift the discourse away from the right-wing dogmas that the Labour elite have blindly accepted, rightly earning the contempt of their membership and the electorate.

  4. Jeremy Corbyn is doubtless a good, moral man. The same could probably be said about Chairman Mao

    When you wrote this, why was there no mechanism in your head which said “this is a ludicrous and hysterical comparison to make”?

    Oh hang on – you’d already done see Zimbabwe for more details.

    Any more for any more?

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