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.