Anyone observing or participating in the continuing collective trauma of Britain’s Brexit debate should pay more attention to Jeremy Corbyn and some of the most important — and to some people, surprising — things he has done as Labour leader.
Here’s a short list:
1. Promised big handouts for the middle class.
Mr Corbyn ran his 2017 general election campaign offering huge middle class subsidies from the state. Scrapping tuition fees and offering “free” universal higher education would be a gift to the better-off, whose kids still dominate university entry. (Just look at Scotland.) And the gift would be funded by non-graduate workers’ taxes.
2. Defended unearned wealth
Mr Corbyn opposed a progressive attempt to fund social care from the accumulated wealth of older, richer people who bought property saw its value inflated by ultra-loose monetary policy and hope to pass it on to their kids. Yes, the dementia tax was a progressive, sensible policy. And Corbyn helped kill it.
3. Demonised foreigners
Mr Corbyn has the rhetoric and positioning of Nigel Farage’s Ukip on immigration. Corbyn is committed to ending freedom of movement and has repeatedly told working-class voters that employers are “importing cheap labour” to “undercut” their wages. That’s right folks – if you’re feeling the pinch, Jeremy says you should blame some foreigners.
4. Peddled impossible nonsense over Europe
Mr Corbyn claims again today that he could secure a permanent customs union and an independent trade policy, as well as frictionless trade via the single market without freedom of movement. This isn’t just any cake. This is a fat slice of unicorn-cake with cherries on top. Boris Johnson would recognise the recipe.
This list isn’t exhaustive. I could go on to include some Conservative policies Mr Corbyn hasn’t committed himself to reversing, including some tax cuts and quite a lot of welfare cuts. But you get the general idea, and today is really all about Europe.
On Europe, Mr Corbyn has spent almost three years trying to be all things to all men, and just about managing it too: the survival of the Labour coalition that still, just about, encompasses Leavers like Ronnie Campbell and Remainers like Chuka Umunna — each believing their leader will eventually side with them — says something about the flexibility of the Labour brand, and a quite lot about Mr Corbyn’s political agility.
Of course, there are perfectly sound political justifications for these things. These positions might help Mr Corbyn build a coalition of voters stretching from Canterbury and Battersea to Don Valley and Blyth. They might help deflect the repeated attack – from Conservatives and media outlets including this one— that he’s a dangerous leftie radical who hates people who want to help their kids own a house or who dislike immigration and the EU.
Is Mr Corbyn in politics to defend middle class privilege and inherited housing wealth? Does he really blame foreigners for low wages? Does he actually believe his Brexit policy isn’t made-up nonsense? I doubt it. I think he’s just saying these things because they’re smart politics. Because they might help him win power.
There is nothing intrinsically dishonourable about that. If you can’t win power you can’t do much to deliver on your principles.
That was a fundamental axiom of Blairism and New Labour. Tony Blair persuaded Labour to accept many things it found uncomfortable in order to win and retain power. And he then used that power to do any number of things — a minimum wage, Surestart, the steady increase in spending on services including the NHS — that the alternative Tory governments of the day would not have done.
Yet this is also the sort of pragmatic politics that Mr Corbyn’s friends so deprecate. His entire leadership is sold as a rejection of that supposedly dreadful cynicism. Mr Corbyn is the anti-Blair, an antidote to triangulation and spin, it is often said.
That claim is, of course, a rather brilliant act of spin — and one that his critics in Right-wing papers enthusiastically lap up, apparently unaware that every thundering front-page denunciation of his old school socialism actually pleases Mr Corbyn. Attacks from ‘the Establishment’ keep his base happy while he stakes out positions like those I set out above which are meant to appeal to those beyond the core Corbynite vote.
This column is not a criticism of Mr Corbyn— though I don’t admire those positions above. It is simply an observation that isn’t made often enough: Jeremy Corbyn, who owes his position to the proposition that he is the diametric opposite of Tony Blair and his calculated approach to politics, is in fact a very calculating politician who has learned (and borrowed) a great deal from Blairism.
Put another way, he and his team are better at this game than they look. Remember that in the turbulent weeks ahead.