Jeremy Corbyn is getting a lot wrong at the moment. Even his most passionate defenders would have to admit that. He seems to be on a quest to alienate himself from the media, whose support he will need to have any hope of getting elected. In his quest to appear totally above the mirky world of Westminster politics, he has missed wide open goals and is letting himself be attacked by opponents who aren’t living up to his high minded tactics.
In essence, he doesn’t care what his operation looks like from the outside as long as his inner circle is happy. And that’s his problem – who cares what things look like from the inside?
But, being lenient with him, let’s examine the defences he could be putting up if he were so inclined.
This is a big weakness for Corbyn at the moment. He is being portrayed by much of the press as a dangerous pair of hands when it comes to economic matters. The Telegraph has described the Labour leader as neo-Marxist. The Daily Mail ran an apocalyptic piece charting the first 1000 days of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. Cameron has repeatedly made references to Corbyn dragging the country back to the 1970s.
So is Corbyn going to destroy the economy if he’s elected? The crux of the anti-Corbynomics argument rests on his opposition to Austerity. The Conservatives have easily portrayed this policy as a dangerous radical leap to the left.
However, this is an argument you will not find coming from a mainstream economist. In August, over 40 of the country’s leading economists, including a former Governor of the Bank of England, wrote an open letter to the Guardian stating that Corbyn’s opposition to austerity is just basic mainstream economics. Many of the figures who signed the letter were not Corbyn, or even Labour, supporters but they made it clear that demonising Corbyn as a radical for opposing austerity was economically illiterate. Considering that the fiercely fiscally conservative International Monetary Fund is also on Corbyn’s side, his position gets put into some kind of perspective.
So his opposition to austerity isn’t as radical as it’s portrayed, what about his opposition to neo-Liberal economics as a whole? After all, its common knowledge that neo-Liberal economic policies provide higher growth. Well, that’s not as true as you might think.
A study conducted earlier this year by professors from the Centre for Business Research at Cambridge Judge Business School found that annual growth was higher before 1979, when Thatcherite neo-Liberal economic policies became the norm.
The study found that average annual growth in GDP fell from 2.6% in the three decades leading up to 1980, to 2.2% per year to 2007 and then a decline of 0.2% per year since 2007. Productivity has shown an even more dramatic downturn. Productivity growth averaged at 2.9% per year in the three decades leading to 1980, falling to 1.7% between 1980 and 2007 and shrinking by 0.2% per year since 1979.
Although inflation and industrial action have reduced since 1980, inequality and unemployment have dramatically increased and the neo-Liberal culture of deregulation contributed to the financial crash of 2008 and the longest recession in over a century.
The debate on George Osborne’s plan to make running a surplus during “normal economic times” (whatever they are) legally binding was a particular embarrassment for Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell. After a great deal of dithering and several U-Turns, the Labour shadow chancellor finally announced that he would be opposing George Osborne’s plans. This was a gift to the Conservatives as they could easily use this to portray Corbyn as anti-growth.
Corbyn offered almost no reply to this accusation. What he should have pointed out is that no mainstream economist has argued that Osborne’s plan was either necessary or necessarily beneficial, whilst several economists have pointed out that it may even be economically harmful. He could also have pointed out that Osborne has promised to to run surpluses before and failed to meet his timeline, or that enshrining political promises and wish lists into law has been done numerous times before and these laws are always meaningless.
Conservatives have had a field day portraying Jeremy Corbyn as an Islamist sympathising anti-nuclear pacifist who is a threat to the country. David Cameron and senior Conservatives, like George Osborne and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, have repeatedly stated that Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to national security.
The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) September 13, 2015
It’s hard to imagine that a man whole collects photos of manhole covers is a threat to anything, but let’s examine these claims.
David Cameron famously claimed in his speech to the Conservative Party conference that Jeremy Corbyn once said that he thought Osama Bin Laden’s death was a “tragedy”. This masterclass in taking people out of context made national headlines and dominated the political landscape for several days. Corbyn relied on his few supporters in the press pointing out that what he actually said was:
This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died.
He also said that he would have preferred Osama bin Laden to be captured and put on trial rather than shot on sight. This is by no means a radical view. Numerous counter-terrorism experts, public figures and relatives of 9/11 victims said at the time of his death that they would have preferred Bin Laden to have been taken prisoner.
The other key pole in the “Corbyn is a threat to national security” tent is his opposition to Trident. This is an area in which the Conservatives are out of touch with the public. Public opinion polls consistently show that only around 30% of the public support renewing Trident, whereas around 45-50% support scrapping Trident. Public opinion tends to be even more anti-nuclear in Scotland, so pushing for Trident renewal would simply widen the divide between the Scots and the rest of the UK.
The cost of renewing Trident could be more than £100 billion at a time when the UK is facing deep cuts to public expenditure. Corbyn has repeatedly said that he would never use a nuclear weapon. What then would be the point of him spending £100 billion renewing an apocalyptic weapons system that has never been used by the UK, that the entire planet hopes is never used, that he has promised he would never use anyway, when it could be spent limiting cuts to social welfare provisions? Corbyn doesn’t need to plead the pacifist case for not renewing Trident, he could simply plead the economic case.
Despite all this, I believe that Corbyn has a serious problem. It’s not necessarily one of policy, but attitude. His unwillingness to acknowledge the basic necessity of having some friends in the media is demonstrably holding him back. He has recently appointed the controversial Seamus Milne to be his head of communications. Milne is despised by many in the media, including many at left leaning publications, and this move will only serve to alienate him further.
Corbyn is unwilling to fight fire with fire, and in some ways that’s admirable. The public are fed up with the bitchiness of Westminster politics and his new form of Prime Ministers Questions does seem genuinely popular with the electorate. But this friendly politics does not win headlines. Last week, Corbyn in a Paxman-like grilling repeatedly asked Cameron the same question on tax credits six times without receiving a genuine answer. News hounds and politics buffs were enthralled, but no national papers gave the grilling serious attention.
If Corbyn genuinely wants to change things, he will first need to be elected and he cannot do that by simply appealing to his base. He doesn’t need to reduce himself to Mean Girl bitchiness, but he is going to need to be more proactive in proving his appeal to the public. His inner circle may know why he’s the obvious choice, but it’s not so obvious to the rest of us.