THIS LEVEL OF COPE from Philip Collins in the times
Even now, Corbyn’s fans think he’s winning
The Labour leader’s supporters are so out of touch they believe Covid-19 measures represent a victory for their ideas
Thursday March 26 2020, 5.00pm, The Times
It is a metaphorical gift, as Jeremy Corbyn winds down his leadership of the Labour Party and claims in his final prime minister’s questions that his voice will not be stilled, that Russian frigates should be conducting unusual exercises in the North Sea. Invasion by Russia would just about seal the victory of ideas that Mr Corbyn’s supporters like to claim: the private sector locked down by the state, vast public expenditure, guaranteed incomes tied to need rather than labour, and companies the length and breadth of the land forswearing the motivation of profit. Truly, at the moment of his departure Mr Corbyn has won the argument.
The Labour leadership contest has been going on so long that, within it, Britain has managed to leave the European Union, the fabric of everyday life has been torn apart by coronavirus, and the Russians are testing our defences. Yet the Labour Party rolls on in its parallel universe and a timeframe of its own devising. Nominations opened on January 7 and the winner will be announced on April 4 by which time, if the tempest of change continues at the same pace, life will have been discovered on Mars and the political reputation of Tony Blair will have been rehabilitated.
Mr Corbyn leaves his post a two-time election loser who led Labour in 2019 to its worst electoral performance since 1935. He achieved the opposite of all his objectives, at least on the surface. There is, though, a deeper question and it is worth taking seriously the claim that he won the battle of ideas — not so much because of the negligible influence of Mr Corbyn himself but because the extraordinary measures made necessary by Covid-19 raise a historic tendency on the British left to regard itself as the winner, even from the vantage of obvious defeat.
A matter of months after Labour promised that the state would seize control of large tracts of the economy, the Conservatives have done so. There is evidently an emergency which justifies an extraordinary response. The state needs to replace incomes. It needs to reassure people that, once the virus has peaked, there will be a path back to normality. Though there is a lot of excitable talk about how everything will be different after the virus, most things will in fact be the same, for the good reason that most things are always the same, even after a revolution. In due course, the markets for pet food, shoes, key cutting, confectionery, coffee and cake, pharmaceutical goods, flowers, vinyl, books, pizzas and haircuts will look much as they did, just as most of them were left essentially unchanged by the financial crash of 2008.
The temptation on the left to ignore this and concentrate on some vast abstract change is always great. Indeed, you could say the Labour Party is the child of such moments. Brought to life by the Great War, which killed off the Liberal Party as a serious force, the Labour Party then came to power and to maturity in the aftermath of the Second World War. Labour’s formative moments were all in the shadow of great events and, ever since, the party has made a memorial of 1945.
There is no reason, of course, why a party should not celebrate its greatest achievements but the Attlee government from 1945 to 1951 has cast a shadow over Labour — a sentimental party at the best of times — from which successive leaders have struggled to escape.
The party made two errors of interpretation which are germane now. The first was to forget that command and control was an emergency procedure, not the norm. Harold Wilson, the Labour president of the board of trade from 1947, was charged with reducing price controls, food rationing, the centralised purchase of foodstuffs and raw materials, and the system of licences and permits for industrial goods. Wilson himself, who understood that people wanted to get back to normal as quickly as they could, was pictured tearing up a clothes ration book, an action which annoyed his colleagues in the Labour Party. “Wilson’s bonfire of controls speech annoyed a lot of party opinion,” wrote Denis Healey later.
Wilson confided to his diary during the ill-starred 1951 general election campaign that the failure to relinquish control quicker and with more relish had hurt Labour badly. The public had the sense that Labour liked the egalitarian and fair-shares nature of rationing rather too much. The emergency made socialism necessary and Labour was slow to let it pass. What is more, there was and is a puritanical streak in the party, mocked to telling effect by Tony Crosland in The Future of Socialism, which disdains consumption and activity without obvious moral purpose. A social lockdown is, among other things, a crackdown on frivolity but there comes a time, after the sacrifice has worked, when people look forward to the release. So it was with rationing in 1951 and so it will be, in time, with the necessary limitations to life we are observing to prevent the spread of the virus.
The second way in which the Labour Party has memorialised 1945 to its detriment has been to forget that its extensive social spending was itself justified by the experience of war. A nation that has just gone through the terrible sacrifice of the loss of many of its people, in a fight for freedom against a foreign enemy, is in the mood to rebuild. There was a strong sense of moral justice after the war; sacrifice had to be answered by a new dispensation. One of the many reasons that Boris Johnson is struggling to emulate his hero Winston Churchill is that, when the foe is invisible, the “battle” we are waging is a metaphor rather than a war. It does require social spending that would have been inconceivable a month ago but, again, Labour politicians need to be cautious before concluding that this will last for ever just because they want it to.
The historian John Campbell has written that the dispute between Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan was never really about the trifling sums at issue over dental charges. It was an argument about the nature of the new National Health Service but, bigger even than that, teeth were a metaphor for a split in the Labour party between those who wanted to spend heavily and those who felt that sometimes the discipline of the fiscal conservative was a vital corrective.
There are no fiscal conservatives anywhere in politics now but this argument has not gone away. Labour has lost two elections in which it was considered profligate and, in the midst of a Tory blizzard of spending and extensive state activity, it could fall into the trap of thinking voters have embraced it for good.
That error could dog the party for a long time, even longer than the duration of its interminable leadership election.