The great and good all warned members of Britain’s Labour Party that it would be committing electoral suicide if it elected veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But Labour paid no attention (Tony Blair’s admonitions seemed so obviously counter-productive that some of us suspected he was secretly on the Corbyn payroll), and Corbyn won with a crushing 59.5% on the first ballot against three opponents.
With little preparation time, he faced the party’s annual conference in Brighton last week. On most accounts, he did reasonably well; the activist base loves him, and while the fears of his parliamentary colleagues have certainly not gone away, it wasn’t the fiasco that some commentary would have led you to expect.
The conference endorsed some of Corbyn’s signature policy positions, including nationalisation of the railways. But it deferred taking a position on the future of Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons system, of which Corbyn is a long-standing opponent.
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So it was not particularly surprising that a BBC interviewer thought to ask him whether, if elected prime minister, he would ever press the nuclear button. He said “no”. Several members of his own shadow cabinet promptly attacked him for pre-empting the party’s decision and weakening the country’s defence posture; the Tories, of course, gleefully joined in.
In the saner regions of the media, Corbyn’s remarks were treated as little more than stating the obvious. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian called Trident “a great hunk of useless weaponry” and described the reaction of Corbyn’s critics as “astonishing”. Ian Bell in Glasgow’s Herald headlined a column with “When did willingness to commit mass murder become sensible politics?”
But it was an interesting revelation of the priorities of Britain’s political right. Despite the prevalence of terms like “socialist” in the public debate, the actual economic policies of Corbyn and his supporters seem to arouse relatively little controversy: the idea of re-nationalising the railways goes mostly without comment, despite the fact that, outside, it’s 2015, not 1945.
The things that really drive right-wing hostility are cultural, like Corbyn’s legendary failure to sing the words to the national anthem. And now his obstinate refusal to endorse a ruinously expensive missile system that, for all its uselessness in any actual defence situation, has become totemic for the political establishment.
In Australia, also, we have recently had a political party taken over by a leader whom many of the loudest media voices regard as a dangerous left-winger. And although the differences between Corbyn and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are large and obvious, there’s something of the same dynamic going on among their critics.
Although they are happy to use “socialist” as a bogey word (which at least, in Corbyn’s case, is broadly accurate, if ludicrously inapplicable to Turnbull), the critics don’t want to talk about economics. Just as Corbyn has “betrayed” the Blairite “modernisation” of Labour — whose fruits turned out to be social control and military adventurism — Turnbull has betrayed the “movement” conservatism that John Howard and Tony Abbott had brought to the ascendancy in the Liberal Party.
Many commentators still describe Howard and Abbott as “free marketeers” (or that rubbery term “neoliberal”), but the more acute ones have worked out that the real issues are quite different. Mike Seccombe in The Saturday Paper points to the loss of influence of groups like the Institute of Public Affairs but notes, correctly, that climate denialism rather than economic policy is at the top of their agenda. Instead, it’s actually Turnbull who is talking about things like removing distortions in the tax system. But as I said last month, “when someone like Turnbull embraces free-market policies, it not only fails to mollify the hard right; it actually enrages them more. They see it as stealing their clothes, and cannot admit (even to themselves) that their real uniform is quite different.”
No one will ever pick Jeremy Corbyn as a free marketeer. But on the evidence so far, there’s equally little care for freedom among his critics.