Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has launched the Labour Party’s campaign in the upcoming UK election with a stirring and uncompromising commitment … to abolish fees for hospital car parks across the nation. Oh God. Actually, he launched it with a pretty stirring speech and a fistful of policies on education, housing, health and the like, to restore a social democratic Britain. But there wasn’t much that was a new standout, cutout policy and so the hospital car park headline hung around for a while.
Hospital is the right sort of image. Labour’s campaign rallies a little, staggers to get out of bed, and then the effort gives them another groin hernia and they slide back to horizontal once more. The launch was held at Manchester, before a rapt crowd, and in the presence of Andy Burnham, the newly elected Labour mayor for Manchester. Bittersweet, because Burnham had been a rival for the leadership, and would have won it, had he not released some of his supporters to nominate Jeremy Corbyn, to make the contest look less of a Blairite fix. Fun times.
Burnham would have been a more on-the-ball leader, more decisive on Brexit, and the sort of Macron-esque figure, the south-of-England middle classes could get behind. Fun, fun times. On the other hand, he might have been another Ed Miliband type, acceding, at the last minute, to have a three-metre “Edstone”/tombstone chiselled with party promises (remember that?).
We’ll never know, but I suspect that Burnham would have handled the subsequent interviews better than Corbyn, who still refused to commit to Brexit as an unequivocal fact, and contradicted his deputy leader John McDonnell on whether or not the pair would resign if the party were defeated. McDonnell said they would; Corbyn said they wouldn’t, then that they were going to win anyway and the point was moot. Oh. Dear.
The Labour policies themselves are decent enough: a million new skilled jobs, and a National Investment Bank, a “rights at work” program, a million new homes to be built in five years, reconstructing education as the National Education Service, with similar universality and equality of treatment, renationalising railways (by not renewing lapsing tenders) and increasing ‘social democratic control’ of the energy system.
All good stuff, and a program that links transformation of production with consumption and services, as any modern social democratic program should. Trouble is, Corbyn can’t stick to the script. Whenever a microphone is stuck in front of him, he talks exclusively of the poor and dispossessed, those in terrible housing, people on zero-hour contracts, etc, etc. “Take a walk around the streets of our big cities at night” to see the poverty, he suggested in a BBC interview, sounding like he was on the edge of bursting into Streets of London: “so how can you tell me you’re lonely, and say for you that the sun don’t shine …” etc, etc.
This reflex act is a measure of Corbyn’s decency, the fact that he’s really a 19th-century radical liberal in modern garb, passionately concerned with the genuinely poor and exploited. Corbyn would like to be heading an army of such people, banging their fists bloody on the gates of power. Trouble is, such people are a minority and many of the very poorest simply do not, do not, do not vote. The savvy part of Corbyn’s strategy is that if one could get them to the polls, then many safe Tory seats would suddenly need to be defended, because just about every area in the UK has what is charmingly, but accurately, called “a sink estate”.
Yet even such new voters, if they could be turned out, would not be enough. Corbyn must know, at some level, that he has to offer something to the broad middle classes. One suspects he simply cannot bring himself to do it, because deep down he feels that people with a house, a job, a pension and a steady income are just whining when their lives are compared to, out of 60 million Britons, the 5 million or so at the bottom of the heap. There is certainly very little in the party program that directly appeals to the Britain between the middle-middle-lower class, and the lower-middle-middle class (middle-middle-lower: tradespeople on wages, schoolteachers who haven’t slept with their students. Lower-middle-middle: accountants who wished they’d studied law, doctors working for the prison service because they slept with a patient. Keep up.)
This is one among several reasons why the new left insurgency, though forceful, remains hobbled: because its core activists will not admit that they people doing worst a minority now, and their interest can only be advanced by fusing their needs with the genuinely needed improvements in the lives of people in the middle. Many on the left simply refuse to abandon this role, now a fantasy, because it deprives them of an opportunity for heroism. At its worst, it is a self-defeating, and self-serving narcissism, and there is more than a touch of it around the Corbyn campaign, and the Momentum movement that underlies it.
Corbyn’s inability to make that connection has left the field wide open for Theresa May, a woman so fucking middle-class, if she stood in front of a Laura Ashley print, she would disappear from view altogether, merge seamlessly with the background. While Corbyn was doing a launch and interviews that then required two clarifications to be released, May was appearing with her husband on the One Show, a BBC1 evening magazine program — the watching of which is like encountering the bloke from No Country For Old Men who kills people with a captive bolt pistol put to the victim’s forehead.
The public-broadcaster grinning vacuousness was at Trioli-esque levels as Mr and Mrs May, a dead spit of George and Mildred, appeared on the “One sofa”, and yukked it up. And it’ll work. Corbyn will get equal time, and he has a pretty dishy Mexican wife, Laura Alvarez, but she is not involved in the campaign, and so he will sit on the “One sofa” and look like mature-age-student-neighbour invited for Christmas drinks who talks about the fair-trade coffee he brought over. Unless Laura joins him and talks about her life, which is … argggh, she’s a fair-trade coffee importer. He could bring ex-squeeze, Hackney MP Diane Abbott. Oh wait, no he couldn’t, because she told a radio show that hiring 25,000 new police officers would cost 300,000 pounds, and when challenged on that absurd figure, couldn’t find the right ones.
Yes, yes before we get letters, the Tories are getting a much easier run from the mainstream press, and even from the BBC, than Labour. Last election, Ed Miliband had to do the eat-the-food-of-the-people nonsense, and chowed down on a caff-style huge bacon butty (sandwich, m’lord), and for about 10 seconds it looked like the butty was fighting back and was going to take Ed from the inside. It was a standout of the campaign.
Last week, May, at the seaside, ate from a bucket of chips with a look on her face like someone had rubbed them — not coated them, just lightly rubbed them — in fresh human shit, and comment there was none. Corbyn is continuously hit with the absurdly circular question as to why he is campaigning to win and talks of his prime ministerial plans when all the polls show he’s going to lose. Labour is starting to crack at the base, with some constituencies making ad-hoc “progressive alliance” deals; three senior members of the Surrey Labour Party, and what a barrel of laughs that gig must be, have been expelled (they have 120 years combined service) for supporting an independent candidate, a pro-NHS GP who has a chance of nobbling a hated Tory, in an otherwise unwinnable home counties seat; Tony Blair is said to be getting together a centrist electoral group to run in key seats, on an anti-Brexit ticket; latest polls forecast a Tory majority of 150-170 in a 650-seat Parliament; Corbyn would probably be re-elected leader of the party by grassroots members, even if that result came to pass; at which point it is said, the remaining Blairite Labour members of Parliament would attempt to have Corbyn expelled from the parliamentary Labour Party, and thus be ineligible for the leadership.
And yet, and yet for all that — the Tories latest policy announcement was for a government-enforced price cap on household energy bills. Last time around that was Labour’s policy under Ed Miliband, a move that earned him the nickname “Red Ed” in the tabloids, which are now salivating over the move. They would not have adopted it without Labour’s policy of “social democratic control” of the energy sector being instituted; Corbyn Labour has moved the whole centre of the debate on that issue, far to the left of where it’s been at any point since 1994.
Theresa May may invoke the air of Maggie Thatcher, but this is a Tory Party more like the interwar or post-war version, oriented to power and unity; they would adopt the Militant program if they had to, and nationalise the 120 largest companies under the slogan “Britain is Better Together”. Their craven cynicism is making certain things possible. It’s a bizarre election indeed where someone like David Cameron can be remembered as a figure of confident leadership and steady principle. He has been recently seen, photographed in front of his 25,000-pound sterling shed-on-wheels (it can be angled, to catch the sun), which has sheeps-wool insulation and a wood-burning stove, and in which he will write his memoirs. David “One Shed” Cameron.
British politics always ascends to a Python-esque plateau. Lib-Dem leader, creepy Christian Tim Farron has just admitted that he had a picture of Margaret Thatcher on his bedroom wall as a kid. Thank God happy-clappies aren’t allowed to toss off. The party in greatest trouble is the Monster Raving Loony Party, which will be fielding a slate of candidates. But what can they possibly, possibly say? Something about hospital car parks, I suppose …