A post-fact fact - that Trotskyist, hard left throwback, Jeremy Corbyn, is nothing of the kind.
The plot to oust him as Labour party leader has awakened memories of a past split in the Labour party – the one that created the SDP in 1981 when a ‘gang of four’ senior Labour politicians, accompanied by 27 MPs, broke away from Labour to form the ‘centre-left’ and ‘moderate’ SDP.
According to press reports, senior figures in both the Tory and Labour parties are considering founding a new centrist grouping “in the mould of the Social Democratic party (SDP)”, should Corbyn be re-elected as Labour leader.
The 172 Labour MPs who voted against Corbyn in the recent no confidence motion have been likened to the SDP’s gang of four. “It all hearkens back to 1981,” wrote one academic, “when four senior Labour Party figures broke away to found their own centrist party, the SDP.”
But the problem with ‘hearkening back to 1981’ as justification for a new centrist grouping in British politics, is that the contemporary politician the SDP most resembles in its economic outlook is actually … Jeremy Corbyn. The elite consensus that governs British politics has moved so far to the Right in the last three decades that the centrist SDP of the early ‘80s now appears in retrospect as a radical leftist project (which, needless to say, it was wasn’t).
The SDP’s high watermark was the general election of 1983 where it gained, in alliance with the Liberals, around a quarter of the vote. The SDP manifesto of that year is illuminating and comparisons with Corbyn abound:
The manifesto promised to increase public borrowing in order to reverse a ‘catastrophic’ reduction in public investment and policies ‘which will invest resources in the high-technology industries of the future’.
Corbyn wants to put ‘state investment centre stage’ and form a national investment bank to target investment high tech industries and the public interest. Public investment, which declined under New Labour, even turned negative for a year under the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.
The SDP was opposed to the privatisation of BT and British Airways and pledged to make nationalised industries ‘properly responsible to their consumers’.
Corbyn wants to reverse a ‘generation of forced privatisation and outsourcing’ which has led to poorer quality services, ‘less transparency and less say for the public’.
The SDP thought the burden of the early ‘80s slump was ‘being borne quite disproportionately’ by the unemployed and the poor. The party promised to help the unemployed and the sick by increasing unemployment benefit, sickness benefit and sick pay by 5%. It wanted to ‘raise the living standards of the hardest-pressed families’.
Corbyn thinks the cost of George Osborne’s economic failure is ‘being borne by some of the most vulnerable in our society’. He has also said that benefit sanctions on the unemployed and disabled are ‘barbaric and must be abolished’. He opposed the welfare cap.
The SDP promised an ‘Industrial Democracy Act’ creating employee councils for all companies above 1,000 employees and directors jointly elected by employees and shareholders.
Corbyn wants a debate about ‘how wealth is created and how it should be shared’. He envisages a ‘genuinely mixed economy of public and social enterprise, alongside a private sector with a long-term private business commitment’.
The SDP’s priority was to reduce the gap between rich and poor. It wanted to raise the National Insurance upper limit and reverse increases in the higher tax bands. Corporation tax was, at the time, 50% (yes, really) and the party promised to reduce it only for profit-sharing and share ownership schemes.
Corbyn wants to tackle the UK’s ‘grotesque’ levels of inequality, crack down on tax avoidance and ‘ask those with income and wealth to spare to contribute a little more’. He advocates reducing corporate tax subsidies and not cutting corporation tax (it has been cut from 28% in 2010 to 17% and George Osborne wants to slash it further to 15%)
In some ways, Corbyn is to the Right of the SDP. The SDP, for example, wanted ‘direct action’ to create 100,000 jobs in ‘labour intensive social services’ and promised with ‘great determination’ to establish a further 250,000 jobs in a state programme of housing and environmental improvement. Corbyn has said nothing about the government directly creating jobs.
If you think this is a hopelessly biased, cherry selecting exercise, consider the words of economist Robert Skidelsky, a founder member of the SDP. In a 2015 article, entitled Taking Corbynomics Seriously, Skidelsky, said Corbyn ‘should be praised, not castigated’ for economic policies such as a National Investment Bank and People’s quantitative easing. “Fiscal austerity has become such a staple of conventional wisdom in the United Kingdom that anyone in public life who challenges it is written off as a dangerous leftist. Jeremy Corbyn …. is the latest victim of this chorus of disparagement.” he pointed out.
Corbyn himself may be a Bennite, says Richard Seymour, author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, but Corbynism isn’t. “Nothing that Corbyn proposes, bar his opposition to Trident, should in principle be disagreeable to old right-wing social democrats,” he says. “For all that Labour MPs and pundits think they're staring at the abyss of Marxist-Leninism, or crypto-Trotskyism, anyone not trapped in those self-serving illusions can see that Corbyn is taking Labour gently and moderately toward a form of retooled social democracy.”
The reason most Labour MPs cannot see this is that they are not old fashioned right-wing social democrats. New Labour, to which most of them still offer allegiance, transcended old school Labour right-wingers such as John Smith and Roy Hattersley to become an entirely new political current – one significantly to the right of Old Labour’s moderate wing. And the support of Labour’s soft left (what used to be called the Tribune group) was essential to this process. Policies such as conflating the interests of business with what business wants, cutting corporate taxation, punishing the unemployed and the sick for their condition, supporting privatisation and an unerring fondness for expeditionary wars, were breaks with Labour’s right-wing as much as its left. They comprised a new political formation, the extreme centre.
New Labour cannot countenance any backtracking for the same reason it cannot provide the elusive ‘effective opposition’ to the Conservatives. It is complicit in many of the injustices being perpetrated today. Thus Blairism is a peculiarly barren political philosophy. Old right-wing social democracy at least had some intellectual energy. ‘Moderate’ trade union leaders like Bill Jordan supported basic income. Skidelsky, a former SDP member, is a contemporary supporter of basic income. It’s no accident that Labour, under Corbyn, is open to the idea of basic income. With occasional exceptions, New Labour just offers re-treads and clings to a failed orthodoxy for dear life.
There are, it should be pointed out, many things wrong with a 21st century reformulation of the old SDP. Not least a reliance on public investment when near-zero interest rates show there is scant appetite for any kind of investment when the rewards are so meagre. A reformed capitalism may prove to be just as much a failure as the economic orthodoxy. But ditching Corbyn, by hook or by crook, will just see a blanket of mind-numbing conformity descend over British politics. And last thing we need now is mind-numbing conformity.