One of the most annoying features of the UK’s 2017 General Election campaign season is the increasingly large and loud chorus of left-wing commentators insisting that Jeremy Corbyn is not actually all that left-wing. Apparently, Corbyn and his policies merely represent ordinary social democratic principles and it is only because the UK’s Overton Window has been dragged deep into right-wing territory that anyone thinks otherwise.
This is such a lazy and unserious argument that it’s unfortunate that it needs addressing at all. The perspectives and tradition Corbyn comes from have never determined the mainstream of centre-left thought and policy in the UK or elsewhere. Corbyn has always been on the left of the Labour Party even during the 1970s and 1980s, and did not merely become an iconoclastic rebel during the Blair-Brown years.
Throughout his pre-leadership parliamentary career Corbyn was a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, a hard-left group of MPs that split with the soft-left Tribune Group in 1982. It is important to note the context. Labour’s ‘right’ had already left and formed the centrist Social Democratic Party in response to the election of the left-wing Michael Foot as Labour’s leader. Corbyn and his associates actually rebelled against Foot’s leadership from the left, most notably when Tony Benn challenged Dennis Healey for the Deputy Leadership.
On a variety of issues Corbyn was well to the left of the leadership and has always held Bennite-socialist, not social democratic, views. In addition to campaigning to leave the EEC in 1975, Corbyn opposed the expulsion of the Trotskyite Militant Tendency from Labour and supported the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5. From 1982, he contributed to the Morning Star, which has consistently had an editorial in line with the programme of the Communist Party of Great Britain. As recently as 2015, Corbyn referred to the paper as “the most precious and only voice we have in the daily media”.
This radicalism is not merely a product of a shifting political spectrum and Labour’s move to the right. The SDP, not to mention the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, were to the left of New Labour. In fact, the SDP were the flag-bearers for a European style social-market economy, which, in spite of revisionism by elements of the contemporary left, was always seen as more liberal than the UK’s clumsy dirigiste Post-War Consensus. Furthermore, Corbyn’s main influences, Benn and the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, had long been critical of the Post-War Consensus and, indeed, much of Labour’s history in government and Parliament, for being insufficiently socialist.
Still, Labour’s recent manifesto is significantly less radical and ridiculous than Labour’s notorious 1983 effort. Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that this is a tactical rather than a principled development. Corbyn’s main allies unambiguously and unashamedly carry far-left baggage. Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, is of the opinion that Chairman Mao was, on balance, a force for good. Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s Director of Strategy and Communications, is a long-time Stalin apologist. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, enjoys flip-flopping on the extent to which he is a practising Marxist. Corbyn himself regards Fidel Castro as a “champion of social justice”, for all his “flaws”.
The Manifesto itself, whilst it appears more populist than socialist, is more radical than its marketing. Whilst the headline tax increases are being touted as modest, the overall impact would be to raise the UK’s tax burden to its highest level since 1950, taking it above the OECD average. National Investment Banks have a long, sad history of failure. Rent control may be widespread but economists across the political spectrum near-unanimously regard it as harmful. Imposing a pay ratio on firms with government contracts and an ‘excessive wage levy’, the relics of Corbyn’s ugly flirtation with a ‘maximum wage’, are bizarre invitations for companies to do business elsewhere that are closer to communism than social democracy.
Of course, if you regard Venezuela as a solid economic model, then Corbynism should make sense. But if you’re more inclined towards a German social-market economy, or a Nordic social democracy, you’re actually much closer to the ‘far-right neo-liberalism’ of the likes of Emmanuel Macron. And you should probably vote Liberal Democrat (for all their flaws).