A recent YouGov poll in the Times predicts Jeremy Corbyn will win the UK Labour leadership on first preferences alone. If he does win, Corbyn will shift the “Overton Window” of acceptable ideas leftward but will face formidable opposition.
We went to hear Jeremy Corbyn in Camden last week, along with 1500 others. Owen Jones also spoke at the rally, as did Ken Livingstone and about 20 young people who were working full time for Corbyn. Livingstone had the best lines: “Labour, the party that gives ordinary people the chance to bring about change” and “Tony Blair said at Thatcher’s funeral he saw himself as carrying on her legacy: I wish the bugger had told us that when he stood for the leadership.” Corbyn spoke quietly, simply and directly – his message was one of hope.
Jones is a Guardian columnist and author of Chavs and The Establishment. He sums up the issues in this article titled ‘if Jeremy Corbyn wins, prepare for a firestorm” in the New Statesman. The original title of his Guardian article was “The right are mocking Jeremy Corbyn because they fear him.”
Jones quotes an article by Allister Heath, deputy political editor of the Telegraph titled “A Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership battle would be a disaster.” Heath says
If Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, it would become acceptable again to call for nationalising vast swathes of industry, for massively hiking tax and for demonising business.
The battle of ideas is never won: it turns out that the 1990s were the years of peak capitalism in the West, and Left-wing ideas have since made a return, to the great regret of commentators such as myself.
What Heath is alluding to here is the ‘Overton Window’, an invention of the US conservative right. The ‘Overton Window’ refers to the political ideas that are seen as politically acceptable, palatable, mainstream, centre-ground, and so on, at any given time. The ideas outside the Window are seen as extreme, fringe, deluded, ridiculous. This Window is not static: it shifts.
The advocates of privatisation, deregulation, lower taxes on the rich and anti-trade unionism have dramatically shifted the Window in their direction over the last generation or so. Heath’s fear is that Corbynism will send that process hurtling into reverse. He knows that, in the decades following World War II, those with his political opinions were once seen as ridiculous as the Corbynites are today. The illusion of any given era is that it is permanent; Heath knows that this is not true.
Behind all the demonisation and exaggerated language, many of Corbyn’s ideas are popular with the wider electorate, and his straight talking and quietly inclusive manner refreshing. He has been a consistent campaigner for justice issues for twenty years in Parliament –see him here taking on Thatcher on housing. Three of the four candidates abstained from voting against Osborne’s swingeing cuts to benefits in his post-election budget. Only Corbyn voted against. Respected economic commentators like Krugman and Stiglitz say it is not surprising that austerity politics are rejected, because they are wrong.
I think what we are seeing in this leadership election is a clash between movement politics and machine politics. Corbyn has been a movement politician all his life – he has now brought movement politics into the heart of the Labour Party, and given the contradictions of the age of finance capitalism, the response has lit a fire. The main argument used against Corbyn is that he cannot win, but the objective conditions have changed from the late 1970’s as inequalities grow. Also he is doing as well as he is in part because even his critics such as Alastair Campbell don’t think the other contenders can win either.
This saga has a long way to go before it is finally played out in five years’ time. But Corbyn’s unexpected rise has thrown the window for debate wide open, and as the contradictions become clearer, the alternatives become broader, and the possibilities better able to provide some hope.