How refreshing it is that Labour have not had a conference dominated (so far) by the epidemic of antisemitism that has infected the party.
But that is because, instead, we have endured three days worth of low-intensity civil war over Brexit. And the truly remarkable thing is that, despite the almost total absence of any of his “centrist dad” enemies from the conference – they all appear to have given up – it is Jeremy Corbyn who is losing round after round.
Today Keir Starmer upped the ante by explicitly declaring his support for a People’s Vote with an option to stay in the EU as an alternative to the Tories’ plans for Brexit. Steve Turner from Unite replied to “demand” Brexit takes place – we wonder what the Unite members at JLR, BMW and Toyota think of that – but again it was the anti-Brexit side that were winning the day.
The reason is simple – it’s because Corbyn won’t be honest about what he really wants because he knows that it would only make it worse for him.
Corbyn has spent his political life opposing British membership of the EEC, then the EC and then the EU. There is no sign that he ever changed his mind and his campaigning in the 2016 referendum was deeply unimpressive and, in the views of some, borderline counter-productive for the Remain side.
The best that could be said for Corbyn is that he doesn’t care whether we leave and it’s also likely he doesn’t really understand why it’s such a big issue for so many people. It’s much more likely, though, that he quietly supports leaving and thinks that – as an unreconstructed relic of 1983 – that being free to impose import controls, restrictions on currency exports and compulsory sectoral planning agreements is a price worth paying for a bit of disruption.
All of these were key elements of that era’s “Alternative Economic Strategy” – a raft of policies promoted by the Communist Party’s Sam Aaronovitch (father of Times columnist David) and then picked up by the Labour left in the 70s and early 80s. Many of the AES’s ideas featured, at least in a watered-down form, in Labour’s 1983 manifesto, the infamous “longest suicide note in history”.
Telling manufacturers (and their unionised workers) that the future will be about restricting domestic demand for imports so as to encourage domestic production wasn’t then, and isn’t today, an easy or popular thing to do and understandably Corbyn has not done so. But inside his policies this is plainly what he wants to do: it’s hard to imagine that John McDonnell is proposing to engage in a multi-billion investment programme in industry and infrastructure and award the contracts to foreign manufacturers and construction companies or to let the workers who get the jobs splash their money on holidays in Spain. McDonnell is, in fact, planning for austerity – but in the 1940s style of diverting demand into investment and exports, not in the Tory fashion of simply slashing demand.
Whatever you think of that approach, it’s intellectually coherent, but it’s never going to be popular in a world of extended just-in-time supply chains and two week holidays in Florida. Hence Corbyn simply looks like an anti-European with nothing to say and hence he keeps losing.