The questions Corbyn's critics must answer

The media attack on Corbyn has been savage
The media attack on Corbyn has been savage
Ian Dunt By

The media frenzy around Jeremy Corbyn was no less impressive for being expected. We knew it would be the most savage attack on a party leader in our lifetime. But when it came, it still startled. Who'd have thought that mainstream newspapers would publish front page stories about a new opposition leader without a single quote from a supporter? Or that Twitter could be so united in disdain and anger against one man? From the TV screens to the radio stations, from the tabloids to the broadsheets, from old media to new, the conclusion was inescapable: Corbyn is a disaster.  His acceptance speech was a disaster. His shadow Cabinet was a disaster. And his plans for Labour and the country are a disaster.

But for all that, there were almost no criticisms of Corbyn's actual views. Sure, the record has been pored over – debates with Hamas members, opinions on Irish reunification or the Falklands. But on the matters which won Corbyn the election, his critics - which include pretty much everyone - have been silent.

Once the incandescent rage has died away a little, they are going to have to enter into actual debate. The sneering condescension will at some point have to give way to argument. Matters which have been treated as settled in the Westminster bubble – but not in the country – will have to be argued over and settled once more.

The EU


Corbyn's first battle with his party began last night at a parliamentary party meeting in which firm answers were demanded of him on Europe. Would he definitely campaign to stay in, as Hilary Benn seemed to suggest yesterday on the Today programme? Or was he still considering campaigning for out, as Chukka Umunna insists he said? The official line, for now, is that giving a firm answer limits Labour's ability to influence David Cameron's renegotiations in Europe.

The left has for years refused to apply any scrutiny to the EU. The prospect of bringing improved work conditions and lowering borders through Europe was so appealing it did not apply any sceptical thought to the project as a whole. Until it finally found itself here, with Greece in an endless cycle of fiscal punishment, with borders being erected everywhere to stop refugees claiming asylum, and secret trade deals being signed between the EU and US, including investor dispute mechanisms which give private firms considerable power over elected governments.

Corbyn's refusal to fall one way or the other ahead of seeing Cameron's renegotiation probably puts him closer to the feelings of the public than either the anti- or pro-EU headbangers. It would also make a final decision to campaign to stay in more convincing. Parts of the left are slowly coming to the realisation that they cannot treat the EU as a badge of cosmopolitanism. They are going to have to show how it helps the poor and the marginalised if it is deserving of left-wing support.

Syria and Isis

Those who demand British involvement in campaigns in the Middle East – myself included – need to learn some humility. Since Iraq, public support has not been forthcoming. And you can see why. Iraq was a disaster. Afghanistan, which was supported by almost everyone, was also a disaster. Libya fell apart. Just 30% now say it was right for Britain to get involved in 2011, with 33% saying it was wrong.

But there's a third figure to that poll. Thirty-seven-per-cent said they still didn't know whether it was right or wrong, four years later. You can see similar uncertainty in public attitudes to Syria. First the public was opposed. Then, as Isis atrocities dominated the news, support for British action rose. But there is still a very uncertain public mood. Some polls find 57% support for military strikes on Isis. Some find just 35%. Public opinion is a mess.

It is not enough to paint Corbyn as some lunatic pacifist and fixate on the colour of the poppy he wears. As must be clear to anyone but the most blinkered arm chair general, Brits are sick of military adventures in the Middle East which always seem to leave countries in an even worse position than where they were when it started. It's not enough to say there is a problem somewhere. Proponents of humanitarian or liberal intervention must now show precisely how British participation would help and what plans there are in place in case of victory. What is the expected duration of operations? What are the short-term and long-term goals? What sorts of things would need to happen for us to disengage?

Corbyn's pacifism and hatred of the military is not in tune with the public – but it is no further from them than the massed army of columnists clamouring for war from their comfortable desks in London. Those who believe British military involvement can make the world a better place should use the election of Corbyn to make their case convincingly. Their arguments – and their record – has so far not been up to scratch.

Nationalisation

There are few issues in which political journalists and MPs are further from the public than on nationalisation. Corbyn's support for nationalised railways is treated as the return of Lenin, but even a majority of Ukip voters support such a move, as do half of Tory voters. In fact, a recent YouGov poll showed that the public hardly believe in the private running of anything, be it hospitals, utilities, schools or prisons. Even banks barely get majority support for private ownership.

People are not idiots. They do not wish to change institutions which work well. They have lived under decades of promises about improved performance due to private ownership and competition and it has failed to deliver. A creaking rail infrastructure has delivered only perennially higher fees. Utility companies have offered only rising prices and no engagement with customers. Private firms have cherry-picked their public service operations while reducing accountability and hammering the taxpayer with onerous contracts.

The army of commentators who assume debates over nationalisation are a thing of the past better get used to having to making their case effectively. The last three decades have failed to convince the public they are right.

Scotland

The feelings which made last year's Scottish independence vote so passionate and remarkable were not difficult to decode. Nationalism took a back seat to anger with the Westminster elite – so much so that 'Westminster' itself became a term of abuse. There was a sense that the system would never provide a safety net against Tory austerity policies, that Labour had become hopelessly lost and failed to represent the interests of its supporters. The failure of Westminster was a Trojan horse for nationalists who care about nothing but nationalism to present their project as socialism.

Corbyn's victory addresses every one of these concerns. He is the archetypal outsider. Sure, he was in parliament for over 30 years, but every one of them was spent battling the consensus. He can’t be painted as a Westminster robot. He will oppose Tory austerity every step of the way. He offers the single best chance of stopping the seemingly unstoppable march of the SNP towards a victorious independence referendum, because his very existence as Labour leader falsifies their entire argument.

Those who so vehemently oppose him before he has had the chance to do anything do not seem to realise how eagerly they are vindicating the SNP's argument. Many constantly argue that even if Scotland's MPs all fell to Labour, he could still not take the UK.

That may be true, but it would at least save the UK as a political entity. Opponents of Corbyn must see that the very people they consider so sane and respectable – from George Osborne to Liz Kendall – have driven Scotland into the arms of nationalists. So if their plan for saving Britain is not about providing an anti-austerity Labour party, perhaps they could inform us what it is.

The media attack on Corbyn has been gleeful, savage and immediate. But soon people are going to have to start offering arguments alongside their complacency. They would do well to remember that their failure to provide these arguments led to Corbyn's election in the first place.

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