The Case Against Competence

I would rather live with Jeremy Corbyn’s gentle dithering than Theresa May’s brutal efficiency

By George Monbiot, published in The Guardian, 26th April 2017

Where are the nosepegs this time? Those who tolerated anything the Labour Party did under Blair tolerate nothing under Corbyn. Those who insisted that we should vote Labour at any cost – with a handy peg to exclude the stench of rotting corpses in Iraq – turn their backs as it seeks to recover its principles.

They proclaimed undying loyalty when the party stood for the creeping privatisation of the NHS, the abandonment of the biggest corruption case in British history, the collapse of Britain’s social housing programme, bans on peaceful protest, detention without trial, the kidnap and torture of innocent people and an illegal war in which hundreds of thousands died. They proclaim disenchantment now that it calls for the protection of the poor, the containment of the rich and the peaceful resolution of conflict. Those who insisted that William Hague, Michael Howard and David Cameron presented an existential threat remain silent as Labour confronts a Conservative leader who makes her predecessors look like socialists.

Blair himself, forgiven so often by the party he treated as both ladder and obstacle to his own ambition, repays the favour by suggesting that we should vote for Conservatives who seek a softer Brexit. He appears to believe that the enhanced majority this would deliver to Theresa May might weaken her. So much for the great tactician.

Yes, Jeremy Corbyn is disappointing. Yes, his leadership has been marked by missed opportunities, weakness in opposition and (until recently) incoherence in proposition, as well as strategic and organisational failure. It would be foolish to deny or minimise these flaws. But it would be more foolish still to use them as a reason for granting Theresa May a mandate to destroy what remains of British decency and moderation. Or for refusing to see the good that a government implementing Corbyn’s policies could do.

Of course I fear a repeat of 1983. But the popularity of Corbyn’s recent policy announcements emboldens me to believe he has a chance, albeit slight, of turning this around. His pledge to raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour is supported by 71% of people, according to a ComRes poll; raising the top rate of tax is endorsed by 62%.

Labour’s ten pledges could, if they form the core of its manifesto, appeal to almost everyone. They promote a theme that should resonate widely in these precarious times: security. They promise secure employment rights, secure access to housing, secure public services, a secure living world. Contrast this to what the Conservatives offer: the “fantastic insecurity” anticipated by the major funder of the Brexit campaign, the billionaire Peter Hargreaves.

Could people be induced to see past the ineptitudes of leadership to the underlying policies? I would argue that the record of recent decades suggests that competence in politics is overrated. Blair’s powers of persuasion led to the Iraq war. Gordon Brown’s reputation for prudence blinded people to the financial disaster he was helping to engineer, through the confidence he vested in the banks. Cameron’s smooth assurance caused the greatest national crisis since the second world war. May’s calculating tenacity is likely to exacerbate it. After 38 years of shrill certainties presented as strength, Britain could do with some hesitation and self-doubt.

Corbyn’s team has been hopeless at handling the media and managing his public image. This is a massive liability, but it also reflects a noble disregard for presentation and spin. Shouldn’t we embrace it?

This was the licence granted to Gordon Brown, whose inept performances on television and radio as prime minister were attributed to his “authenticity”. Never mind that he had financed the Iraq war and championed the private finance initiative, which as several of us predicted is now ripping the NHS and other public services apart. Never mind that he stood back as the banks designed exotic financial instruments. He had the confidence of the City and the billionaire press. This ensured that his ineptitude was treated as a blessing, while Corbyn’s is a curse.

I would love to elect a government on June 8 led by someone both competent and humane, but this option will not be on the ballot paper. The choice today is between brutal efficiency in pursuit of a disastrous agenda and gentle inefficiency in pursuit of a better world. I know which I favour.

There is much that Labour, despite its limitations, could do better in the next six weeks. It is halfway towards spelling out an inspiring vision for the future; now it needs to complete the process. It must hammer home its vision for a post-European settlement, clarifying whether or not it wants to remain within the single market (its continued equivocation on this point is another missed opportunity), and emphasising the difference between its position and the extremism, uncertainty and chaos the Conservative version of Brexit could unleash.

It should embrace the offer of a tactical alliance with other parties. The Greens have already stood aside in Ealing Central and Acton, to help the Labour MP there defend her seat. Labour should reciprocate by withdrawing from Caroline Lucas’s constituency of Brighton Pavilion. Such deals could be made all over the country: as the thinktank Compass shows, they enhance the chances of knocking the Tories out of government.

Labour’s use of new organising technologies is promising, but it should go much further. No one on the left should design their election strategy without first reading the book by two of Bernie Sanders’s campaigners, Rules for Revolutionaries. It shows how a complete outsider almost scooped the Democratic nomination, and how the same tactics could be applied with greater effect now that they have been refined. And anyone who fears what a new Conservative government might do should rally behind Labour’s unlikely figurehead to enhance his distant prospects.

The choice before us is as follows: a party that, through strong leadership and iron discipline, allows three million children to go hungry while hedge fund bosses stash their money in the Caribbean, and a party that hopes, however untidily, to make this a kinder, more equal, more inclusive nation. I will vote Labour on June 8 and I will not hold my nose. I urge you to do the same.