Friends of mine are often surprised that I could support Jeremy Corbyn, given socialism’s track record.
It is a difficult question to respond to, for several reasons:
- Socialism as a label is ill-defined: critics can invoke Stalin and Pol Pot, while apologists describe it as mere concern for others.
- It is impossible to know what Corbyn and his party would do, if in power. I can easily imagine dreadful decisions, but also decisions that are brave and much-needed. Also, no one knows how some of his policies would turn out in practice. If I’m honest, I have to recognise that outcomes from decisions will differ from my expectations, for better and for worse.
- It is also impossible to know how the future will pan out in a world if we stick with the status quo. It may lead to major social and environmental disaster, but it may not: small changes may lead to a better, or at least tolerable outcomes.
So, despite those caveats, what do I think?
Am I a socialist?
Firstly, I wouldn’t define myself as a socialist, but mainly because I feel it suggests too many ideas that I don’t support. In particular, I don’t believe that states, institutions, principles and abstract concepts (like class or nation) should ever be given priority over individual people.
Having said that, I don’t believe that genuine individual well-being can or should be optimised as individuals; we clearly derive happiness and meaning from our relationships and our communities, and also benefit from markets. Individuals would be very much worse off without any government with powers of enforcement, but is easy to see how some actions of such a government could hurt individual well-being. As a result I accept tradeoffs, but believe they should be made in such a way that promotes sustainable individual well-being.
When it comes to individual ownership of property, I do feel that allowing property rights enhances overall well-being. But I don’t see how these property rights can be absolute; after all, they depends on others to recognise and enforce them. In practice, this means I support property rights, but also laws that ensure those property rights remain in the general public interest.
From this mix of views, I don’t think I fit neatly into any other political label either, but I can live with that.
Do we need political change?
Firstly, I believe the status quo is unsustainable, both from an environmental and a social perspective. I believe that the majority have their heads in their sand, choosing not to recognise just how much our well-being is vulnerable to the Earth’s whims and to the actions of its populations.
In many ways, our current political system, being fundamentally driven by markets and democracy, is compatible with a greater awareness of the factors that drive genuine individual well-being, and the need to ensure environmental and social sustainability. Indeed, many people are already doing this, individually and within their communities. I do believe that this will increasingly occur, even without major political change.
However, I do worry that it may not happen fast enough. Political and environmental changes, both negative ones and positive efforts to mitigate, take time, and are impossible to model accurately. By the time the problem is sufficiently serious that enough people are convinced to act, it may be too late.
It also seems unfair to reward those who happen not to recognise the risks, letting them reap the last remaining benefits of an unsustainable system, while others incur the costs.
As a result, I do support political changes to move us to a more sustainable future in a faster and fairer way that would occur if left entirely to individual choice.
Do I believe Corbyn and his policies are the answer?
To be honest, I don’t know.
I support the thrust of most of the policies as stated in Labour 2017 Manifesto.
An obvious point I disagree with his support of Brexit, but this hardly seems a reason to support the Conservatives instead!
I’m ambivalent about its approach to workplace rights. I would prefer an approach that involved creating more freedom and genuine flexibility (say with a basic income), rather than more rules. But I do accept that something has to be done.
The most socialist component of his policies is that of nationalisation. While I do believe that private property make people generally better off, I am less convinced when it comes to ‘utility’ industries like rail and energy. As a result, I am supportive of these returning to public ownership, though this shouldn’t be seen as a guaranteed solution; governments are also capable of running organisations contrary to the public interest. Also, I’d note that nationalisation doesn’t have to mean centralisation – there have been some great programmes involving local groups running utilities and transport.
I would worry if I thought Corbyn intended to bring all industry within government control, but I don’t get that sense. Likewise, I don’t think he believes that a government has all the answers or can solve all problems. Instead, he seems to show an awareness that there’s a tradeoff between freedom and rules that allow individual well-being, and I’m not convinced his position is a million miles away from my own.
There’s a temptation for the left to paint politics as class war, where the goal is to destroy those that are successful. I prefer a more inclusive approach, where all are given opportunities, and all who support the public interest are welcomed. Others may disagree, but I found Corbyn’s campaign pleasingly inclusive.
That said, I do have other concerns. Firstly, understandable as it is (given how many people have been ignored by our political system), I am worried by the tendency of a small minority in the party towards change by undemocratic means.
But more critically, I’m not convinced Corbyn will be able to work with other parties and convince sceptics to deliver his policies (I don’t believe major political changes should occur without widespread support – say over 60%). Logically, this isn’t a reason to not support him, or to prefer another five years of the same. But I do worry that he won’t deliver, and then people might use this as proof that progressive, sustainable policies don’t work in politics.
Overall, though, given my conviction that we do need changes like these, I feel justified in supporting Corbyn and his policies. And I’m not worried about him wanting to bring about a totalitarian state.