John McTernan: Corbyn Is Too Happy In Opposition To Be PM

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By John McTernan | 4:54 am, October 3, 2016

Chatting with Radio 2 host Jeremy Vine and Guardian columnist Owen Jones last week after a discussion about Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech, Vine commented that he had taken around 25,000 calls since he started hosting his show.

“What’s the stand-out theme?” I asked.

“Inter-generational conflict,” he replied immediately. “Older callers say young people want a flat screen TV before they’ve even started working. Younger ones say pensioners have all the wealth and have destroyed the planet…”

Suddenly, the Labour Party conference fell into shape.

The Momentum conference, or festival – The World Transformed – which ran alongside Labour’s annual conference, was a very interesting event. The ultra-left groups selling their papers outside the venue – a historic radical arts centre called The Black-E – belied what could be seen inside, which was youth, enthusiasm and vitality. I received a VIP tour when I visited and a warm welcome all round. Except for one activist, an older woman who wanted to denounce me and excoriate my views.

It was, as I have said, only after my conversation with Jeremy Vine that I resolved a question that had puzzled me all week in Liverpool – where had all the Momentum supporters come from? There simply were not that many Trotskyists in the UK, as the failure of the paper sellers showed. Nor were there that many former Labour Party members who had lapsed because of Blair and had now come home to a “real socialist” leader.

The bulk of the new members were young, enthusiastic and idealistic, with a burning sense that there was something wrong with the way things are run today. They are the expression – within the Labour Party – of the inter-generational conflict that Jeremy Vine has detected in the calls to his show. And, to adopt an old-fashioned Marxist locution, objectively they have a point.

The generation currently leaving university is burdened with debt, unable or unlikely to buy a house and faces rotten pensions in a system vandalised by George Osborne.

This is not simply their opinion or my observation – it is the conclusion of a recent report by the Government Actuary’s Department. This is the economic base which produces the superstructure of Momentum.

This has fuelled the rise of Jeremy Corbyn but it also placed a fissure at the heart of his support – a division between his younger and his older supporters. The latter have retired – or are about to retire – on full and generous pensions. They own their own houses – often with substantial equity. And they not only received a free university education but they had generous grants too – and the right to claim the dole in the holidays.

They rage against the status quo which served them well – but with noticeably less urgency than the younger Corbynites.

The older generation – in which I include Corbyn himself and John McDonnell – want a change of government, but they don’t need one. They are comfortable – economically and psychologically – in opposition.

This cleavage is potentially a profound one, and was glimpsed on the floor of conference itself. While Corbyn and McDonnell were unrelenting in setting their faces against Labour’s past – as was union boss Len McCluskey – there were other, more nuanced voices.

Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis announced himself a proud service veteran, a NATO supporter who committed Labour to spending 2% of GDP on defence and attacked Tory cuts to military spending.

He also sought to accept existing party policy on the deterrent. Meanwhile Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner praised Tony Blair in her conference speech.

These are only straws in the wind, perhaps, but signs that just as there is a young membership of the Labour Party who need to see a Labour government in power to deliver the changes in housing and pensions they require, so there are Labour politicians on the left who are willing to make the journey to electability.

It may yet be a “youthquake” that returns the Labour Party to the mainstream.