A consensus is forming that Labour’s policies at the election were popular – it is just that there were too many of them; or that the party couldn’t be trusted to deliver them; or that Jeremy Corbyn was unpopular; or that Brexit was too much of a distraction. It is possible, though, that Labour’s “radical” economic programme wasn’t actually popular when it came to the test. People say they want to nationalise the railways and abolish student fees but when presented with them as a prospectus for an alternative government, they voted against it.
I wonder if this means something more fundamental is going on: that opposing “capitalism” is fashionable, but, when it came to it, Corbyn’s Labour had no idea whether to replace it, and if so with what, or to reform it, and if so in what way. It is possible that this election was a battle of ideas – a rare thing in pragmatic British politics – and that, despite Corbyn’s vainglorious claim to have “won the arguments”, it was a battle that Labour comprehensively lost.
People don’t vote for big ideas, but sometimes they vote for leaders who believe in big ideas. Capitalism is a big idea, and Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party believe in it. But anti-capitalism isn’t a big idea, unless the alternative is defined. Corbyn never got beyond protesting against the iniquities of the market, while John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor, who was often portrayed as a serious ideologue, never set out what Marxists would call an analysis of the economy, let alone an alternative to the status quo.
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