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In Britain, a Flight to the Right

What’s going on within the Labour Party reminds me of what went on in the US within the Democratic Party under Reagan.

I haven’t been closely following the developments in British politics since the recent election, but people have been asking me to comment on the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as a serious contender for the leadership of the Labour Party. And I do have a few thoughts.

First, it’s really important to understand that the austerity policies of the current government are not, as much of the British press portrays them, the only responsible answer to the country’s fiscal crisis. There is no fiscal crisis, except in the imagination of Britain’s Very Serious People. The government’s policies had large costs, and the economic upturn that Britain experienced when fiscal tightening was put on hold does not justify those costs. In fact, the whole austerian ideology is based on fantasy economics; it’s actually the anti-austerians who are basing their views on modern macroeconomic theory and the best evidence.

Nonetheless, all the contenders for Labour leadership other than Mr. Corbyn – a member of Parliament representing Islington North – have chosen to accept the austerian ideology in full, including the false claims that Labour was fiscally irresponsible and that this irresponsibility caused the crisis. As Simon Wren-Lewis, an Oxford economist, says, when Labour supporters reject this move, they aren’t “moving left,” they’re refusing to follow a party elite that has decided to move sharply to the right.

What’s been going on within the Labour Party reminds me of what went on in the United States within the Democratic Party during the Reagan administration and again for a while under President George W. Bush: Many leading Democrats fell into what Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo used to call the “cringe” – basically accepting the right’s worldview, but trying to win office by being a bit milder. There was a cartoon during the Reagan years that, as I remember it, showed Democrats laying out their platform: big military spending, tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor. “But how does that make you different from Republicans?” the caption read. “Compassion – we care about the victims of our policies.”

I don’t fully understand the apparent moral collapse of New Labour after an election that was not, if you look at the numbers, actually an overwhelming endorsement of the Tories. But should we really be surprised if many Labour supporters still believe in what their party used to stand for, and are unwilling to support the “Cringe Caucus” in its flight to the right?