No one on the Left can fail to have been heartened by the surge of support in recent weeks for Jeremy Corbyn, now the clear frontrunner for the Labour leadership. The sheer enthusiasm for something genuinely progressive and socialist, completely counter-intuitive to the machine politics of spin doctors and focus groups, is palpable. So too has been the bewildered panic of the Establishment, and not only the one in the Labour Party.
This wave of support for change has been accompanied by a degree of hagiography which, while eschewed by the man who is its focus, illustrates the desperation of many to find some relief from the oppression of austerity as well as the seemingly contradictory tendency of collective movements to sometimes place individual leaders on pedestals. Got a problem with Tories? Inequality keeping you awake at night? NHS at risk from predatory capitalism? Just ask JC (which one, you may ask) to lay his hands on it and everything will be put right.
Consequently, his campaign has become something of a repository of hope for all on the progressive side. This has led already to inevitable disappointment for some when #JezWeCan, the White, Red or Green Knight depending on your viewpoint, declared his plans to re-open Welsh coal mines, downplayed his already lukewarm support for electoral reform and argued that there should not be another Scottish independence referendum.
Yet let’s not quibble. Not only is Corbyn himself a patently genuine person, it is what he represents that matters in the longer run. Just weeks ago, the received wisdom of the neoliberal media was that he was a hopeless also-ran. But now, this 68 year old man without a tie, in his Lenin hat and on his bicycle, is the choice of millions, enthusing young people to join Labour and seemingly moving his party to the point where it might finally reject austerity and return to the values of equality, community and public ownership that once sat at its beating heart. The Left is awash with hopeful speculation and encouragement, while the Right has called time on the contest and instead is busy constructing the Tory story of a spoilt rich kid who is “a threat to national security” according to George Osborne in his most sinister Sith-like mode. (The gutter press has also come up with bizarre non-stories such as one where he was divorced by his first wife because he preferred a night in with a tin of cold baked beans and his cat Harold to going clubbing. Another relates how he also made a sun-dial when he was 14, which apparently disqualifies him from socialism, according to the Daily Mail.)
We will know the outcome on 12 September. But that will only be the beginning.
What is certain is that whoever wins, what is undoubtedly fantastic news for the broad left throughout these islands is not good news for the Labour Party. However the ballots fall, the slow death of Labour will not be arrested.
Labour has been in the hands of a centrist narrative for at least the 21 years since John Smith died and arguably since before that under Kinnock. Although I was not a socialist at the time, I was baffled by the haste with which the establishment Left across Europe jettisoned even pale pink socialism when the Soviet Bloc collapsed, as if validating the rightwing claim that big state communism was indeed socialism, and vice versa, all along. Of course, an alternative view might be that, with Communism seemingly discredited and out of power, the capitalist states no longer felt the need to pay lip service to the idea of a social democratic choice within their own political systems: as Fukuyama proclaimed, neoliberal capitalism with its deregulated markets and privatised state was the only game in town. The “End of History” had been reached.
So Blair and Co were people of their times, reinforcing the narrative of “modernity”, embracing the effluence of trickledown political economy and forever focussing on a “centre-ground” which was ceaselessly tracking rightwards. Although Labour had already abandoned most plans to renationalise state services privatised under Thatcher and Major, Blair still found a symbolic need for his “Clause 4 Moment”, when he persuaded the party to abandon any commitment to significant public ownership. The End of History indeed and in the years following the neoliberal consensus has seemed embedded irrevocably, even post-crash in 2008.
Yet both dynamic theory and human history show that you can only drive in one direction for so long. For each action comes a reaction. Slowly but surely the disconnect between politicians and people has been building at least since the 2008 crash and 2009 expenses scandal, and maybe as far back as the disdain shown by Blairites to the public opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 – indeed, even in 1997 polls showed the majority of the electorate was well to the left of New Labour on tax and equality. With austerity digging deep now for seven long years, destroying the lives and hopes of millions of ordinary people while the super-rich augmented their already substantial holdings, the desperate attempts at “business as usual” are paying fewer and fewer dividends. Even the elite know the game, if not quite up, is certainly at risk and needless to say they will not go down without a fight of epic proportions.
So if “Corbynism” is the latest stage in a longer movement for change, what was the first? Outside of Scotland, perhaps perversely from a socialist perspective, the earliest significant manifestation was probably the rise of the British National Party back in 2005. The boom years of New Labour did improve services to most parts of society whether in terms of health, education or employment. Yet, as Wilkinson and Pickett so powerfully demonstrated in “The Spirit Level” in 2009, social cohesion and personal happiness are driven far more by equality than by overall prosperity. In such a context, a poor but comparatively egalitarian society such as Cuba rated higher on the Happiness Index than Blair’s Britain, with its “intense relaxation about the filthy rich”. In the UK, as in much of the Western world since 1989, the one compelling consistency has been the relentless widening of the gap between rich and poor. By some indices, Britain is now even less equal than Czarist Russia on the eve of revolution.
Consequently, the BNP and later UKIP deftly drew on the relative poverty and exclusion of poorer white communities to detach them from the Labour Party, whose arrogant electoral strategy was to take their support as a given. They then crystallised their grievances against a range of vulnerable groups, with ethnic minorities the primary but far from sole targets. As Ford and Goodwin’s 2014 book, “Revolt on the Right” showed, what started as an electoral uprising among the blue rinse brigades of the Shire Tories in the form of UKIP was soon transformed into a much wider populist renunciation of the Establishment – even if its leadership’s greatest wish seemed to be to become a new part of it.
This rebellion encompassed Labour as well as the Tories (and hoovered up a good chunk of the disillusioned Lib Dem vote) and its origins explain the evident Teflon quality of UKIP’s support. After the series of dire failures of the current political system, attacking UKIP because some drunk candidate sent offensive tweets or because Farage got his party magazine printed abroad had no effect. And on the main themes of UKIP’s General Election campaign – immigration and Europe – the mass media and the neoliberal parties had already cravenly contributed to their validation rather than take any stand to oppose them. On other policies, most notably the NHS and PFI, UKIP struck decidedly leftwing stances, pragmatically if cynically reflecting the majority views of their supporters, whom polling showed to be significantly to the left on a range of issues – voters in search of a new home indeed.
And so, in England, we saw Farage’s party top the 2014 European Parliamentary poll nationwide – the first time since 1918 that neither Tory nor Labour was in first place.
In Scotland of course a different narrative has played out. The more democratic voting system for the Scottish Parliament has developed a highly engaged electorate, more than capable knowing how to effectively elect progressives. Since the very first Parliament, Scots have become used to a wider plurality of party representatives than elsewhere in the UK: Scottish Socialists, Solidarity, Greens, Pensioners, Independents and of course the SNP have made the concept of two, three or even four party UK style politics irrelevant.
Though, for a time, Labour’s predominance at Westminster persisted, here too, as we know, things were changing and ultimately far more dramatically so than anything south of the Border. The referendum campaign was clearly the catalyst, drawing progressives together in what must have been the most positively inclusive campaign for national independence in our planet’s history. And of course, as anyone who experienced any stage of it knows, its hallmark, on the Yes side, was its utter enthusiasm and creativity. Unleashed perhaps by the power voters realised they had to make a real decision, it marked a breakthrough in the political zeitgeist, and not only in Scotland. With the Yes vote consolidating into a record high for the SNP in May this year and reducing the neoliberals to just 3 seats between them, the message that ordinary people can force real change, even in an assuredly undemocratic system, was heard across the UK. The reverberations of Syriza and Podemos’ successes on the Continent further reinforced the drive towards a new paradigm.
Post-referendum, in England it was the Green Party that saw its stock rise most: its membership rocketed from under 20,000 in May 2014 to over 65,000 by October (ahead of UKIP and the Lib Dems). Strikingly, just as it was the three “Westminster Parties’” joint attempt to bully Scots over the use of the Pound Sterling that unlocked the drive up to 45% Yes, the main impetus for the Green Surge in England was the avowed refusal of the same three parties to give the Greens a place in the leaders’ debates.
The Greens’ rise was spiked in due course by a combination of bad media and the lack of a democratic voting system, but even now our vote is holding in UK-wide polls at 6% to 8%, a huge advance on the 1% and 2% at the equivalent point in the last Parliament. By contrast, UKIP is becalmed and the populist right seems to be making little headway. Indeed, while migration is high on the political agenda, the obvious desperation of the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean has perhaps finally shown up the evident inhumanity and self-interest behind UKIP’s agenda, itself rooted in capitalist neoliberalism. There is, it seems, a rare but wide open window of opportunity for socialists.
And so Corbyn is no isolated phenomenon. His exponential rise continues the growing revolt against the Establishment. But it is only one step in a much longer process, and one whose outcome is far from assured.
For, just as the neoliberals closed ranks in Scotland and against the Greens, so too has their local chapter within the Labour Party turned on Corbyn and his supporters. Nearly every day has seen some Labour Big Beast – or maybe more appropriately some Aged Dinosaur – trundled out to explain why the “selectorate” of members, union affiliates and registered supporters are voting the wrong way. Patronising and arrogant by turn, it seems they have no understanding at all of how irrelevant and offensive ordinary voters find them. Like many liberals, their concept of democracy is a four or five yearly voting event where the masses dutifully confirm their inherent right to rule. Like the ancient Roman election rituals that were stopped as soon as the Emperor was acclaimed, our political leaders, extending deep into the corporate and media worlds, perhaps unsurprisingly assume that they will always be there. In this set up, the “modern” Labour Party has become little more than a pressure valve, a tool to undertake a spot of PFI meddling here and Surestart tinkering there, to keep the “core vote” in its place. As we saw just weeks ago, this even led to three of the four leadership candidates abstaining from voting against the Government’s harsh Welfare Bill, supposedly for the most tenuous of procedural reasons.
But, just as it nearly didn’t work in Scotland in 2014, it seems not to be working within Labour ranks now. Party officials have hurried to exclude tens of thousands of applicant voters, the vast majority clearly Corbyn supporters, using the most nefarious methods. This #LabourPurge has included banning longstanding activists and trade union leaders from the vote. It even stooped to asking a schoolboy member to spy on two of his classmates who joined the party. The 1960’s joke line attributed to the old corrupt Glasgow Labour Party –“You cannae join, we’re full up” – is now seemingly a tragi-comical reality.
Brown, Kinnock, Blunkett, Alistair Campbell, David Miliband and of course Blair himself have all denounced Corbyn in the most vituperatively apocalyptic terms. Bridges haven’t been burned – rather they have been nuked. While Brown, bizarrely pacing up and down and gurning wildly at the walls like some captive bear driven insane in a tiny cage, decried Corbyn’s ideas as “not modern”, Blair has emerged from hiding on at least three occasions to warn of the party’s impending “annihilation”. Indeed, in a breath-taking show of how not to win hearts and minds, in his latest proclamation he accused the Islington North MP’s supporters of living “in a parallel universe”.
Regardless of the outcome of the ballot, a political bloodbath will inevitably follow – none of these men will ever be able to work with a Left leadership. Nor shall their craven proxies like Liz Kendall, Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna, who have already set up a new group with the risibly ridiculous name of “The Resistance” to work against a Corbyn leadership. New Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is similarly hamstrung by her hostile comments and stories circulate of coups by Christmas by overwhelmingly unsupportive MPs, unheard of hubris in a supposedly democratic process.
So, if he wins, Corbyn will likely face civil war leading either to his eventual deposal or to an SDP-style break by the rightwing. If he loses, perhaps topping first preferences but losing out as Burnham, Cooper and Kendall’s second preferences transfer to each other, then in spite of the huge level of support he will have garnered, the vitriolic right will clearly be on a mission of vengeance. In such circumstances, a huge tide of new members and longer-standing leftists is likely to flow out again, once more in search of welcoming harbours.
Where then does that leave the rest of us on the Left, especially the non-Labour Left?
Few people I have come across in the Greens, TUSC, Left Unity or the Scottish Left have anything but goodwill towards Jeremy Corbyn. Both his own integrity – eschewing the favours of the party whip in order to rebel over 200 times in his career (to puppet Burnham’s proudly proclaimed zero) – and the attraction of the policies he is proposing are beyond question. He has worked closely with Green MP Caroline Lucas both inside and outside of Parliament as well as with a range of non-Labour political parties and groups and appears to seek a more pluralist approach. He has acknowledged the need for Labour to co-operate with the SNP, a welcome return to reality compared to his naysaying colleagues. How far this would go without conflict over a second referendum or if there was some revival of Scottish Labour under an anti-austerity UK leader of course remains to be seen, but the tone is far more positive than before.
The challenge for us all will be that perennial one for the Left – of being willing and able to set party aside, to support broad policies as opposed to perfect ones and to see the paradox that the plainly modest and unassuming Corbyn indeed leads “Not A Man, But A Movement” as one over-enthusiastic internet meme declared.
It is also about being generous, imaginative and flexible. We have seen the founding of RISE this last month. And just as the last decade or so has witnessed a maelstrom of political change with new parties rising and old ones fading, the likely fissures in the Labour Party point to both threats and opportunities for the broad left. If the Corbyn phenomenon is the latest step in a long-term political realignment, the question we should be asking is what the next steps beyond are. Sticking rigidly to existing party silos would be to make the same fossilized error as the neoliberals.
No political party is forever – not even Labour which, as Will Self has pointed out, is now too much of a “broad church” to continue in its current form with any real meaning. Parties are simply vehicles for putting ideas into effect. They are not ends in themselves. If we want to transform our society, we need to be ready to work across boundaries, to form new electoral alliances and morph into new parties. Egos will have to be set aside and the collective future prioritised ruthlessly over individual pride and place. Only in this way will we have any hope of the new world we want, of a fairer society, of an economy based on sharing and sustainability and where the generations to come have futures to imagine and make real. The hundreds of thousands of newly engaged citizens will neither understand nor forgive us if we draw lines in the sand over which precise policy sub clauses to include in a programme or fall out over the selection process for joint candidates.
This is the challenge for the Left. Very soon we may have our best chance in a generation to make the change we need. With the global crises increasingly engulfing our world, it may also be our last chance to change in time. We must not fail.
Blogger at Viridis Lumen, Green Party of England & Wales activist & former parliamentary candidate for Dewsbury.