Tuesday, 8 September 2015
Can I just finish?
The Unstoppable Jeremy Corbyn
If the struggle between Rudd and Gillard over the dead soul of the Labor party, and the hollow leadership election that followed, occasionally descended into farce, it is nothing compared to what is now going on in UK Labour.
Having lowered the entry price to Labour’s leadership contest to £3 and the Parliamentary party lowering the bar to let nobodies like Jeremy Corbyn join in – all to “spice up” what would have been a very dull contest indeed – things have now turned horribly exciting instead.
Much has been made of Corbyn’s candidacy having brought thousands of new, especially young, people into the party and of the large enthusiastic audiences that have cheered him on around the country. Big deal. What was supposed to be significant in a democracy was not the hundreds or thousands in a political party but the millions in society they represented. In the case of Labour, its political significance over the last century lay not in being any sort of mass party, but that the union leaders who made and financed Labour represented a social weight given by millions of union members.
With that having long fallen away, the farce of the leadership contest and the excitement it is generating for some is yet another example of how the nature of politics is being turned upside down – not as a reflection of something socially significant, but as the supposedly socially significant thing itself. The problem is not necessarily the absence of this old type of representative politics but that the transition to what we have now is not being recognised.
This is surprising because at least now things should be clearer and were, if anything, sometimes quite confusing in the past. The government that started Labour’s rot was not Blair’s but the last “true” Labour government in the late 1970s, which despite coming to power based on the support of the unions and its millions of members, turned on them to impose bigger cuts in real wages and social spending than the evil Margaret Thatcher that followed and certainly more than Tony Blair. It was a Labour party that died in the Winter of Discontent in 1978 and has not been seen since. Blair provided Labour’s only electoral victories in the last 40 years because the hollowed out Labour party he inherited perfectly suited the hollowed out state UK politics had since become.
Labour carried on as a shell of its former self but received a hammer blow in the General Election this year. Not so much in the defeat but in the loss of Scotland, a region it had made gains in during the Thatcher years that disguised the erosion of its base in its English heartlands. The loss of Scotland has now brought that home and posed to Labour that its governing days may be over. No wonder the party leadership has so vigorously turned on a candidate that most clearly expresses it.
In effect, the hysteria over Corbyn comes from an understandable refusal of the Labour leadership to recognise the decline of Labour as having social roots but instead lying in the subsequent political maneouvres of Blair and now Corbyn. As a result the discussion of Corbyn gives him significance he simply doesn’t have.
Corbyn is being compared to past electoral disasters like former Labour leader Michael Foot, or Tony Benn who ran for the deputy leadership under a Labour left program in 1981. But both of these were senior Labour figures who had already held prominent positions in the party, and rose to its leadership because they represented militants sections of a union movement that had some social force. Corbyn who was elected in 1983 when it was all coming to an end represents nothing but his constituents and, other than winning Parliamentary Beard of the Year, has consequently been ignored ever since.
It is why, for example, not only is he clearly unused to media attention, but his program has been preserved in aspic and represents a nostalgic mix of out-of-date leftyness, like leaving NATO (which might have had a rad edginess in the 1980s in the middle of the Cold War but hardly means much in a time when no one knows what NATO is for) or the type of old-style Keynesianism that the clapped out British economy has periodically relied on since the Second World War and which Labour and the unions were last able to generate enthusiasm for in the 1960s. It also why, faced with something new, such as the sudden recent turn in the migrant issue, he can do little but waffle the same things he could have said five years ago.
If the hysteria over Corbyn by the Labour leadership is understandable given it is preferable to grasping the real social cause of Labour’s ungovernability that Corbyn represents, then the enthusiasm for Corbyn from the other side repeats the same mistake but is even less understandable.
The delusions are summed up by UK Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who has spent the year bouncing from one lost cause after another because he fails to recognise the social significance of anything. So we had enthusiasm over the rise of Syriza in Greece in January, triumphalism over Russell Brand’s (!) endorsement of Miliband in May and, fresh from those disasters, now the endorsement of Corbyn as a chance to “rebuild the left”.
The obvious response to this last hope is why bother? The example of Syriza would have shown that it doesn’t matter how radical is the party coming to power, but rather what was going on in society when it did. In Syriza’s case, the rapid rise, decline and implosion within the space of a year were all indications of not only its lack of social base, but that what was happening in society was a rejection of the old parties – yet leading to a fatal acceptance of being run by the EU than an onward march to something new. No wonder those like Owen are so willing to blame the Greek tragedy entirely on the power of a bunch of EU bureaucrats.
Similarly Corbyn’s rise represents not the radicalisation of UK society but the fumbled manoeuvrings and panic of a party leadership unsure whether it will govern again. If Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, it will less likely radicalise society as Jones hopes, but accentuate Labour’s detachment from it by becoming a political bun-fight. The Labour leadership have already promised a battle within the party that will make the Rudd-Gillard killing season look like a picnic, and no doubt the left will weigh in to Corbyn’s defense, get involved in Labour’s internal dramas and treat it as the world-shattering event it isn’t. Good. They can all sink together.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 8 September 2015.Filed under International relations