Monday, 17 August 2015

"Corbynmania" - What Does it Mean for British Politics Going Forward?

If it is true that no serious commentator on UK current affairs can be without an opinion on the current political phenomenon that is "Corbynmania", then I guess the same must apply at least to some extent to less serious commentators such as myself.

This is because although the identity of the next leader of the Labour Party really only matters either to those who are in it or those who actively oppose it, the wider implications for the British body politic justify some examination both of what it is and of how it is likely to affect our political discourse in the future.

"Corbynmania", for the benefit of those who have just arrived among us from planet Zanussi, is the enthusiastic response with which the candidacy of a mild-mannered man in his mid-sixties with all the fashion sense of a chemistry teacher for the leadership of Her Majesty's official Opposition has been greeted by those who would wish him to win. Amongst this number is included a large number, arguably a majority, of members of his own party as well as many others on the left of British politics and also, for entirely different reasons, not a few on the right.

Love him or loathe him, Jeremy Corbyn sits outside of the official political consensus. Whilst the other three candidates in the contest parrot the established pro-austerity and neoliberal line, albeit in differing tones depending largely upon who is listening, Corbyn has remained more or less true to the socialist principles which have inspired him to defy his own party whip more than 500 times since he entered Parliament in 1983. His rivals, by contrast, deliver themselves of the view that the most important quality a Labour leader should have is the ability to win an election, seemingly impervious to the obvious (to everybody else) truism that devoid of any political principle or belief, a Labour Prime Minister is of no more use to the poor and needy than a Tory one.

Of the other candidates Liz Kendall is the unabashed right-of-centre Blairite option whilst the other two, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, whilst following a near-identical agenda to that of Kendall, try to hover around in the space between in the hope of hoovering up votes from Labour Party members who prefer to adorn their Tory-lite values in ever-so-slightly leftish trappings.


At the beginning it was doubtful that Jeremy Corbyn's name would even make it onto the ballot paper. He required the endorsement of at least 35 members of the parliamentary party and only managed about half of that when canvassing his own supporters in the House. He reached the threshold only when a number of MPs who fundamentally oppose him signed his nomination papers in order that there could be "a wide debate". On the mentality which persuades right-wing MPs that a left-wing face should also be presented to the public by the party, more anon.

The general idea was that Corbyn would represent a small constituency within the party and, probably, lose on the first ballot whereupon his vote could safely be distributed amongst the "serious" (i.e. establishment) candidates under the Alternative Vote system which the party uses for its own internal elections but declines to trust us with at general elections.

Unfortunately (for them) it hasn't quite worked out that way. Ordinary Labour members, like small children finally allowed out into the playground after having spent an hour locked inside chanting their five times tables, have spilled out to tell any opinion pollster who will listen that they intend to vote for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader of the party.

The reason this has come as a shock is that it is in stark defiance of the official narrative, which has it that Corbyn is "unelectable". No matter that when each of his individual policies is cited the public are largely, sometimes overwhelmingly, in agreement - and perhaps surprisingly not only amongst Labour supporters (there is some evidence to suggest that the renationalisation of the railways is supported even by most Conservative voters). Collectively they comprise a policy program which exists outside of the "consensus" identified for us by the mainstream media and other right-leaning vested interests and are therefore unrealistic, unpopular and unachievable.

The root cause of this outbreak of disobedience would appear to be the unrelenting growth of social media, through which we have free access to opinions other than the official one. Whilst there are many who still swallow the establishment line, more than ever before there is a significant and increasing number who can see through it. More than ever before, people are thinking.


But whilst the radical genie is out of the bottle the chances of a Corbyn victory should not be overstated. A recent YouGov poll told us that 53% of Labour members and supporters intend to vote for him in the ballot, against 31% for Burnham who is in second place. Huge though that margin may seem, the alleged support for Corbyn is of course only marginally into the territory from which a second ballot would not be needed. A few percentage points less and the last-placed candidate will be required to drop out and their second preference votes distributed amongst the other candidates. Assuming this will be Liz Kendall, the Blairite candidate who is running last in the opinion polls, how many of her second preference votes are likely be for Corbyn? Ditto Yvette Cooper, and Andy Burnham. There is still everything to play for.

In addition, one would need to factor in the possibly, nay likelihood, that a goodly number of those party members and supporters who are brave enough to "vote" for Corbyn in a YouGov poll may be less brave when it comes to the real thing. With the Labour tribal instinct so often placing the pursuit of power above the quest for ideological correctness, how many will in the final analysis buy into the notion that the three establishment candidates are better placed to win the next general election?

Nevertheless, when all is said and done what just a few weeks ago was the unthinkable - a Corbyn victory - is now entirely thinkable. For all the usual personal attacks, media smears and Labour grandees being wheeled out to prophesy doom, Corbyn does appear to be holding his ground. And by being cute enough to sideline some of his own more contentious aspirations, such as his wish to see the monarchy abolished, he has managed to contain his opponents to mere hysteria as opposed to outright insurrection.


So what would be the consequences of a Corbyn victory? How would what I collectively term "the establishment" - by which I generally mean the Conservatives, the Labour right, the mainstream media, the banks and the corporate bosses - deal with such a situation? Would it be enough to slaughter him as he has been slaughtered by the right of his own party and just hope that the voting public doesn't see through it all?

One, and arguably the most likely, possibility is that the right will use its total dominance of the parliamentary party to stage a prompt coup. The excuse given will be that the Corbyn victory was brought about by entryism and/or skulduggery by Labour's political opponents. Attempts to fob off the left will be made through the time-honoured medium of the "Jolly Roger" scenario - that the party will achieve power by pretending to follow a Tory agenda and then unfurl the pirate flag once in office. Like it did in 1997 - not. The likely reaction of the voters to such a public statement of dishonest intent is invariably lost on Labour policy makers.

If the establishment were to stage a coup "in the best interests of the party" how would those who supported Corbyn in the ballot respond to such a blatantly undemocratic manoeuvre? If the history of the Labour left is anything to go by they wouldn't - more likely they would declare their undying loyalty to the right-wing party with which they are so hopelessly in love and wait another hundred years for the coming of the next false messiah. But then history is no guarantee of the future, for this has been a unique contest with uniquely engaged participants. There is little doubt in my mind that at least some of the Labour left will walk, and will join with progressives outside of the party to help build a viable new alternative.

Or the Labour right could stay but undermine him from within. It would not be very difficult, bearing in mind its overwhelming numerical superiority in the parliamentary party. This would end up in much the same way as a clean and surgical coup, but would take much longer to achieve. A guerrilla war by the right would serve nobody's interests.


The third possibility is that Corbyn would take the establishment shilling, and would slowly but surely reposition himself closer and closer to the mythical political "centre" much beloved of Labour career politicians. He is of course, like Tony Benn before him and others on the Labour "left", a Labour member first and foremost and a radical only after that. But then he has policies which have been demonstrated to be popular and by scrapping Trident he will have given himself a formidable war chest with which to finance his anti-austerity agenda. Hopefully, at 66, he will consider himself too long in the tooth to have any interest in advancing himself by selling out the core beliefs with which he has been associated for all his political life.

The other possibility is that the right leaves to form some kind of SDP Mark 2. Whether or not there is political space for such an animal is debatable, but what it would do is pave the way for a progressive realignment, either within the structures of the present Labour Party or preferably without.

What appears certain, and what excites me on a personal level, is that Labour as a political party will no longer be able to sustain the pretence of being all things to all people, an anti-establishment movement headed by a pro-establishment elite, peddling the bullshit notion that as a movement engaged in "perpetual revolution" against itself it is simultaneously the natural home of the capitalist and of the socialist, of the conformist and of the revolutionary, of those who advocate austerity and of those who oppose it. Whatever comes of this leadership election, when the smoke has cleared this wretched party is going to have to stand for something, whatever that something may be. No longer can it just be a private club for individuals who believe that the object of winning power is to be in power, enforcing and reinforcing its contradictions by depending on the use of blind organisational loyalty as an override.

I have resisted the temptation to enlist as a Labour supporter to cast my vote for Jeremy Corbyn, whose election I would like to see as a means of forcing the issue and of hastening the inevitable split. As one who has no goodwill for the Labour Party it would be hypocritical for me to do so. It is my belief that the entire Labour Party mindset is fundamentally flawed, and that our politics would benefit from its demise and its replacement by something both more radical and more honest.

I am excited that this leadership contest would at last seem to make such a thing possible. Some might say inevitable.


New Republic said...

Labour try to run the whole gamut of the political spectrum, trying to contain a left or centre-left party behind a centre-right fa├žade. I think it was Will Self who recently said this party have to split, as probably do the Conservatives. If we had a fair voting system the present two party monopoly could be broken down into six, seven or eight parties in a way that would give a fair voice to every major strand of opinion. One of the may flaws in the present voting system is that is squeezes lots of disperate factions into one party and the public don't always get to see the true face of any of them.

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