Pale and male but far from stale
Against all odds, expectations and orthodoxy, the Labour Party yesterday elected Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran left-winger who has never held a senior position in the party, let alone in government, as its leader.
The election of an elderly white man with a beard, an allotment and questionable dress sense is both a political earthquake in itself and a shot across the bows of the Lynton Crosbys of this world – spin merchants and segmentation strategists who believe that politics should consist of saying as little as possible, pitting social groups against each other and buying off particular constituencies rather than putting forward a vision for the nation as a whole.
Corbyn has been painted in the right wing press as something between Trotsky, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Citizen Smith. He’s hard left but soft touch, an impractical idealist who will never get elected but still represents a threat to national security; an anti-semite who has somehow still managed to get elected eight times in a constituency of north London geeks.
During the campaign it was said his rise was facilitated by hard left or Tory infiltrators using the party’s new affiliate member scheme; with some even going so far as to say that the ballot should be invalidated.
In the event, his victory was a landslide, both among existing members and the new affiliates. With 59.5 per cent of the vote, he has done better than Tony Blair did in 1994. An achievement that is all the more noteworthy given that Blair was the anointed heir with no serious contender running against him while Corbyn was a rank outsider with next to no support in the Parliamentary Labour Party and near universal hostility from the media.
Labouring under a delusion
Everything you need to know about why Corbyn won can be understood from the response of the Parliamentary Labour Party to his election. Half the shadow cabinet has resigned and I’m sure Team Jeremy is reeling from the loss of such nationally renowned political heavyweights as Jamie Reed and Emma Reynolds.
Those resignations are based on the assessment that Corbynmania is a flash in the pan and that in a couple of years’ time, when the absurd pipedream of a democratic and representative Labour Party has given way to the cold realities of electoral politics, they will be “clean” in the eyes of press and public and able to take back their rightful place and lead Labour to victory through an electoral strategy that, as the Daily Mash memorably put it, consists of being “microscopically less awful than the Tories.”
And therein lies the problem. Their calculation is a political one with a small p, a careerist one that puts their personal interests above those of the party that they seem to stand by only when it is working for them. Their strategy allows them to maintain the appearance of loyalty to their party while at the same time doing everything they can to bring down its democratically elected leader, calling on Corbyn to “reach out,” rejecting his overtures and then claiming he is clannish and divisive.
Call me old fashioned, but I’m not really interested in being represented by someone that thinks like that. It is true that you can’t stand up for your principles if you’re not in power, but you also can’t stand up for your principles if you don’t have any, if your entire political life consists of putting the ideals you claim to believe in in abeyance in a perpetual bid to achieve and hold on to power.
I watched my party hold its ideals in abeyance over Iraq, austerity, welfare reform and countless other issues that should have been non-negotiable points of principle because of the so-called realities of power. Forgive me if I’m unconvinced that by the end, New Labour had any red lines left.
Pressing the Press
One of the most notable aspects of Corbyn’s victory is that it happened despite the best efforts of the British press. Of course the hostility of the Telegraph and Sun is to be expected, as is the incoherent hysteria that passes for news on the pages of the Mail, but the Independent and Guardian have been less than full-throated in their support. In fact only a single left-wing commentator – the almost supernaturally prolific chipmunk of socialist journalism Owen Jones – has openly backed Corbyn.
Corbyn’s response to the media has been to resolutely refuse to acknowledge or take part in the politics of fear and smear. His dignity and integrity in the face of these assaults has been – for me and many others who agree with his aspirations but worry that his vision is impracticable – the thing that tipped the balance in his favour.
If the total lack of critical analysis that allowed the “dodgy dossier” to facilitate the greatest foreign policy disaster of our generation did not; if the phone hacking scandal did not; if the re-appointment of Rebekkah Brookes (despite her apparently crippling amnesia) did not, it may be too much to hope that Corbyn’s nuanced argument and simple dignity will bring the feral British media to heel, but merely to attempt this rather than pandering to the clickbait agenda of the mainstream press is an act of courage that gives us the measure of the man.
Possession of policy with intent to supply
To be fair to our journalistic class, there has been some discussion of Corbyn’s actual policy proposals. This is possible because unlike his fellow leadership contenders, he published several pages of pledges. Where the Burnhams and Coopers of the world may think it is enough to make vague statements using words like “aspiration” and “belief” Corbyn has put down what he believes this country needs in terms of specific proposals for specific problems.
By doing this he will alienate people, but he has also already sparked needed debate on issues that the major parties have been sweeping under the carpet for 15 years.
I must say I’m not convinced by “people’s quantitative easing” but at the same time, I’ve seen the East Coast rail franchise perform much, much better under public ownership that private. While Corbyn may not have all the solutions, it should be clear that the dogmas of the right regarding the performance of publically owned entities were just that – dogmas.
Given the man’s reputation as a consensus builder, his current policy platform should be seen as a negotiating position from which he will climb down and compromise on specific issues. That has to be a better place than his fellow contenders, all of whom had/were compromised long before those negotiations began.
And while I’m sure we can all agree that debt is bad, Britain has had a national debt since the 18th Century yet still managed to control the largest empire the world has ever seen. Still, I’m sure our highly politically and economically literate elites have a good reason for wanting the UK to be in the company of such surplus running nations as Macau, Kuwait and Brunei rather than France, the USA or China.
At the end of the day, we are not comparing loony leftism to a functioning laissez-faire economy. We’re comparing a potentially functional centre-leftism (by the political science measure, rather than the current state of politics, where the “centre” is very much to the right) to a clearly dysfunctional neoliberal capitalism. The arguments being made against Corbyn may have been plausible before the financial crash proved that the neoliberal model was unsustainable or before the massive transfer of wealth from public to private hands in the form of bailouts that allowed those that caused the crash to continue exactly as before, but they are plausible no longer.
My final point (and I promise it is the final one) is about the nature of leadership and representation. Corbyn has repeatedly been described as “not PM material.” And I do think he can never win the “born to rule” argument. David Cameron, Etonian and distant cousin to the Queen, with a hundreds of years of aristocratic breeding behind him will always win that one. But for those of us who would rather be represented that be ruled, he is the only hope of an open, consensus-based politics that is focused on solutions
In the end, I voted for Corbyn somewhat for his policies and somewhat for the personal integrity of the man and the whole approach he represents. Politics need not be a divisive, “us vs them” zero sum game. It should be all of us thrashing out our differences with courage and honesty and working for the betterment of everyone these islands – after all, we’re stuck here, for good or ill, so we might as well make the best of it.
Politics is perhaps 10 per cent pursuing your own agenda and 90 per cent reacting to events. And when those unforeseen events occur, I would rather have the critical decision made by a man who consults widely, thinks deeply and acts in the interest of the nation as a whole rather than by a shiny-faced clones that looks as if they were grown in a vat and speak as if being beamed instructions from a central database.
The question now is whether Corbyn can build the broad-based grassroots movement that is Labour’s only hope of a 2020 election victory. I still don’t know if it’s possible, but I really, really l really want to be part of the attempt. What I do know is that at last I’ll be able to stand on the #labourdoorstep without feeling ashamed or apologetic for my party. For the first time in a long time, I have hope.