Anyone who has glanced at a copy of the Guardian this past week, or the latest issue of the New Statesman, will have found themselves inundated with a wave of opinion pieces arguing against the possible victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the upcoming Labour party leadership election. The spectre of Corbyn has forced the hands of the commentariat, who must now state plainly that anyone who votes for such a leftist candidate is naive, deluded or simply mad. They will have, as Polly Toynbee put it, taken leave of their senses. What was a shadow of discontent during Ed Miliband’s timid efforts at turning left has now become an open and unabashed damnation of socialism and its advocates. There is no left but the hard left, and the only way is forward is to be as “pragmatic” as the Tories.
The have been a couple of constants in the media’s portrayal of Corbyn. First, the assertion that his rhetoric appeals primarily to naive youngsters, the disengaged youth who had given up on politics until Occupy, Syriza or Podemos came along to inspire them back towards the fold. While there is little doubt that Corbyn is the overwhelming favourite of young Labour party members, many of who have joined in the aftermath of this year’s election, his appeal is certainly not limited to those born post-Thatcher. Corbyn’s primary issues – renationalising the railways and the utility companies, taxes on wealth to pay for free third-level education, maintaining the NHS, ending Britain’s nuclear program – are all popular across the board. Even Tories are split on the railways, and the SNP have shown how much support there is for not wasting billions of pounds on nuclear weapons that will never be used. Meanwhile, Ed Milliband’s indecision on the same topic was deadly.
The media’s off-hand dismissal of Corbyn’s support base as passionate but misguided youth also contradicts their claim that Corbyn’s ideas are “out-dated”. One Guardian editorial says that his solutions to social crisis “long pre-date the challenges of the 21st century”, but does little to elucidate any actual issues with those apparently ancient policy positions. This is perhaps the first time that the much sought-after youth vote has been derided as backward, nostalgic and out of touch.
Between these two positions we can begin to see the knots that New Labour has tied itself into in order to resist the remnant dregs of socialism within its own party, and the lengths its attendant media outlets will go to in backing the Blairite horse. Jonathan Freedland’s contribution is particularly illuminating. “The Corbyn tribe care about identity, not power”, goes the head line. “They want to be true to themselves.” That voters would like to be represented by people with views they share, regardless of whether those views will see them installed in the offices of 10 Downing Street, seems to come as some sort of shock to Freedland. For a generation of Labour voters, there is no ideological battleground, merely a shifting tide of public opinion, relevant themes and PR successes/blunders. The Iraq war was bad PR, but bringing in a minimum wage was good PR. In this light, a candidate and his supporters being unwilling to commit ideological politics to the dustbin of history appears as actual madness.
This is the crux of the panic taking hold among the New Labour faithful. This new “tribe” – including many of this year’s first time voters, some born the year Blair took office – is asking the question few would utter in the wake of 1997: what is the point of power if you have to give up your beliefs in order to get it?
Freedland’s neat split between identity and power highlights how “identity politics” has been turned, largely by that same metropolitan press, into a game of manners, devoid of actual politics. The only reason someone might have for signalling how “right-on” they are, is to show off to their friends. To display a social conscience must contradict their inner selfishness. This is the end result of politics as a popularity contest, the assumed dilution of political belief to a matter of pure performance affecting both candidates and the lay population. The figure of Corbyn resuscitates a traditional understanding of political identity, where political beliefs are intrinsically linked to class, race, gender, etc. It is politics with the humanity left in – a scandalous concept to New Labour philosophy which capitulated entirely to the logic of capital, seeing voters as more-or-less discerning consumers, choosing government much as they choose between two brands of washing up liquid. Which party is better value?
More importantly, it is politics with roots outside of Westminster, and which does not hold Westminster as its end goal. The main criticism of Corbyn is that he will lead Labour into an electoral wilderness. Behind the “unelectable” slur lies the idea that people think a left-wing government cannot be trusted to make the “hard choices” inherent in governing a country – reducing the deficit through austerity, making the tough cuts and selling off prized national assets. These “hard choices” are somehow always against the expressed will of the people, but also in their best interest. To follow the logic all the way: people vote for politicians so they can get what they want (the core capitalist democratic principle, a Blairite keystone), but once in power the politician must instead give them what they need, which is never what they want, hence the difficult choices. In this farcical idea of representative democracy, all non-conservative politics, otherwise known as “populism”, culminates in a betrayal of the people who voted for you. This is dead end thinking, and it has been rejected by those now getting behind Corbyn.
Corbyn’s wish to address the deficit through a combination of investment in education and services, and a clamp-down on corporate profits and tax evasion, will undoubtedly be extremely popular right across Labour’s traditional base. A raise in working-class wages, an end to housing and energy exploitation, education without a debt mountain at the end of it; these ideas might pre-date the 21st century, but they’re certainly not irrelevant in the here and now. That such basic social democratic ideas are considered beyond the pale by both the media and prominent figures within Labour party only shows how disengaged those camps are from the concerns of ordinary people. Such people exist as PR strategies – such as our own Ashbourne Annie – but the reality of their lives never impinges on the end goal of being friends with business or being the party of aspirational workers.
As has been widely noted on Twitter and Facebook, only the modern Labour party could look upon a groundswell of young and passionate voters getting involved in the organisation as an unfettered disaster. Contra the narrative that has since been constructed, Labour was out-flanked on its left during the last election, losing votes to the far more left-leaning SNP, Greens and Plaid parties than it did to the Tories. Despite this, those in Labour and in the media cannot see anything but wilful suicide in a turn to the left. If Corbyn manages to become leader of the party, there seems a good chance a split will occur. While some would no doubt fear that happening, it seems the only logical way for the party to progress. Caught between two possible directions, with little point in compromise, it is pulling itself apart. The truth is, if Labour doesn’t want to repeat this same messy post-election-defeat merry-go-round every five years, it needs to stand for something. It needs a power base among the working class; muscling in on the Tory territory and courting the city is not going to work. For the Tories, being in power is the only reason to exist. In today’s political landscape, there is truly little point in Labour continuing as it is. For that reason alone, a Corbyn victory would be a welcome earthquake in an all-too-placid landscape.