Jeremy Corbyn: The Left’s Tony Blair?
Like Blair, the rise of Corbyn reflects the disintegration of Labour.
Amid everything that has been said about left-winger Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘historic’ bid to become leader of the Labour Party, a few basic points have somehow been ignored. Such as…
Corbyn’s rise is just a side-effect of the Labour Party’s collapse
Jeremy Corbyn has been a Labour member of parliament for a remarkable 32 years without ever leading anything or leaving any visible mark on British political life. How could such a veteran non-entity emerge overnight as favourite to be the new, left-wing, game-changing leader of the Labour Party?
Only because the Labour Party as a mass movement has not just declined, but effectively collapsed. The apparent rise of Corbyn is made possible by the disintegration of his party. The key factor in all of this is not any resurgence of radicalism, but the demise of Labourism.
Over the decades that Corbyn has been an MP, Labour has ceased to be the party of a mass trade-union movement with a solid working-class constituency. It has been reduced to an empty shell run by a clique of careerists such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband – and the other three current candidates for the leadership – with no ambition beyond their own election.
This disintegration has left a space for Corbyn’s allegedly explosive rise in two ways. First, widespread dissatisfaction with the dire state of Labour and wider UK politics has created an appetite for something/anything that appears different. And second, the hollowing-out of the Labour Party – reflected in its desperation to give anybody a leadership vote for just £3 – has made it possible for relatively few Corbyn supporters to seize control of events.
For all that, however, the new profile of Corbyn the inveterate invisible man remains only a symptom of the wasting disease that has destroyed the Labour Party.
In this, Corbyn is like the left’s version of Tony Blair
There has been much talk among Corbyn’s supporters of ‘reclaiming’ the radical soul of the Labour Party that was allegedly sold under Blair’s New Labour governments. In fact Blair, Brown and their clique merely did in the 1990s what Corbyn and the rump of the left would like to do now – they took advantage of the disintegration of the Labour Party to take over.
In this respect, Corbyn can be seen more as a left-wing version of Tony Blair rather than the realisation of the dream of the late Tony Benn.
Contrary to what is now claimed, Blair did not destroy the Labour Party or sell its soul. It was the fact that the party was already among the zombie-like walking dead, its soul long departed, that allowed the Blairites to assume power so easily. The showbiz glitz of New Labour temporarily hid the hole where the heart of Labour was supposed to be. Now the ‘Corbynites’ (whoever expected to use that phrase?) are trying to hide that hole behind some old banners and a bloke with a beard.
Corbyn’s politics are mostly rubbish – but irrelevant anyway
The frequently heard accusation that Corbyn’s left-wing views on economics are dangerously outdated is not entirely fair. He retains many of the old Labour left’s state-socialist beliefs in nationalisation and state control of the economy. The point about such politics is not just that they are ‘outdated’, but that there was nothing radical about them in the first place. As was observed at the time of the huge bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis, if state intervention in the capitalist market was inherently left-wing, then Republican US president George W Bush must be one of the biggest socialists in history.
In any case, Corbyn’s political outlook combines such old-fashioned state socialism with newer notions such as the politics of environmentalism – an anti-growth, humanity-bashing ideology which, as Brendan O’Neill recently reminded us, has long stood for profound eco-austerity. (I recall in 2003 writing about a Commons motion, backed by Corbyn and two other Labour MPs, which not only defended the sanctity of urban pigeons but also insisted that ‘humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again’.)
Corbyn is a member of that new neo-authoritarian left which wants the state to restrict ‘hate speech’ (aka free speech) and press freedom, backing a ‘Leveson law’; he has also been a pioneer of the trendy new politics of personal behaviour, as pursued under the New Labour, Coalition and Tory governments. If you seek a small act to symbolise the bigger man, how about this: back in 1989, almost 20 years before the petty policing of people’s habits became mainstream, Corbyn was already one of only seven MPs to support a motion demanding a ban on smoking in public places.
Corbyn’s politics might hold little appeal for the likes of me, as a veteran of a different libertarian left-wing tradition. But they are also fairly irrelevant in this leadership election. People are not supporting Corbyn because of any detailed study of his programme. They are supporting him because he is the Not Blair Or The Other Three candidate. This is why, the more shrill the attacks on his policies from those quarters become, the more support he appears to garner. That does not mean he is right….
This looks more like a moment than a movement
There has been much excited talk among veteran Labour supporters of how the emergence of Corbyn has made the left ‘a movement once again’, with a mass base of support. This is at best wishful thinking.
There has been an influx of thousands of new supporters signing up to vote in the Labour leadership elections. But paying the princely sum of three quid to tick a box seems a very passive and detached form of political ‘activity’, almost on a par with signing one of those countless online petitions that substitute for protest actions these days.
If there truly was a movement of 100,000-plus radical activists eager to get stuck in and change UK society, they would hardly have been invisible until now. They would surely have been evident in the General Election campaign, fighting to defeat the Tories and support left-wing candidates and parties. Instead Labour’s campaign was a moribund, media-centred flop, and the alternative left-wing parties were nowhere.
This looks more a like a moment than a movement – a moment when some will show their disenchantment and disgust with mainstream politics by voting for the outsider. A leadership vote for Corbyn might even be seen as akin to voting for UKIP in the General Election – except that Nigel Farage’s party reflected something more substantial in society, which is why UKIP won around four million votes. (Unsurprisingly, polls suggest that Corbyn, in his moment, is currently quite popular among UKIP voters as well as those from the left.
Of course it’s not 1983 – it’s worse than that for Labour
The rows over Corbyn’s candidacy have often sounded like a re-run of Labour’s debates of the 1980s. Supporters claim this is the best thing to happen to Labour since Tony Benn’s campaign to become deputy leader in 1981. Opponents warn that a Corbyn leadership would condemn Labour to the sort of annihilation its left-influenced manifesto suffered at the 1983 General Election. To paraphrase Karl Marx, this looks like history repeating itself not as tragedy but as farce.
In his predictably self-serving intervention in the debate (summarised by Private Eye as ‘Me, me, me, me, me, me’ etc), Blair did stumble on one good point: ‘This is not the 1980s. This is by many dimensions worse and more life-threatening.’ Indeed. In the early 1980s, the trade unions represented a powerful movement in British society, and Labour retained a solid base of working-class support. The left, fronted by major political figures such as Benn and party leader Michael Foot, was still a force to be reckoned with. Yet even then, the Benn-for-deputy campaign narrowly lost the fight within the Labour Party, while in the real world outside the conference hall Labour was comprehensively hammered by Margaret Thatcher’s Tories.
Today, by contrast, the unions are pale shadows of their former powerful selves, propped up largely by older, white-collar staff in the public sector. The left has no real presence in political life, and no leaders of the stature of the past. The very fact that they have had to disinter Corbyn, Benn’s prosaic water carrier from the Eighties, to front their ‘new’ movement speaks volumes about the true state of the left’s political house of cards.
The ‘annihilation’ of Labour is no bad thing
One thing both sides of the latest Labour divide agree on is that the survival and viability of the party is all-important. The ABC (Anyone But Corbyn) lobby insists that it has nothing against him personally, but fears that electing him leader would risk the ‘annihilation’ of the Labour Party. The pro-Corbyn campaigners, on the other hand, insist that they ‘don’t do personal’ (must be somebody else sending out all those abusive tweets, then), but fear that the credibility of the Labour Party will be ‘destroyed’ if their man’s rightful claim on the leadership is blocked.
There is a bigger question, however, than how best to preserve the credibility and electability of the Labour Party. It is, as we asked recently on spiked: Who needs the Labour Party now?
Even in its ‘radical’ heyday, history shows that the Labour Party acted as a dead weight on every movement for liberty and social change in the UK, strangling the impulse to emancipation with bureaucracy and state control alongside Sunday sermons about the promised land of ‘socialism’. Today the zombie Labour Party left behind by history is more like a sleeping policeman embedded in the road to the future.
Those of us who want to see genuine change in British politics should not be unhappy to see the end of the £3-a-vote Labour Party. Whatever the short-term consequences, it might at least open the possibility of something new and real emerging. Those who imagine that a new political movement can emerge from within the empty Labour machine, on the other hand, are kidding themselves. The only new life known to grow from within a corpse is of the maggot variety.
Whatever else Labour loses, the left retains one unique power
And that is, its unique power of self-delusion. With the possible exception of Tony Blair, the next leader is always The One who is going to revive the party and reclaim Labour’s supposedly radical roots. It was bizarre enough when they hailed Gordon Brown, the co-architect of New Labour, as some sort of ‘anti-Blair’ leader as he was anointed in 2007. It was madder still when they managed to ignore the Brown debacle and find the ‘true soul of Labour’ within the empty husk of wonkish Ed Miliband. Now left Labourites have reached the even-higher ground of self-delusory self-righteousness with the claim that Jeremy Corbyn, the placid and vapid vicar of Islington North, is The One to lead Labour to the promised land.
Excuse the harsh light of reality intruding on these fantasies for a moment. But the facts suggest that, leaving aside the three electoral victories of Blair’s New Labour (which presumably don’t count), the last time Labour won a tiny and short-lived majority of MPs was more than 40 years ago, in October 1974. And even that was achieved under the leadership of Harold Wilson, the four-time prime minister who is hated almost as much as Blair in Labour ranks. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn, the 66-year-old new boy of British politics, will rewrite that history. Then again, maybe not. Time to grow up, put aside childish things, and stop believing in Peter Pan politics.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by Harper Collins. (Order this book from Amazon(USA) and Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: Ian Nicholson / PA Archive / PA Images
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