The Corbynite Manoeuvre

Jeremy Corbyn MP

There’s been an awakening in the Labour Party. Have you felt it? Jeremy Corbyn, the Bennite leadership candidate who only made the ballot thanks to condescension from modernists in the PLP, convinced a token showing for what used to be an intellectually vibrant wing of the party would placate the dinosaurs who still believe in guff like social mobility, redistribution and peace, is now the surprise frontrunner.

What does this mean? For the Blairite commentariat, pretend centrists like John Rentoul, it shows Labour have lost their minds. If the Wilderness years of the ‘80s and ‘90s taught politicos anything, which is debatable, then surely it was that Thatcherite monetarism, economic self-interest and the free market was as natural as your mother’s teat. It’s remained the consensus, surviving 13 years of New Labour, because everyone agrees that Thatcher won the argument on everything. Sure, the country’s divided, social mobility’s in reverse, social justice – however you care to measure it, whether it’s the availability of cheap housing, low rents, well-paid jobs or access to higher education – is a joke, but other than those fundamental aspects of British life, everything’s worked out rather well.

When seasoned so-called moderates on the backbenches were signing Corbyn’s nomination papers, wiping tears of laughter from their eyes, they were convinced this last gasp showing for the old orthodoxy would persuade its advocates that it was time to pawn their CND badges. It was just a bit of fun and a crushing defeat for the benign beard would send a clear signal to the electorate that Labour had shed its ideological baggage. No sir, no one in the Labour Party believed in social equality anymore and you could can take that to the deregulated bank.

It didn’t occur to the Blarites, or indeed those admirers of Ed Miliband’s ultra-soft socialism, the kind you could taste, if not see, that Labour members who joined the party because they didn’t accept the Thatcherite consensus (and whisper it quietly, found it an affront to society), may be bored of the politics of triangulation. Hell, they may even hate that proxy for the status quo – the hallowed centre ground.

Spoon fed vapidity and platitudinous bullshit for twenty years while the durable unegalitarian infrastructure erected throughout the ‘80s remained largely untouched, these anarchists – we’ll call them ideologues – actually expected a real debate about whether the party should change direction. That’s right, not a token version like 2010, when the old firm was represented by alienator-in-chief Diane Abbot (whose redistributed votes cost David Miliband the leadership; a warning from history), but a journey into Labour’s tattered soul. What does being a member of the Labour Party mean in 2015? Who do you speak for? Does it matter if most of the population see themselves as middle class these days? Post-Thatcher, is self-interest and God the same thing and if so, how do you sell killing God?

Granted the last question can be worded a number of ways.

Tony Blair understood that triangulation wins elections but only because you start from the position that the status-quo is natural. You create a little political space by erecting a roomy big tent; large enough for soft Tories and social democrats to share cocktails and canapés. Everyone else is pushed outside and labelled an extremist or hard liner. It’s a formula for continuity. Sadly, it’s also a recipe for political stagnation.

Jeremy Corbyn’s excited Labour’s grassroots because he refuses to position himself to reassure Middle England voters. He doesn’t care for their beliefs and he’s not inclined to pretend otherwise. His positions on some issues, Irish reunification for example, lack nuance (it’s a policy born of anti-imperialism that ignores realpolitik), but Labour members are listening to him. Why? Because as a backbencher who’s refused to take the New Labour shilling he’s been free to speak his mind for the last thirty years; he’s a man who’s doggedly refused to compromise his Bennite beliefs.

His opponents, by contrast, are machine ministers who’ve been media managed in clinical white rooms. They’re victims of the professional politician career trajectory they’ve openly embraced. If they sound weak, like three middle managers who have no strong views on anything, bar the necessity of their own candidacy, then that reflects a truth about Labour’s mainstream in the post-Blair era. Corbyn’s an unlikely prime minister-in-waiting, but by virtue of having something to talk about – anything – and having clarity of purpose, conducive to the kind of passion you can’t fake, he’s left his straw opponents looking very fragile indeed.

The tragedy for the electorate, whatever the outcome (which may include a Corbyn victory and a prompt coup to remove him) is that we’re left with a disunited opposition with no clear path to power. The Conservatives have a tiny majority, a bastard’s dozen, but until Labour rediscover their courage and radicalism, and find a leader who can galvanise and inspire the millions who aren’t satisfied with the status quo – those who know the centre ground is shaped like a lemon, it may as well be 120.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. A cracker of a post and an awesome Star Trek reference.

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