Corbyn’s Millions

1980-michael-foot

Tony Benn once said that every generation has to re-fight the same battles. Yet even he might have been surprised by the Corbyn insurgency, the commanding lead of the Great Beard, that’s torn the scar tissue from Labour’s early ’80s schism and reignited the battle of ideas that Tony Blair thought he’d settled with his answer to the Nagasaki bomb, New Labour. The project, as it was sometimes known, was supposed to be a decisive blow against the very idealists, the kind of members that Denis Healey witheringly called ‘innocents’, that had lived under the party’s nails since the days of Michael Foot. Blair offered the prospect of power but in exchange demanded an acceptance of the Thatcherite consensus. A desperate Labour Party played along, content that it was better to live on your knees than die standing, arms linked, singing the Red Flag.

Blair inherited a Labour Party which was desperate for acceptance following a decade and a half of rejection. Like a human left on the shelf for all that time, it was prepared to make compromises with itself in order to feel the intimate, warm embrace of the people. But sadly the similarities with a broken person, lacking self-esteem and validation, didn’t end there. Labour closed its eyes to the worst excesses of the Mandleson, Brown and Blair project; it took the beatings and told itself it was loved. In time the party machine took it for granted that the idealism that characterised the Bennite wing of the party had been crushed, that it had gone the way of the Whigs and Cyril Smith’s diet book, but the so-called modernisers had forgotten something.

For many, socialism, or the ideas loosely associated with it, was not a fluid concept. One couldn’t adapt it to fit monetarism like updating an old TV show for the big screen. New Labour’s founding assumption was there weren’t enough left wingers in a First Past the Post election to win a majority in parliament; that deeply ingrained vested interests in society, cultivated by Mrs Thatcher, had to be managed, rather than reversed, and the beneficiaries courted to maximise the vote. Such an approach locked the Bennites in a windowless basement cell, told them their views were a destructive fantasy, and that subsequently there was no place for them in modern politics.

The truth about what happened next may just determine the future of the Labour Party.

The Corbyn view of history goes something like this. In the early ’80s, the Bennite wing of the Party, committed to power from below – opposed to nuclear weapons, rejecting Europe, suspicious of market forces, was marginalised following Benn’s defeat in the deputy leadership contest by a group of turncoats; careerist hijackers who moved the party to the right to win power rather than make the intellectual case for socialism. The country, noting the shift, gave up their principles, took Maggie’s shilling and accepted the new orthodoxy as natural.

The idea that Conservatism had to be courted to win became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The electorate, hitherto galvanised by a choice of futures, found themselves offered variations on a theme. Many lost interest in politics as a result. The denial of choice inevitably left millions, mainly saplings that naturally questioned old orthodoxies, voiceless in an ostensive democracy. When Jeremy Corbyn’s unpolished, unaffected, old school socialism stood naked next to three guileless by-products of Post-Blair compromise and confusion; the cherry pick candidates, eying a menu of bland social democratic options; the children of Benn, long denied a champion for social justice and a world built on egalitarianism, not profit and economic utility, rallied to their saviour. Finally, socialism would have its chance. There would be a second coming. This, says camp Corbyn, is indicated by the surge in Labour membership and proves the existence of Corbyn’s missing millions; the once apathetic masses long removed from the franchise, now returning to the fold, ready to get involved at the ballot box.

The Blairites, not surprisingly, have a somewhat different interpretation. They say that ’80’s in-fighting, rather than being an important battle of ideas, was a self-indulgent civil war that alienated the electorate and ignored real world problems in favour of intellectual naval gazing. They say that Benn’s ideas were naïve and never had any prospect of winning mass support. They say that Labour’s move to the right saved the movement from irrelevance in an age that embraced individualism rather than collectivism, family rather than community, tangible self-interest over abstract social responsibility and choice (or the market) over utilitarianism. New Labour didn’t destroy Labour, it rejuvenated its appeal by positioning itself as a cuddly alternative to a hard hearted Tory Party; a movement that would make Thatcherism work for everyone.

Yes, millions of votes were lost in the New Labour era but this was a symptom of content amongst the populous. The government was competent and the opposition shambolic, so why bother voting? New Labour’s declining vote share wasn’t a sign of failure but success; they’d given the electorate less to worry about, less to be angry about – all the important battles had been fought and won. No one was interested in a re-match. A country that’s stable and prosperous and broadly satisfied with the opportunities on offer doesn’t get excited at election time. Turnout was down but the millions who stayed away weren’t disillusioned, they were products of a post-ideological age. They were politically ignorant, assuming they thought about politics at all, and didn’t feel existentially threatened or materially impoverished like their parents. The struggle, in whatever form it had once taken, was over. Sure, there were social problems, but everyone agreed on the model that would address it. You didn’t need to vote to consent to something as natural as flatulence.

In the Blairite view of history Corbyn’s supporters are a naïve few – Neo-Bennites too young to remember the old battles, who’ve only known Thatcherism and lament its many victims, unaware that the alternative has already been comprehensively discredited. Yes, some say it was stamped on and never tried, but most political historians accept that there was never a majority for socialism, parliamentary or otherwise, and there never will be. Even Clement Atlee, say Blair’s baerns, wanted a planned economy, not the wholesale dismantling of capitalism.

For the Blairites the millions that Corbyn imagines are out there, waiting to be converted, don’t exist. A few hundred thousand idealists, they say, should not be confused with the millions of people who don’t vote and probably never will, because they know nothing of the arguments and care even less. To win, says Tone’s Drones, you must work with the people we know about – the 30 million or so box crossers who remain engaged throughout an electoral cycle and are minded to register their views when the time comes: grounded, pragmatic voters who are fad proof and don’t have Twitter accounts.

So who’s right? Is there a giant constituency of voters to be mined if Jeremy Corbyn becomes (and can remain) Labour leader, perhaps enough to circumvent the monetarist mass that’s thought to determine elections, or are they a myth; a psychic crutch for a small group of politicians who can’t accept that Britain’s a small c Conservative country that likes evolution not revolution and policies they can associate with their liberal conscience, making them feel better about themselves, but will not support any erosion of social advantage for the sake of the less fortunate? After all if you’re a socialist you have to sleep at night, right?

Those voting in the Labour Leadership election best be sure they know the answer to this question before making their choice. The consequence of getting it wrong could be severe. If Corbyn’s right, Benn’s time has come, sadly a year too late for him to notice. The path to power, in that instance, is courting the disaffected and awakening the slumbering socialist masses from their squats. If Corbyn’s wrong, and the ’80s are back, as some believe, then Labour are set to endure another spell in the wilderness, sans the map showing the way out. It feels like too great a risk, with too many incessant warnings from history banging on the door like a pilot locked out of his cockpit by a suicidal madman, yet the choice has been complicated by the alternative. No Labour member wants to play roulette with the Labour Party, but they’re not wild about turning it over to the featherlight, vapid, vacillating, and just occasionally obnoxious trio that stand in Corbyn’s way either. Little wonder, with just weeks remaining, that the gun remains firmly pressed to the temple.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The major thing that differentiates Benn from Corbyn is Corbyn is overwhelming pro-EU and pro-immigration. That’s his achilles heel in terms of electability. If he was on the same page as Benn here he’d appeal to far more people especially as immigration and the EU are becoming more and more of major issue to voters.

    Corbyn is closer to a communist than anything else, he doesn’t care for national sovereignty as Benn did. Corbyn’s fundamental opposition to the EU is that it isn’t going in the direction that he wants it to go in, it’s not left wing enough, not that is usurps national parliaments and disenfranchise voters.

    If Corbyn gets elected as leader and maintains these positions on such crucial issues long-term labour are doomed.

    • I’m not sure I accept that being pro-EU is an electoral liability, it’s not yet synonymous with uncontrolled immigration in the public mind and fortunately for Corbyn, this argument will be settled, at least for a while, by 2020 – assuming he’s still leader (further assuming he becomes leader). I mean, the rhetoric on immigration is increasingly shrill, and it’s clearly important for many millions of voters, but do you really expect the Great British Public (GBP) to vote for Brexit? I don’t think that’s nearly as certain as it once was.

      Europe is a bit of an abstraction to most voters, not least because we’re not part of the Euro, and as the campaign hots up the argument will be framed in terms of jobs and influence and cross-continental benefits for British citizens. The right will talk about immigration but in a way that will help the Yes vote because said rhetoric will be seen to become increasingly ugly and Little Englander-like. Now if UKIP and others talked about the loss of democracy, as Benn did, if they made it a constitutional issue, as you say, then that might help them, but they know that doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of your average Joe and Jolene, who couldn’t give a tuppenny fuck about such things. The 2020 election, like all the others, will probably focus on the domestic agenda – the economy, welfare, housing and health. If Labour are strong on these things and have succeeded in making the government look weak and ineffectual on the same, they’ll be in a better position.

      To be honest I think Labour are in very deep shit. As I say in the blog, there’s no strict evidence that Corbyn’s millions exist. Some columnist wrote that a pitch for these people was talking cars to those who don’t drive. If they don’t exist, Labour will only win if the public believes they have a viable plan for government, and the Tories will work like buggery to paint any statist alternative as profligate, economically illiterate and so on. Add to that boundary changes, the Scotland situation, and – well – it’s tough. Plus, the more I look at Corbyn, the more I worry about how he’s going to withstand four and a half years of parliamentary and media scrutiny, given only 15 of 232 MPs support him and not a single commentator thinks he has any chance of winning an election. In short, if he does win it’ll be the greatest feat of British politics, possibly of all time. How I wish it was a middle-aged, pumped up Benn who was leading the fight.

      • “I’m not sure I accept that being pro-EU is an electoral liability, it’s not yet synonymous with uncontrolled immigration in the public mind and fortunately for Corbyn, this argument will be settled, at least for a while, by 2020”

        Forget about the EU then. If you only consider immigration, Corbyn seems least concerned about it out of all 4 candidates, He’s closer to the greens on this issue. The more establishment candidates understand that it’s a major issue for the public (https://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Images/top10issuesaug15.JPG) and labour needs to be seen to care about it if they want to pull back disillusioned voters.

        Even if the public vote to stay in the EU, which is very likely, immigration will remain a major concern for them. As populist as Corbyn may be in other areas there are only so many voters he can drag back with his current position on immigration.

        “The 2020 election, like all the others, will probably focus on the domestic agenda – the economy, welfare, housing and health.”

        Labour and the tories may focus on those issues because it suits them but that doesn’t mean that’s everything the public cares about. If the migrant crisis continues to be in the news on a daily basis it will increasingly factor into how people vote in the general election. Those voters who consider immigration a primary concern will not vote labour despite the fact they may agree with Corbyn’s policies in other areas.

        “As I say in the blog, there’s no strict evidence that Corbyn’s millions exist.”

        I doubt they do considering how Miliband did. He was seen as pretty left to the average voter and that only seemed to hurt labour, why would voters come back in droves to a candidate even further left? There are a lot of grass roots labour supporters incredibly enthused by Corbyn but I doubt that sentiment will is replicated amongst the general public. As you say, the media will just paint him as economically illiterate and profligate which is in large part of what harmed Miliband so much.


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