Why you can have Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour Party but not both

British Labour party leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn poses for pictures with a tie that he was given by a charity worker as he arrives to address a public rally in Glasgow, Scotland, on August 14, 2015. Voting began Friday to elect the new leader of Britain's main opposition Labour party, with Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who would move the party significantly to the left, favourite to win. AFP PHOTO / LESLEY MARTIN (Photo credit should read LESLEY MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Welcome to my inaugural post from Brexit Britain – a country broken just as David Cameron promised (assuming I interpreted his 2010 election sloganeering correctly). Leave voters should note that in line with the now universally accepted notion that you’re thick as wet concrete, a single syllable version of this blog will be published tomorrow in Warm Glow magazine – still just half a crown.

Last September we all got together and agreed that the test for Jeremy Corbyn’s then presumed leadership would be cultivating the dormant radical instincts of the millions he, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, daughter of Newton, imagined to exist. These were the discontents, the victims of capitalism and decades of laissez-faire dogma, who didn’t vote and weren’t served by neoliberalism. Surely they’d show themselves once JC became their cheerleader?

We laughed about it and concluded that their existence was currently a matter of intense speculation, like dark matter and the God Particle once were. Because they didn’t turn out on election day, or register their support in opinion polls, their existence was theoretical, or a matter of faith for non-Marxists. But like the aforementioned dark matter, that’s thought to signal its presence by the difference between the gravity required to form a spiral galaxy and the potential of the visible bodies therein to generate it, young activists, who joined the party or paid an affiliate fee to guarantee the Corbyn succession, were thought to be the planets and gaseous swirls that proved a greater movement existed.

These kids – who’d devoted many weeks of their lives to politics, indifferent to its archaic mechanics and attendant complications, were vouchsafed by JC and his retinue as the first trickle from a cracked dam. They only numbered in their hundreds of thousands, and were to typical voters what the Eurasian Lynx is to the domestic cat, but when they filled a town hall or student union, it must have felt the world had finally woken up to the Bennite project. Soon, went the thinking, their peers would reverse decades of political disengagement and revive mass membership. Soon, inspired by JC’s rambling rhetoric, the millions who’d voted New Labour following Thatcher’s recalibration of British society would be comprehensively re-educated. But weirdly, this hasn’t happened.

Perhaps it could have, but as soon as Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader it was apparent that beating the system was harder than even Twitter realised. By winning the way he did, from the bottom up, JC broke all the laws of political advancement. His supporters’ code for this was “anti-establishment”; the idea that Corbyn, unlike the Blairite quislings in parliament, wasn’t part of the system, just an MP and part of Westminster’s closed shop since 1983. For anti-establishment read non-conformist and for non-conformist read campaigning socialist; a man with no ambition to advance his cause using the machinery of government, rather content to be a martyr to the same. Say what you like about Tony Blair, and I hope you will, but it took him 6 years as Prime Minister to hit that mark.

Because JC’s never had the tenacity and strength of character required to take on colleagues with different views and win them over, he’s not been subject to the usual shaping forces that prepare most would-be leaders for the tortuous slog that accompanies the top job. Parliament isn’t just a chamber for MPs to congregate. It’s a finishing school for debaters, orators and opinion formers. The word careerist has now become derogatory, but a political career is not simply a power trip for the unprincipled, though that’s one of its many attractions. It’s a test of will and character, a battle that can and does last many years. And in the midst of it all, with all the compromises, frustrations and media exposure that comes as standard, politicians are forged; politicians who impress their colleagues and the country with their presence in the bear pit and their ability to cut through and mediate their message to you, the barely cognisant horde.

When JC leapfrogged all the stages between lowly backbench rebel and party leader, he also skipped the trials that make MPs contenders; tests of mettle like the ability to communicate and build alliances. And whereas no one would argue the deserving always make it – William Hague, IDS and Ed Miliband being examples of how preferment, or not being someone else can inadvertently push the wrong person across the line – they’ve usually impressed enough of their colleagues to be given a fair shake. Corbyn circumvented that process, and curiously for a Labour politician, the principle of meritocracy. In so doing, he presumed to lead a party he’d never worked with.

Standing as the anti-politics candidate was an extraordinary idea; a conscious appropriation of the myth that you can institute meaningful change without first engaging with the system. Imagine applying to be an engineer on an anti-maths ticket, or applying to medical school singing homeopathy’s praises. But politics is a strange fish, because it’s a cerebral pursuit often conditioned by anti-intellectual forces. The public’s lack of nuanced understanding is breathtaking, which suits our rulers fine. Anyone who mischievously pretends that the game’s simple, or stacked against the righteous, is deemed to be a man or woman of the people – fatuous and meaningless a title though that is.

The kind thing to do would be to tell Joe and Jacinda Public to sod off and study politics, or perhaps watch the parliament channel all day, every day for a year, so they understood what the fuck was going on. But Jeremy Corbyn, the anti-politics candidate, gave newbies permission to know dick sizzle because he promised to change all the rules. He sold the dream of a new politics, one apparently divorced from the imperatives that shape the thing. It was the idea you could mount a parliamentary offensive without the hard won consent of your parliamentary colleagues. Incredibly, his supporters thought mystified MPs should give him that chance, which is a little like parents voting to let Brian Meek, the quiet school porter, become headmaster. Why won’t the teaching staff just let him try? Why are they so determined he should stand down? Why won’t the bloody establishment respect democracy and let Brian have a go, despite him being profoundly underqualified?

In office Corbyn wasted no time confirming the worst fears of well wishers. He was obstinate and uncooperative with the media, who he saw as propagandists rather than a mirror to people’s values and preoccupations; he was stuttering, long-winded and incoherent at the dispatch box; he was slow to react to events and hopeless at capitalising on them. And in an unprecedented situation for a new leader, his long standing opposition to the mainstream of party opinion made unity impossible; unity being, yawn, the prerequisite for strong opposition.

The party’s policy was to retain nuclear weapons, though Corbyn was unequivocal in saying that as Prime Minister he’d never use them. The party supported military action to tip the Syrian civil war in favour of the dispossessed but the leader did not, as all such action is a symptom of Western imperialist aggression. The party was overwhelmingly pro-European but JC saw the EU as an insidious capitalist club and affront to democracy. Arguments about whether he gave his all in the referendum are ludicrous, given his arguments for Remain came with a dozen caveats. Supporters liked Diane Abbott called it “nuanced” but desirable though that is in general debate, in a referendum where the choice is binary and the aim is to galvanise and maximise you support there can be no half measures. JC told interviewers he was “7.5 out of 10” in favour of Remain – overstating his support by a factor of 7. Subsequently, only 6.4 out of every 10 Labour voters turned out for the cause (the same number that March, pre-campaign polling for Remain said would do so anyway), though this may not have made any difference to the final result.

If there was any doubt, his passion for retaining his stranglehold on the leadership has been far greater than any exhibited during the EU campaign. That shouldn’t surprise anyone; JC’s finally fighting for something he believes in. Having waited all his adult life to have some influence on the direction of the Labour Party, he and his retinue are not going to give it up, just because 81% of his MPs think Tim Farron would make a better leader of the opposition. Nor will you hear him tell miserable and confused young fans why he didn’t wholeheartedly defend something they saw as integral to their future. He could try telling them they don’t get it; that the EU is ideologically impure; but when you’ve counted on the ignorance and historical illiteracy of your natural supporters to protect your position, you dare not draw attention to it.

If you try and explain this to “the movement”, as it’s sometimes known, and groups like Momentum – the cult’s campaigning wing, you’re told that any attempt to dislodge Corbyn is illegitimate, that the members are sovereign, that feckless and self-serving MPs, who only care about forming a government and implementing Labour policies, exist in a bubble divorced from political reality, if you can imagine such a thing.

Diane Abbott went on the Today programme and witheringly denounced talk of winning elections as “Westminster-centric”. Billy Bragg told Facebook that the coup against Corbyn, that now includes famous Blarites like Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, was based on a fallacy, because JC had won three safe seats in by-elections – proof that a 2020 landslide was a mere formality. Paul Mason, furious at Labour MPs’ disloyalty to a man imposed on them against their will, argued that the referendum result was just a pretext for removing JC, and this despite 64% of the party’s supporters voting Remain. Sure, there was no evidence Corbyn’s lukewarm endorsement informed that figure, and Nigel Farage, who’d barely shut up on behalf of Leave and had made himself ubiquitous on TV and radio, managed to deliver 93% of his supporters, but so the fuck what?

Then, last night on the BBC’s This Week, journalist and Corbyn cultist, Rachel Shabi, told a dumbfounded Michael Portillo that he was a fantasist for suggesting Corbyn would doom the Labour Party to the worst defeat in its history. JC’s supporters didn’t care about party unity or his MPs endorsements, she said; his popularity, in as far as one could measure it accurately, came from the country. A smirking Portillo replied, “you’ve just made my day”. Here was the Labour schism laid bare; those who believed Corbyn would win because their faith was indicative of those hitherto untapped and formerly voiceless millions, versus commentators – some at Westminster, some old enemies like Portillo, who looked at the sweep of electoral history, and the most up to date indications of how people vote, and saw a disaster unfolding in slow motion.

The masses, whoever the fuck you think you are, typically don’t vote for weak leaders or divided parties, or indeed a party that appears to be disinterested in the type of voter you imagine yourself to be – say white, working class and angry. Corbyn’s supporters see disunity as a symptom of treachery and media scrutiny as propaganda, but party discord’s inevitable if the parliamentary wing has not fully endorsed the candidates that finally get offered up to the membership. The Tories may be bastards but they understand this, hence their system that only lets card carrying Conservatives vote once MPs have whittled down candidates to two. Ed Miliband’s reform of the system for choosing the Labour leader dissolved the distinction between MP and member, and in doing so delegitimised the role of parliament in a system where having command of the parliamentary party and the chamber is a copper bottomed necessity.

So Labour’s PLP, directly elected by the general population, stands on the precipice, forced to contemplate either an ugly leadership contest or the nuclear option, unilateral independence and the search for a new base and party machine. Faced with his refusal to resign, they must contemplate the awful possibility that you can have Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour Party but not both.

History, it’s over to you.

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