The Labour leadership contest is a dreadful mess. It would be comic if it weren’t so vital, and tragic for those of us ordinary voters who are crying out for an effective Opposition to take advantage of the Conservatives’ own present disarray, and to bring them to book; not only for the Referendum fiasco but also for almost everything else that they have done in office. And primarily for their pursuit of the interconnected and now largely discredited ideologies of neoliberalism, globalisation and austerity.
It ought to be easy. Those policies are deeply unpopular now, and have never been tested in a truly representative general election. (I don’t imagine I need to replicate my old arguments against the UK’s present voting system: see https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/). If Labour had a generally accepted leader, it could probably force another election within a few months, even under the terms of the new more rigid ‘Fixed Term Parliament Act’; and – by means of some clever arrangements with, for example, the Lib Dems and the Greens to counterbalance the iniquities of the ‘First Past the Post system – see off UKIP, so long as it promised not to welsh on the verdict of the referendum; and bring in a Left-leaning government that would more accurately reflect the ‘popular will’. Then it could make a start of dismantling austerity, reviving (neo-) Keynesianism, putting the NHS back on its financial feet (with higher taxes), building more affordable homes, reforming the voting system, bringing the tax-dodgers to book (that would help pay for the NHS), and not invading anyone; which are all causes, as I understand it, that are close to Jeremy Corbyn’s heart.
‘Ay; but there’s the rub’. Corbyn isn’t the ‘generally accepted’ Labour leader. For myself, I don’t quite see why not. I voted for him as leader, in company with 60+% of the Labour membership, and have observed him quite closely (mainly on the BBC Parliament channel) in the country and in the House of Commons since. He promised a new style of politics, and he delivered on that: principled, polite, probing when it came to Prime Minister’s Question Time, and intelligent, in his contributions to the Referendum debate, for example, which were more frequent and substantial than is now being claimed – but only because the media didn’t pick them up – and which I found far more convincing as arguments than the lies and exaggerations peddled by the Tories who fronted the debate on both sides. This was immensely refreshing; a rational politics for the first time. Corbyn has also been effective in many ways, forcing government U-turns on, for example, the ‘bedroom tax’, Trade Unions, Housing, Tex Credit changes, and a dozen other policies, which isn’t bad for a minority leader; campaigning energetically for young people to register before the Referendum; winning – insofar as this is up to the leader – all the intervening bye-elections, most of them with increased majorities; consistently opposing the Iraq War (Leader or not, he must lead the debate on Chilcot), and still apparently attracting new members to the party in numbers the Conservatives can only dream of. Really, what has gone wrong?
His two great enemies, of course, have been the Press – overwhelmingly right-wing, mendacious, and with a corporate self-interest in Tory success; and the majority of his Parliamentary party, for reasons that probably include their relatively right-wing (Blairite) views, memories of his serial ‘disloyalty’ on the backbenches, a snobbish disdain for his old-fashioned Leftish demeanour (and clothes), a general feeling that he isn’t ‘one of them’ – the political establishment, the Westminster ‘bubble’, or whatever; and possibly personal experience of his conduct, at closer quarters than I’ve been vouchsafed, in the House of Commons. I’ve never even met him, so I suppose I can’t argue against that. Beyond this, however, his parliamentary colleagues seem to be convinced that, whatever his virtues, he ‘can’t win’ a General Election for Labour: on what grounds I’m not sure, unless it’s simply what they read in the papers (even the Guardian is pretty sneery towards him), and hear from the commentariat (like the sniffy Laura Kuenssberg) on TV. I was rather hoping he could, and that given time his brand of politics could be as appealing to other people as it is to me. Apparently not.
But it’s the papers that set the agenda and the tone of our politics, and are part of the reality, therefore, that we have to work within, or against. And – you never know – they might be right on the ‘electability’ thing – they’re the ‘experts’, after all; or that might turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. So I’m genuinely conflicted. I’m still a Corbynite, almost a Corbyn clone, in fact: old, a Londoner originally, grey-bearded, sloppily dressed, having fought the same causes as he did in my youth – CND, anti-apartheid, anti-imperialism, pro-trade union – and agreeing with his stated opinions almost 100%. But I have to agree that he’s not a ‘Leader’ in the mould that seems to be required these days – charismatic, forceful, a bit like Hitler; to his great credit, I think, but it will take time for him to persuade the larger electorate of the virtues of his kind of ‘leadership’ by comparison with what it has been taught to expect. Unless – and this is the big unknown here – the ‘social media’ can somehow compensate for the old media’s prejudices, and deliver over to us the young of the country, who are undoubtedly more pro-Corbyn, as well as having been predominantly for ‘Remain’.
And in the meantime the Left has work to do. Whoever wins the upcoming Tory leadership race – at the time of writing it’s between an illiberal authoritarian, an opinionated free-market zealot and war-monger (according to Kenneth Clark), and an ex-banker who wants to be another Thatcher (two of them women: is that a comfort?) – it won’t be good for the social justice, stability, equality and peace that most of us crave. (It’s a comfort, but only a small one, that the Old Etonians are out of it, at last. For now.) Short of electoral reform, which obviously won’t come in time, all our hopes lie in an effective Labour Party, hopefully as part of a broader Left alliance. If there’s another members’ election, I’ll probably vote for Corbyn again, but won’t really mind too much if someone more conventionally Leader-like wins it, so long as he or she (a) preserves the essentials of Jeremy’s ‘new politics’ – I wouldn’t be against that as a compromise; and (b) beats the Tories, when the next General Election comes along. That’s the most important thing. Otherwise we’re well and truly fucked. So get your fingers out, Labour MPs.