In the Observer this morning Barbara Ellen wonders how the Labour Party, under Corbyn, has turned into the ‘stinking, slippery well’ it is now; ‘a hot-desking playpen for conceited, clueless backbench-lifers, peddling everything from pungent whiffs of anti-Semitism, sexism and other forms of bullying and discrimination to meaningless “neo-hipster” drivel, delivered with sub-zero political acumen?’
Eh? Is that what it looks like to our metropolitan commentariat? I must say that out here in the sticks (Hull) I don’t recognize this description at all. Looking over from Stockholm, my other home, Corbyn’s policies seem pretty much in the main European tradition of moderate social democracy. Listening to his speeches and interventions in the House of Commons, he cuts an admirably polite, rational figure. I don’t know about his close supporters, who I imagine must include a sprinkling of anti-Semites and hipsters among them – doesn’t any political party have its minority of crazies? just look at the Tories – but I’ve never met any of them, in fifty years’ association with the Labour Party, including in my newly regenerated local branch today. I doubt the anti-semitic charge in particular. (See https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/the-political-and-the-personal/ – the last bit – and https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/antisemitism-again/.) That really is the vilest of smears, and surely must be cynically intended as such.
But whose picture is the more accurate one? I’ve spent most of my life as a critical, moderate and thoughtful Labour member (with a big gap for Blair), and as a student and teacher of past British politics among other things. So I have both experience and expertise in this area. Barbara Ellen, who confesses she has always voted Labour, but ‘automatically’ and ‘tribally’, is expert only as a newspaper columnist, writing (before the Observer) for – this is from her Wiki entry – ‘NME, The Times, Mail on Sunday, Elle, Marie Claire, Grazia, Loaded, GQ and Mojo.’ I suppose it might be considered snobbish to cite these titles against her. But as she inveighs elsewhere against people writing from ignorance, I think it’s fair comment. Ellen’s diatribe mirrors much of what is written in the press about Corbyn these days, not least in ignoring completely his policies, which are after all why he has got where he is. There’s not a single word about those in this piece; nothing but superficial impressions of him and his followers, of the kind that I imagine would go down very well in Elle, Marie Claire, Grazia, Loaded, GQ and Mojo. And which may – and this is the point – quite accurately reflect the opinions of what she calls ‘people like myself’, whoever they are. The question is: how many ‘people like her’ are there? Does her portrayal of Corbyn’s Labour party typify either the Labour Party itself, or the wider public view of it?
I’m sure it doesn’t do the first; but I suspect, sorrowfully, that it might well reflect the views of a good slice of the British public. They after all have been subjected to these kinds of blind, angry, superficial, misleading, partial, venomous and unsubstantiated attacks on Corbyn for a year now: from most of the public media, including, regrettably, the Guardian stable, and even from some of his own MPs. (The Tories don’t need to waste their ammunition.) It must have got through. The only thing that might inoculate them against the infection is the disenchantment of a huge number of them – Ukippers as well as natural Centre-Lefties – with the ‘Establishment’ which they see as the source of the disease. One day, perhaps after a Brexit-induced crisis, when they come to realize that the Daily Mail and the Sun are in fact pillars of that Establishment, rather than the champions of the ordinary bloke and bloke-ess they pretend to be, others could join them. Whether Barbara Ellen will be among them, I somehow doubt.
There are historical precedents for (moderate) radicals like Corbyn facing similar ordeals by fire to this one, yet coming through. The Chartists provoked the most awful backlash among the propertied, but won out in the end. The same is true of the suffragettes. The subjects of my doctoral research, late Victorian and Edwardian anti-imperialists, attracted exactly the kind of venom that Ellen is dishing out here to the Corbynites (see http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/08/07/bernard-porter/whos-a-dinosaur-now/), but found the tide turning in their favour quite shortly afterwards. I imagine that very few of us today would regard franchise reform, votes for women and decolonization as beyond the pale; the products of a ‘stinking, slippery well’. One thing that History teaches is that circumstances – indeed whole climates of opinion, zeitgeists, general assumptions about what is desirable and possible – can change quite radically in comparatively short times, leaving the superficial journalist’s narrow view of his or her own time stranded high and dry on the shore.
My (conditional) support for Corbyn is based on my hope – no more than that – that this is what we may be seeing right now, on a world-wide scale. Only very recently the need for ‘austerity’ was a ‘given’ in European politics, almost unquestioned and unquestionable. That assumption has collapsed very quickly indeed in just a few dramatic years. Even Theresa May is giving it short shrift now. The Labour Left, of course, has always opposed it. So Corbyn, despite his ‘throwback’ reputation, may in fact be swimming with the current of history. In which case he may be seen in a few years’ time to have positioned his party well. But you need a long view, longer than Barbara Ellen’s, and some optimism – more in fact than I have – to be confident of that just yet.
The likes of Barbara Ellen and the other members of the commentariat are throwing their last load of mud before the leadership ballot closes. Fewer people read the Observer than ever, and you can understand why with writers like Ellen and others. Sadly, the Guardian has also found it impossible to be fair and objective, unsurprising in that it has got many Labour things wrong in the past. Both papers are of course basically liberal (and Liberal) and don’t know where to turn now, but to hope for a Lib Dem revival (some hope)