I thought I couldn’t get more depressed about British politics, but this latest breakaway from the Labour Party has plunged me into an even deeper pit of despair. That’s despite the fact that very early on, when Corbyn was surprisingly and almost accidentally elected Leader, I had my doubts over whether he had the charisma to become an effective national campaigner for the kind of democratic socialism he represented, and which chimed in very well with mine (https://bernardjporter.com/2016/07/12/keep-corbyn-for-now/). My hope then was that he would reform, democratise and detoxify the old Blairite party, for someone else then to take over and lead to victory.
Then, however, he proved surprisingly effective as a campaigner in the General Election that May sprang on us, especially among the young, nearly winning it against tremendous odds; and I felt he performed pretty well thereafter in Parliament, albeit in a style that didn’t earn him the plaudits of those who want someone wittier, more aggressive and more – yes – charismatic representing them from the despatch box. Corbyn’s calm integrity, and his deliberate rejection of the politics of personal attack and insult, which I thought should warm people to him, clearly haven’t done him much good with those in the press and among the public who clearly like their politics to be more red-blooded. And then, of course, the picture that was painted of him in the right-wing press, seeing him through the eyes of a highly distorted version of the 1960s and ’70s, when his politics were forged, added to his discomfort. I was hoping that his example might bring in its train not only some new policies (albeit many of them perfectly good ones dusted off from the ’60s), but also a new dawn of political decency and rationality; exactly what, incidentally, I had hoped from Obama too. Then someone else could take over. (I had my eye on Hilary Benn. Or a come-back by Ed Milliband.)
I still think that’s possible; and even if not I’ve accrued more respect for Corbyn as leader now. But the rebellion of these seven Labour MPs, forming a new party (or ‘group’) strongly reminiscent of the ill-fated SDP of the 1970s, has, I feel, turned these hopes to dust. It was the SDP, remember, that helped bring Thatcher to power in 1979, and then, by continuing to undermine the Labour Party, sustained her. It could happen again, with equally unfortunate repercussions. It’s unlikely, surely, to help the Left in the great struggle before us. Surely they’ve thought of that? They must have some knowledge of such recent history?
So why have they done it? Each member of the group has given different reasons. One is the antisemitism that she still insists infects the Labour Party, which I’ve given many reasons to think is a false hare. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2017/12/19/more-anti-semitism/, which connects to my other posts on this too.) Much of the opposition to Corbyn appears to be personal, with the ‘Independents’ disliking precisely those characteristics which warm me and others to him, just as American Republicans do in Obama’s case. Some critics cite bad behaviour in private by his ‘team’, which of course I can’t vouch for or against; but which in any case they should surely learn to rise above. It doesn’t seem to have been over differences of domestic policy – the NHS, railway renationalisation, demarketising schools and universities, and anti-‘austerity’ generally: not that they have stated, anyway; except on the Brexit issue, where I concede that pro-Europeans may have a bone to pick over his caution with regard to a ‘people’s vote’. That pains me too; but I think I’ve given a good explanation for that, and one that holds out the prospect of a new referendum eventually, without provoking violent reaction, in recent posts (e.g. https://bernardjporter.com/2019/02/09/corbyn-the-strategist/). The other issue that they seem to think divides them from him is the ‘nuclear deterrent’ one; which incidentally is the same one that motivated the SDP ‘Gang of Four’ in the ’70s. Corbyn is ‘weak’ on ‘defence and security’. Which is why he was so much against all of Britain’s neo-imperial adventures in recent years. I disagree; but his critics may have a sort of point there.
Issues of defence and war have divided the Left in Britain for over a century. My PhD research featured one such split, affecting both Liberals and Socialists, in the early 1900s. Never have the resultant divisions done any good to anyone on the Left, though the one over ‘imperialism’ did little harm to Labour after 1918. This latest one, however, could do immense damage to the progressive (that is, anti-Neoliberal) cause today – and totally unnecessarily. It’s unlikely to spur a realignment of politics in order to scupper Brexit in time. The rebels would have done better to stay with Labour in the lead-up to it, if it ever comes. Then they could have shown their hand.
In the absence of a really convincing explanation for their rebellion, or rather for the timing of it, one is tempted to look for other motives. Careerism? Over-trust in opinion polls? The hostile press? Israeli money? The Russians? The Americans? – I’m unwilling to go down any of those latter paths; but it might be interesting to explore how many of the rebels are, for example, ‘Labour Friends of Israel’. OK, probably none; which knocks that conspiracy theory on the head.
Anyhow, the Split made the Swedish TV News tonight. So it must be significant.
PS. We’re told that the new group has registered itself not as a political party, but as a commercial company (in Panama); meaning that it doesn’t have to disclose where it’s financed from. Can this be true?