Could Corbyn, or a Corbynist political programme, ever have won against the forces that were arrayed against them? They had a lot going for them: an enthusiastic political base, especially among the young and (marginally) among women; a popular manifesto, by most accounts; a pretty easy enemy to pick off; and a leader whose transparent honesty and decency by contrast with the notorious duplicity and amoralism of his Conservative rival should have worked in his favour. But none of this mattered in the end. Labour’s fresh young activists could not overcome the stale prejudices of the older generation (mine), who won the election for Johnson; the manifesto was scarcely discussed in the media; and the remorseless personal campaign against Corbyn in the overwhelmingly Right-wing and billionaire-owned press succeeded in neutralising any appeal to his decency by egregiously lying about his supposed lack of ‘patriotism’, his sympathy for terrorism, and – and this was the most wicked of the smears, put about by sections of the Jewish community, whom I’d always up till then considered as a Godly and ethical people – his alleged ‘antisemitism’. It was almost entirely due to this propaganda that his personal reputation became so horribly traduced during the course of the campaign, so that by the end of it he was named ‘on the doorstep’ as one of the reasons why many voters couldn’t vote Labour. Added to all this was the fact that, under Britain’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, with the winner taking all even with a minority of the votes, it was scarcely a fair fight, or the result a true reflection of the opinions of the people. So Corbyn may have never stood a chance; and it’s unlikely that any alternative leader with similar policies to his (nationalisation and Palestine) could have done so either. Which is far more dispiriting to Leftists and progressives, than if it had been the ‘fault’ of just one man.
The dark forces arrayed against him (and us) have precedents in previous British history, but none as powerful, cunning and apparently co-ordinated as in 2019. Which inevitably raises questions about whether it was all planned or plotted, in a great hidden ‘conspiracy’ between all those vested interests. That’s a dangerous speculation, because it can too easily be dismissed as a conspiracy theory, which no respectable commentator – and especially not a historian – wants to be associated with. As someone who has taken a fleeting professional interest in these things in the past – the ‘Wilson Plot’, for example – I’m unwilling to credit ‘conspiratorial’ explanations of this kind; that is, if they imply secret cabals of people – or extra-terrestials, in some versions – pulling the strings of world events towards some diabolical end.
On the other hand, the comparatively small number of people involved in the propaganda operation against Corbyn – a few giant newspaper proprietors and editors, ex-public schoolboys, financial speculators, the new breed of clever IT people, right-wing Tory politicians, and the ‘Israel lobby’; most of them with similar backgrounds and members of the same London clubs – does make it natural to suspect that they plotted together in some sense; but probably not Guy Fawkes-like. In certain select circles this will have all been part of their normal, open conversation. They will have been encouraged and even aided by members of the American Alt-Right, and possibly – in a subtler way – by the Russians. The BBC hierarchy might have been involved, but only because it shared many of the same backgrounds and values as our select group. Lastly, it seems likely to me that the Secret Services were closely involved, for their own reasons: possibly because they really did think – as Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, claimed publicly – that Corbyn posed a danger to national security. (See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/11/24/former-mi6-chief-calls-jeremy-corbyn-danger-national-security/.) The spooks were almost certainly involved in the (anti-) Wilson plot of the 1960s and ’70s, and in the 1924 Zinoviev affair. So it would not be altogether surprising to see them here too. Some commentators are starting to lay some stress on this: for example https://www.mintpressnews.com/new-study-reveals-uk-intelligence-smear-campaign-against-jeremy-corbyn/263231/?fbclid=IwAR1DgT7gEAvwjBxwSfHD_NOPng9paEoz7LfwEKLFoSp9BYcBX-GJLrDlXeE#.Xf47s6blqaC.facebook. That’s hardly surprising, in the circumstances.
The main problem with ‘conspiracy theories’, however, is not so much that they can’t be proven, but that even when they can, it can’t be proven that they had the effects – the success – that is claimed for them. I think we can be pretty certain that there were a number of ‘conspiracies’ against the Labour Party in 2019, in a broad sense of the word; but not that these were decisive. Still, it’s important to know who were on the conspirators’ side; and about the anti-democratic powers – for example through the press, and Machiavels like Cummings – that they wielded. Perhaps next time we can find ways of countering them; hopefully without descending to their depths.
I think we should also conclude from the results that the LibDem/Blairites would have been trounced, too. This is about rural shut ins of a certain age, and the structural advantage rural areas with far less people, have in a first to the post system. We suffer from this here in the US with the hollowing out of the middle states and much of the southern states. It shows up in the Electoral College overriding the majority of voters and the fact 15 states which, combined, have less people than California, nonetheless, have 30 senate seats. Corbyn’s past was far more suspect than Bernie’s has been, largely because Bernie was just a little guy, powerless for many years before his first successful run as mayor in the largest town (still small) in Vermont. He slowly built himself up and while, sometimes radical, never ended up on the wrong side of Americans getting killed the way Corbyn did in trying to find peace among the Orange and IRA forces in Northern Ireland. And yes, the anti-semite canard against Corbyn is still making this American of Jewish heritage seethe.
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The quality of political leadership on the left has never been so low, as any comparison with the Gaitskell and Wilson eras show, and has got worse since 2005. Perhaps its no wonder that high quality people are not attracted to political careers when they see the onslaughts from social media, the fate of Jo Cox, and the influence of people like McCluskey and UNITE (Labours biggest donor) to influence the selection/removal of candidates thought insufficiently loyal to the Corbyn project. Labour really was a broad church party up to 1979 and although many tensions existed between left and right, it meant a ‘mix’ of talent which no longer exists.
With regards to ‘quality of political leadership’, however that is to be measured, I think the same could be said of the Conservative leadership, where it doesn’t seem to matter so much. On the non-attraction of a political career, that has been fuelled by our fundamentally anti-political (because market-orientated) press too. In my day I remember that politicians generally were respected more. (Or is that just me getting old?) I’m sure the same must be true in the USA. I remember my disappointment when my most brilliant and personable student at Yale, whom I expected to go Into politics, went on to Wall St instead. A great waste.
This is an illustration how destructive Corbyn’s amateurism was in the recent election. Only 14% of the aged-70 plus cohort voted for Labour; 22% of the 60-69 cohort gave Labour its first preference; and 28% opted for Labour in the 50-59 age set. Additionally, door-knockers in the field during the campaign reported that there was ‘visceral’ animosity to Corbyn, a subjective orientation that was unsurprisingly followed by a vote for the Conservatives.
The alienation of the middle-aged and elderly from Labour was hardly a secret. However, what did Corbyn and his team do to neutralise this electorally fatal problem? The answer is that they made the situation worse. In the 2017 election the figures were 19% for the 70 plus; 27% for the 60-69 bracket; and a respectable 37% for the 50-59ers. Corbyn had two years to work on eradicating an obvious Achilles Heel but nothing effective was done.
There are at least two explanations for this deficiency: firstly, incompetence, in that Corbyn and his team lacked the know-how to turn the situation around, instead causing the situation to get worse; secondly, Corbyn’s commitment to the amateur ideal meant that he disdained the politics of polling, of using focus groups, and the scientisation of election strategising.
The breakdown of voting-by-age statistics also provides problems for those who blame solely the right-wing media for the election results. How do such critics explain the greater tendency of younger voters to prefer Labour? Is it that the older voters are much more likely to be ‘cultural dopes’ who robotically follow the mainstream media, wheres the younger voters are more reflexive and aware? This is pretty close to the line that those who think like me are independent thinkers, while those who disagree are mere ‘dopes’.
Harold Wilson was vilified and plotted against in a different era; however, he achieved electoral success despite the considerable forces that were ranged against him. Furthermore, Heath was a much more viable Tory opponent than Johnson. Corbyn did quite well when up against the very weak May. I would argue that a reincarnated Wilson would not have suffered the landslide loss experienced by Corbyn’s Labour; ‘Wilson’ and Labour would have been competitive in 2019. Of course, like your own ‘what-if’ in a previous post, Bernard, this hypothesis cannot be proven.
Brown, Miliband and Corbyn have been three consecutive Labour leaders whose amateurism and lack of public appeal have exposed their party to disabling losses. Brown’s spectacular failure showed that a full-scale social-democratic program is not a pre-requisite for a steep decline in the party’s fortunes.
Yes, it is important to understand the more-or-less co-ordinated savagery of the right; however, progressive commentators need also to turn their attention also to the now-chronic lack of potent leadership on the left, which is a problem not restricted to the UK. In the US, there is – at this stage of the campaign at least – no really plausible Democrat challenger to Trump under the age of 70. Why is this the case? The media can hardly be blamed for such a curious phenomenon.