A month ago I registered as a ‘supporter’ of the Labour Party in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Go on, call me a soft reformist. I shan’t blame you. However, I don’t waste time with illusions as I don’t expect to transform the party into a socialist bulwark, on the contrary, Labour has been on the road to Pasokification for a long time. Nor do I expect to defeat austerity in doing so. I hope to kick the prevailing discourse from the Left and put the fear of the risen Christ into the ghastly Blairites. It may even be possible to shift the party back to the centre-left. This could embolden the Left. There’s no point being half a friend to Jeremy Corbyn. His enemies are our enemies. You either back him, or you sit back and watch.
The commentariat has greeted Corbyn’s bid with condescension and scorn. The broadsheet liberals tend to play the ‘grown-up in the room’ disinterested in left-wing nostalgia. Meanwhile the right-wingers have been quick to resort to low blows. The right-wing libertarian blogger ‘Guido Fawkes’, a.k.a. Paul Staines, reproduced a clip of Jeremy Corbyn welcoming Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’. This was even before Corbyn had earned his way into the contest. The clip was rapidly circulated. The context – which happened to be a public meeting, where the use of the term is a traditional practice – was conveniently eliminated. Soon the press was all over it, even Left Foot Forward produced an anti-Corbyn piece. No doubt Mr. P Staines knew what he was doing.
The BBC and Channel 4 News soon joined the chorus of right-wing hysteria and feigned liberal outrage. In his questioning of Corbyn, Krishnan Guru-Murthy threw a rock at the candidate: “Why did you call Hamas and Hezbollah your friends?” As Jeremy Corbyn contextualised his use of the term Guru-Murthy went further: “Are you saying they’re not your friends?” The implicit backmail was to draw Corbyn into distancing himself from the Palestinians and their representatives. The main crime of both groups being to have resisted Israeli aggression. The brutality of the occupation, and the violent response it engenders, is lost in the Western media and its pro-Israel sycophancy. Corbyn simply defends the need for Hamas and Hezbollah to be present in negotiations.
What was behind this ridiculous scene? Other observers have been more perceptive. The New Statesman’s George Eaton reflected on the “fear that Corbyn’s presence will distort the debate and distract from the question of which candidate is the most electable”. In the minds of the extreme centre, the Corbyn candidacy threatened to ‘waste time’ over arguments on policy (isn’t that the point of politics?) particularly over austerity and the Trident nuclear system. Indeed, the right-wing columnist Dan Hodges called Corbyn’s bid a “disaster” for the Labour Party. “Others warn he could he exceed expectations and force the other candidates to make concessions to the left,” Easton noted.
It’s not the only view taken in the media. Recently the maverick conservative Peter Oborne has expressed sympathy for Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn. “Burnham, Kendall and Cooper have bought into the bankrupt Blairite model – namely that opposition parties should model themselves on the government of the day,” Oborne writes in the Guardian. The prospect of a leftish realignment within the opposition appeals to anyone sickened by the current state of affairs. The rot of Blairism has snuffed out Labour’s sense of its own purpose. Oborne concludes: “McCluskey and his ally Jeremy Corbyn are straining to take British politics in an entirely new direction. Who knows, they might succeed. And it might not be such a bad thing if they do.”
For a while it looked like Jeremy Corbyn might not make it. I thought it would testify to the decline of Labour politics should the competition be narrowed down to a handfull of neo-Blairites. Corbyn only just made it across the finishing line. We can thank David Lammy for responding to the letters of his constituents so well. The justification was predictable: “We need a broad debate”. Of course, if you’re a New Labourite you can see there isn’t going to be much of a debate between Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. The endless mantras of ‘aspiration’ (a codeword for ‘not poor’, if not ‘anti-poor’) just won’t cut it. Even in the dull race of 2010 we had Diane Abbott, not a particularly impressive figure, to take stands against the tide.
The last real socialist candidate was Tony Benn in the 1988 leadership contest. Benn took on Neil Kinnock and lost. It was too late. Jeremy Corbyn was a compatriot of Benn’s during that time. By the time Corbyn was elected in 1983 the sectarian bloodbath was well under way. The SDP exodus had just decimated the Labour Party. This combined with the ineffectual leadership of Michael Foot and Denis Healey would condemn the party to defeat at the ballot box. Benn was fighting against the Labour machine to democratise the party. The progressive programme, which Foot advocated, could not be defended properly in the midst of such disarray. The Falklands war would secure victory for the Thatcherites.
It has since become folklore that the Left cost Labour the election. Actually it was centrists who allowed the socialist manifesto run unedited. That was before Gerald Kaufman called it “the longest suicide note in history”. The centrists wanted to pin defeat on Foot’s leftism and the Bennite insurgency. Having taken the centrist side in the infighting Neil Kinnock positioned himself as the new centrist leader. Formerly a leftist Kinnock declared war on the Militant entryists. He was soon compromising at every turn to Thatcher. In the end, Kinnock lost two elections and gave us Blairism. What Corbyn represents is the opposition to the extreme centre, as Tariq Ali eloquently calls it, in its permanent state of triangulation.
The Labour Party has changed beyond all recognition. It’s obvious to the Right. As a Tory friend posted on Facebook: “It seems a mark of how much Labour has changed in the last two decades, that the emergence of a genuinely left-wing candidate is greeted with disdain.” It is now the party that refuses to oppose cuts to child tax credits. As if tuition fees, deregulation and PFI contracts weren’t bad enough. The crisis of the Labour Party is just one particular aspect of the crisis of Europe’s social democrats. It can be detected in Hollande’s impasse. Most palpable is the case of Pasok, once the party of the centre, it now occupies the wilderness of Greek politics. Similarly, the official centre-left in Spain have been undercut. Meanwhile the German Social Democrats currently prop up the Merkel regime. All of this represents a general trend. It’s goodbye to Labour, if Corbyn can’t win.