The entire political establishment, including its commentariat wing, are in a frenzy. The Labour Party has sent out ballot papers and the imminent possibility of Jeremy Corbyn being elected leader is construed as the end of political life as we know it or, at the very least, doom for the Party itself.
Senior Party figures seriously suggest that the election of a left of centre leader could move national politics sharply to the right (is there any vacant space?), by causing electoral oblivion for the Labour Party, which would, it is said, lead to the elimination of all ideas that oppose neo-liberal economics and neo-conservative foreign policy.
Point of Information: George W Bush’s key ally was Tony Blair, who is publicly gnashing his teeth over the Corbyn Threat. Blair asks us to set aside the things he did in power and, err, trust him. In his judgement, a Corbyn leadership would have apocalyptic consequences. And, to be fair, if there is one thing that Blair knows a lot about, it is decisions with apocalyptic consequences.
Meanwhile, every negative comment from the Party’s present leadership strengthens Corbyn’s campaign. He is touring the country and he fills halls with young and old everywhere he stops. An elderly and untidy man with a beard appears to be single-handedly generating the type of revivalist fervour that was evident around the Scottish National Party landslide in May 2015 and the Scottish referendum campaign before that. To the horror of the newspapers, this un-British political enthusiasm is most evident in England, a country where voters have long been said to be apathetic and disinterested in politics. It is all rather splendid.
The rhetoric against Corbyn is not closely argued. I have no doubt that it would be possible to marshal well-reasoned arguments against voting for him. Instead, Labour’s establishment have chosen to mount hyperbolic and ad hominem attacks. They stoop to invoke caricatures of Michael Foot in a donkey jacket.
An aside on Michael Foot: Foot was a great British political writer and orator. He wasn’t a great leader of the Labour Party, but neither was Gordon Brown, who was handed power by Tony Blair (him again), albeit with some reluctance. Foot had to contend with schism on the right (from the Gang of Four who formed the Social Democratic Party, now fused with the Liberals), entryists (the likes of Blair himself, hard headed career politicians who saw opportunity in the wounded Party of the 1980s) and one or two actual Trotskyists (for example, the Militant Tendency). Hardly surprising that it all went pear-shaped (as we used to say in the 1980s).
The attacks on Corbyn have the general character of a slagging off rather than a critique. This suggests a Silly Season Sensation, whereby journalists hype things up to fill empty column inches whilst Parliament is in recess, rather than a genuine political event. I think not. It seems to me that the furore is raging in the spirit of Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man: “Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?”
Sooner or later, the dirty tricks of New Labour’s apparatchiks may work, and Corbyn’s runaway popularity may prove to be an optimistic flash in the unwashed pan of parliamentary politics. In pursuit of similar policies, Alexis Tsipras and Syriza have been humiliated and tamed in Greece, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, the political establishment are right to be concerned about the Corbyn Threat, which centres neither on Jeremy Corbyn himself nor on the specific policies he is promoting. Instead, the real threat comes from other factors, such as the return of the voice of popular left opinion, muted in British public life over the past 20 years, and a political movement that demands that policies and ordinary people should be taken seriously.
The New Labour project cleansed the Labour Party of socialism through the systematic destruction of party democracy (read an extract from Liz Davies’s excellent book on this). Members of the Labour Party have a strong attachment to socialism. Unlike some public-school-and-Oxbridge entryists, most ordinary members joined because they were socialists. When socialism was eliminated from the Party, thousands of individual members walked. The majority of members who remain are far to the left of the Labour leadership, but so was Charles Kennedy. Members are expected to campaign for the Party in elections, but they are not taken seriously when they want anti-austerity policies. The Labour Party is increasingly dependant on business in various ways, and the money that comes from business talks louder than members’ votes in the modern Party. Corbyn’s openness and his emphasis on being a leader who presents policies rather than dictates is much more subversive than his proposal to renationalise the railways.
The British left tradition was bound to reappear eventually. Voting patterns are misleading. Even people like me, a kind of a Marxist (see previous blog) have sometimes voted Liberal Democrat, for example in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. That didn’t mean that our political orientation had changed. It meant that the Liberal Democrats were the only party that had taken a principled position over an important issue, be that Iraq or University tuition fees. We were disenfranchised by the lack of a left option and this distorted our voting patterns. We are still out here, and there are quite a few of us. Many, such as me, belong to no political party, but we care about inequality and social justice.
The left has never been in the majority in the UK, but it has sometimes been a formidable force. In his 70s, my late father-in-law, a working-class man who was not politically active, used to say “I’m a Ken Livingstone man”, and a substantial minority of the population who are not highly engaged with politics are the same: viscerally left wing without a firm commitment to a political party or a doctrine. If this constituency was mobilised, it might not be triumphant, but it could be very disruptive in a political system where political professionals appear to believe that they shouldn’t be troubled by meddling amateurs.
There is a broader implication that arises from the Corbyn Threat. What if a successful Corbyn campaign were to force the constitution, reason, evidence and other democratic fundamentals onto the political agenda? Take the example of the NHS.
As most people will have noticed, the NHS is struggling. The last Government imposed an unnecessary and extremely expensive reorganisation, despite a specific undertaking not to do so in the General Election that brought them to power. The new Government is making ominous noises about the NHS being unaffordable. If this were true, ‘unaffordable’ could only mean that some people would get no treatment. Luckily, it isn’t true, not least because ‘unaffordable’ makes no reference to the Conservative’s own profligate expenditure on ‘reforms’ and the marketization of health care.
In contrast, there is a very clear body of evidence that contradicts the Government. Health care is delivered most equitably (the greatest care going to those in greatest need) when it is funded from general taxation. There is no model of insurance funding, or private health care provision, that can defy the rules of the market. These dictate that the need for profit increases costs and concentrates care on those with the greatest ability to pay. Health and money go together, and the wealthy are generally those with the least need for health care (see our book on mental health and poverty).
At the moment, policy is irrational and there is a smell of dishonesty about the way in which it has developed, as little current health policy in England has been included in manifestos. Successive Heath Secretaries have reneged on pledges that have been made to the electorate. Statements to the effect that the Tories love the NHS, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything nasty to it, have proven misleading. The English financial health regulator, Monitor, is explicit that everything is about to go wrong and that the crunch will arrive in months, not years.
Politicians who conduct themselves in devious and anti-democratic ways are entirely right to be nervous about the Corbyn Threat. Corbyn is no Robespierre, but the expenses scandal has given professional politicians a taste of what it could be like if the public cut up rough. In reality, the Corbyn Threat is implicit in the existence of a substantial group of people are not willing to give up hope. They are not willing to accept ever-increasing inequality and the prospect that their children’s lives will be substantially worse than their own. They don’t want politics that are decided in closed circles of the privileged and wealthy. They want politics that involve them, where their concerns and convictions are taken seriously. The Corbyn Threat is a large number of people who are tired of politely asking professional politicians for their ball back. They are showing signs of becoming much more insistent.