Everything to play for
Jeremy Corbyn is looking more and more like a winner in the leadership race - much to the anger of the right. Paul Demarty reports
We are now a month into the Labour leadership campaign, and we find ourselves feeling a little bit sorry for Liz Kendall.
It was all going so well! She has done it all right: head girl at school, history at Cambridge (first class), stints as a think-tank paper-shuffler and a special advisor, and ultimately a well-lubricated entry to the Commons front bench. She could be forgiven, looking at the sort of desiccated wonks that have lined up for the leadership in recent history, for thinking that she had at least given herself a chance.
The last month, suffice to say, will have been a real wake-up call for the contest’s only unabashed Blairite. Indeed, she may well be distinguishable from those other ultra-Blairites who played a ‘Will they, won’t they?’ game over nominations - Chuka Ummuna and Tristram Hunt, for example - simply by the fact that she stuck the course; maybe they knew something she did not.
Because on the evidence so far the average Labour Party member would rather eat a bag of cold vomit than elect an avowed continuity Blairite. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have had to talk, on and off, in a more traditionally Labourite language to get much attention (frankly, at this point we are struggling to understand why both are running, so similar are their perspectives); alas, poor Liz Kendall is too ‘brave’ to do so. She alone will confront the ‘hard truth’ that Labour’s woes can be put down exclusively to not having exactly the same programme as the Conservative Party; she alone has the pluck and courage to genuflect uncritically before the rightwing press. All the others are content to retreat to the reassuring ‘comfort zone’ of being daily ridiculed and vilified as McCluskey puppets, communist sympathisers and 1970s nostalgists.
This is the story told by constituency party nominations. At time of writing, Kendall has a whopping five nominations from CLPs; Cooper has 28, and Andy Burnham is way in the lead with 48. The big story, of course, is left candidate Jeremy Corbyn, who is currently in second place with 34. Given the sort of bureaucratic shenanigans that has come to dominate internal Labour politics so completely since the Blair era, this is really quite something.
It has certainly come as a surprise to many. As nominations (by 15% of MPs) closed on June 15, with Corbyn squeaking in at the very death, the bookies were offering 40/1 for him to get the job. By the end of the day, that had been cut to 20/1. As I write, the odds have shortened again - to 8/1 (and still, somewhat improbably, behind Kendall). Indeed the New Statesman is boasting of having access to two private polls by rival campaigns which predict that Corbyn is “on course to come top” in the leadership contest (New Statesman July 15). One survey put him ahead by 15%.
Things have turned, one way or another, in his favour. The backing of Unite, Britain’s largest union, is highly significant; but so is the deployment of what we might call the ‘Scottish strategy’ by various Tories and second-string Blairites: those who raised the spectre of a Labour-Scottish National Party government to put a scare into English-chauvinist voters in May’s election are now to be found deliberately talking up Corbyn’s chances in order to weaken Labour overall.
The publicity around Corbyn is thus both huge and, for disillusioned soft lefts who may have been leaning Green, encouraging. One reads often these days that Corbyn will fulfil the promise of his CLP nominations, and scrape into second place, no doubt forcing a lot of discomfort upon his rivals along the way. In May, many of Labour’s grandees were all in favour of a quick surgical replacement of Ed Miliband, not a protracted airing of dirty laundry. How they must now wish they were listened to.
The Blairites are fighting back, of course - as are the other candidates. The Labour First pressure group is frantically urging tactical voting in CLPs to deny Corbyn nominations, which is going just swimmingly so far. Media reports have been legion and effervescent - although it is clear that behind the smoke and mirrors Labour First is basically the mouthpiece of Blairite blogger Luke Akehurst. However, this is probably representative of what is to come - in larger doses. We hear reports on the ground of other candidates avoiding hustings in constituencies and regions where Corbyn’s supporters may be preponderant.
For the assorted factions of the Labour right, this is a disaster not exactly of their own making, but one which they happily cheered along. Responding to an absurd manufactured ‘scandal’ in Falkirk concerning Unite’s attempts to get a favourable candidate selected, those Labour MPs and central office wonks for whom the unions’ continuing influence is an embarrassment seized their chance to reform the union link. The result was the tortuous compromise outlined in the Collins report, and with it the new procedures for electing Labour leaders. Inspired by the limp products of US presidential primaries, the Labour establishment did away with the tripartite electoral college system (a third each for lay members, trade unions and affiliates, and MPs) and introduced a ‘one member, one vote’ system - for these purposes, including a new category of ‘registered supporter’ as a member.
Diluting the will of the membership is a pseudo-democratic and in fact anti-democratic move in itself, but one that can backfire - as it is doing now. Around 30,000 of these supporters have signed up since the election (plus the same again in full members). Does anybody really believe that, in the large, they are enthused by Andy Burnham? This eventuality was supposed to be prevented by the threshold for MPs’ nominations, which increased considerably as part of the package. A lot of Labour rightists evidently calculated that Corbyn was not only unelectable in the country, but also within the party, and thus considered it ‘safe’ to put him on the ballot. We shall see.
Of course, the Blairites are probably right within the narrow horizon of their ambitions - Corbyn is not ‘prime ministerial material’ by the rigged standards of our political system. A left-led Labour Party, at the nadir of a long period of retreat, would lead in the short term to relentless sabotage from the right, and very probably a split, either taking the majority of Labour’s MPs with it or - worse - leaving behind sympathisers to keep up the wrecking work. Either which way, we anticipate little in the way of poll success in 2020 under such circumstances, even before we consider the new government’s gerrymandering of constituency boundaries.
Many on the Labour left have illusions on this score - they imagine naively that, since such and such a poll found that the British people support rail renationalisation or an increase in top-rate income tax, a programme of left Labourism will be unstoppably popular at the polls, when it does not exactly work like that. The greater danger, however, arises from their most fiercely held conviction: that any Labour government is better than any Tory government, thus leaving them hostage to the endless taunts of the right over ‘electability’.
The truth is almost the opposite: the constraints on constitutionally loyal governments, and for that matter governments trapped within the confines of a single state, are such that disappointment and apathy are the regular-as-clockwork results - and subsequently, most often, ever more rightwing Tory governments. The gruesome Cameron-Osborne double act, hot on the heels of the most rightwing Labour government in the party’s sordid history, exemplifies this dynamic perfectly.
The working class does not need a government, but an opposition: a headquarters for political struggle against the bourgeoisie, an effort to rebuild the basic organisations of class solidarity - trade unions, co-ops, mutuals, cultural initiatives - that have been either bruised or lost entirely this recent period. Labour is an organisation that could play that role, but it can only do so if it is transformed radically, which in turn can only be achieved by those who do not fear being in opposition, possibly for a very long time.
There is, after all, another way to smear Corbyn than those that have already been tried - tying him to Hamas, accusing him of wanting a ‘Soviet-style planned economy’, and so on. It is a picture of Jeremy, standing next to Alexis Tsipras, in front of a Syriza banner - a piece of publicity that probably seemed like a much better idea at the time. Greek developments are treated elsewhere in this paper; suffice it to say that Syriza’s particular road was paved with good intentions, but has led ultimately into a brick wall. We do not deny the differences between Greece and Britain, of course; but the latter would not be more difficult to isolate and punish if it came to it.
We support Corbyn, then, not because his victory would catapult socialism to the verge of victory overnight, but because of the galvanising effect a strong showing will have on the wider left, and the opportunities it will bring to start building something that can, eventually, succeed. Contrary to the sectarian jeremiads of the likes of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, there is still a left wing in the Labour Party - and it will benefit all of us if that left wing humiliates Liz Kendall.