Yet more retreats
Backpedalling will not save Jeremy Corbyn, argues Paul Demarty
Back in the distant past of, say, 2013, it was common to hear among the few huddled faithful of the hard Labour left a particular refrain.
The press in those days, it will be remembered, used to bang on relentlessly about how useless was the party’s leader, ‘Red’ Ed Miliband; he was a charisma vacuum, but - more to the point - far too full-blooded a ‘socialist’ to win an election. He needed to get out of his ‘comfort zone’ and appeal to the ‘aspirations’ of ‘middle class voters’, etc, etc, ad infinitum. The left (including, to my memory, John McDonnell) retorted that the problem was the exact opposite: Miliband was too worried about appearing leftwing. Was not most of the British population anti-war in sentiment? Did poll after poll not reveal overwhelming support for the nationalisation of the railways? Far from being a necessary sacrifice, firm left social democratic policies would have to be adopted in order to avoid electoral calamity.
To some of us, of course, such arguments smacked of naivety, and we rather feel grimly vindicated just now. For the polls are hardly great reading for supporters of the now thoroughly left-Labourite leadership. The Tories are 10 points clear in terms of voting intentions, and only 14% - according to YouGov - think Jeremy Corbyn cuts it as a potential prime minister.1
The complaint is often sounded that the constant sniping of Blairites and media lies are getting in the way; while true enough, this is rather like the apocryphal memo from some World War I general or other to the effect that the offensive had gone just fine, and would have been successful if the enemy hadn’t shot all our boys to death with machine guns. That is what the media and their parliamentary agents provocateurs should be expected to do, after all.
There is therefore a scramble for a ‘plan B’: something - anything - that could turn the tide. In the last dregs of 2016, TheGuardian revealed that Corbyn’s close advisors were preparing to relaunch him as - wait for it - a populist. 2016, after all, was a pretty good year for ‘populists’. Indeed, that fact meets far more agreement than even the definition of the word ‘populist’, which seems sometimes to be an all-purpose amalgam containing anyone you disagree with - a tent always big enough for one’s immediate enemies and Adolf Hitler, but conveniently too small for oneself.
What does this populist turn entail? Not overly much, according to TheGuardian. Corbyn is “expected to appear more frequently on television”; Labour has “retained the polling firm BMG and the advertising agency Krow Communications to professionalise its approach to campaigning”. Even by the prevailing standards, that stretches the definition of ‘populist’. In fact, it looks like exactly the sort of centrally commanded, media-led strategy vulnerable to subversion by enemy agents.
If we’re going to play at populism, anyway, Corbyn could do worse than take a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book. How did The Donald treat the media on the campaign trail? Why, at his infamous rallies, he perp-walked them into an exposed cage at the back of the hall, breaking off mid-tirade to lambast the scum, animals, liars betraying the nation on TV and in the newspapers, as his admiring followers screamed in jubilant hatred.
Now that’s what I call a media strategy - and it is no worse than the confined hacks deserved. For Corbyn’s part, alas, even the very notion of a relaunch smells less like Trumpian populism and more like the apparatus politics of the long vanquished Jeb Bush - who, as his primary campaign foundered, gained an exclamation mark (“Jeb!”) and lost all credibility.
Movement towards Trumpism has come in an altogether less pleasant aspect, with the Christmas period seeing a great deal of pressure on Corbyn to address the question of immigration one way or another. As the Brexit panto lurched from farce to farce, the great question facing the nation has become: access to the single market even at the cost (NB: the cost) of free movement, or stricter border controls at the cost of World Trade Organisation rules governing European trade?
In the end, Corbyn has indicated that he will abandon his commitment to open borders with Europe, although the emphasis in Labour’s Brexit policy is towards maintaining “full access” to the single market, which is apparently not the same as membership of the single market (the politics of Brexit are replete with such distinctions without differences). There is no way to dress this up as other than a shameful retreat; and, though the political content is toxic enough, the point in this connection is that it is a retreat and, far from looking like a man who will stick to principle, Corbyn appears as one who will listen to the pollsters and tell whatever lies he is told to.
In fairness, not all the pressure has come from rightists and enemies. Len McCluskey has chosen this moment, of all times, to repeat his old trick of lengthening his reign as Unite general secretary by calling a surprise election, which brought out Gerard Coyne as a rightwing candidate. Coyne’s line of attack has been on the immigration question; not wanting to be seen as soft and ‘out of touch’, still less overly attached to Corbyn, McCluskey has gone on a tough-talking spree. Corbyn can afford to piss off the rightwing press, and in reality he can take his knocks from the Blairites - but he cannot do so without the support of Unite. All this leads us, inevitably, to the problem of how to vote in Unite’s general secretary ballot.
Gerry Coyne, for reasons that ought to be obvious, is out, leaving a decision between Len McCluskey and left challenger Ian Allinson. There is much to object to about McCluskey, about as purebred an example of the species ‘left bureaucrat’ as has been produced in the laboratory of the British labour movement.
We have already discussed his interventions on the question of immigration, which are the sort of weasel-worded nonsense one says if one wants to be seen by backward workers as ‘tough’ without actually calling for anything concrete; and he has recently reminded us, in the interests of heading off the threat from Coyne, that Unite’s support for a leftwing Labour leadership should not be taken for granted. He has played a bad role on the nuclear question, pleading ‘his members’, like the GMB barons.
For all these equivocations, and for all the tedious inevitability of bureaucratic betrayal, we must offer critical support to McCluskey in this election. McCluskey has taken the right side - so far - in Labour’s civil war. He has done so in a real, not a Platonic sense, bringing Unite’s institutional heft to bear at crucial moments to defend the Corbyn leadership against coup attempts. He need not have done so: empty words would have sufficed to preserve his reputation.
Comrade Allinson is a former member of the Socialist Workers Party, and currently associated with the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century group, which split from the SWP in 2014. It is thus no surprise to find him commendably critical of the increasingly dodgy Labour discourse on immigration, delphically encouraged by McCluskey. No doubt we could find, on further examination, a legion of further issues on which our views accord more closely with Allinson’s than the incumbent’s. Yet there is the small matter that he is not a Labour member, and has no intention of playing a serious role in the unfolding struggle.
“If members want to see a Corbyn government,” he wrote announcing his bid, “Unite needs to shift the debate by fighting in workplaces and communities now, rather than relying so heavily on internal battles within Labour.”2 An ex-SWPer comrade Allinson may be, but that could have come from any edition of Socialist Worker in the last year or two - it is no surprise that his former comrades support his bid. Indifference to internal Labour Party politics was a forgivable sin, just barely, last time the question was asked, and Jerry Hicks (another ex-SWP member) was the challenger; today, with the most significant episode in the British class struggle at least since the great strike of 1984-85 playing out on exactly that terrain, it is enough to exclude the most principled imaginable contestant from communist support.