One year and one day ago I published the first entry on this blog, a long piece about the nature of democracy. There are sections of the essay that I no longer recognise and would not now defend (it’s been a long year), but I quite enjoyed the bit about the Labour Party.
I sketched a brief roman â clef about what might happen to someone who joins the party for good reasons, only to become engulfed in partizan point-scoring for the rest of their days.
Over the past year it has become all too clear that this phenomenon is far from being unique to Labour, particularly in Scotland. But a year after I started this blog, and on the day of Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory in the Labour leadership election, I want to revisit the relationship between political ideas and the party machine. It seems to me that the election of Corbyn might do some good here, albeit not in the way his supporters perhaps imagine.
It’s fair to say that Blairism has passed its peak of popularity. Much of the vitriol directed at Blair, Brown and their governments is crude, amnesiac nonsense but I thought all along that the centralising tendencies of New Labour would eventually prove their undoing (as I argued in that first indyref blog post). Much as I understood the rationale behind the control-freakery of the Campbell/ Mandelson years, there’s only so long you can suffocate debate. In time it became clear that gaining nomination for a winnable seat was all but impossible for anyone of independent mind (although there were some exceptions to this, it must be said). Dissent cannot be repressed forever, and it tends to erupt dramatically when it can be held back no longer.
I don’t think this explains the Corbyn surge in its entirety but perhaps gives some context to the size of his vote among proper party members. A significant number of Labour activists have clearly felt excluded from decision-making and agenda-setting for many, many years, and Jez’s candidacy has enabled them to find their voice.
The trouble is, Corbyn and his fans are merely seeking to replace one narrow vision of the world with their own.
As a non-aligned Labour sympathiser I’m both alarmed and cautiously optimistic about this.
I’m alarmed because…well, I’ve probably dealt with this already. Corbyn’s fans resemble SNP fans in the deaf ear they turn to all and any critique (or ‘smears’). There’s a dismaying absence of curiosity about the appalling lack of judgment Corbyn has shown on countless foreign policy issues throughout his career, and a resistance to any sort of engagement with reasonable, properly-informed criticisms of the empty platitudes with which he litters his speeches. It helps that Corbyn has been such a marginal figure for so many years – his supporters seem to be oblivious to the baggage he carries.
But then neither is there any obvious sense that the moderate wing of the Labour Party are terribly interested in engaging with the new recruits and returning old hands who have been fired up by Corbyn’s campaign. That troubles me, because what Labour needed more than anything was the injection of new ideas and people that this leadership election has achieved.
Personally I think Labour supporters will look back in the 2015 leadership election as a positive turning point – but not because Corbyn won. The party can now benefit from the imagination and energy of vastly more people than they had before, and one assumes that within the crowd of new associates we will find some of our future leaders. They can’t all be Bennites, and even if they are, some of them are young enough to grow out of it.
There’s no doubt that there will be tensions in the party now that Corbyn is leader. At the time of writing, two hours after he was announced as the winner of the leadership contest, I can barely keep count of the senior party figures who have distanced themselves from his shadow cabinet. That’s understandable, and perhaps desirable.
But what actually happens now? For me, the best case scenario is that the pluralistic spirit of this leadership election endures into politics as normal within the party. The Blair/ Mandelson/ Blunkett wing of the party has effectively spent the last decade in disguise, traumatised and discredited by Iraq. They aren’t hiding now. Equally, the party has been oddly cautious – since the early, transformative years of the first Blair government – in the arena of women’s rights. The influence of Harriet Harman (released to her relief from the absolute job from hell she’s had recently) and Yvette Cooper – and hopefully an ascendant Liz Kendall – will surely be felt under Corbyn’s leadership. And the Bennite tendency is obviously going to be highly visible for the next wee while.
In short, Labour is up for grabs again. And this is where I’m torn between optimism and alarm.
If the Corbynites merely replace the on-message suffocation of Blairism-Campbellism with a different flavour of democratic centralism that only offers safe seats to Bennites, the party gains nothing. The dispersed intelligence across the party will still not be harnessed, and the voters will be even less likely to return a Labour government. And Corbyn has among his fanbase a depressing ‘Red Tories Out‘ tendency. The irrational bitterness of those people would puncture anyone’s motivation.
So that wouldn’t be good. But maybe it won’t be like that? Julian Baggini wrote this piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago, arguing that Corbyn should make a blessing of his years of disloyalty by abandoning the Whip system. My dear friend Mark and I had actually had the same idea the previous weekend, but we were in the pub at the time and didn’t capture it for posterity. Either way, I think it’s an excellent plan. The party is clearly a cauldron of debate at the moment – why not embrace that? It might need a better statesman than Jez to explain it to the electorate, but in real life people are actually capable of respecting people for sticking to opinions. And this wouldn’t just make Corbyn’s life easier as Labour leader – if people realise they aren’t being silenced, they might grow more respectful of dissenting opinions and work more enthusiastically towards consensus. If, as everyone thought prior to May, the UK political system is likely to shift towards coalition governments, Labour could steal a march on the other parties by embodying the spirit of compromise. It’s surely better than Corbyn trying to get the entire Parliamentary Labour Party to support him when he opposes humanitarian intervention in Syria.
Because the thing with Corbyn is that you couldn’t disagree with 90% of the things he says. Who’s in favour of homelessness? Who loves poverty? Who wants women to be discriminated against? No one in the Labour Party, that’s for sure. The trouble with Jeremy is, clearly, his dreadful record on foreign policy and his vagueness when it comes to policy detail. But he won’t be there forever, so maybe his simplistic moral clarity can help Labour focus its message for future elections?
Who knows. For me, I voted for Cooper, and didn’t vote for Corbyn at all. Perhaps more importantly I voted for Stella Creasy as Deputy (with Tom Watson as my second vote). Creasy has emerged from this leadership contest as, for me, Labour’s next best hope of creating a meaningful community-based movement for progressive change. And Tom’s acceptance speech demonstrated his leadership qualities (his speech was in a different league to Corbyn’s, which sounded like me when I’m pissed). Creasy and Watson have a huge part to play in the next five years.
Creasy and Watson are exactly what a Labout front bench needs, and a Labour government. And so are Burnham, and Cooper, and Kendall, and – why not? – Corbyn too. And Ed Miliband. And maybe even David Miliband. It’s a broad church, and it’s the methodism in Labour’s madness that makes it great.
So when people say Corbyn will take Labour back to the past, what worries me is not so much the Bennite example – although it does worry me – but rather the idea that he will replace the rigidity of Millbank with the rigidity of the Campaign group.
It’s time for a new (ahem) form of politics – a politics that treats people as grown-ups and accepts the inevitability and desirability of disagreement. If Corbyn ushers that in, by accident or design, the passion of his campaign will have been honoured.