The Birth of a New Politics?
- September 13, 2015
Watching yesterday’s stunning victory for Jeremy Corbyn unfold, I really had to resist the urge to pinch myself, and a voice continually went through my head saying that this can’t be happening. There was so much about it that was unreal. Firstly, there was the barely-believable fact that the most consistently and passionately left-wing MP of his generation had been elected Leader of the Labour Party, with the support of a grassroots campaign that had emerged seemingly out of nowhere.
When Corbyn was first nominated, he was seen by his opponents both inside and outside the party as a joke candidate who would provide the illusion of democratic debate and renewal. As his campaign began to gather momentum, a panic-stricken Labour establishment threw everything it had at him. A succession of Blairite ‘big beasts’, including the Great Man himself, queued up to describe him as an unelectable retrograde throwback; as a terrorist fellow-traveller; a left-wing Donald Trump supported by ‘Trots’; a utopian dreamer. These attacks only made Corbyn more popular.
When it became clear that he might win, the media joined in the attacks. Every single national newspaper opposed him and attacked him. Columnist after columnist subjected him to snide, vicious and often ridiculous attacks.
Despite all this, Corbynism continued to grow exponentially, and yesterday Corybyn shattered his opponents and left them stupefied and seething, all fake smiles, pursed lips and slow handclaps, as he thanked and praised them and outlined a new agenda that most of them could barely believe that they were hearing.
So all this was nothing short of astonishing in itself. And then there was Corbyn’s speech. It has been a long, long time since I heard a Labour Leader – or any politician – speak so powerfully, directly, without soundbites, mealy-mouthed evasions and caveats, and with such moral force about the evil little social laboratory that the UK has become after decades of neoliberalism.
It has been years since a Labour leader sang the Red Flag or defended trade unions the way that Corbyn did yesterday. After Ed Miliband’s ‘immigration mugs’, after years of Labour politicians whittering on about ‘responding to voters’ concerns about immigration’, it was breathtaking to contemplate the inconceivable fact that a Labour leader had attended a demonstration in solidarity with refugees on the day of his election.
Until yesterday, I wouldn’t have believed that such things were possible. This outcome is partly due to Corbyn’s own personality and politics, but that itself doesn’t explain the earthquake that took place yesterday. After all, Corbyn has been around for a long time on the margins of the Labour Party, and despite the many campaigns he has been involved in it was until the last three months that he became the centre of a social movement
Corbyn’s enemies have tried to present him as a freakish political throwback and a return to Labour’s ‘comfort zone,’ but they may be the throwbacks, not him. Because Corbynism is proof that the left is not a historical anachronism, and that the British public is not as inert, nasty and right-wing as the political establishment would like it to be.
Once nominated, Corbyn was always likely to appeal to the traditional left of the Labour Party that doesn’t accept the creeping privatisation of the NHS and the ongoing privatisations carried out under the name of public sector reform; that is appalled that sick and dying people should be forced to work, that a million people should be living on foodbanks; that immigrants and refugees should be viciously attacked and that Labour politicians have also joined in such attacks.
We always knew such people existed. But what is striking about Corbyn’s campaign is the way that it inspired a new generation that shares many of these views, and which is repelled by technocratic career politicians who speak like pro-programmed robots. All this is a long overdue and triumphant demonstration that sometimes social movements can win against all the odds. At last the English have begun to taste something of what the Scots tasted last year. Now battle lines are being drawn, new ideas and agendas are emerging, and fresh, new and invigorating possibilities are now beginning to emerge from the barren wasteland of the Westminster bubble.
I hesitate to use the word ‘hope’ to describe these possibilities, given what happened when Obama used the word. Hope is necessary and even essential for any movement that wants to transform society, but it can also be a kind of political opium that can result in over-optimistic expectations, placing too many expectations in the wrong place, or an under-estimation of the obstacles to their realisation.
Throughout the Corbyn campaign I have often found myself thinking of Alan Plater’s brilliant 1988 dramatisation of Chris Mullins’s novel A Very British Coup. For those who don’t remember it, the four-part series describes the rise and fall of the left-wing Leader of the Labour Party Harry Perkins, MP for Sheffield Central, who is elected as Prime Minister in March 1991 on a platform that includes withdrawal from NATO, the removal of US military bases from the UK, the breakup of newspaper monopolies, and a commitment to open government.
As played by the late great Ray MacAnally, Perkins is a kind of fantasy Labour leader, unassuming, intelligent, witty, quietly charismatic and unwaveringly socialist – a lot like Corbyn in fact. By the end of the series he has been brought down by a dirty tricks conspiracy involving M15, the United States, and a Murdochite press baron.
If Corbynism continues to generate the political momentum that he acquired during the leadership campaign in national politics, there is no doubt that he will be subjected to vicious and unrelenting attacks. Yesterday Michael Fallon gave a flavour of things to come when he described Corbyn as a ‘threat to national security…a threat to your family.’
All that is to be expected, and we can expect a lot more of it. But Corbyn’s most dangerous enemies are likely to be found in his own party. Because despite his appeals for unity, and despite the stunning defeat that has been inflicted upon them, I cannot imagine that the Labour right will allow this result to stand. Even if his opponents don’t leave the party, they will conspire against him, leak against him, and do everything within their power to undermine and discredit him, and emasculate and hollow out his more radical proposals, preferably in time for them to get a new leader in place for the next election.
It will require a very powerful movement to prevent this – and a wider political transformation both within and also beyond the Labour Party itself. Yesterday may have been the beginning of that transformation, and I really hope it is, because this country badly needs it, and because it has been a long, long time since such a thing even seemed possible.