Corbyn – after Oldham

The Oldham by-election is an early suggestion that public support for the new Labour leadership is stronger than has been supposed.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
16 December 2015

Flickr/The Girl 78

, CC BY-NC 2.0

‘The Labour party is in disarray’, the media insists. Not nearly as much as the Conservative party. So far there are no accusations of Labour activists driven to suicide. So far no-one has resigned in disgrace. There are those in the Labour parliamentary wing who have yet to be persuaded, but they are diminishing. The tide has turned in favour of a more defined socialist agenda. At home the stress falls now on co-operative social values. International peace is the aim of the leadership, the party rank and file and the general public. The electoral test at Oldham suggests that Labour is on the right track.

The tide has turned in favour of a more defined socialist agenda.Of course one by-election can be no more than a provisional statement. By-elections are notoriously difficult to read as prophesies. Nothing is certain except that so far the turn to the left has not proved to be the predicted disaster. The anticipated result, according to the media, was going to be at best a narrow victory. Ramshackle, loony left Corbyn resigns in the new year, and the experiment fails. For the time being that phantasm has dissolved. It does not prevent the cameras from seeking out a few sour voices who are so evidently a minority in Oldham. Insistent wishful-thinking is no substitute for the evident reality. The headlines should have read: ‘Big Swing to Labour Boosts Corbyn at Critical Time.’ The fact is that the phrase ‘swing to Labour’ was suspiciously absent. The affirmation of Jeremy Corbyn’s position was conceded with something close to a snarl.

The media hostility to the current Labour leadership is not going to subside yet. Every stumble is reported as a collapse. Whatever can be presented in negative terms will be. A new political direction has been taken without the prior consent of a metropolitan elite. That can never be forgiven, although in time it may be forgotten. For the time being we have such asinine observations as Martin Amis’s sneer at Jeremy Corbyn’s allegedly poor A-level results. Well, there you have it: we can’t possibly have a political leader who didn’t do too well at school decades ago, can we? Except that in the real world we need to know how well someone is doing in life now. And Jeremy Corbyn is doing pretty well. It is his critics who seem to be in disarray.

This may be because something more than paper qualifications and impressive-looking curricula vitae are required of anyone seeking to make a contribution to public service. Decision-makers, administrators and commentators need to demonstrate a broad social awareness, some cultural substance and an imaginative sympathy. This is true at any level, but especially so in the national conversation. The intellectually astute may be morally obtuse. Mesmerised by the prestige of position and office, the radical faculties may wither on the vine. It is a long time since Radio Times ‘celebrated’ [its word, not mine] the Russian Revolution. It is a long time since Neil Kinnock stood with Jimmy Reid at a Tribune rally. It is a long time since… Well, I need not go on.

The intellectually astute may be morally obtuse.Life, of course, moves on. In the course of a life our sympathies and loyalties are modified and transformed by personal experience and public events. There are wrong turnings, side tracks, vicious circles, misreadings of the map and confusions in the mist. These are the mistakes we have to undergo in order to develop. The problem lies in the lack of equilibrium when we move too far. Labour’s immoderate drift to the right has gone beyond tactic and expediency into conviction. The younger selves of some politicians would be horrified to see what has happened in thirty years of ‘modernisation’. There is tacit agreement that this is rarely spoken of and never stressed. Modernity is everything. Realistic aims are everything. Ideals concerning the state of the world are at best silly, at worst the road to the barbed wire state.

The evidence, including British experience, is that progressive government can enlighten and uplift. Public ownership creates commonwealth that surpasses for the many the advantage of private wealth. Socialism has inspired capable, at times excellent, government throughout the contemporary world. Labour’s rediscovery of socialism brings the British Labour party into line with the principles of practical governance in democracies not bound by the utopian dreams of North Atlantic capital accumulation.

Of course the major tests of the new Labour leadership are to come. The spring elections will be decisive. It is not going to be easy, given the intensity of negative feeling, and given the sheer cleverness of the commentariat’s capability for attrition. To succeed the new leadership will need to be tougher and smarter. They are dealing with enemies who know every trick. They know how to present reasonable comment as ‘extraordinary outbursts’. They know how to distort, exaggerate and lie with a nice smile and a sympathetic, concerned tone. This is battle for influence and power, and has the concomitant nastiness of such a battle.

For a generation Labour has been led by Jeffersonian democrats whose objection to the neocons is a matter of style rather than substance. Jefferson’s liberalism was in its day a revolt against tyranny. In one direction it led to Haight-Ashbury. In another direction it led to Las Vegas. There are those for whom this is not a problem. Worse still, there are those who do not see the difference. Liberty is everything even in a world that demands social justice, co-operative enterprise, moral equity and international peace. The current Labour leadership has made some tentative steps towards restating the founding principles of Fabian Socialism. For this they are branded as left-wing extremists by right-wing extremists who still think they are on message.

The hope is that public intuition will prevail. It may be that a certain ineptitude, a modicum of folly and a degree of confusion will work in Labour’s favour. Tired of slick presentation by operators of doubtful sincerity and questionable competence, the public may warm to the evidently human and fallible leadership. What you see is no façade. There is no self-deception. What you see is a team of socialists arguing for socialism. These are arguments that have faded from the public arena as if generations of intellectual and political history never happened. ‘The Twentieth Century was a brief interval of madness. Progress and prosperity have returned.’ As if.

As ever, it is the casual and apparently incidental that suggests how things really are going. My local Waitrose [patronised by many affluent suburbanites] has begun to sell far more copies of The Guardian. My local Sainsbury [patronised by many university students] now sells quite a few copies of The Morning Star. The public mood is shifting. On many issues Jeremy Corbyn is in accord with public feeling. This is especially true of the young. A commitment has been reawakened. If denied a voice now by some shabby manoeuvres those radical energies will turn to wild justice.

Yet there are plenty of commentators in denial. The probability is that they are painting themselves into a corner. The current mood in the Labour party is very likely moving with the grain of history. It can present its case honestly without the subterfuge, sentimentality and downright thuggery of the New Labour years. The true heirs of Wilson and Bevan are taking their place at the table. The failed ‘modernisers’ are slouching towards Yorktown.


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