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These are early days for the newly-elected Labour leadership. But for the mainstream political culture there is the sense of an ending, although no-one is sure if the end is near for Corbyn or for the mainstream. Predicting that ‘he won’t last a week’, as a Newsnight discussion mused, was wishful-thinking that couldn’t find the semblance of a serious guise. Not every commentary was so misdirected, but many were the furrowed brows and hurried gasps as haunted faces tried to maintain composure as the reality penetrated the carapace of sophisticated assuredness. The general mood was not of disappointment and anger, but of bewilderment and grief. The tumbrils were beginning to roll. The impossible had taken place. It was not supposed to be like that.
It was supposed to be welfare liberalism, a free market tempered by social concern. It was to be the best of both worlds, the workable compromise between capital and labour that could ensure continuity and progress without a single contradiction threatening to invalidate the enterprise.
The reality was that tens of thousands of Labour supporters had voted for an unequivocal way forward to a radical agenda. By the end of the week Newsnight was respectfully interviewing the editor of The Morning Star, an event unexceptional in content but undeniably significant of an acceptance, however reluctant, however confused. Some accommodation would have to be made with the new energy at work. This was a fact that, however unpalatable, the political mainstream could not ignore, cajole, deny, ridicule, or smear into oblivion. Some accusations were essayed but all could be dismissed either as counter-factual, or silly, or within the realm of pardonable error. If the left are dreamers, the reality is that they’ve woken up.
Those who now find themselves at odds with the Labour leadership will need more substantial argument than sentimental appeals to Labour values and lachrymose testimonies to their love of the Labour Party. The memories of the retreat from a co-operative and collective programme tarnish a failed generation of compromisers who thought theirs was the only perception worth having. A wall of delusion has been torn down at last.
Informed, concerned people are tired of the prospect of unending austerity. They are tired of the relentless cycle of economic downturn every few years. They are tired of sensible, measured, realistic answers to problems that require a drastic overhaul of the nature and purpose of our political economy and our entire political culture. Whether Corbyn is a leader or a catalyst, his victory is about the popular will rather than one amiable but untested idealist unexpectedly propelled into a position of command. It isn’t a talent contest. It’s an expression of a democratic tide that has shaken the élite in a way none of us have seen in our lifetimes.
There are a few straws in the wind of an acceptance of the change. This goes well beyond politics and into the general public realm. An established way of thinking was sliding out of reach. It was not entirely coincidence that in the week of Corbyn’s victory Ian Hislop explained his motive for not signing a declaration of support for the BBC. Hislop, who has wit in both senses, recognised that the public was likely to feel that his signature would be support not for ‘a cultural institution’ but for his income and advantage. There is a democratic spirit at work through society. It is not going to tolerate elitist hauteur any more than it will tolerate poverty and despair.
There will be those who cannot accept their influence is no longer a currency of value. They will not debate openly for fear of losing. But they will plot. For the fear is always of betrayals and hypocrisies exposed. The fear is of the tables being turned and that they will be the baristas while emerging talent will be welcomed to the platform. The fear we are witnessing uneasily resembles the charlatan’s fear of being found out.
These are for the most part needless fears. So far, the new Labour leadership has advocated some limited areas of public ownership and an economic strategy subject to the parameters of credibility. Given the level of serious doubt about current government policies, the likelihood is that financial institutions may be open to negotiation and persuasion. The prospect of a handshake between Jeremy Corbyn and Mark Carney will signal not apocalypse, but a social agenda for the Twenty-first Century. The Labour government of 2020 will be in a downturn for which there is inadequate social protection.
If this new Labour venture fails to secure a governing mandate the prospect is not prosperity and progress but social decay as an impoverished and demoralised nation slides into underdevelopment with grass growing on the abandoned rail tracks, and mobs storming the empty mansions.
A government intent on reducing the entire Labour movement to a powerless irrelevance requires neither compromise nor moderation. The answer has to be radical because the hour demands it. Concessions to the free market have proved to be not a winning pragmatism, but a collapse into what were the discredited, marginal values of the authoritarian right. Their global orthodoxy must chill the soul of anyone who knows where such values lead.
This century has proved to be a nightmare. Public discourse is trivialized. Culture is vulgarized. Social welfare is marketized. Education is reduced to training schemes. There is popular resistance, but in England [and I do mean England] it has only now come close to serious political realization.
But the reality is that the response has spoken urgently and vociferously. The newly-elected Labour leadership is a fact, a reality. Dissentients who speak of realism actually speak wishful thoughts. If they cannot offer a contribution they must withdraw graciously from the scene. And there they may consider why conspicuous waste and complacent assumptions are out of touch with a world in search of a security that money cannot buy and business cannot sell.