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The only way to purge Labour’s morbid symptoms: vote for Jeremy Corbyn

“For someone who did not yet realise that This Always Happens, who still didn't know what was normal… it made it worse that, on the day, there was really no alternative.”

Ian K. Ellard
31 August 2016
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Corbyn in Coventry, August 2015.Flickr/Ciaran Norris. Some rights reserved.Why have I voted for Jeremy Corbyn again this year? Why do I think you should do the same?

Because we want the new.

I think that’s as short as I can get it.

The longer explanation starts in 2008. Sir Tom McKillop, the chairman of RBS, calls up Alistair Darling. They’ve got two or three hours of cash left. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ says McKillop.

I was a bit of a rube at the time, a year out of university, just back from travelling. I didn’t know anything about Keynes, about collateralised debt obligations, about the Montpelerin Society. I didn’t know what was normal. But that idea, the chairman of a bank calls up the chancellor of a country, tells him yes, I’ve been using planks from the hull to keep the pizza ovens lit on the messdeck, but what the hell are you going to do about all this water? That stuck with me.

In the end Darling promised £500bn to stuff the holes and mend the sails then borrowed £20bn to buy more wind. He put up the top rate of tax to pay for it and proposed a six-year public sector spending squeeze, from 1.9% growth year-on-year to 1.2%. He also cut VAT to mitigate the impact on the poorest.

We don’t know what would have happened to the economy if Darling hadn’t stood the banks, but we do know what happened to politics because he did. Shadow chancellor George Osborne pegged the global financial crisis on Labour’s traditional profligacy –  ‘sooner or later,’ he said in November 2008, ‘Labour chancellors always run out of money’ – and Labour were turfed out, leaving the way clear for the ‘long term economic plan’, a programme that ruthlessly and unswervingly blamed this structural crisis of capitalism on public spending.

Until 2008, I thought ‘austerity’ was something you only went through after wars.

Disability benefits and maintenance grants were slashed; public sector pay was frozen indefinitely; cuts to legal aid meant if your son died in prison, you had to fund the inquest yourself; tuition fees rose to £9000, dramatically shifting the burden of further education from state to student*; local government cuts closed libraries and threatened adult social care, as well as choking off any public way of meeting the housing crisis; meanwhile corporation tax was cut and VAT was jacked back up.

Each of these policies hurt people. The cumulative effect has been one of blood-bringing violence, made all the more vicious for being built on a lie: Labour had broken the system with its naughty greed. And now Father was to bring the house back into order. No more biscuits or they’ll come to take away the telly. Never mind the epochal salaries and parachutes for banking executives. Never mind the eye-watering cash reserves of private companies sat untaxed in the middle of the ocean. No. Poor people broke the system; poor people should pay to fix it.

But lies are not airplants: they do not root without a substrate. George Osborne was able to frame the Labour Party as a spendthrift housewife in need of a bit of firm paternalism precisely because Labour endorsed the image of the nation as a household, whose aim should be balancing the budget, quietly accepting its weekly allowance from the private sector to be cashed once all the red tape-dusting has been done. And in the run-up to the 2015 election we  – Labour that is – did nothing to challenge that image. We quietly endorsed cuts – as well as quietly blaming immigration – and then stood back slack-jawed as the people made their feelings clear: if you’re telling me the choice is the devil’s cuts or yours, I’ll stick with what I know, thanks.

For someone who did not yet realise that This Always Happens, who still didn't know what was normal, it was dysphoria-inducing to watch Osborne’s Tories wield an emergency bailout of global capitalism for ideological state-cincture. But it made it worse that, on the day, there was really no alternative.

When Jeremy Corbyn squeaked onto the ballot paper in June 2015, it was thanks to nominations from MPs who felt there should be a ‘broader debate’. It was a measure of how the party really felt about democracy, about what a political party is for: MPs knew that what Corbyn represented had long been repressed, and they felt it was only right to let him out for a little turn about the pleasure gardens. But things had changed around them: Corbyn’s plain, untrained manner and his simple message of anti-austerity were playing rather well. They quickly realised their mistake. ‘I do think [it] will be healthy for the party to thrash out this dialogue about austerity or not austerity,’ Margaret Beckett told the BBC’s ‘World at One’. ‘That was the reason I gave him the nomination, but yes I am beginning to wonder; I’m beginning to wish that I hadn’t, I’ll be quite honest about it.’

John McTernan appeared on Newsnight after the first poll showed Corbyn ahead. ‘The moronic MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn to “have a debate” need their heads felt,’ he said. ‘They should be ashamed of themselves. They’re morons.’ Momentum built.

And if McTernan did his cause no favours, Tony Blair made things worse: ‘When people say “my heart says I should be with that politics”,’ he said, ‘Well, get a transplant.’

McTernan and Blair talked as though they alone understood history, but here was a geography teacher giving them a kicking. It was thrilling.

In the Prison Notebooks Gramsci talks about the critical rift between elite and popular opinions after the First World War. ‘The crisis’, he writes, ‘consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’

The change comes, says Gramsci, when people are shown the incontrovertible truth of injustice around them – people become materialists because they don’t have a choice. The material is everywhere.

The Great Recession and its austerity laid bare the degree to which the powerful were prepared to hurt the poor in order to protect – not to say deepen – neoliberal capitalism. What I didn’t know in 2008, when Tom McKillop called up Alistair Darling and said words to the effect of ‘I gambled, I lost, now the people have got to pay’, was just how normal he was being. No one was there to challenge the premise that capital should be allowed to maraud around the world lighting fires, warming its hands, leaving labour to shovel the ash.

I voted for Jeremy Corbyn again this year not because I think he’ll solve the crisis but exactly because I believe he is the crisis. I believe we’re in the interregnum between neoliberalism and whatever comes next; I believe what happened on the Sunday after the EU referendum was a very grave symptom of the struggle to bear out the new; and I believe the Labour Party should be delighted, invigorated, to be going through what we are going through.

See, to people like me – born under Thatcher, politically activated by austerity – to hear someone say out loud that essential non-fungible goods like train travel and energy provision should be run by the state, with an accountable minister rather than layers of corporate governance, that is genuinely, actually, honestly, exciting.  And not just because I think it will be cheaper and better to do so.

Because the way I see it, ‘Corbynism’ is a project of radical empowerment across all strata of society – and as such I think it could easily be taken outside the traditional left-right divides, looking to the new. Yes, renationalising key services brings them onto the public budget sheet, but it also brings them within the public purview, under the remit of a sackable public servant. Public power. Public pride. You could go so far as to call it patriotic.

A major house-building programme, a million new homes, half of them dedicated to social housing, driving down the housing benefit bill and giving world-class British designers and contractors the chance to show what they’re really made of. That’s support for British businesses.

Open-sourcing government IT projects? See how the state shoulders development risk for British tech entrepreneurs! How empowering!

But for now where we see this principle of radical empowerment most plainly proposed – and challenged – is within the party itself: Corbyn’s crunching victory in 2015 not only relied upon the empowerment of ordinary members, it also empowered new ones. People previously without a party got involved in their thousands. The Labour Party is now a genuine mass party of the left, the biggest in Europe, a huge opportunity for change at a deep cultural level. But from their day-one resignations from the front bench ten months ago to their hourly hari-kari on June 26th, MPs who delivered their party into opposition at the last election have shown themselves wilfully to have missed that opportunity.

The old has died, but the new cannot be born.

In his notebooks, Gramsci follows his diagnosis of crisis with two questions he never answers: ‘Can a rift,’ he asks, ‘between popular masses and ruling ideologies be ‘cured’ by the simple exercise of force, preventing the new ideologies from imposing themselves? Will the interregnum, the crisis whose historically normal solution is blocked in this way, necessarily resolve in favour of a restoration of the old?’

Critics of Jeremy Corbyn like to call him ‘unelectable’ – indeed it has been the sole tenet of Owen Smith’s leadership campaign. The problem is, it’s a little like throwing a water balloon full of passata at a man then criticising him for being ‘far too tomatoey’: any right-hearted observer has you down for a grandstanding bully. What’s more, in trying to unseat an elected leader first by force, then by arguing his unelectability, Smith and the PLP have clearly illuminated a rift between the masses and the so-called ruling.

Gramsci left his questions unanswered. Maybe the popular masses can be kept at bay; maybe the interregnum will resolve in some other way. But I believe that as progressives we have a duty to push for new ideas against the simple exercise of force. An affordable home, free university tuition and cheaper travel on an integrated public transport network are not unelectable ideas – they are just not normal ideas. For now. With the support of his party, and a whole lot of midwifery, Jeremy Corbyn can bear out the new.

* Here’s something neat: my tuition fees were £1000 a year. My little sister’s were £3000. My little brother’s? When he starts in a few weeks he’ll be paying £9000 a year. There are twelve years between us.

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