Who’s afraid of Jeremy Corbyn?

Labour's right is discovering fast that the past doesn't always stay there.

Rory Scothorne
4 August 2015

“Let’s just step back for a second. My calendar says Thursday, 30 July, 2015. That’s 2015. Not 1915. Or 1815. Or 1983. And Jeremy Corbyn is currently favourite to be Labour leader…”

        Dan Hodges, The Telegraph (2015)

“The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”
Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)

In the latest issue of Prospect magazine, John Harris writes that “unless centre-left parties can root their ideas in society once more, [their] arguments will increasingly sound like the schisms of increasingly irrelevant sects.” Harris echoes the concerns of many on the British centre-left, who see the Labour party stuck in what Martin Kettle calls “a misconceived purity v power mindset”, torn between principled irrelevance and electable pragmatism as its leadership contest hurtles towards its conclusion in September. With the “hard left” Jeremy Corbyn firmly in the lead, and Labour’s right-wingers grumbling about a coup in the event of his victory, there seems to be little hope for those who would like to see the centre-left focusing on winning back lost support.

Harris looks to left-wing history and extra-parliamentary politics to find explanations and solutions, pointing to the efforts of the Eurocommunists who helped Tony Blair “modernise” Labour, or the grassroots activism in Greece and Spain which is propelling new left parties into serious electoral competition. But the trouble with this, he suggests, is that “the breach between the new world of activism and organisation and the traditional centre left will last a long time… Society and politics are now so fragmented that the centre left’s old blueprint for winning power is in danger of irrelevance.”

This kind of totalising historical analysis is in vogue right now; Paul Mason thinks we’re living through “the end of capitalism”, with the rise of information technology and networked society making it harder for the rich to profit from the new forms of value-creation, and offering new opportunities for political action and organisation. “The crisis” - of the economy, of politics, of society, whatever - is increasingly being seen as an epochal one, and as those in the centre of politics discover the edges of history, they are attributing everything that scares, confuses or even quietly excites them to various immense societal forces that sit conveniently outside of their control. In their eyes, the failure of social democrats to regain trust and popularity is the result of structural conditions that social democrats are woefully under-prepared for. Big changes are clearly needed.

But Jeremy Corbyn, who undeniably offers the biggest change to Labour’s politics of all the leadership candidates, is being hurriedly dismissed as a possible solution by all but a select few commentators. One such Corbyn-sceptic is Neal Lawson of the Compass think-tank, who writes that “as the new times of a networked society and the sharing economy kick in, it is the politics of the soft left that can help the country navigate this challenging and potentially exciting terrain.” But for Lawson, the “soft left” is dangerously fragmented, its usual recruits hidden away in various think-tanks, magazines and lobby groups, generally outside or on the edge of the Labour Party with no obvious mainstream political figure or programme to unite them. The big scary forces of history are chuntering on regardless, and the various spokespeople of the “soft left” have decided - to their general horror - that those best-placed to navigate the new rapids are those who were until very recently missing, presumed dead.

The most obvious result of Corbyn’s success, which pits supposedly “electable” moderates against “principled” radicals, has been the crushing of any space between centre and left that would have allowed the ideal of a “soft left” to remain plausible. The increasingly frantic responses of Labour’s professional advice-givers suggest a real sense of fear amongst the centre-left that whatever grip they had on the party has been lost, at least for the moment - The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Martin Kettle and Andrew Rawnsley, and the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr have all penned explicitly anti-Corbyn polemics in the past two weeks.

Are these people really part of a “soft” (and thereby acceptable) left at all? What does their opposition to Corbyn actually entail? It can hardly be based on centre-left principle: Corbyn’s economic policy, for instance, is mainstream Keynesianism. What these people are suggesting is nothing less than total accommodation with the right-wing idea that most people want austerity - worse services, lower incomes, less job security, an upwards redistribution of power and wealth - and that they cannot be persuaded otherwise. But their appeal to this twisted form of unreason is going unheeded because there can be no credible “soft” left in the current political climate. The actual, practical outcome of the anti-Corbyn position is a politically incompetent acceptance of the idea that - for reasons supposedly outside our control - the Labour party simply cannot stand up for the interests of the people it is supposed to represent. At best, it’s the left wing of Blairism.

Usually so confident in their diagnoses and prescriptions, the arguments of those who now make up the anti-Corbyn camp are pervaded by a sense of helplessness, and an implicit acknowledgement that the centre is always first to crumble in crisis or defeat. Lawson writes that “the soft left wanted a dialogue and future that would be negotiated, not imposed. But the hard men of the left and right could always outmanoeuvre them, and they did.”

With the hard men (and women) of the right either in the Tory party where they belong, or hopelessly trailing in the leadership race, that leaves the political initiative in Labour with the old spectre itself: the “established Hard Left networks” described by Luke Akehurst, a hardened activist of the Labour right, in his particularly glum assessment of the forces behind Corbyn’s popularity. “The infrastructure of the Labour left is well-developed,” Akehurst writes, “and has proved surprisingly resilient and capable of winning internal party elections during the Blair and Brown years… They have mailing lists, conferences, key contacts in almost every CLP [Constituency Labour Party] used to proposing candidates in nomination meetings.”

Akehurst sounds frightened, and the picture that emerges from the already-vast literature on the Corbyn surge is indeed a frightening one. Rawnsley calls it “a nightmarish revival of demons that almost murdered Labour as a party of government.” In openDemocracy, Gerry Hassan says that Labour have “embraced the politics of the living dead,” while Tony Blair’s former special adviser Darren Murphy has described the party as a “suicide cult”. Zombies, demons, suicide; the future hangs ominously over the party’s head, and things it thought were long dead are clambering out of shallow graves to grasp at the ankles of the party’s petrified establishment.

There is a general atmosphere of unreality to the whole thing, an open-mouthed astonishment that Labour’s newest problem might still be the pernicious influence of uncompromising radicals. To the centre and the right of the party, the re-emergence of the left is horrifying because it goes against their entire understanding of history. Labour’s moderates, part of a long liberal-Labour tradition stretching from the Webbs, through Keynes and Crosland, all the way up to Ed Miliband, have always believed that the battles of the past, once won, would stay there. For these people the overwhelming priority has always been to come to terms with present “realities”: an unchanging, homogenous “electorate”, an unfathomable and dictatorial “global economy”, austerity and so on.

The things that these “realities” are supposed to have destroyed - class politics, nationalism, socialism - are treated as anachronisms, their rare re-emergence discounted as an atavistic, emotional reaction doomed to failure. Rafael Behr discusses Scottish nationalism or the Corbyn campaign with a disdain that betrays a fundamentally tyrannical understanding of historical change as something which should be obeyed - “progress” as something imposed, not chosen. The socialist tradition, which sees progress as a human creation that requires rational, democratic control, is entirely absent from this attitude, and the red flag is replaced with a white one. It is the politics of retreat.

The retreat is all the more destructive for the fact that the generals at its head don’t know it is happening. Two lethal fault-lines run through the social democratic tradition: one is the profound complacency that accompanies every step forward, and the other the sense of helplessness which descends on every defeat. When Labour is in power, it can do impressive things, but it has always been convinced that parliament is the primary site of political power. Every policy success has been treated as secure so long as Labour remains “electable”, and every loss has been treated as inevitable and irreversible. Little thought is given to those forces outside of parliament, in company headquarters, international institutions and the shadier corners of the civil service, that might be trying to reverse any challenge to their own power by redefining the terms of “electability”, altering the economic conditions under which their opponents try to govern, and so on.

When the gains of 1945 were being dismantled in the 1980s by a ruling class with whom Labour’s moderate leadership had always tried to compromise, the left of the party - who had always seen the rich for what they really were - were being instructed to adapt to the “new times” or face oblivion. Today, as even the modest gains of New Labour - rebuilt public services, tax credits, sure start - are stripped away by a government blatantly representing the very richest, the left are told once again to get with the programme and abstain, offer “reasoned amendments”, and try to swim with the tide.

The Labour left has always been aware that real political power begins and ends in the workplace and on the street, even if it might need to pass through parliament on the way. To secure any future gains of the labour movement against the kind of destruction that is happening today, the forces that would reverse them need to be dealt with permanently. This requires much more than a few principled MPs and cabinet members; it requires massive popular education, organisation and action. Can Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper inspire anything approaching that? Do they even want to? It is not youthful or ageing idealism but a determined, long-term strategic mindset which is animating Corbyn’s campaign, and reanimating an idea that many in the party thought was dead and buried.  

For a glimpse at that spirit underpinning Corbyn’s surge - undead, demonic, unshakeable, against all the odds and the warnings - we could look to the final recorded words of the German Communist Party’s Rosa Luxemburg, written shortly before she was shot and dumped in a canal by a proto-fascist death squad under the instruction of a social democratic government: I was, I am, I shall be!

Her point was that the opponents of socialism might occasionally push us out of sight, expel us from the party, even shoot us off the face of the earth - but so long as capitalism exists, so too will the “hard left”, infesting any country and any party where the working class has a foothold. We’re an old force, defeated more than once, and the hacks, the careerists, the cynics and the technocrats are all correct, in a way: we are the living dead. The centre-left’s retreating generals can condemn our mutiny all they like, but we survived the firing squad and we know who gave the order. They’ll never be rid of us. One day we might be rid of them.

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