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Labour leadership election


August 8 2015


What does the Labour leadership election tell us about the state of British politics?

1) Corbyn is currently ahead

The opinion polls, bookies, the turnout at public meetings, the anecdotal evidence from phone canvassers and the analysis of the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush after his lengthy conversations with key activists across the country could individually be dismissed. But the fact that they all point in the same direction implies something powerful. It seems reasonably safe now to say that Jeremy Corbyn is currently ahead in the race for Labour leader.

2) It’s not just the radical left voting for him

A month or so ago, I met up with an old university friend. He’d been involved in the students’ union a bit, which was how I met him. But largely, he was, and still is, a theatrical sort. His politics at the union were always a bit of a bellwether for me: on the left, environmentalist, kind, but never what I’d call radical: from the left, but not in a left bubble. Since university, he’s joined the Labour party, and I was a little surprised when he told me that he’d be voting for Jeremy Corbyn – more out of despair than enthusiasm.

I mention this because my impression is that it’s typical. The MP for Islington North is doing better than expected not just because the radical left is strong, though that’s true too, but because the soft left, which Jeremy Gilbert and Neal Lawson have both well described, seems to have given him its tentative backing – for the moment.

3) Being ahead at the moment doesn’t mean that Corbyn will win. 

I can well believe that my friend will end up wavering, and stumping for one of the others – because of Corbyn’s hesitant support for the EU, or fears about electability, or because one of the other candidates does something, anything, to inspire him. Or something.

More importantly, the Labour establishment will be doing everything they can to stop Jezmania. We can expect more and more attack stories, shriller and shriller denunciations, etc.

4) If they can’t stop Corbyn, there’s no way they could have beaten the Tories

Internal elections in political parties are a chance for candidates to flex their muscles – to show how good they are at fighting election campaigns. Corbyn’s success is in part built on the fact that the other three candidates look like they’d be incapable of inspiring a rabbit into its own warren. The reaction so far of the party establishment – most iconically wheeling out Tony Blair – seems practically designed to drive the membership into Corbyn’s arms.

It may well be that they turn this around. But it may well be that they don’t. And if they aren’t able to, then that tells us something significant: the Labour party establishment is so moribund, so wilted, and so stuck in the Nineties that there is absolutely no way they will be able to beat the Tories in 2020. In other words, if Corbyn wins, it won’t be that which will make Labour unelectable – it’s a sign that they were incapable of winning an election.

5) The poor centrist candidates are a product of the gutting of Labour

In 1997, Tony Banks joked:

“Do you ever get that scary feeling that there’s more than one Peter Mandelson? What are they really doing in Millbank Tower? They tell us it’s a communications centre. Well, I reckon they’re making Mandelsons up there and getting ready to store them in that Millennium Dome in Greenwich. When the clock strikes midnight on 31 December 1999, millions of Mandelsons will emerge from the Dome and civilisation as we know it will be at an end.”

This was as much satire as surrealism. Mandleson had got a firm grip of the Labour selection process, and ensured that a very particular type of person was chosen to be an MP; so often people who would do what they were told, who had the uncanny ability to repeat the exact lines given to them by the HQ.

The aim was, in part, that none would provide a challenge to Blair and Brown, that there would be no troublemakers. The result was that when the New Labour leadership got old, there was no one able to take over. Burnham, Kendall and Cooper are all products of this process. Let’s face it. All look like they’re on a training programme for middle managers not quite ready for promotion. Each has their own qualities, but the fact that these have largely been overlooked is telling: whatever “it” is, they don’t have it.

This is a story which is perhaps most easily told through a single person – Tommy Shepherd. Before Mhairi Black’s maiden speech eclipsed all others, it was Shepherd’s which had got the most attention, with his name trending on twitter for the following hours. The speech was moving, charismatic and thoughtful.

None of this was any surprise to anyone familiar with Scottish politics – for years, Tommy Shepherd was a prominent figure both in the Scottish Labour Party, and as founder of the Stand Comedy Club, a hub of the Edinburgh festival. For years, Labour refused to select him, for fear that he wouldn’t always toe the line, wouldn’t always follow the leader. Eventually, Tommy, having been persuaded of the case for independence, joined the SNP, and almost immediately became one of its more prominent MPs.

The problem for the party’s centre now, then, is that after keeping out anyone with their own ideas, with their own sense of direction, the resultant generation of very capable followers and superb middle managers has come of age, they are left with no leader to follow. One simple reason that Corbyn is ahead is that none of the other candidates look like winners either. If Labour’s going to be in opposition anyway, many members seem to feel, it may as well actually oppose.

6) The radical left has taken a party turn

I have lots of friends who, a year ago, would swear that they would never join a party – radical, active, but not through such formal or hierarchical structures. In the last six months, lots of these people have signed up to two – the Greens during the surge, and now Labour, to vote for Corbyn.

For me, this willingness to engage with structures is a positive shift; showing a desire to take and redistribute hard power, as well as confronting it. Others disagree. But either way, it’s notable.

7) Party membership doesn’t mean what it used to

In an age where political sorts get emails from 38 Degrees, Avaaz, and Greenpeace; endless notifications on Facebook from a plethora of groups and pages and where the only contact they have from their trade union – if they’ve bothered to join one – is the occasional text asking them their opinion in some absurd survey, what does it mean to ‘join’ a political party?

When I first signed up as a Green in 2001, it meant joining a family, a team, picking a side and sticking with it. A small group of us met up each month in a dingy meeting room in a run down hotel in Perth and had carefully minuted discussions about selection procedures, or consultations on landfill sites, or whatever. I imagine many of us didn’t even have an email address at that point.

Today, just as less and less extra-party political activity consists of going to minuted Wednesday evening meetings, I suspect that most Green members interact through email lists and discussions on Facebook threads. Why can’t someone who said that they ‘like’ the Green Party five months ago now click a couple of buttons, sign up as a Labour supporter, and vote for the leader? In the age of OKCupid, political polyamory is entirely plausible. It seems to me that modern parties will only thrive if they embrace this shift.

8) Electability is about more than policy popularity

There has been a significant debate about whether Jeremy Corbyn is electable. Strangely, both the left and right of the Labour party seem to have decided that the views of the public happen to coincide with their own; every side argues that their candidate is the one saying what voters want to hear.

All can cite some reasonable evidence. The left can cite the figures from polls on issues like the nationalisation of, well, pretty much all the things. The right can talk about attitudes on things like immigration.

Both, though, seem to miss the important point. Elections are as much about institutional support as they are about policy popularity. After all, if popular left wing policies were enough to win elections, Natalie Bennett would be Prime Minister.

Those on the left who point out that the SNP ran on an anti-austerity pro-immigrant ticket and swept the board need to acknowledge that they did so both on the crest of a wave of a vast social movement unleashed by the referendum, and from the pulpit of the Scottish government (though, of course, that means they had got into government in the first place).

The pertinent question isn’t about the popularity of Corbyn’s policies, or how relatively right or left they are or aren’t. It’s whether the pro-democratic institutions in Britain are ready for an all out assault on the British state or not. If the Miliband defeat teaches us anything, it’s that Labour leaders can’t win by on the one hand trying to rally the troops for an assault on the establishment and on the other trying to calm the nerves of that same establishment. If the Blair years teach us anything, it’s that there’s little point in a Labour government which doesn’t try to redistribute power.

Any brief assessment of the institutional power of the left in Britain – shattered unions, weak parties, co-opted NGOs, low levels of social solidarity – implies that an assault on the establishment will struggle. But…

9) Maybe it’s about building that movement

As Jeremy Gilbert points out in his excellent piece here on oD, it may be that the most sensible strategy for the left in Britain is to invest in building up this movement. After-all, as he points out, tacking to the right after 1983 failed to win Labour the 1987 and 1992 elections.

Blairism did, though, allow the dismantling of the institutions of power of the left, apart, arguably, from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Maybe the prerequisite to replacing neoliberalism with democracy in the UK is building those institutions anew. And it might well be that this will take 20 years. But at least that will lead us to a new place, where Labour’s strategy over the last 20 years just took us back to square one.

10) That means Corbyn embracing pluralism

If that’s the point of voting for Corbyn, then it means he needs to acknowledge the pluralism of modern social movement politics. Will he? We’ll be interviewing him here on oD in a couple of weeks’ time. We’ll do our best to find out.

11) It’ll be Cooper or Corbyn

Burnham seems to have peaked prematurely, and got all of the flack for the equivication around the welfare reform vote. Cooper has very nearly caught him in constituency nominations and, I suspect, has a couple of rabbits up her sleeve. If anyone’s going to beat Corbyn (which is looking less and less likely) I reckon it’ll be her.

12) Why do both sides insist on living in the past?

This isn’t 1945. It isn’t 1964. It isn’t 1974. It isn’t 1983. And it isn’t 1992. There are, of course, lessons to be learnt from each of those elections, but if that’s your game, please stop cherry picking. If you think 1983 shows that Labour can’t win on a left wing manifesto, then you have to explain why Labour did so much better in October 1974 than it did in 1987. If you’re going to call Labour’s ’83 manifesto “the longest suicide note in history” then don’t forget that the MP you’re quoting broke the Labour whip for what is believed to be the first time in his 45 year career to vote against the Welfare Reform Bill.

On the day of the 1992 General Election, the world-wide-web had just had its first birthday, Shakespears Sister were at number one, the Berlin Wall hadn’t yet been fully dismantled and the World Trade Organisation wouldn’t be founded for three years. Around 12% of voters in 2020 hadn’t been born yet, and by the next election, a third of us won’t be old enough to have voted in 1992.

Since 1992, the Western world has been through the biggest economic boom in decades and then the biggest collapse since the dawn of industrial civilisation, trade union membership has collapsed yet people have become more connected than ever through new technologies. Jobs in factories have vanished. In the 1991 census, 94.1% of people in Britain identified as white. By 2011, this had fallen to 86.1%. By 2020, we can expect it to have fallen further.

I could tell a similar story about the 1983 election: fought in the midst of the Cold War, before the invention of the CD ROM and only a decade after the oil-shocks shook the social democratic consensus across the world; James Hansen hadn’t yet given his famous evidence to the US Congress revealing the dangers of climate change and Brunei hadn’t yet become independent from the UK. There are certainly things to learn from it, but if you think that 2020 is going to be 1983, you’ve not been paying attention for the last 32 years.

And if we want to learn from political history, then we’re surely better going back to the years after previous economic collapses: the Long Depression from 1873-79 saw the first candidates emerge from the groupings which would form the Labour party. Let’s hope that we manage to avoid the events of the 1930s.

The Labour centre and right endlessly accuse Jeremy Corbyn of harking back to the past – which in itself may in part be true. But in doing so, they reveal an obsession with 1983 and 1992 which show how much they live in carefully chosen moments of history, how unwilling they have been to grapple with the rapidly changing modern world.

13) We’re not in Kansas anymore

The cut in Jeremy Corbyn’s odds are said to be one of the biggest in British political history. Add that to the SNP surge, and the traditional rules of politics are clearly breaking down. Exactly how that will play out in the next five years, who knows. It’ll be an interesting journey.

Originally published by Open Democracy 

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