The Corbyn After-Effect

Corbyn LOL

Win he did. And how. Although the petty vindictiveness of the #LabourPurge was real, it wasn’t enough to materially affect the result, and has arguably strengthened Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate. Even as dodgy expulsions and dodgier retentions sour the taste, nobody can claim that the Labour elite were too lax in their efforts to hobble him. For those who have felt blackmailed and maligned by New Labour and its outriders this past decade or two, the moment of joyful disbelief is to be relished. A social democrat as leader of the Labour Party! What a notion. Negative solidarity is giving way to a new structure of feeling, not just resisting but asserting positively the horizon of a more egalitarian, less parochial politics. It was fitting that Corbyn’s ascent took place on the same day as the major London march in defence of refugees, and that he moved amongst us.

The euphoria won’t last, is indeed already muted, tempting us to get our disappointment in early. Whilst threats of an immediate coup have been withdrawn in the face of Corbyn’s real popularity (his real electability), the shit will now be thrown from within and without. Some of it may even amount to legitimate, informed criticism. There are, say, reasons to doubt the specifics of People’s Quantitative Easing, if not the sentiment. Certainly, a credible anti-austerity economics must mean more than just opposing whatever new cuts the Tories conjure up. The much-cited £93 billion in corporate giveaways, whilst properly understood as massive taxpayer welfare to organisations that in many cases do all they can to avoid tax, simply cannot be recaptured in one fell swoop. The economy, we might venture, has become too dependent on socialism-for-the-rich for it to survive in anything like this form were the debts to be called in.

Against political common-compass-sense, some polls show that UKIP defectors would prefer a more radical leftist Labour party. But this is very unlikely to be the case on the ur-trigger issue of immigration, and may well fade quickly in the wake of a right-wing press assault.[1] Clearly Corbyn is best placed to poach votes from the SNP, but he is pushing against their momentum, which could leave him losing votes in England in proportion to those he wins back in Scotland, but without quite turning it into many new MPs. That’s if Scotland is even sending MPs to Westminster come 2020. It will not do to rely on opposition to the war in Iraq as your foreign policy short-hand. There has already been some backtracking on NATO, but, as a friend commented, it will be hard to present a moral objection to nukes while putting a nuclear-powered collective security pact at the heart of Labour’s defence strategy.[2] The practicalities of party organisation will indeed be a great challenge, maybe even nightmarish. It is easy to dismiss warning of that given much effluent on the mystical qualities of ‘strong leadership’ we are being subjected to, but that doesn’t mean the warning is without merit.

Corbyn - Throne of Turds

Most of the anti-Corbyn platform is, of course, cretinous. There was never a defence of Osama Bin Laden. There was never a plan to reintroduce Clause Four. There was never a pledge of gender-segregated train carriages (think on the kind of journalist, indeed any person of middling intellect, who would choose to append ‘segregation’ to that story). There is no plan to subsume the Bank of England under Prime Ministerial command. There is no deficit denial. The crass smears (“Hamas lover”) are evidence of panic, which isn’t to say that they won’t bite when repeated, as they will be. Meanwhile, the position of ‘reasonable’ political elites is chronically relaxed about the atrocities of official friends (most recently those of Saudi Arabia, who remain the major recipient of our arms largesse, in Yemen).

Corbyn’s critics are much vexed by his view that NATO is behind the Ukraine crisis and Russia blameless (which is not, and you will be forgiven for seeing a pattern here, quite what he wrote). Interestingly for IR wags, this is in any case the kind of infantile leftism that places him on the same side of the debate as one John J. Mearsheimer, writing in that obscure Trotskyist organ Foreign Affairs. Now, agreeing with Mearsheimer doesn’t make you right, but then disagreeing with the political rhetoric of NATO doesn’t make you wrong. In fact, given the malleability of ‘national interest’, and the various disappointments of UK foreign policy, taking against settled positions may even be good for Britain in the narrow terms of ‘mature government’.

For all this, there is no point in an analysis of Jacorbynite chances in a general election.[3] Not because the argument has been sown up by critics, but because he will not survive that long. Heads down for now, MPs await their moment. The likes of Tristram Hunt (who once crossed a picket line to give a lecture on Marx) and Chuka Umunna style themselves as a ‘resistance’ movement, but have all the political courage of the quisling. They are transparently loyal to their own success, and so turned easily to undermining the greatest populist investment in Labour in a generation. They intend to follow a Continuity New Labour strategy, appropriating as they go. John Rentoul (him again) has endorsed ‘neo-socialism’ as the label for their insurgency, apparently oblivious that it has as horrible connotations as ‘Third Way’ (h/t). If the new rebels have stayed their hands, it is only because they have recalled, rather too late for the performance of unity to be convincing, that he who wields the knife rarely goes on to wield the crown.

The hysteria of anti-Corbynism is animated by marginal seats and the mood of the party’s benefactors. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and advisors do not believe that our political scene can tolerate a candidate not backed by some section or coalition of ruling interests. No matter how cogent or apparently popular your vision, it will not survive the slings and arrows of mass media attacks, withdrawal of donor funding, manoeuvring by the government, and open rebellion from those sharing your benches. Jacorbynism must rely instead on what James Meadway calls “the essence of populism”: repeatedly making it clear who will win and who will lose from what Labour proposes, and riding that conviction. It is unlikely to be enough.

The question instead is how long Corbyn will last. If the left can flourish now, in its moment, the return of the Blairite repressed will be postponed. Strong performances on trade union busting and the refugee crisis will help. If there is a crash soon, as some reasonably predict on the basis of the UK’s still inflated finance dependency, the PLP will be glad to have a leader not utterly complicit in austerity fetishism (less a matter of “simple economics” than simpleton economics). Viewed from here and now, the inability of Continuity New Labour to countenance new arguments will undermine such an opening, because the party is currently stuffed with ‘loyalist’ MPs who will be much more interested in undoing Corbyn than with developing an alternative line of argument. But they can be made to adapt to the new reality.

Until this point, the assembled talking heads have maintained both that all things are in flux (polls cannot be trusted, the old order is dead, certainties evaporate), and also that they know in advance who will be the best progressive candidate for 2020. In their contradiction, they stumble over a fundamental feature of politics – that it is not the working through of stable laws of motion, but an action, a doing. It thus depends on Jeremy Corbyn, and on those who could bring him down, what his tenure might look like or achieve.

Barring scandal, defection or death, the number of Labour MPs is a constant for this Parliament. Those sneering about the collapse of real opposition to the Tories are engaged in a pre-emptive self-confirming prophesy, and getting their I-told-you-so’s in first. If MPs simply deny the result, making no effort to refashion the internal relations of the party machine, engage in sabotage and refusal rather than political innovation, then it will be they, and not Corbyn, who have betrayed the party, and they, not he, who have gifted Cameron and Osborne a free hand for the duration. What might be created otherwise? Less than nothing if the choir of political reason gets its way.

Only Anthony Painter (so far as I can tell) comes close to seeing that we are witnessing a collapse of ‘moderate’ Labour politics, and that the reaction to Corbyn’s failure (a failure that the PLP will play a significant role in bringing about) is likely to be worse still, since it will either split the party or enable warlord control over a much-reduced membership by Continuity New Labour and its enforcers. And they will insist, having undermined left populism, that only the managerialism of the extreme centre is possible.

If Jeremy Corbyn has come to us from the past, then let us think of him as a time capsule, bearing certain trajectories. And a time capsule is after all a kind of vehicle. He is the vector not (or not just) of traumatised tribalists won over by his sincerity or beard, but for somewhat diverse constituencies of the left finding expression through him, and which will continue, however mutilated, after him. This in part explains why there isn’t too much concern over Corbyn himself (either the specificity of past associations or his personal lifestyle), however much parts of the media want to make it so. His understated charm, his direct speech, his principled stances: all help convey the sense of a changed politics, but it is this sense of possibility which is more appealing than the detail of policy. This political hope is decried as naive, and a bubble waiting to burst, which is true but requires the added detail that hope too can shift the parameters of the possible. 2020 is some time off, and what mattered in this election was seizing the energies, indicating a direction of travel, setting the tone, in short doing that “vision” thing that Blairites are always on about but have become incapable of.

Neil Lawson has aptly said of Corbynism that it is “necessary but not sufficient”. There is a shortfall, a gap between overturning the odds in a leadership contest and invigorating a confident and successful party of the left. What will fill the space of our expectation once the coup materialises? The obvious danger is that it will all be reversed. Labour will sink in the polls, the knife will be plunged, wax work SPADs will rule anew. Liz Kendall will achieve the status of oracle. Political discourse in Britain will become further entrenched in the politics of resentment: resentment of the deserving poor, the dangerously displaced, the foreign, the queer, the manifold bogeymen of reaction. There will never have been an alternative.

The less obvious danger is that Jacorbynite Labour will initially thrive, drawing in many left energies. Corbyn will do quite well at large, but not well enough to win an election. This is what his enemies fear most of all, since it would stymie their plans for swift reversal. When he is eventually deposed, a softer left alternative will take his place (Tom Watson or Stella Creasy, likely). They will make a compromise with the PLP, and recreate the blackmail of Blairism: that the real, if not decisive, British left is best served by a Labour party that repeatedly frustrates its own political constituency in the name of appeasing the median voter. Many of those who have rushed to Labour this past month with the electricity of possibility will, hopes tempered, stay. You will even hear that a party that could elect someone like Jeremy Corbyn once will do so again. These members will campaign and agitate for Labour like those before them, will push their friends to hold their noses and vote for The Lesser-Evil. Along the way, creative policy thinking would have been stimulated. Individual policies, like nationalising the railway, will get a longer hearing than in the past. But the parameters would remain much as we have known them, and the vampire squid of parliamentary democracy will subsist on our failures still.


[1] Moreover, whilst the current attention to the plight of refugees might not last, increasingly positive attitudes in the country as a whole can easily coexist with a hardened anti-immigrant position amongst Kippers.

[2] Despite the question marks stalking Jacorbyn foreign policy, compare with the alternatives. Before her late turn towards the refugee crisis, Yvette Cooper’s idea of internationalism was basically staying in NATO and doing whatever Washington asked for good measure.

[3] ‘Jacorbynism’ is portmanteau funny and deserves to become a commonplace. The historical parallel tickles because it is so inapt. We are talking about the revival of mild social democracy, despite whatever outrage commentators are lathering themselves in.

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One thought on “The Corbyn After-Effect

  1. Young (social democratic) Jacorbyns on the move may well nonetheless shift the ‘parameters of the possible.’ The ruling class violence that will be dished out tothose in support of what Corbyn represents, may lead to a drop in sympathy for even the most stable of capitalist democracies? Social democratic ideals resonate with the median voter after all… Corbyn’s are the dreams that passive revolutions are made fromm

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