“Wow, when you turn, you really turn”, a friend said to me the other day.
It’s true. I have been as vociferous in my opposition to Corbyn as I was in supporting him a year ago. Provocative, even.
This is partly out of profound hurt. I feel let down by him. Duped. Because it is inconceivable to me how someone so utterly ill-equipped to do such an important job, could have put himself forward for doing it. How a committed leftist could think it a good idea to chain himself to the left-most major political party in the UK and jump in the ocean, knowing he can’t swim.
It is also, however, partly out of bitterness; the bitterness of an honourable person accused of dishonourable motives. To have gone within a year from being abused as a “trostkyist entryist” to “media shill” and “closet tory warmonger” vexes one in a very particular way.
Most wounding of all, former admirers of my work responding to my criticism of Corbyn with “I am so disappointed in you”; as if I entered some sort of Socialist Crufts and the judges found my pedigree lacking and my coat a little dull.
Once you have seen the Emperor is butt-naked, it is impossible to reimagine him wearing even a thong.
It isn’t the first time recently, either. I experienced a similar phenomenon around the Greek elections last year. First castigated as an extremist for supporting Tsipras, then as an establishment lackey for continuing to support him when he had to acquiesce to EU demands.
The common thread in both cases is the preponderance of a certain type of Armchair Che, for whom The Revolution is simply not happening fast or well enough. Such a person, almost invariably, speaks far enough from the edge of the economic cliff, that they would have time to order a big Ocado and hide in their Islington attic, were such a Revolution to actually occur.
So, yes, I have gone over the top with my criticism, but rhetorical flourish aside, I stand by every acid word. Once you have seen the Emperor is butt-naked, it is impossible to reimagine him wearing even a thong.
Let me get a few things out of the way, for a start, in order to save you some potentially angry typing.
CORBYN HAS BEEN TREATED UNFAIRLY – Yes, Corbyn has been hugely misrepresented by most media. Yes, the right wing press has been responsible for the worst kind of monstering. Yes, managing the PLP has been like herding cats. Yes, the lack of loyalty shown by a small cabal of colleagues, briefing against him from day one, is vile. Yes, he was never properly supported or given a decent chance. Yes, it is all very unfair. But, yes, that is the job he signed up for.
BOTH ‘SIDES’ ARE SELECTIVELY DISCONNECTED – The Corbyn side has been very successful in donning the mantle of “mandate” against MPs which, it claims, are disconnected from the wishes of the Labour membership. But politicians must juggle a great many, complex and, often, competing mandates.
The mandate of the membership, for instance, with regard to renewing Trident, voted for and mandated at Conference as recently as September 2015, is conveniently ignored by a leader who disagrees with it. The PLP, on the other hand, voting largely with the Conference position, are labelled “arrogant”. “This is a stance based not on understanding others, but on bullying them”, chirps the increasingly shrill Canary.
I would posit the reverse: I am personally against Trident, but a majority both in the country and in the Labour party are for it. The bullying position is to ignore that and to wilfully misunderstand the arguments for multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament and label everyone who disagrees a “death-monger”, rather than try to convince them. In last night’s hustings, Owen Smith was actually booed for bringing up the fact Nye Bevan was a multilateralist.
It is so unfathomably politically illiterate to hiss and boo at multilateralism, when it is both official Labour Party position and hugely popular with voters.
There is also the not-insignificant matter of the MPs mandate – nine million people voted for them and in a representative capacity: to apply their judgment to best advance their constituents’ interests. Recent polls reveal Corbyn to be extremely unpopular as a leader – including 29% of Labour voters preferring May over Corbyn as PM. Meanwhile, his popularity soars among the membership.
The Labour Party is experiencing, therefore, a much more complex fracturing of its mandate than the Corbyn camp would admit to. It is not so much the PLP versus the membership – a convenient narrative that plays to the peanut gallery – but the membership and leader versus the PLP and general voting public. This particular fight can only have one possible outcome at any General Election. The general voting public always has the final word.
As Clay Shirky noted recently in a US context, winning is about headcount and elections can be a harsh corrective to thinking everyone agrees with you. After the last General Election and the Brexit vote, how many more electoral “I didn’t see that coming” shocks must we experience before we finally understand that our twittersphere echo-chamber is representative of nothing?
LABOUR’S PROBLEMS ARE HUGE, CORBYN ASIDE – Labour are probably shafted – at best, for a decade and, at worst, permanently. This is because they are currently the only truly UK-wide party. In order to ever win an election again, they would have to regain seats in Scotland from the SNP, from the Tories in the South of England, as well as defend seats against Plaid Cymru in Wales, UKIP in the North and the Liberal Democrats in urban areas.
Those electorates are so diverse and so easy to target by a party concentrating on only one or a few, they are almost impossible to reconcile. How does one even begin to formulate a policy on immigration that does not alienate the cosmopolitan London leftie while reengaging with enough working class white men in the North? How does one articulate an economic policy that is radical enough for Glasgow and moderate enough for Stevenage?
OWEN SMITH IS A BIT BLAH – There is no disguising the fact Owen Smith ain’t exactly Obama, when it comes to inspirational qualities. It is disappointing and a sign of the real lack of strength-in-depth in the Labour party that nobody more substantial has thrown their hat in the ring. When a gladiatorial contest for the soul of the party comes down to Corbyn vs Smith, you know you’re in doo-doo.
Not that I don’t completely understand the reticense of others to step forward, seeing the onslaught directed at anyone who stuck their head above their parapet. The campaign of smearing and negative vetting has been truly bizarre: “she voted for X once”; “he used to work for a big company”; “she once abstained from something”; “he said something in an interview ten years ago”.
Even potential candidates are trashed preemptively. “How about Keir Starmer?”, I suggested to someone. “He was DPP when they prosecuted the Twitter joke trial”, came the response. “Deal breaker.” And so, the same people willing to overlook Jeremy Corbyn’s many, many past foibles – his views on IRA violence, his backing of homeopathy, his working for Iranian state TV – just as I did when I voted for him, operate a weird one-offence sin-bin when it comes to anyone else.
It is as if, having resigned to never actually winning again, we have decided to make sport of punching ourselves in the face repeatedly, cheering loudly while we do it; a sort of Idiots’ Fight Club. Discredit all our own MPs. Yeah. Smart.
When I turn, I really turn
In the interests of openness, let me explain my conversion from supporting to opposing Corbyn: I voted for him in the first place, because I liked his politics and I thought all four candidates last time were unelectable. So I thought: “Fuck it. If none of them can reach out to the wider electorate, I might as well vote for the one whose politics most closely align with mine.” Anecdotally, I have found that my thinking in this was far from unique.
I found him disappointing throughout his first few months, quite aside from his difficulties with the media or sections of the PLP, but continued to support him as a reaction to those difficulties. I admonished his detractors in the strongest terms. Whatever one thought of his performance, to be briefing against him from day one, was hugely disrespectful to the people who voted for him. (I think this is the mode many of his supporters are still stuck in, incidentally: to criticise him feels like somehow condoning the bad behaviour to which he has been subjected.)
Even through the unfiltered, unfettered process of Prime Minister’s Questions, there was a creeping realisation that Corbyn was not growing into the role: his adherence to a completely ineffective six-questions-six-subjects format, the increasingly ridiculous “I received this email from Janet” device, his lack of sense of occasion, the flashes of a thoroughly unattractive teacherish sort of anger when things did not go his way. He seemed to believe he could change politics simply by sneering at it.
The mouth muscles knew what to do, but nothing else was employed with any conviction.
Things really started to turn during the EU referendum campaign. Whatever you think on the issue or the result, there was a strange disconnect there; an active avoidance. Corbyn refused to share a platform, turned down interviews and debates, campaigned half-heartedly, obsessed about obscure directives nobody gave a fig for, and even went on holiday during the short campaign. The combined effect reminded me of when spindoctors told Gordon Brown that he needed to smile more. The mouth muscles knew what to do, but nothing else was employed with any conviction.
On the 10th of June, I tweeted that I was disheartened by “his anonymity, lack of passion and refusal to engage meaningfully”. I got my first burst of aggressive pro-Corbyn responses in return and this began to worry me. I genuinely could not think how such a statement was even controversial.
The result of the referendum turned my disappointment into anger and when Jeremy Corbyn, on the morning after, stood on the Westminster green and announced that “we must respect that result and Article 50 has to be invoked now” my anger turned to hostility.
Part of the venom with which I have been targetted recently is, I suspect, because I am difficult for Corbyn fans to explain away. I’m not some middle-class, Blairite fair-weather socialist, with a portfolio of shares. I live hand-to-mouth, was homeless recently, have been consistently on the left of the debate and supported Corbyn vocally the first time he was elected.
“Who got to you, Alex?” asked one outraged pundit. Nobody “got to me”. We all have our red lines. Europe was mine. There is no hidden agenda and no conspiracy. It was simply the realisation that a politician, to whom the only advantage I could see was his honesty, was in fact revealed to be thoroughly dishonest on this most vital issue. Trust was broken and that was that.
Suddenly, I’m Tippi Hedren
There is that scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds: Tippi Hedren’s character is sitting on a bench in front of a playground waiting for school to finish. A single crow flies on to the climbing frame behind her. The camera zooms in, she lights a cigarette, takes a few puffs. We hear the flurry of wings. The shot opens out again and behind her is revealed a shiny blue-black made of a thousand crows.
And so it happened to me. Suddenly I was on the other side of the street and I could see a wide shot of the crowd with which I had stood until then. I did not like what I saw. And they did not like what I had to say about it. Pretty soon the pecking frenzy started, in their hundreds.
There was a pattern to it. Like someone called Kevin in a call centre somewhere, reading from a script designed to sell me double glazing, impervious to any variation on my part of the conversation or any inconvenient facts. “I’m sorry Kevin, but I’m just out of the shower”; “No, I’m quite happy with the windows I have, thank you, Kevin”; “Kevin, listen to me, you’re wasting my time and yours.” Until eventually you hang up.
Only the script in this case was strangely familiar. Facts dismissed as conspiracy. Experts vilified as establishment. Quotes half-invented for inflammatory memes. Sexism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, homophobia, antisemitism, violent language, abuse – all of it clear to anyone at the receiving end, all of it denied by anyone on the side generating it.
The truth, however, dear comrades, is that you cannot claim hashtag collectivism one minute, you cannot gloat about how you act together as one unstoppable unit, then disown the clear patterns of wickedness among your ranks, shrug your shoulders and simply say “nowt to do with me”. If #YouAreHisMedia, then you need to own your shit and sort it out.
The far right is obsessed with purging the country from anyone who looks different. The far left obsessed with purging it from anyone who thinks different.
“Jeremy doesn’t condone it.” “He can’t control what every idiot says.” “I don’t do that. How dare you tar me with the same brush.” “It’s probably an MI5 conspiracy to smear Corbyn.” “One rotten apple.” “There are nasty people on all sides.” It is the Ukip phrasebook, terrifyingly adapted for the left.
The far right is obsessed with purging the country from anyone who looks different. The far left obsessed with purging it from anyone who thinks different. They are two sides of the same philosophy who sees progress only in homogeneity and threat in mixing, in “impurity”, in dissent, in challenging the orthodoxy.
Strangely, it is also a form of blairism. Because blairism was not about just policies. Its dark side, the side everyone hated, the side which corroded the party, was about blind faith in one man who was convinced he was right, held all the answers and had to subjugate a party too stupid to know what was good for it. Blairism wasn’t just about PFIs or Iraq – it was about the methodical purging the party of dissent; it was about bullying and lying. In those respects, Corbynism is its comically ineffectual cousin.
Not just denial, but denialism
At the core of Corbynism is denialism. Not denial. That would be just a refusal to accept a fact or set of facts. Denialism is the more methodical and strategic altering of anything inconvenient about the reality which surrounds us. A refusal to see anything, unless through a particular prism.
“Under Corbyn Labour have won by-elections with increased majorities, won the London and Bristol mayoral elections, outperformed the Tories at the May council elections and forced the Tories into a number of u-turns on things such as: Tax credits, disability cuts, the fiscal target” BLAH BLAH BLAH. It is a familiar enough refrain.
But those by-elections were in safe Labour seats. The London mayoral election had to actively distance itself from Corbyn. Outperforming the government in your first year as opposition leader, by losing marginally fewer councils than they did, is a terrible sign by any metric. And what about Labour finishing third in the Scottish election?
Reversals to tax credits were primarily down to Tory backbench unrest and disability cuts down to a superb defence by the Labour Lords team – most of them Blairites – both on a shadow brief led by none other that the much-reviled Owen Smith. The fiscal target u-turn was abandoned by Osborne the day after Theresa May, the then frontrunner for PM, said she didn’t support it.
Labour’s dreadful performance in the polls is put exclusively down to the PLP “coup”. Even though Labour was declining long before it, hitting its peak (and never actually ahead on average) in April. Corbyn himself encourages this myth. “We were ahead in the polls in May”, he said in yesterday’s hustings – an outright lie.
Not only is this disconnect between reality and fantasy encouraged, it is institutionalised. Leftists are urged to join and defend Corbyn by fringe parties. Momentum stage a chain of takeovers, across CLPs up and down the country. The NEC election is fought in terms of pro- and anti- Corbyn. Mass deselections of dissenting MPs are now a near certainty.
There is an active campaign, in short, to pack the party, at every level, with people who open rather than close the distance between Labour and the wider electorate; an active campaign to compound the problem.
As Martin Robbins so astutely observed, “to these people Labour – real Labour – doesn’t have 232 seats, it has about 40. The others seats are occupied by “Red Tories” or, worse, “Blairites”… The only long-term strategy that makes sense is to “purify” Labour, and rebuild from the foundations up. That may mean another 10 or 20 years of Tory rule, but the achingly middle class Corbynistas, won’t be the ones to suffer from that.”
I always thought that socialism could combine with liberal values. But what if it can’t?
And I think this is what hurts me the most. That I believed, genuinely believed, that us “proper” progressives were better than the others – both to the right in our party and to the right of our party. That Corbyn would genuinely be open, build bridges, find consensus, rather than become authoritarian the moment he tasted a little bit of power and go on an enemy purge. What a fool I was.
I always thought that socialism could combine with liberal values. But what if it can’t? What if there is something so inherently didactic in any movement that believes in its moral superiority, it is structurally doomed to authoritarianism? I voted for Corbyn, because I wanted my idea of Labour to be allowed to coexist and to converse alongside others’ idea of Labour; not at its expense or instead of it.
The far left has failed to understand that it needs the centre-left as a bridge. That people don’t travel straight from a mixed, practical, central position to perfect socialism. Just as the centre-left before it, failed to understand that it needs the proper left to keep it honest and act as its conscience of ideals.
When prominent commentators tweet an opinion poll, which puts Labour behind the Tories, but crop the image to show Labour ahead on the unweighted figures and ignore the pollster telling them this is misleading, we know we are in trouble. We have reached Peak Denialism.
Being honest, like a family
People who try to change things are invariably surrounded by such hostility it is human to see all dissent or criticism as aggression. It is impossible to convince someone the whole world is not out to get them, when – in fact – it is. The key is being self-critical enough to distinguish which of the faults being pointed out are real and which are invented. This applies to the any political party, including Labour.
Being honest with ourselves and each other is an absolute prerequisite to being effective as a force for change. We have to behave like a family – defend each other to the hilt when it comes to the outside world, but be able to be completely open with each other. The sort of openness that only comes when you know there is mutual love and respect. Such love and respect have been in very short supply of late.
Being honest involves more than simply not lying. Being honest means telling the truth. All of it. And we haven’t been telling the truth for a long time in the Labour party.
We weren’t telling the truth when we eroded our base during the Blair years, when we told ourselves that Scotland was a given, when we reassured ourselves that we could mix-and-match neoliberalism with socialism. We weren’t telling the truth when Brown decided to out-Tory the Tories with tax cuts, during an economically healthy period. We should have been using that money to close the gulf of inequality opening up in the UK. We should have been using that period of prosperity to rebalance the economy away from financial services.
We didn’t speak up. Not enough of us. Not loudly enough. Not for long enough.
And that dishonesty continued after the crisis and the electoral defeat of 2010. We weren’t telling the truth when we acquiesced to being stuck with Miliband and decided to make the best of it. We weren’t telling the truth when we explained away poor result after poor result and terrible poll after terrible poll. We weren’t telling the truth when we laid all blame at the doorstep of a hostile press or when we blamed voters for being stupid.
The huge damage Cameron caused in his first five years as Prime Minister is as nothing compared to the lasting damage he has caused in the year since May 2015. It will continue to be felt for a generation, as the UK blunders its way out of the world’s most powerful economic bloc and into isolation and xenophobia, destabilising the whole continent and the integrity of its own union in the process, condemning itself to another decade of austerity, and lurching towards the paranoid far right.
We must take our share of responsibility for that. Maybe we could have stopped it. But we were simply too busy with tweeting and hoping to bother with reality. Plenty of us knew that Ed Miliband was simply unelectable, from the moment he was installed at the head of the party by the same union leaders now defending Corbyn. We didn’t speak up. Not enough of us. Not loudly enough. Not for long enough.
The truth about Jeremy Corbyn
And we’re doing the same thing again, with Corbyn. I can’t be part of it. I refuse to repeat that mistake. I may end up making all new mistakes, but I will at least give myself a chance to learn. I will either be part of an honest political force, that understands its objectives and how to realise them, or not part of it at all. I have no interest in feeling superior while sipping Chardonnay, no interest in fiddling while Rome burns.
I still admire Corbyn’s politics on the whole, although I never invested him with the ludicrously messianic qualities I see so many project onto him. But there is a problem. And it is insurmountable. Jeremy Corbyn is not very good. Actually, he is quite hopeless.
I don’t need to rehash tales of his incompetence. If you are interested and your mind is open, read the accounts of Thangam Debbonaire MP or Lilian Greenwood MP. Read Owen Jones’ piece, probably Corbyn’s key mainstream media ally. Read Richard Murphy’s blog, part of the “Corbynomics” team. Read why the rest of that team now support Owen Smith. Read the piece Jo Cox wrote on why she regretted nominating Corbyn, weeks before she was brutally killed.
I have chosen the above accounts for a reason. All of them represent what would be called – to borrow a tennis term – unforced errors. The people telling these stories are not Tory plants or closet right-wingers. They cannot be explained away with conspiracies.
They, just like me, have no agenda against Jeremy Corbyn’s politics. They embraced him and gave him a chance. The catalogue of incompetence they expose would be comical, if it weren’t so damn tragic. He is just not the person who can deliver radical policies. Radical policies require a doubly effective messenger.
Against Cameron, Corbyn looked like someone struggling to whip his MPs. Against May, he looks like someone who’d struggle to whip a meringue.
“Competence is a bourgeois construct”, said one supporter to me. No, it isn’t. It is a very plain concept: being able to do something. It is as plain as incompetence. “I am tired by the media’s definition of electability”, says another. Wait. You may disagree with the media’s interpretation of what makes someone electable, but “electability” itself, like competence, couldn’t be less ambiguous. It is the ability to get elected.
Even if there were the tiniest sliver of a chance, by pitting someone of apparent substance like Corbyn against Cameron’s superficiality or sticking with his po-faced seriousness against Johnson’s buffoonery, the chance is now gone. Against Theresa May’s gravitas and appearance of ruthless efficiency, he stands no chance. Against Cameron, Corbyn looked like someone struggling to whip his MPs. Against May, he looks like someone who’d struggle to whip a meringue.
The most recent poll, found him lagging 34 points behind Theresa May in public perception for “Best Prime Minister”. And 12 points behind “Don’t Know”. Absorb that. The leader of the Labour Party is polling 12 points behind “Don’t Know”.
Hostility from large quadrants of the press, disloyalty from parts of the PLP, the fragmentation of the Labour vote, the current unstable climate, the natural conservatism of the British public – all these are mountains to climb. Being shit at climbing makes them insurmountable obstacles.
Shami Chakrabarti’s nomination for a life peerage typifies Corbyn’s gift for doing the right thing in such a disastrously cack-handed way, it looks completely wrong.
It has been a little over a month since Corbyn unveiled to the world the publication of Chakrabarti’s report into antisemitism in the Labour Party. He did so, by likening Israel to a “self-styled Islamic state”. (Yes, I know what he actually meant. I also know that any Press Chief worth a six figure salary, would have asked what he intended to say and locked him in a fucking broom cupboard, rather than let him say that. Not Seumas Milne, alas.)
Having promised “the Labour Party will certainly not nominate new peers”, Corbyn didn’t see fit to let anyone else know he had changed his mind and nominated Chakrabarti – not even his own deputy. Labour people were still touring studios and briefing how these resignation honours were an example of cronyism, and how they should be scrapped, when news began to emerge.
Instantly, the conversation mutated from Tory corruption to Labour incompetence – again – and in the process sullied honouring someone thoroughly deserving, like Chakrabarti.
This wasn’t a conspiracy. It wasn’t someone undermining Corbyn and it wasn’t media bias at work. It was the Labour leader, shooting from the hip and hitting his own foot. It was a fumble. One of many, but not the biggest.
Why are we cheering failure?
The biggest recent fumble, I think, has flown almost completely under the radar.
On the 12th of July, Labour’s National Executive Committee met to decide the terms of the leadership contest. The question on everybody’s lips was “will Corbyn be on the ballot automatically?” When the decision was made – 18 in favour to 14 against – Corbyn, couldn’t wait to go outside and speak to the assembled press. No, not speak. Crow. Anyone who believes Corbyn is not a vain man, should watch this three-minute press call.
He then rushed off. A few tube stops away in Kentish Town, an important WE LOVE YOU JEREMY RALLY was assembling. It marked the beginning of the interminable WE LOVE YOU JEREMY TOUR: a hectic schedule of visiting safe Labour seats like Holborn and St Pancras, in which twenty-nine thousand people voted for Labour and hailing a thousand of them turning up as a sign of inevitable electoral success. Or five thousand people turning up for a Liverpool rally – Merseyside, an area which Labour hold by a clear majority of more than 300,000 votes over their nearest rivals, being a notoriously difficult place to find left-leaning folk.
Meanwhile, however, the NEC meeting was ongoing. A six month freeze date was being decided which would disenfranchise 140,000 – mainly Corbyn supporters. And a £25 one-off fee was introduced which would cost 180,000 people – again, we’re told, mainly Corbyn supporters – £4.5m. “Dirty tricks” some muttered the next day. Nothing of the sort. Those two issues were on the agenda and were reported on the day before the meeting by both the Guardian and the New Statesman.
Moreover, Corbyn knew the meeting was still ongoing. He responded to the very last question of that press call, about timings, with “that is being decided right now”. He rushed off to his rally and at the very moment John McDonnell was warming up the crowd by saying the problem with the “plotters” was that they’re “fucking useless”, the man who could have and should have been at the NEC meeting, who would even have had a vote on these issues, was instead waiting backstage.
And “Jeremy” stepped on the stage. And the crowd cheered loudly and long for the man who had just cost many of them £25, because he is an amateur. Because he simply left the meeting too early.
And now I am asked to knock on doors in six months or a year or two – because there will be an early election – and tell people to put this man in charge of defence meetings and flood meetings and terrorism prevention meetings and Brexit negotiation meetings and trade deal meetings; to put his wild, foolish coterie of zealots in charge of the country.
And I’m telling you, in all good conscience, I cannot and will not. Because right now, the only thing more frightening to any rational person than Labour losing the next election, is Labour winning it with Corbyn in charge.
A simple thought experiment
Here’s a thought experiment, if you’re open to it.
Let us suppose David Cameron had refused to go after the referendum and everything that is going on in Labour was going on in the Tory party. His cabinet all resigned one by one, his backbenchers were briefing the press against him, he lost a vote of no confidence 4 to 1. And the net result was that he simply couldn’t provide effective government. Couldn’t even fill cabinet positions.
But still Cameron simply refused to resign. He said: I don’t care, I’m not going, I was elected, I have a mandate. What would your reaction be?
Would you be saying: “Yes, I can see both sides, his MPs are behaving very poorly, and they’ve told lies”? Would you be arguing “No, he mustn’t resign, because this would undermine the democratic mandate he got”? Would you be suggesting none of this is his fault, even though it happened on his watch?
Or would you be jumping up and down, going: “I don’t care. He’s ultimately responsible for everything falling apart on his watch. He must go. The country needs a government. If you can’t pull your party together you’re no leader.”?
The country needs an opposition just as much as it needs a government.
I don’t ask questions to which I don’t know the answers. I ask this one knowing full well what the answer is. Because it is pretty much what every Labour person was screaming at John Major when this actually happened. I ask it to encourage you to take emotional investment out of the issue and see how blindingly obvious the answer becomes.
It doesn’t matter how unfair it all is and how we got here. The country needs an opposition just as much as it needs a government. And migrants like me, whose fate is openly being talked about as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations, need an opposition now. Not in three months, not in two years, when Corbyn might get his act together. Not in twenty years when a socialist utopia may or may not rise from the horizon of our fantasy.
Change is a slow, dirty, ugly, long process. We would all like to sign an online petition and magically transform the world. But this is just not how it works.
The Occupy phenomenon showed that a protest movement has a vital role to play in opening up new areas of political guerilla warfare, expanding the conversation in areas that traditional politics cannot reach and engaging the young. There is no doubt in my mind that those tents in front of St Paul’s acted as a catalyst and raising agent for crucial conversations about corporate greed, inequality, and austerity.
The other thing we learned, however, is that such movements have natural limitations, unless they become organised within existing political frameworks. Occupy Wall Street was called “a constructive failure” by its co-creator. Podemos in Spain, tried to mix protest and politics, tried to stay intentionally disorganised, chaotic, rooted in disparate local politics, unstructured and leaderless. The result was that it hit a ceiling and started to fall apart.
The only counter-narrative is SyRizA in Greece. It took a disparate alliance of factions, organised them into a party, harnessed the energy of the Syntagma Square protesters, and won power within established structures. It has been a process of, sometimes unpallatable, compromise, of sullying something pure, which has seen some factions break off. Key to this was the charismatic, quick-thinking, pragmatic and competent Alexis Tsipras. He held the party together, until the glue had become fixed.
SyRizA’s critics are many and vehement. Some argue, with force, that if you compromise your principles in order to hold power, you’re as bad as the rest. Some say that there is no point to a progressive government if it subscribes to any neoliberal principles. I suspect the estimated one million uninsured and destitute Greeks who gained access to free prescription medicines on the 1st of August, would disagree.
Why, then, is Jeremy Corbyn attempting to take the Labour Party in the opposite direction and – as he has stated clearly on many occasions – turn it from a political party to a protest movement; from something occasionally dirty, but very effective, to something which will be pure but risks being pointless? As Tom Crewe notes in his excellent piece about Corbyn supporters for the LRB: “there is no sign that the public shares in this revolutionary spirit. ‘Prime ministerial’ persists awkwardly as a desirable quality.”
And why should such a movement emerge from the Labour Party anyway? If social change from the grassroots is the key and mass movement is the model, why take Labour – an entity altogether different, concerned explicitly with making a difference by being government – and try to forcibly shape it into something else, Why wouldn’t you start from scratch with, for instance, Momentum? I tend to agree with Helen Lewis’s suggested asnwer: “because it’s easier to hijack something that already exists than build something new from scratch”.
There are then, in effect, two “coups” ongoing. Let us be honest about this, too. Both factions are attempting to resolve the electorate/membership/PLP/Leader disconnect that I described while keeping the Labour brand, membership, structures and, most importantly, money for “their” Labour.
Only one, however, can be effective. This is because the problem is not merely one of disunity, but also of incompetence and those two things feed into each other in a destructive loop. The more disunity there is, the more difficult it becomes to lead the party. The more difficult it is to lead the party, the more incompetent it appears. The more incompetent it appears, the more disunity it creates.
And we know that this incompetence, unfortunately, exists quite independently of the disunity. The reverse is not true. The party has been able to function united under the right leadership during most of its history. If the PLP managed to overthrow Corbyn, the party would have a (admittedly, slim) chance at being both competent and united. If Corbyn wins and manages to deselect all dissenters and take full control (quite apart from this being hugely unhealthy, politically) the party would be united, but its leader would be no more competent or appealing to the wider electorate.
Once your supporters are shaped into an “army”, your movement becomes an instrument of violence.
Add to that the violent fervour and denialism of his supporters and the solution becomes clear and urgent. Corbyn must be ousted at all costs. Everything else can be fixed later. After the events of last month, and in the current environment, the urgent need is not for perfect socialism in twenty years. The need is for moderate, inclusive politics, right now; for evidence-led policy; for rational, cool debate.
Corbyn offers the opposite. The kind of fanaticism he has stirred, the atmosphere of a personality cult, combined with anger and disregard for facts and expert evidence, put him on the same continuum as Ukip, Brexit, Trump and much of the darkness which plagues the world. His policies being “lovely” is irrelevant. Once your supporters are shaped into an “army”, your movement becomes an instrument of violence, however noble your intentions.
When the world is spinning out of control one does not add weight to the extremes, but ballast to the centre.
Please NB, I am taking a short break from twitter, as I find it has become a negative and, at times, abusive space. If you want to comment on this piece, please use the comment function below and try not to be a dick.
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