Today marks a year since the day Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader with an overwhelming 59.5% of the vote. Since that day, the Labour Party has engaged in a concerted campaign of self-destruction with depressing gusto.
The rights and wrongs of who did what and when have been iterated, arbitrated and acerbated by countless commentators, including this one. The apportioning of blame varies from everything to nothing being Corbyn’s fault. What most agree on, is that rarely has a group of people who agree on so much inflicted such deep and vicious wounds on themselves, each other and the party they profess to support.
How well or badly the party is doing right now is similarly the subject of heated debate. But it shouldn’t be. That we are experiencing the most disastrous period for Labour for many decades, that the outlook is utterly bleak, is a matter of cold, hard fact. And yet the notion is resisted with a tenacity which could only compare to the sort of Magical Thinking in which children engage.
Things are not so, because I really want them to not be so. If I believe things are different, they will somehow become.
“Why should I support a tory-lite neoliberal government”, someone replied to me the other day. “We might as well have the real Tories in charge.”
Our calamitous performance in poll after poll after poll is either ignored or blamed on the “PLP coup” – an incendiary term designed to deflect responsibility and used to describe a perfectly ordinary political event: a group of MPs losing confidence in their leader. But that won’t do, because it might hint at culpability on both sides. Instead, it is the MPs who must all be traitors, closet tories, CIA agents etc. Because then Jeremy Corbyn can be shielded from all responsibility.
If Lynton Crosby had managed to run a campaign which planted the idea in public consciousness that 80% of Labour MPs are utter scumbags, it would be held as the most devastating smear exercise in modern politics. If the Tory PR machine had managed to reduce 13 years of a Labour government to the single issue of the Iraq war and paint that in the most inflammatory way, we would protest day and night that this isn’t so.
Instead, we did this to ourselves and anyone who suggested it might be unwise was told to go and join the Tories. “Why should I support a tory-lite neoliberal government”, someone replied to me the other day. “We might as well have the real Tories in charge.”
To suggest that life didn’t change under Tony Blair is an act of astounding historical revisionism.
I remember life in Britain in 1990, when I moved here. Clause 28 had been enacted a couple of years previously. The police were “cracking down” on queers cruising in parks and Westminster council was closing Soho gay bars. My partner’s father lost everything in the 1990-91 recession, after Lawson’s disastrous ERM gamble, having only rebuilt it from the recession of the early eighties.
There were 10 incidents of IRA bombings or attempted bombings in London alone that year. 75,000 home repossessions; an all-time high. Waterloo was a cardboard shanty town in which hundreds of homeless people slept.
The school across the road from where I lived in Neasden had to house classes in shipping containers, because the roof had been deemed unsafe and they had no money to fix it. The spectacle of patients sleeping in gurneys in hospital corridors was a perennial tabloid favourite. To suggest that life didn’t change under Tony Blair is an act of astounding historical revisionism.
The Human Rights Act, minimum wage, age of consent equality, huge investment in schools and hospitals, economic recovery, infrastructure investment, the Belfast agreement – and that was just within the first few years. Everything changed. To claim that the country would have been just as happy continuing under the stewardship of the Tories means one of two things: either you were too young to remember or you were financially comfortable enough to be sheltered from the misery meted out by the previous government. Millenium Britain is the happiest I remember it. People were relaxed, generous and confident.
I see his incompetence and intransigence as fatal flaws; they see them as guarantees of purity.
And yet, almost any discussion about Corbyn on social media, even with his most polite supporters, ends in the implication that not supporting him somehow means you support neoliberal politics and Iraq-like wars. Responses to every article are crawling with scathing criticism of someone who hasn’t been leader of this party in a decade. We have managed to codify our achievements throughout that period into one easily digestible pellet for the entire electorate: LABOUR BAD.
And more than that, my impression from many hundreds of discussions, is that post-Iraq, all competence and charisma has become a confused proxy for ruthlessness and deceit. To manage is to engage in “managerialism”. To win is a sign of immorality. And that, I think, is the true source of my impasse with many Corbyn supporters. I see his incompetence and intransigence as fatal flaws; they see them as guarantees of purity.
It becomes pointless then to debate this circular magical thinking. Pointless to point to polls predicting total electoral olethros. They are dismissed as either propaganda or the result of the “PLP coup”. Pointless to explain the fact that Labour had never actually been ahead on average, throughout his tenure. That we have been sliding in the polls since mid-March, long before any MP resigned. Pointless to say that evidence shows Labour would receive a 12-point boost if he resigned, or that the 10 point deficit between Labour and the Tories, actually increases to 15 points when Corbyn is mentioned by name. Pointless to point out that his approval rating is just as disastrous with those declaring a voting intention as it is with people unlikely to vote – the demographic we are told will flock to the voting booth to save us. Pointless to reiterate data that on key issues the distance between his positions and those of average Britons, whose vote Labour would need, is unbridgeable. Pointless to explain that even Labour voters rate Theresa May more highly than their own leader. Pointless to explain that if Labour managed to win every single Green vote it would put us on 198 seats to the Tories’ 328.
They believe Corbyn will prevail, because they believe. I am the enemy, simply by not believing. It is a threat even to entertain dissent. As if a Fairy dies every time one applies critical thought. And so the protective circle becomes impenetrable and the excuse for oncoming oblivion in 2020 (or next spring, I suspect) is already rehearsed to explain away bad ratings and fully formed before it’s even needed: “Corbyn lost, not because of his flaws, but because his critics pointed them out.”
And all this shit will come back to bite us. Most of Corbyn’s support has spent the last couple of months maligning the vast majority of Labour MPs as useless, evil, Tory-lite, war-mongering, corrupt, neoliberal, feckless liars. The same MPs for whom most of them voted a year ago. Remember those comments. When Corbyn appoints his Shadow Cabinet, all The Sun will need to do, all Theresa May will need to do, to discredit them completely, is quote their own colleagues. You live by the meme, you die by the meme.
Every time I look, half my timeline is filled with people shuddering with disgust at something completely inconsequential Owen Smith has said (or as is the case more often, didn’t say) twisted out of all proportion. The other half of my timeline consists of precisely the same people beating their breast because some tabloid has twisted or misinterpreted or blown out of proportion something Corbyn said. While engaging in the exact same conduct. I don’t get it. Smith seems to me quite an amiable man and quite clearly on the soft left. I don’t think he’s Nye Bevan, by a long stretch, but I think it takes genuine effort and ill-will to see him as a “wicked neoliberal”.
Such movements always end in ever-decreasing circles, especially when things go badly, as they will.
Genuine effort and ill-will, however, abounds. As does denialism. Faced with actual train CCTV evidence that Corbyn lied, his supporters’ reaction is to circulate tenuous blogs about the train-owner’s tax affairs. As if tax avoidance somehow has the ability to edit video. “If I win, I’m sure the party will unite”, said Corbyn in a BBC Question Time special. He didn’t say how or why. No further explanation was offered. For his core supporters, none was needed. If you only believe hard enough it will happen.
But the party won’t unite. Because if you have spent months calling an MP of three decades’ loyal service an “evil Tory”, you can’t then go leafleting for them. When you have made yourself believe your comrades must be misogynists simply for disagreeing with you, the local meeting won’t be collegiate. When you have engaged in the ostrichism of dismissing the dozens of volunteers who report back from the doorstep that “Corbyn is a problem” as part of a plot, you will not want to risk knocking on those same doors.
This is at the core of what worries me about Corbyn and his “movement”. Such movements always end in ever-decreasing circles, especially when things go badly, as they will. First the “Blairites”, then soft-left people are also labelled Tory-lite; eventually even hard left people like me, who just disagree on Corbyn’s competence, are dismissed the same way and told I, too, will be purged. Until we’re all tied to chairs, like in Carpenter’s The Thing, and someone is testing petri dishes of our blood to see if we are the enemy in disguise.
And after we are all purged and all evil Tory-lite MPs deselected (y’know, like Stella Creasy who single-handedly dragged regulation of payday lenders through Parliament, or Tom Watson who, even in the face of threats against his personal safety, exposed phone-hacking), someone else won’t be pure enough. And then another. And another. A process of reverse mitosis. Until all that is left is a single, perfectly pure, perfectly socialist, perfectly useless cell.
Labour is a party plagued by Magical Thinking. Reality has disappeared from view. Oblivion beckons. Construct your own narrative, by all means, about why this happened. That this happened on Corbyn’s watch, however, is undeniable.
First we forgot how to listen to voters, then we forgot how to listen to each other, and eventually we will forget how to listen altogether.
What has been genuinely interesting, and an education personally, is to be suddenly on the “wrong” side of the divide. I was vaguely aware of the right wing’s tendency to dismiss the left as naive and the left’s propensity for asserting moral superiority and labelling the right as evil. But when those same tropes seamlessly extended to a contest which objectively involved two shades of the left, I experienced how truly ineffective such attitudes are as instruments of changing anyone’s mind.
That is why Labour is incapable of winning an election. Not the personnel, not the policies, not Scotland, not the polls, not Brexit, not the class struggle, not the media, not the establishment. But because we have forgotten how to listen. First we forgot how to listen to voters, then we forgot how to listen to each other, and eventually we will forget how to listen altogether. So, our electoral policy will be to scream at people, in order to make them feel bad about their choices, to make them feel like bad people, to shame them into voting Labour.
And they just won’t.