Jeremy Corbyn has won the Labour leadership election. He won by a landslide – a 59.5% knockout in the first round. Andy Burnham got 19%. Yvette Cooper got 17%. And she seems like a decent human being. She’s definitely not deserved the personal abuse she’s received throughout the contest, much of it from our side. But Liz Kendall got 4.5%. I’ll leave it at that.
I was entirely unprepared for the Corbyn phenomenon. I’ve known about and been a fan of Corbyn for ten years, give or take, and he’s someone who I hold in the highest esteem – he’s unerringly principled, utterly committed to the causes he believes in, and has dedicated his life to helping the poorest and most vulnerable, which to my mind is the best thing you can say about anyone.
And despite all that, if you’d have asked me what I thought the chances were of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader back in May, just after Ed Miliband stood down, I would’ve said ‘less than 1%’. If you’d have asked me what I thought the chances were of Jeremy Corbyn or anyone vaguely left-wing even getting on the ballot paper, I probably would’ve said the same. In the run-up to the general election, I wrote a blog post specifically designed just to remind people the parliamentary Labour Left still existed – praising Corbyn, McDonnell, Skinner and co but generally lamenting its current weakness and poor prospects for the future.
More fundamentally, I’d long since steeled myself for a lifetime of never having anything remotely approaching my views break into the mainstream. The week after May the 7th, I wrote another post, this time basically arguing that the election had shown our Mail-and-Murdoch-mediated political system was even more impervious to change than people like me had thought – and that we should stop expecting anything positive to come out of Westminster at all. Socialists should learn from the anarchists, I said – disengage from the mainstream media, mainstream politics, and try and build a political alternative outside of it.
Then Corbyn was catapulted into the contest. And suddenly, after a thirty year absence of anything the least bit similar, here was a modest, principled Bennite socialist committing revolutionary acts on national television – calmly explaining the benefits of public ownership, standing against the kind of fawningly Atlanticist, bomb-happy foreign policy that both parties have championed for decades, and being asked a question, pausing, thinking about it for a second, and then actually giving his honest opinion.
And we all know what happened next. One minute he was the rank outsider, the next he was speaking to packed public meetings around the country, backed by a sprawling, hyperactive grassroots movement drawing heavily on the young, the old and disillusioned, and the previously apathetic. Before long, even the mainstream news and senior Labourites were having to admit he was in the lead.
And now he’s won. A reminder of the often terrible, occasionally wonderful unpredictability of life, the universe and modern politics if there ever was one.
The first of the blunt things that now need to be bluntly said is that ‘the Left’, whatever that means these days, wasn’t ready for this at all. Corbyn had no expectation of winning, and in the early days, neither did all but the most evangelical of his supporters. Arguably the most (personally) left-wing leader in Labour’s history has come about at a time when even a fair number of Labour left-wingers thought the Labour left was basically extinct, and when the Parliamentary Labour Party is about as right-wing as it’s ever been.
But reality doesn’t dole out opportunities like these willy-nilly, so we’ll just have to make the best of what we’ve been given. I think it’s entirely possible to make a success of the situation. Corbyn’s conjured a demographic-straddling political movement out of nothing in the space of a couple of months, after all. But to do that, I think we need to corner any last traces of political naivety that might’ve survived the disillusion blitzkrieg that was everything about the Labour leadership election that didn’t involve Corbyn and finish them off with a spade. Particularly in relation to three key topics: 1) what a Corbyn leadership will and will not try and achieve. 2) the state of the Labour Party. And 3) the state of the media.
Firstly, let’s talk about Corbyn-led Labour.
I think it’s important to realise what the Corbyn phenomenon is. Really, it’s a rebellion by the spread of opinion Labour sought to represent for most of its history – ranging from mildly reformist social democracy to radical socialism – against the party’s supremely arrogant hard-right, people with opinions that wouldn’t have been welcome in the party before the 1990s, but who’ve now run it for twenty years.
Contrary to what many people – including a lot of his supporters – seem to believe, Corbyn’s not going to gloriously storm Labour HQ on Monday morning, throw all the Blairites out of the window, and salute while a team of young Corbynistas hoist the red flag. Jeremy Corbyn the individual is a radical socialist. But that’s not how he’s positioned himself as a candidate, or as how he’ll act as leader. He’s run as a left-wing but pragmatic social democrat – which has enabled him to become the figurehead of an anti-austerity coalition between Labour’s left, a significant swathe of party centrists, and thousands of people who’d previously given up on Labour entirely. In other words, a grand alliance of everyone who – through a mixture of spectacular stupidity, stubbornness and arrogance – Elite Labour has managed to alienate.
Corbyn will naturally try and build bridges. He will not go after the Right with anything like the ruthlessness the Right went after the Left in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He’ll be patient, kind and courteous to his internal opponents, and I predict here and now that he will not be as left-wing as many of us (and he himself) would ideally like.
Why is that? Pragmatism, mostly. After thirty years of neoliberalism, it’s going to be hard enough to drag a sort of social democratic bare minimum back into British politics. In the ‘70s, Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy would’ve empowered government to nationalise any company it liked if it would help it ‘plan the national economy in the national interest’. I – and, I’ll hazard a guess, Corbyn – remain 100% in favour of that kind of thing today. But back then, the kind of policies Corbyn’s brought to the table in 2015 were just common sense – most Tories would’ve agreed that education should be free, and the NHS should be entirely state-provided. Today, we’ll be painted as dangerous lunatics for suggesting the same.
Corbyn will try and shift politics to the left. If he possibly can, he’ll end austerity. He’ll stand on positions that he – and we – would like to see pushed much further in time. But there’s no-one on the British left as deserving of our patience and understanding as him.
Now let’s talk about the Labour Party.
This contest has definitively smashed the already long-suspect idea that there was some sort of basic values system uniting everyone in Labour. The faction that’s monopolised positions of power in the party for so long that we now naturally call it ‘the leadership’ and much of the party membership have nothing in common anymore.
Once, you could’ve said that party leftists, centrists and rightists were all riding the same train, just getting off at different stations. They all had the same goal – they wanted to transform society to benefit the working majority. The differences were largely just about how much transformation was needed, and how quickly they should go about achieving it.
But things have changed, drastically. Cooper, Kendall and Burnham don’t want to see a more muted, gradual version of what Jeremy Corbyn wants. They’re not even looking in the same direction. They’re openly hostile to him, people like him, and everything he represents. To them, Labour doesn’t exist to transform anything at all – they’d see the party run as a sort of management consultancy, a bit softer and more liberal than Cameron-Osborne Ltd, but ultimately governing from the exact same elite-pandering neoliberal rule-book.
We need to be clear that the thing our man is now at least nominally in charge of is thoroughly dysfunctional. In a sensible society, with a sensible electoral system, Labour probably would’ve long since ceased to exist – splitting two or three ways in the manner David Wearing and others have described.
First past the post has extended both its own shelf-life, and that of the Tories (the Spectator’s Matthew Parris recently wrote an interesting article about this from the Tory perspective). But it’s still utterly unsustainable for an organisation made up of several hundred thousand socialists and social democrats to continue to be dominated by people who openly scorn what they believe.
I think this election might well be a turning point. Labour centrists put up with Blair – they were desperate. They were happier ideologically under Miliband, even if they didn’t think much of him as a leader. But then Miliband stood down, and his would-be replacements competed to see who could sound most like Norman Tebbit and get The Sun and big donors to back their leadership candidacy. The membership has now emphatically passed judgement on that low point in Labour history.
It would be nice to conclude with the obligatory fluffy appeal to party unity. But we’re being brutally realistic. So instead: some of the biggest opponents of what we’re trying to achieve are inside the Labour Party. How best to handle it if they don’t respect the resoundingly-stated wishes of the Labour selectorate? I don’t know. All I can say is that it’ll be a very delicate situation – so handle with care.
And finally, let’s talk about the media.
The mainstream media will do its utmost to destroy a Corbyn-led Labour Party. That’s because the media isn’t unbiased – it doesn’t just passively observe, offer ‘just the facts, ma’am’. It’s owned and totally dominated by private companies. The corporate media actively shapes how millions of people see the world. And it shamelessly uses that colossal influence to protect and advance corporate interests.
The corporate media strictly limits public debate – massively amplifying parties and voices that support the neoliberal status quo, and slurring, side-lining and distorting ones that challenge it. It’s why we hear so much about UKIP and so little about the Greens. It’s why Ed Miliband was savaged even for moving an inch away from the smiley-faced neoliberalism of the New Labour years. And it’s why the press will launch the mother of all propaganda campaigns against Jeremy Corbyn.
We need to abandon any notion that the media is in the least bit neutral, let alone ‘on our side’ – even bits of it that have repeatedly and incorrectly been labelled as left-of-centre over the years. The Guardian and the Independent have responded to Corbyn in exactly the same way they always react to anything genuinely left-wing – with a mix of bafflement, condescension and barely-concealed scorn.
They might be marginally more willing to give a platform to dissenting voices. But like all the big papers, they’re ultimately mouthpieces for the powerful – a detached, insular, self-interested elite that does very well out of the status quo, with a slightly more liberal, community-minded Polly Toynbee-Jonathan Freedland wing, and a wing full of Pinochet fans who run the Sun and the Mail.
We need to stop reading the newspapers, stop watching the news, get our information from outside the usual corporate channels and encourage others to do the same. They lose all their power the minute people stop listening.
To finish: I think the Corbyn campaign’s boisterous enthusiasm needs to be quickly converted into lasting grassroots political organisation all over the country. I think Labour’s internal workings need to be fairly speedily democratised, with policy-making powers wrenched out of the House of Commons and given back to ordinary Labour members. And I certainly think all of us who’ve sat at the back whinging about New Labour for years now have a responsibility to wholeheartedly throw ourselves into making Corbyn-led Labour work.
Still, we can afford about ten minutes of self-congratulation. Well done everyone. Commencing vaguely euphoric Frank Zappa guitar instrumental.