Saturday 15 August 2015

Will Jeremy Corbyn make Blairism extinct?

Karl Marx once wrote “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”. Right now Jeremy Corbyn may have that in mind as he appears very much on the verge of making history in a way that no-one, least of all him, could have predicted.

As the deadline passed this week for people to register for a vote in the Labour Party leadership elections, the unprecedented nature of this contest became clear. In the final 24 hours 160,000 people applied. That’s a figure close to the entire Labour Party membership at the time of the last election, and takes the total electorate to over 600,000. And the vast majority of new voters are being inspired by one candidate.

A contest that was shaping up to be another bore-fest has been set alight by the showing of the veteran left-winger. Having only narrowly scraped together the required number of nominations to stand at all—with literally seconds to spare—he is now being seen as the candidate most likely to win by most polls and has been installed as favourite by Ladbrokes. Something seismic is going on within the normally solid confines of the Labour Party. And it’s caught everyone—both left and right—on the hop. It’s hard to overstate what a moment this is in British politics.

Both the former Blairite spin doctor Alistair Campbell and his former boss have spoken out this week on the contest. Campbell—in spite of his intention to stay out of it—gave his wholly predicable endorsement to “anyone but Corbyn” in a lengthy blog post, using the analogy of a car crash to illustrate Labour’s plight. Blair used his platform in the Guardian to appeal to those Labour members and supporters who find the former leader repulsive that the party needed saving from “annihilation” and, in a slight twist to Campbell’s metaphor, being driven off the cliff.

If proof were needed that the Blairite dream was all but over these interventions, shot through with desperation, were surely it.

The way the Corbyn campaign has taken off is unlike anything many of us have experienced within the politics of the left. The sheer bemusement at his popularity is something those inside the so-called “Westminster Bubble” are just not equipped to understand. Claims of infiltration are laughable: that the forces to the left of Labour would have the ability, and in most cases the will, to organise such a massive infiltration are absurd.

So imbued is the mainstream of the Labour Party and its candidates of choice, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall, with the logic of neoliberalism that the appeal of someone prepared to talk of alternatives—of putting people before the needs of finance—lies entirely outside their world. The success so far of the Corbyn campaign is a signal that the neoliberal agenda and its accompanying policy of austerity has reached the point where it is increasingly hard to sell to a battered electorate.

Whilst all candidates talk of their concerns for the poor and vulnerable, the vote on the Tories’ Welfare Bill saw only Corbyn vote against. For the others the important thing was to show that Labour was not the “party of welfare”. The desire to win back the handful of votes in marginal constituencies that went to the Tories in the last election trumps the desire to represent the increasingly disenfranchised layer of people who are hardest hit by austerity.

There have been signs of this coming. In Scotland, following the narrow defeat on independence, the SNP took up a clear anti-austerity message and won big time: the Labour Party was all but wiped out in one of its heartlands. In this they were joined across England and Wales by the Green Party and Plaid Cymru who both raised their profile and received significant support. In the case of the Greens it was only the absurd and grossly unfair First Past the Post electoral system that meant an increase in support was not reflected in increased Parliamentary representation. Elsewhere Syriza was elected earlier this year in Greece on a clear anti-austerity programme whilst in Spain Podemos continues to gather strength.

The one argument from Corbyn’s opponents to the right, when you cut through to the detail, is that he is unelectable. And how do you change things for the better if you can’t get elected?

But this ignores several factors. To begin with who says a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable? He is winning those who have previously abstained from politics. People who have up to now felt ignored by the political process have a voice and it is starting to be heard.

Secondly, large swathes of people actually support Corbyn’s policies, whatever his opponents claim. Indeed some of them are so popular even Andy Burnham has started to incorporate them into his manifesto. Years of decline on our transport infrastructure has led to popular support for rail renationalistaion. The scandalous nature of the housing market makes rent controls a big hit. And so on.

Furthermore a great number of people are not convinced about electability at any price. They want their party back. They want it to show some spine in the face of attacks like the Tory Welfare Bill. And if the party formed a solid opposition between now and the next general election, why would they not be in with a good chance of winning it?

Finally, the strategy of mainstream Labour is increasingly exposed by Corbyn’s principled approach as doing politics the wrong way round: instead of making policy match the wishes of tiny numbers of voters occupying the centre ground, politics should be about working out a programme that will make life better and then winning people to it.

A Corbyn victory would give a massive shake-up to British politics. It would shake the Labour Party to its foundations. Already there is talk of a coup against him from day one. There could be an SDP-style split in the party. Even if he doesn’t win this will surely act as a wake-up call to the mainstream of the party. If they attempt to carry on business-as-usual that could signal, for many more people than already hold the view, that Labour is finished as a progressive force.

Tony Blair says that Corbyn’s politics were rejected in the 1980s “because a majority of the British people thought they didn’t work.” But since then we’ve seen the rise of neoliberalism and people are absolutely certain that the alternatives carried out by Blair and his successors did not work for them. Deregulated public transport has become a joke. PFI schemes are ticking time bombs starting to go off. He says they “realise that a party without a serious deficit-reduction plan is not in these times a serious contender to govern them” but is unable to understand that people have lived through governments that have made them pay for the deficit they didn’t cause and want a new government that actually cares for them first before looking after the interests of big business.

It’s the politics of Blair and Campbell that now belong in the past whilst they themselves stand blinking, uncomprehending as to where it all went wrong. They are like dinosaurs facing extinction, still in a state of self-denial, blissfully unaware of the forces that could be unleashed by the success of Corbyn’s campaign, and that could destroy their thoroughly rotten politics for good.

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