Since the Lord knows that what the world really needs is another take on Corbyn, let me add mine to the pile. Since getting a sense of the strategic issues involved around his leadership involves something approaching a pros-and-cons format, it is probably best done in the form of a set of succinct points rather than a fully fledged essay. I hope to provide at least some sense of why I am skeptical about Corbyn’s prospects and yet find defending him important for the future of the British left, including those of us (such as myself) who have not joined the Labour bandwagon.
Let’s begin by observing some obvious negatives about Corbyn. There is no doubt the man is personally sympathetic, sincere, and a stalwart champion of left causes in Britain regardless of how unfashionable these are considered by the politico-journalistic chattering classes. But equally, few of even his closest supporters will doubt that he never wanted to be leader and came to the job without a clear preparation for it. The result has been a dispiriting incompetence, and not solely due to sabotage from within and the persistent campaign of mendacious ‘journalism’ about him.
While those things are real and damaging to Corbyn and his supporters, they ought to have been expected. The witless social climbers and careerist frauds that make up the Parliamentary Labour Party were never going to give up their cushy yes-men positions without a fight, and that the UK media would be largely hostile to someone so clearly identified with the ‘old’ left can be no surprise to anyone. What is therefore irritating to us who support Corbyn’s cause is how little of a plan there seems to have been: like the Brexiteers, victory seems to have been so unexpected that no real strategy or vision to provide an alternative to the status quo was ever formulated. It is sad to see Corbyn throw out some vague Keynesian stopgap measures every few months and to consider this an economic policy, when precisely the promise of a vision and a platform for a systematically different approach to the austerity ‘consensus’ is what led to Corbyn’s victory in the leadership race in the first place. On economics above all else a clear and systematic voice for change is expected of Corbyn, and to have to read Richard Murphy criticize Corbyn’s incompetence on this front from the left is unacceptable. Part of it is the lack of coherence; part of it also the lack of ability to get a message across. How many people actually know that abolishing tuition fees is a major plank of Corbyn’s manifesto?
Similarly, there seems to have been hitherto the expectation that the PLP would ultimately play ball and that merely pronouncing good intentions of unity and harmony would bring it about. That there has been poor briefing, internal fighting and shadow cabinet wrangling is all nothing new, but more dangerous is Corbyn’s seeming serious underestimation of the forces arrayed against him. Fortunately, the present leadership race has revealed the reality of the egomania and careerism among the (post-)Blairite factions in the party, so that in this regard at least things have – hopefully – become more clear to all involved.
Corbyn is no Harry Perkins, that must be said. But no Harry Perkins is available. And this is where the anti-Corbyn arguments begin to collapse, and where it becomes clear that defending Corbyn against his opponents on the right is essential to the future of the British left if it is to have any interest in parliamentary affairs at all. The reasons are easy to sum up:
– The most important consideration is that the opposition to Corbyn has sabotaged him from the beginning and has never been willing to accept his huge mandate to lead Labour to the left, regardless of circumstances. To concede even a millimeter to the opposition is therefore to concede not just Corbyn’s leadership, but the very possibility of a left leadership in Labour, ever. That is what is at stake. This is also why the Unite/Tom Watson brokering of a ‘peace deal’ and the chatter about a unity candidate is hopeless: the fight is about whether the left is allowed to have any chance, however democratically legitimate within the party, at leading Labour at all.
– When Neil Kinnock says that the problem with Corbyn is that the Labour Party was meant to be a parliamentary socialist party, what he means is that the Labour Party as the PLP conceives it is supposed to be a self-perpetuating career vehicle. For these people, the Labour Party exists to perpetuate the Labour Party and themselves within it. This is also why they care exclusively about winning the next election and not in the least about which manifesto or policies will achieve that, or what they will do with that election: all that matters is maximizing Labour MPs. Labour is not an instrument to achieve a longer term strategic goal of bringing about socialism: clichés about socialist values are an instrument to keep the Labour patronage machine going. Corbyn’s leadership, on the other hand, means the potential – if not yet the act – of returning Labour to something like its only legitimate purpose from a left perspective, to act as the legal and parliamentary opposition to the politics of capitalist society. This is why Corbyn frightens the Kinnocks and Blairs of the UK so much, and why he must be defended.
– From a larger perspective, it is clear that Corbyn’s inability to formulate a coherent economic alternative stems from the difficult position of trying to do a ‘big tent’ left politics in a declining imperial country, where most people are feeling the pinch but also have clear interests to defend within the existing world order. However, seen from this viewpoint it is all the more worth noting that Corbyn is not just a leftist Labour leader economically, but that he is a consistently antiwar and anti-imperialist one: indeed probably more consistently so than Labour as a party has ever shown evidence of. Combine this with Corbyn’s refusal to blame migrants and immigration for all the country’s woes, a virtually lone voice in the British wilderness at this point. Seen this way, it is clear that whatever the merits or demerits of his leadership skills, the very fact of his being leader plays at a minimum an important role in braking the ever further slide towards New Right populism that is now evident throughout Europe. It is a victory for antiwar campaigners and for the defenders of immigrants and immigration. In dark times, these are important accomplishments.
– For those of us outside Labour per se and who distrust it on the whole, the victory of Corbyn has been a rare direct and electoral victory for someone identified as the ‘radical’ left candidate by friend and foe alike. The very way all the usual suspects, from journalistic cliques to Blairite hacks to patronizing professionals, have united against him is a sign of what defeating Corbyn means to them. To defend him is therefore not to defend a Labour establishment that hates him, but rather the opposite: it is to show up that particular conglomerate of dealers in second-hand elite ideology for what they are. If Corbyn is defeated, it is a serious victory for all the forces in British society that also oppose every other left formation and movement, parliamentary and otherwise. A Corbyn victory guarantees nothing but weakens these forces and will demoralize them. This is therefore a significant strategic concern.
– Finally, while Corbyn is far from a guarantee or promise of such things, his leadership is the best chance of transforming Labour in a more permanent fashion that has occurred since the war. Only with Corbyn in power is there a chance of making Labour into a more membership-based vehicle that can multiply the power of social activism rather than putting a brake on it. Only such a party can at least potentially launch an offensive in the longer run to change the ideological stranglehold of neo-Victorian social and economic attitudes on the British public. While his opponents are keen to point to polls demonstrating how Labour voters and the general public consider Corbyn unelectable, they invariably fail to point out the same holds even more true for his direct rivals: whether Kendall last year or Eagle and Smith this year. The reality is that under present conditions no Labour Party worth having is likely to win the next general election, whenever that may ultimately happen. But only a Corbyn-led long term strategy has any chance of effecting changes on the ideological front, such as are necessary to not just mimic the present state of affairs (as the Blairites want) but to actually change it. Which, in turn, would also be beneficial for the left that has carefully stayed outside Labour itself. This is a major fight and may be impossible due to global socioeconomic conditions, it must be candidly admitted. But only Corbyn and his associates are at least willing to talk about the need to fight that fight, unlike the parliamentary apparatus’ favored strategy of chasing one’s own tail.
One should make no mistake here: there is no realistic prospect of replacing Corbyn in the short or even medium term with some imaginary leader who has his views but also all the connections and leadership skills the punditocracy might demand. There is, firstly, no such figure. And secondly, even if someone more charismatic or potentially tough were to replace him – a John McDonnell or Clive Lewis – this would be no more acceptable to the PLP opposition than Corbyn himself was. Any such transition attempt would leave the credibility of the democratic argument for Corbyn much weakened and open the door for any number of arbitrary deals and settlements, inevitably to the advantage of the Labour right with its long experience in internal manipulation. At the moment, as far as the specifics of the Labour leadership are concerned, it is either defend Corbyn or to concede the leadership of Labour to the Blairites in perpetuity. If the latter are allowed to use every form of political backstabbing and manoeuvering to destroy a left leadership – quite in contradiction to their own stated concerns with electability – there will never be room for one again. Precedent will have been set. That is at stake in Corbyn’s leadership race.