So, interesting times, huh.
Actually, incredible times.
The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn fights the Tories to a hung parliament after years in the wilderness. Go back in time and tell me that in early 2015 and I’d laugh in your face. Not because I ever had anything but respect for Corbyn. I’ve always considered him a man of seriousness, principle, and dedication. And not becaue I think left-wing policies (or what passes for them these days) can’t sway people, can’t be popular, can’t win elections. They can, and do.
(The truth is that, spread out across Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru – and taking into account the many people who vote LibDem for left-liberal reasons, and the many more people who abstain because they’re too left-wing to feel represented by any party, even if they themselves don’t necessarily understand themselves that way – the majority of the British public are to the left to some degree. As Milton Friedman once bewailed, the public are irretrievably collectivist.)
No, I’d have laughed primarily because I would never have thought Corbyn would be able to get the nominations to stand for the leadership; and then I’d never have believed that the incurably cowardly and centrist Labour Party would elect him. But he got those nominations – essentially because of a prank – and then the Labour membership stepped up. Moreover, the people who had either been alienated from the party, or never attracted to it in the first place, owing to the poisonous legacy of Blairism, began flooding to join.
Initially, the Corbyn group showed serious lapses of judgement and competence. Many of these were probably inevitable when people with no experience of party leadership started trying to lead a party in adverse circumstances… but, it must be said, many others were avoidable and unforced.
Even so, the main drag factors causing Corbyn’s persistently low polling and approval numbers in the pre-election period were the systematic media bias against him (across the spectrum from the hard right tabloids to the BBC to the supposedly left-wing Guardian, they either left what he said unreported or misrepresented him, often to the point of simple and outright fabrication) and the resistance from inside his own Parliamentary Party. The comical palace coup failed to unseat Corbyn, as we know. And there we saw a first real glimpse of the man’s grit, as he faced down not only a jeering David Cameron but a hefty chunk of his own party (his PLP being largely a bunch of centrists at best), going on to win a second leadership election with an increased majority.
Even so, most commentators expected – along with Theresa May, clearly – that Corbyn would lead the low-polling Labour Party over the cliff and into oblivion in this election. Such is the unassailability of the entrenched and religiously-believed dogma of the neoliberal normal. So imagine their astonishment when Corbyn started closing the gap – spectacularly. The one difference being that, in election season, any media with any desire to pretend impartiality are more or less obliged to give coverage to both sides. When the public actually started seeing and hearing Corbyn, not just because of his energetic campaigning but also because he finally started getting something resembling proper coverage, things started to change.
The pre-election polls started the first mini-avalanche of nonpologies and bemused demi-retractions from professional soft-left anti-Corbyn snarkers. The dictatorship of the commentariat started to feel silly, and started arse-covering exercises. We can expect another such avalanche now that Corbyn has led Labour to its biggest vote share in years, picking up seats for the first time since 1997, and fighting the Tories into a hung parliament and a fragile minority government…
Indeed, the “whoops, aww shucks, I guess I messed up…” routine has already started being performed by those who spent Corbyn’s entire leadership up til now endlessly reassuring us that he was a clownish no-hoper who would destroy the Labour Party. Entities like the odious Jonathan Freedland are falling over themselves to show how reasonable they are by fessing up on Twitter to having been wrong (yeah, we noticed), as if the important issue here were the accuracy of prognostication rather than deliberate, dishonest, malicious, sustained reactionary sabotage from a media religiously opposed to anything to the left of Blair.
Of course, this isn’t a win. May will – probably, as I write this, she already has – form a deal with the DUP (hard-right Northern Irish Unionist/Protestant-chaunvinist party founded by fanatical anti-Catholic bigot Ian Paisley) and form a government. And they will continue to pursue lethal Austerity policies ideologically founded on class-war, hard-Brexit aimed at turning Britain into an authoritarian tax-haven, and reckless imperialism and clandestine shenanigans that bring terroristic blowback to the streets of the UK. Because they are what they are.
We might pause to wonder where we’d be today if, putting the media to one side entirely, Corbyn had simply recieved the backing of his own party. But hey ho, I guess we’ll never know.
The question is: what next for the fightback?
It seems unimaginable now that the media can go back to their pre-election attitude to Corbyn… well, the ostensibly independent or ‘left’ media anyway; the right-wing media (i.e. most of it) will continue merrily smearing. More importantly – at least, I hope it will turn out to be more important – is the fact that Corbyn’s election campaign may have started something resembling a movement.
It was always going to be a social movement from below that buoyed up Corbyn if he was ever going to get anywhere. But, of course, we have to think dialectically. Social movements don’t generally just spring up from nowhere, and leadership plays a big role in sparking, fostering, encouraging them… just as movements from below are crucial to provide momentum (no pun intended) behind leadership, to expand the horizons of the leadership, to embolden the leadership, etc.
A crucial factor in this election seems to have been youth turn out. Now, as much as I don’t want to accept the fetishism of youth (being old myself), there’s no doubt that young people coming into political engagement can provide new momentum and new perspectives. To the extent that they stayed away from the polls, that’s my generation’s fault. We have allowed them to become convinced that they don’t need to bother, or that there’s no point bothering. On the other hand, to the extent that they came to the polls (and, even more importantly, to the canvassing and campaigning), they deserve all the credit for that. Much youth engagement is sui generis (as much as anything can be) because, far from having been engendered by Corbyn in any simple way, it actually helped engender the Corbyn leadership. Corbyn is only party leader at least partly because of the youth vote in the leadership elections.
Of course, it’s hardly all about youth. That’s a symptom of something else. Younger people are giving clearer expression to something broader. What we are witnessing is the first twitching reawakening of class consciousness across the board. Tentative and minor, as yet, but definitely there. But there’s no denying that Corbynism has worked – so far, to the extent it has – not despite being collectivist and class-based but because it is openly collectivist and class-based.
It’s very telling that Corbyn and Corbynism work far better out amongst the public – campaigning, canvassing, speaking, rallying – than they do in the internecine establishment labyrinth that is Westminster. That’s because, as a genuine (if reformist) socialist, Corbyn’s politics is actually all about the struggle from below.
Reformism is based on taking energy from below to enable tinkering from above. But Corbyn’s reformist socialism is heavily influenced by that of Tony Benn, which came to see parliamentarianism – in an idealised way – as an expression of, and in service to, the will expressed in and by popular struggle. Ultimately, it’s unsatisfactory to someone like me, but it’s miles ahead of even the conventional left-parliamentarianism of ‘Old Labour’ (which was, of course, the crucible of Benn’s rejection of it). What such Bennite-Corbynist semi-radical reformism could actually do in practice (under the onslaught of the ruling class in its many guises as press, civil service, intelligence services, finance, etc etc etc) is open to question. But we’re not even at the point of worrying about that yet.
In many ways (as much as I believe in power beating powerlessness anyday) a Labour victory this time would’ve been a poisoned chalice anyway. A slim majority leading to a weak government. The albatross of Brexit. Etc. What happened may be the best thing. It will almost certainly lead to four or five more years of punishing Tory rule (and a weak government is only so weak… look at the wreckage the Tories were able to wreak even in coalition with the LibDems, who tried to put the brakes on Tory extremism even as they enabled them in the first place), which means it will kill people. That’s the real effect of Tory policy at the moment: mass death. That’s not hyperbole. That’s what it means to privatise the NHS, and vandalise the welfare system. Not to mention the continuing policy of endless imperialist war abroad… or the creeping authoritarianism at home, which will also lead to greater and greater direct establishment violence against UK citizens… or the inevitably dire consequences for minorities, migrants, etc. But, sadly, if one is to be morally serious about politics one also sometimes has to be somewhat hard-headed. I’ve always said – right from the start – that Corbyn was a gamble and, if it was going to work, it would have to be seen as part of a long game. Right now, the game is going better than even I could’ve hoped. But it’s far from over. And we’re still losing. We’re just losing better. And that’s not to be sniffed at. We’re not losing anything like as badly as everyone thought we would be by this stage. The tactical goal should be a Labour victory, hopefully with Corbyn as leader (or someone similarly oriented, possibly elected after the ‘McDonnell Amendment’ is passed at conference), next time. It looks likelier now than it ever has before, even to those of us who didn’t do an Owen Jones.
But this will depend on keeping up the momentum. As Kit Power recently said to me, one thing about New Labour was their permanent war footing, their constant campaigning. There’s something to that. Corbyn could learn something there. And, crucially, he may now be in a position to put something of the kind into effect. But Blairism was all top-down. It was founded on the destruction of Labour as an expression of popular will from below. Can Corbyn create a version of New Labour’s stamina while reforging the links between Labour and its base? Well, we can’t even begin to sensibly ask the question if the base isn’t there, isn’t active. But, for all the erosion of loyalty in Labour’s traditional heartlands (thanks again Tony), it seems to be coming back, becoming active again. Which brings us back to movements and engagement, and dialectical relationships between base and leadership.
Things look healthier and more promising today. They really do. Engagement is coming back. Sometimes under its own steam, as the public become ever more tired of being punished by capitalism, and ever more aware of what it is punishing them (which is what I mean by ‘class consciousness’).
Even so, in most cases, there has to be something to trigger and entice engagement in active party politics. This is what Corbyn Labour has provided, in the manner of a lemonade stand suddenly appearing beside a man in the desert who has only just woken up and realised he’s thirsty. Is the presence of the stand what triggers the awareness of thirst? Yes, but the thirst had to be there to be noticed. And the man needs to get up to reach the stand, even as the lemonade salesman holds out a glass.
Corbyn is better placed ideologically than just about any other British Labour politician – possibly ever! – to grasp this dialectic (though not because he’s a Marxist… he’s not, in case you were wondering). If he stays on, and I hope he will, he must grasp and exploit this dialectic. It is the reason he’s where he is today. And, one way or another, it’ll be the reason he ends up wherever he ends up. And, like it or not, clearly where he ends up is going to play a huge part in determining where we end up.
ADDITION: Check out this excellent piece from Jonathan Cook for some actual, like, figures ‘n’ shit:
Corbyn has proved himself the most popular Labour leader with the electorate in more than 40 years, apart from Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. But let’s recall the price Blair paid for that very small margin of improvement over Corbyn’s vote. Behind the scenes, he sold Labour’s soul to the City, the corporations and their lobbyists. That Faustian pact secured Blair the backing of most of the media, including Rupert Murdoch’s stable of papers and TV channel. The corporations mobilised their entire propaganda machine to get Blair into power. And yet he managed it with only 2 percentage points more than Corbyn, who had that same propaganda machine railing against him.
Also, unlike Corbyn, Blair did not have to endure a large section of his own party trying to destroy him from within.
That is the true mark of Corbyn’s achievement.