The Winner - By Several Lengths! His opponents in the party have railed against the prospect of Labour becoming a “protest party”, but Corbyn understands that change on the scale he is proposing can only be achieved by inspiring and mobilising the voters to demand more from politics than a single, grudging trudge to the polling-booth every five years.
DEMOCRACY WORKS BOTH WAYS. The British Left, as it celebrates the stunning victory of Jeremy Corbyn, needs to tattoo that political truism on its inner eyelids.
It’s simply not enough to impose a left-wing leader on the Parliamentary Labour Party and then head down to the pub for an off-key rendition of The Red Flag and numerous pints of celebratory ale. It took a great deal of grinding political effort by upwards of 16,000 volunteers to secure Corbyn’s first-ballot win. Ten times that number – more – will be required to secure a Labour victory in 2020.
Whether his supporters know it or not, voting for Jeremy Corbyn was a revolutionary act. And, as any student of history knows, one revolutionary act tends to beget another, and another, and another. Moreover, if Corbyn’s supporters don’t know it, then his opponents in the Labour Caucus, the Conservative Party, the right-wing news media, and the City of London most assuredly do.
The impending assault upon the British Labour Party’s new leader will, therefore, be as unrelenting as it is unprincipled. Why would it not be? If Corbyn is not destroyed, and quickly, all that the British Right has achieved since the election of Margaret Thatcher, in 1979, is at risk of being rolled back. If the message that electrified the Labour Left is allowed to electrify the British electorate as a whole, 40 years of Neoliberalism could go down the drain.
The ideological stakes could not, therefore, be higher. A fact the global punditocracy has yet to fully grasp. It was fascinating to hear the panellists on TVNZ’s Q+A programme, broadcast the morning following Corbyn’s historic victory, opining that he would “have to” reposition himself more towards the centre to have the slightest chance of winning the 2020 General Election.
It is difficult to imagine a better example of the indefatigable daftness of the average pundit. As if a radical politician, with the hopes of more than a quarter-of-a-million supporters riding on his performance, is going to adopt a strategy that will immediately brand him as “Just another bloody politician!” Steeped in the history of the Left, Labour’s new leader is undoubtedly familiar with Robespierre’s grim observation that: “He who makes half-a-revolution digs his own grave.”
Left-wing Corbyn may be – but stupid he is not. He knows that his only way through the toils and snares that already are being set before him is at the head of a large, and growing, popular movement. Which is why, beginning as he means to go on, Corbyn’s first act, after winning the Labour leadership, was to deliver a passionate speech to the massive pro-refugee demonstration in Trafalgar Square.
His opponents in the party have railed against the prospect of Labour becoming a “protest party”, but Corbyn understands that change on the scale he is proposing can only be achieved by inspiring and mobilising the voters to demand more from politics than a single, grudging trudge to the polling-booth every five years.
Perhaps the most formidable barrier to Corbyn’s plans to transform his party into a mass movement for radical change is Labour’s parliamentary caucus. It has been many decades since Labour members of parliament saw themselves as tribunes of the people – let alone as handmaidens of a structural economic and social power-shift.
Under the tutelage of Tony Blair, in particular, the Labour caucus more and more came to reflect the technocratic and managerialist values so central to the exercise of neoliberal governance. That the British Labour Party’s rank-and-file have just rejected these values has not yet penetrated the skulls of the Blairite rear-guard – most of whom have refused point-blank to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet – let alone embrace the radical democratic politics his runaway victory represents.
If these MPs, by refusing the Whip and voting alongside the Tories on such right-wing initiatives as benefit reform, restricting immigration and bombing Syria, opt to play dog in the manger, then Corbyn will find himself caught between the derision of the Tories and their right-wing newshounds, on the one hand, and the rising fury of his party’s rank-and-file, on the other. Having refused the Party Whip more than 500 times himself in the course of his parliamentary career, Corbyn’s response to similar disloyalty from the Right will need to be unusually creative.
But that, of course, is the beauty of a democratic project that works both ways. The solutions to vexing political problems need not stem, exclusively, from the brain, or the mouth, of just one person – The Leader. In a democracy that works both ways, the solutions are as likely to be collective as individual. Corbyn, unlike Blair, will not have to stake everything on his ability to persuade, cajole or bludgeon his colleagues into backing his increasingly wayward visions. Corbyn can – and will – let the people decide.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 September 2015.