Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Labour Party in crisis: Jeremy Corbyn, the leadership election and identity politics

Two and a half months on from the general election, the Labour Party is in the middle of a leadership election. The shock of the leadership election has been the surge of grassroots support for Jeremy Corbyn, the candidate who had been supported by a handful of MPs as a sop the traditional left. Originally backed by MPs to promote the notion of the leadership election being about a real choice of values and ideas, it looks to have possibly turned around and bit those "useful idiot" MPs on the behind. He may actually, god forbid, win the vote.

Corbyn is an unlikely-looking insurgent leader, even to his own supporters. He's been an MP since 1983, as one of the "suicide note" intake, and his politics look like old-fashioned '70s socialism. Bearded, over sixty, and dressed like a Marxist academic, he is the antithesis to the modern idea of  the "professional politician".  He also has a record as being a perpetual rebel during the Blair government. "New Labour" he ain't.
These characteristics are somewhat reminiscent of another "old Labour" politician who was (to Blair and his allies) inexplicably popular: Ken Livingstone. Like Ken, Corbyn speaks his mind, and speaks from the heart. He does not equivocate. He does not mind making enemies. He does not mind appearing "controversial". He appears to have the same energy and sense of purpose that Ken was blessed with so that, compared to the other candidates, he is a breath of fresh air (albeit circa 1983). He makes "Red Ed" Miliband seem positively Blairite by comparison.

The "change" candidate 

Speaking of Ed Miliband, some people blame Ed for the rise of Corbyn. The argument is that, because Ed was so keen to distance himself from Blair, it meant that those who joined the party post 2010 were drawn to Ed's anti-Blairite message. In the space of a few years, the makeup of Labour's grassroots had gone from being Blairite-supporting, to being anti-austerity Blair-haters. Miliband had thought that the "political centre" had moved left with the onset of austerity, but the 2015 election proved that, if anything, it had moved to the right. The rise of fads such as "Milifandom" have shown that while Labour has much greater appeal to the younger voter, it has likewise much less appeal to people who actually are more likely to vote. This is something that George Osborne, the Tories' master tactician, figured out a while ago.

This tactical error of judgement has led to the fundamental reshaping of the party's grassroots, in a way that makes it more difficult for a "neo-Blairite" candidate to succeed in the leadership election. While Corbyn has the backing of many unions, and a significant chunk of the grassroots, he also has another unlikely supporter from another party: David Cameron. It was reported recently that in parliament, Cameron took Corbyn to one side to give him a kind of "pep talk". He reminded Corbyn that like him, in 2005 Cameron was initially thought of as an outsider with little chance of becoming leader, but he marked himself as the "change candidate", who offered something different. It was unreported what Corbyn's reaction was to Cameron's cheeky little interjection. Its purpose can only been to cause greater mischief.
Corbyn as the "change" candidate seems like a bad joke, given the man's age, but this is also a symptom of the wider context. Further afield, the rise of SYRIZA in Greece, and "Podemos" in Spain, seem to act as beacons for those in the Labour grassroots who would believe that the impossible is possible in the UK. Also, as the grassroots under Ed Miliband have been replenished with a batch of younger members. this means there are also a whole cohort of activists who have no memory of life before Blair. It is scary to realise that there are Labour members now who were only two years old when Blair became Prime Minister in 1997. Because of this, they have no memory of the splits in the party in the eighties (which Corbyn would have played a part of); splits that saw the Labour party in opposition for eighteen years. Indeed, anyone under the age of thirty would have no direct memory of life under Thatcher and Labour's dark years; to them, it would be a part of folk lore that their parents might have talked about.

Political schizophrenia

Of course, the biggest inspiration for Labour's potential lurch to the left lies north of the border. The SNP has thrived not because it is nationalistic, but because its sense of identity is crystal-clear to its supporters (even if they are being mislead). Conversely, the Scottish Labour party has died because of its lack of coherent identity, plus a combination of complacency and poor management over many years. 2015 was simply the culmination and inevitable result of that. Furthermore, the SNP has benefitted from having two successive leaders blessed with intelligence and charisma. By comparison, the Labour party in Scotland has been ran by second-rate (even third-rate) party hacks, who were then dependent on having major decisions approved by the political heavyweights in Westminster. It was as bad as anything seen in the internal politics of Soviet Russia.

Staying on the idea of identity politics, the situation in the Labour party in general - let alone in Scotland - is pretty dire. While Jeremy Corbyn's "identity politics" is clear, the other three candidates offer "more of the same", albeit in different doses.
Of those, Liz Kendall is the most "neo-Blairite", who seems to most grasp the scale of the job facing the party, and the scale of the changes needed (and realities faced) before it can stand a chance of winning an election any time soon. The problem is that the starkness of her message, and its similarity to the politics of Blair, is deeply off-putting to the "Milifandom"-loving grassroots. Right now, many of them seek succour in the righteousness of opposition. This is why Corbyn message is so appealing, like the barman pouring you another of your favourite tipple after the acrimonious break-up. Corbyn's politics does nothing to help the party get back into government; it simply helps the party to better understand the face that it sees in the mirror. If the party sees its self-inflicted wounds as scars of pride, that is where the real problems start. Seen in this way, Corbyn becoming leader wouldn't even be the nadir: that would only be achieved with an even more cataclysmic defeat in 2020. It would only be after reaching that nadir, could the "demons" in the Labour party finally be purged.

Corbyn is not yet favourite to win. That honour goes to Andy Burnham, who is the most middling of the candidates. While a likable man, he and Yvette Cooper, the last of the four candidates, are former ministers who seem to be treading water politically. They are competent politicians, but lack any obvious charisma or drive that gives any real hope of the Labour party being anything other than a second-rate oppostion party for years to come. As long as Labour is led by people with no clear idea where to take the party or who the party stands for, the electorate will look at them with scepticism.

Politics is marked out by the personalities that dominate it. Thatcher dominated the eighties; the dull interregnum of Major's premiership was quickly overshadowed by the drive of Tony Blair, who went on to dominate British politics for ten years. The Tories struggled with Blair's drive until Cameron came along with the intention of matching it, which then saw him into Downing Street in 2010, by which time Labour's personalities were a fading force. While Blair and Brown dominated the last Labour administration, setting the marker for everyone else, Cameron and Osborne have done the same since then.
This is why of the four candidates for the leadership, Liz Kendall, as a newly-elected MP, offers the most legitimate claim as a real "change" candidate. Dan Jarvis, who was a name mentioned early on but quickly dismissed calls to stand, is another person of note; alas, like Alan Johnson before him, he has the personality but (for whatever reason) lacks the willpower to take on the mantle.

What is certain is that Labour face a task even more challenging than after the 1983 election. Faced with a war on several political fronts, the rise of multi-party politics has landed a hammer-blow to the long-term prospects of the Labour Party. Like their sister parties PASOK in Greece and PSOE in Spain, they face a long, hard slog. By 2020, no-one can even be sure what the UK will look like.

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