Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Jeremy Corbyn effect and the Labour leadership election: the death of New Labour?

A month from now, we'll know who the new leader of the Labour Party will be. The odds favour Jeremy Corbyn, given the massive groundswell of support from the party grassroots, which has left the three other "establishment" candidates struggling to come up with a plan. The latest one - involving all the "big beasts" - seems to be an all-out attack on Corbyn's values and what it would mean for the party electorally.
The surreal irony here is that the party hierarchy talk about Corbyn being someone who will have no resonance with the public mood, while he remains the only candidate of the five who has energised the party base and caused a massive rise in party numbers (more on that later). In other words, the hierarchy want someone who may have little in common with many of the actual party members, but will somehow resonate with the wider public. The surrealism of this point of view tells us what stage of absurdity the Labour party has now reached.

From party of government to political laughing-stock

In five years, the Labour party have gone through a seismic change in fortunes, at least as traumatic as that which they faced between 1979 and 1983 - arguably more so. The story of what happened in Scotland north of the border is highly educational. The party became complacent and relied on second and third-rate party hacks to run things on Scotland, while being dictated to from Westminster. The SNP took advantage of this ruthlessly, and took power in Holyrood with a majority. In 2015, Scottish Labour's MPs in Westminster found out when the same result is applied to a FPTP system: wipeout.

What we are seeing now is the accumulation of various factors, which have aligned together at one moment in time, bringing the spectacle of the current Labour party into full focus. Apart from the meltdown in Scotland highlighting an effective schism between the ideologies of the Scottish and English electorate, there are the changes that have happened within the Labour party itself over the last five years (and since the May election) that have contributed to this very public mess.

Ed Miliband's election as leader was due to the support of the unions. We can only guess now what might have happened if David had won instead; of all the possible candidates to lead the party after the 2010 election defeat, he was probably the best-qualified, having been Foreign Secretary, and being a figure who could easily articulate the "centrist" approach. As we now know, the grassroots of the party are currently much more leftist than many of its MPs, most of which have served through the years of New Labour. Ed Miliband has been seen as one reason for this realignment amongst the grassroots.
Then, after the Falkirk election scandal, the voting system within party was changed, with the intention of making it much more open to party members, making the process more obviously representative of members' views, and allowing for low barriers to entry to encourage increased party membership. Given that party membership is now more than 200,000, we can say that approach is a success. Unfortunately for the party hierarchy, the members are not looking to vote the way the party elite expected.  The horrible complacency of Labour's leadership has come home to roost. Having allowed a "token" leftist candidate on the leadership election, once more the Labour leadership took things for granted: their members would vote for one of the uninspiring, centrist candidates because there was "no other alternative". They had learned nothing from the debacle of Scottish Labour. In the same way that the SNP became the beneficiaries of Labour complacency, Jeremy Corbyn has become the beneficiary of this grassroots insurgency.

Having given the party base a weapon to democratise the election process, the party heads are appalled at how this has backfired on them. While those at the top of the party are New Labour veterans and stalwarts, the "Ed Effect", and the shattering loss of the 2015 election, seems to have galvanised the party base to "stick two fingers up" to the out-of-touch complacency shown by Labour in Westminster.
This is also partly a result of the lack of any inspiring new figures coming through the party. While the likes of Chuka Umunna and Liz Kendall are new MPs and can articulate the "New Labour" idea, the problem is that it is not what many of the grassroots want to hear. Worse, their generalisations and lack of a "common touch" make them out as being only a few shades to the left of the Tories. This is also partly the legacy of New Labour and Blair: selecting yes-men and party hacks as MPs, that have little real life experience outside of politics. Only Dan Jarvis of the "newbies" bucks this trend as being a former soldier with a genuine life story to tell; but for (understandable) family reasons doesn't wish to step up to the mantle.

Cavaliers and Roundheads

This is where the "Corbyn-,mania" comes from. Being cut from a different cloth to the many indistinguishable "New Labour" figures, he is the polar opposite, something that hasn't been seen in British politics for thirty years. A natural populist, he appears as a bearded prophet, who dresses in the style of puritan socialist. This is in marked contrast the "professional" look of the rest of the Westminster set, from the "New Labour" types to the ranks of the public school Tories.

In some ways, British politics these days seems to resemble the ideological contortions of the mid-17th century. Certainly, with the situation north of the border, relations between England and Scotland may be said to be almost as bad and distrustful as they were in the days of the Civil War. While no-one of course is suggesting violence, the political situation, and the complex political realignments across Britain, could be said to be as convoluted and as difficult to comprehend as they were at that time. There are factions and sub-factions now as there were then.

The Tories are certainly living up to their role as the party of the aristocracy (The "Cavaliers"), doing just enough to rule the country, but doing so in a highly-divisive and dangerously-reckless way. Like back then, the modern Tories - the party of the aristocracy - are unpopular in London. Like back then, the Tories had "lost Scotland" to a group of Scottish political insurgents.
But also like then, bizarre political groupings and alliances were formed. The modern Labour party (aka The "Roundheads") has factions of its own, as Cromwell's supporters did back in the 17th century. During the Civil War and up to the Restoration, Scotland changed allegiances a number of times. This was also the time of "The Levellers", whose values these days Jeremy Corbyn would be sympathetic towards. The "Corbyn insurgency" bears all the hallmarks of being a grassroots rebellion like that which was formed by The Levellers in days of the Civil War.

The current political situation within the Labour Party in Britain may soon become even more convoluted, if Jeremy Corbyn becomes the new leader. Corbyn's campaigning in Scotland has shown that he has drawn the support of many who had only just recently swapped their votes from Labour to the SNP in the general election. However, the new leader of Scottish Labour, Kezia Dugdale, is ardently against his values. So we may well have a situation where the leader of Labour in England is more popular in Scotland than England, and more popular than Scottish Labour's own leader, who disagrees with him. This would be beyond farcical, but also a reflection of how complicated British politics has become.

A Corbyn leadership may well be a "moment of madness" by the Labour grassroots, given the fact that they lost the general election on a platform more to the middle than anything proposed by Corbyn. A mass movement of Corbyn support would almost certainly face a bloodbath in the face of the "Cavalier" Tories in 2020; but it would be an "honourable death", as seen by his supporters.

The problem is what state the Labour Party would be in afterwards - or after five years of Corbyn leadership.

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