Labour Party leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn

Let the ruling classes tremble, the revolution is here. The ruling classes in question are the grandees who run the Labour and Co-operative Party of Great Britain — Labour with a U to you — who are watching the orderly process of electing a new leader go well off the rails. Following the post-defeat resignation of Ed Miliband — who? — it was meant to be an orderly return to Blairism and the centre-right. The least inspiring candidate was the favourite, Andy Burnham. The least uninteresting was the manically right-wing Liz Kendall. The absence of a genuinely dissident voice was noted. Veteran leftie Jeremy Corbyn stuck his hand up for nomination, but couldn’t get the requisite 35 MPs to get on the ballot. Burnham released some of his 100-plus supporters in the interest of the appearance of a real contest of ideas. And …

Jeremy Corbyn is now leading the race for leadership of the Labour Party. This is hilarious. This is unprecedented. There’s no analogy for it in current Australian politics — the closest you could say is, if there were no Greens and the left was still in Labor, Lee Rhiannon would be poised to become the next leader of the ALP. Corbyn is a socialist, a green, an anti-imperialist, and a tireless campaigner for the oppressed and imprisoned abroad. He makes Ed Miliband look like … David Miliband. Many right-wing Labour MPs have loathed him for a long time, while the rest saw him as a legacy hold/conscience of the party/useful leftish voice, etc, etc. That’s changed. Now they just about all loathe and fear him.

So how has he got into poll position? Because of Labour’s 1:1:1 electoral college system, representing the MPs, the unions and the branch members equally. Corbyn was doing well in the branch members section almost from the off, but that of itself would not have been sufficient. He really started to rocket up when he got the backing of Unite, a mega-union representing workers across hundreds of industries and services. Unite itself had a shock shift to the left when they elected one-time Liverpool docker Len McCluskey as their head in 2011. The union had always supported the centre-leftish side of politics — i.e. Gordon Brown — but this was a trek one stage further.

For all that however, they’re still not as far to the left as Jeremy Corbyn, and they’d be nervous about his international anti-imperialist politics, as he is a vociferous critic of the US alliance, support for Israel, continued occupation of Northern Ireland, etc, etc. They’re supporting him because what remains of a genuine centre-left in the party has been locked out. The party had blundered into a ghastly neo-Blairite zone in which each leadership contender tried to outdo the other in distancing themselves from the very moderate leftward move of Miliband.

Unite almost certainly doesn’t want Corbyn to be the leader going into the 2020 election. But neither, most likely, does Corbyn. He’s realistic enough to see that he’s to the left of the electorate — but he can do two or three years and allow a plausible centre-left candidate to take the lead. Corbyn is as he looks — bearded, in a five-quid shirt and cords, heading towards 70, a man of many interests. He’s the MP for Islington North, which is like being the MP for Newtown/Fitzroy/two blocks on Vulture Street/that one bloke Dave in Launceston.

“The Greens took with them much of the energy and appetite for ideas that once powered Labor. Some good people remain, but the drone ratio has skyrocketed.”

Corbyn’s success is an opportunity for the Labour Party, but it’s also indicative of its crisis. It has come about because there are no big ideas at the centre, about how a party should reconstruct its progressive ideals to offer the populace a new vision that could command majority support. Ed Miliband’s version had been decent but disappointing, addressing the concerns of low-paid and precarious workers, without finding a new formula for the squeezed working middle class. After his electoral failure, the Blairites — who had set Labour up for a fall by disastrous bankerolatry — chimed in to move the party back to the right. The press focused on the candidacy of Liz Kendall, whose strategy was simply to agree with everything Cameron and the Tories were proposing, such as the abolition of child tax credits, a move that would plunge many thousands of working low-income families into deeper poverty .

Kendall was “interesting” by the standards of the deathful contests — until Corby came into play. His entry sparked a hooray Henry initiative from the UK Telegraph, a once-great paper become a sub-Murdoch rag, encouraging Tories to join Labour to vote Corbyn in and wreck the party. That had the reverse effect of tarnishing Corbyn’s numbers, until he called for tougher rules excluding such obvious entrists from voting. At this point his candidacy shot up again and — miracle to behold — three MPs who had nominated him called for the party centre to “stop him” gaining the leadership. There was talk that MPs were already plotting a fresh spill a few months hence should Corbyn succeed. If his leadership joust achieves nothing else, it has exposed the pseudo-democracy of the Labour party perfectly.

And two days ago, Tony Blair himself said Corbyn’s policies would be bad for the country — essentially suggesting a Tory vote if he won — and “if your heart’s with Jeremy Corbyn, get a transplant”.

Most likely he won’t get up — his odds have widened to 11/2 in the turf accountants — but he would be a treat if he did. The right are rubbing their hands with glee, but only because they haven’t fully thought this thing through. Corbyn has all sorts of social and international left positions alien to the mainstream, but he has one great ace-in-the-hole — he’s highly critical of the EU and was in favour of a referendum about UK membership long before other leadership candidates were dragged kicking and screaming to it. He’s critical from the left — but so are many of the former Labour voters who’ve drifted to UKIP in the past.

Indeed, the right protesteth a little too much — Fraser Nelson of The Spectatorhas written so many articles about how great a Corbyn leadership would be for the Tories that one can’t help but see self-reassurance. Corbyn would have all sorts of problems as a pre-election leader. But in the two years from now, he could launch one attack after another against the Tories about inequality, fat-catism, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, foreign wars, etc, etc. He’s a clean-skin — never been a minister or a secretary — and he can be, and has been, as critical of Blair and Brown as the Tories are. He’d be able to take a clear line rather than getting caught in a would-you, wouldn’t-you on tax rises, job creation, etc, etc. He would — and that sorted, he could then hit the Tories where it hurt. That’s presuming he had the base skills for the dispatch box, which is a real question.

What does Corbyn’s success represent? In its quiet, very British way, it’s a manifestation of the crisis of the centre-left, as much as is something like Podemos in Spain. Institutional forces and the absence of a wider social crisis keep the Labour Party together, but the split between the elite caste who form the bulk of its MPs and its membership and wider support base can no longer be ignored. In Australia, it might be thought that Labor dodged a bullet due to the rise of the Greens, which was how the contradiction became manifested. In fact, it’s worse. The Greens took with them much of the energy and appetite for ideas that once powered Labor. Some good people remain, but the drone ratio has skyrocketed.

Perhaps the most interesting example of this is the rise of Bernie Sanders as a candidate in the Democratic primary in the US, a topic for another time. What’s worth noting is that Sanders — a self-described socialist — is well on track to win the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, the agenda-setting contests of the presidency. The ruling classes will not worry overmuch. But the party grandees will tremble.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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