He’s only gone and bloody done it again, as the Brits say. Left-winger Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected leader of the UK Labour Party, by a 62%-38% margin, fending off a challenge from MP Owen Smith, in a contest that has caused the party to descend into near civil-war. Nor is it likely to conclude anytime soon. Despite winning a majority in each category of eligible voters — full members, associate members and union-affiliated members — Corbyn remains under sustained attack from about 150 MPs among the party’s parliamentary party, and Labour’s polling remains at disastrous levels. There is a very real possibility of a split, and Labour’s transition to an unelectable rump party for an indefinite period. This disastrous outcome will be blamed on Corbyn and his vigorous and plentiful supporters, but the real fault lies further back — with the Blairite takeover of the party in the 1990s, and the cynical destruction of democracy within the organisation.
There was never any real chance that Corbyn would lose this recontested leadership. Having won the leadership in 2015, he was put to the ballot again last week, after the Brexit referendum resulted in a vote to leave the EU. Corbyn was accused of failing to campaign for the Remain campaign with sufficient vigour, and suffered a vote of no-confidence from 172 Labour MPs — a pretty substantial rejection. The charge was accurate enough — Corbyn voted against staying in the EEC (the EU precursor) in the 1975 referendum on the issue, when Labour’s official position was to be out of it (on the grounds that its commission structure made a genuine democratic socialist government impossible in the UK). He very clearly did not get in front of the Remain campaign this time around. That ensured his popularity with Labour supporters who remain anti-EU, but inspired fresh-loathing among the pro-EU parliamentary elite. Having voted no-confidence in him, the leadership was split, and a months-long campaign began.
The anti-Corbyn forces never rated their chances of knocking him off in an actual vote as very high, so their first move was to try to keep him off the ballot altogether — arguing that he would have to get dozens of Labour MPs to nominate him on there. Since he had only got on there last time by being “lent” some MP s to nominate him, there was no real chance of that happening. The Corbyn team went to court and successfully argued that Labour’s rules meant that the leader did not have to be nominated to appear on the ballot. By this time a substantial internal movement — Momentum — had developed around Corbyn, and was pushing ahead.
Only two people stood against Corbyn, and both were from the left — albeit a more centre left than Corbyn represented. Angela Eagle, the initial challenger, a likeable and well-known figure, yielded to Owen Smith, an unknown and uncharismatic wonkish type. With Corbyn’s victory freshly assured by an uncompelling challenger, the anti-Corbyn forces on Labour’s National Executive Committee moved to plan B — a relentless purge of pro-Corbyn voters, beginning with new members and extending to people who had been Labour members for decades. The purge began with many of the new and associate members who were accused of being Trotskyite “entrists”, and there were undoubtably some people coming in who had no real sympathy with Labour’s social democratic traditions, such as remain.
But the process rapidly became absurd. Former members of the Green Party were purged soon after joining, even though they made it clear that they had consciously switched parties because they now saw Labour as renewed in spirit. Then people who had merely tweeted praise of the Green Party were purged. Finally, people who had simply used the word “green” in a tweet or social media post were excluded. Those purged included 80-somethings who had campaigned for Labour in its epochal 1945 victory — and the grandson of Clement Attlee, the Labour leader elected prime minister at the time.
To no avail. By the time of the leadership vote Corbyn’s position had improved — not only because Owen Smith (a former lobbyist for Big Pharma behemoth Pfizer) appeared to be a lifeless and “me, too”-style candidate, but also because he had pledged to ignore the Brexit referendum result in the unlikely event he was ever elected prime minister — indeed, he suggested he would push for the UK to join the eurozone. Hard to know what to say to that, when Labour is fighting to stop the leaching of its vote to UKIP in the North — it’s indicative of the degree of clueless elitism that has got Labour to this point in the first place. Whatever slim chance Smith had, he lost it with that remark. By the time of the vote, about 200,000 of Labour’s 950,000 (!) members had been purged. Another 100,000 or so never received a ballot paper — plan C. Still, Corbyn prevailed.
With Corbyn returned to the leadership, the anti-Corbyn forces have resorted to plan D — an attempt to change the rules regarding (shadow) cabinet selection. Currently, the leader gets to choose. The NEC now want there to be a, guess what, vote of Labour MP s to select the cabinet — in other words, one packed with anti-Corbynites, who would simply run an alternative agenda from within. Those who rejected this vision were then called “scabs” for being opposed to party democracy. However, there is still doubt about how many MPs will be willing to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet, or whether he’ll be able to field a full one.
For now, the party appears to have avoided a split. The annual conference has just concluded, with Corbyn giving a speech that, for all the calumny heaped on him, was really a mild social democratic one — arguing for a public-borrowing affordable housing program, a 1.5% corporations levy to pay for non-fee university tuition, opposition to foreign wars, a fully non-private NHS, etc. But even that mild program would not fly with the voters in the lower Midlands and south of England (outside London), which Labour needs to be competitive in to win in its own right — or even to win a sufficient plurality to make a coalition with the Scottish Nationalist Party, which will likely retain 50-plus seats at the next election.
There is however, an even deeper problem for Corbyn and his supporters, and it is one that lies at the core of left crises everywhere. Corbyn’s supporters within the party and in its penumbra are full leftists — they believe in both a democratic socialist state and a high immigration rate, and a multicultural social policy to go with it. The wider stretches of Labour support — people for whom Corbyn is no disincentive, or even to be preferred to Blair and Brown — do not feel the same way. They remain substantially opposed to high immigration, and they would like to retain the more homogeneous and parochial Anglo-Saxon society that still perseveres in large parts of the country.
Thus, Corbyn was right to run dead on the EU question. But he is in a dilemma as regards immigration and nationalism. A Labour party that fully embraced the communalism and homogeneity settings that the party held before the liberal social revolutions of the 1960s would be in a position to challenge the Tories with an entirely different politics — and to hammer them as globalising spivs acting as a client party for finance capital. There is no chance of Corbyn doing that, nor of his Momentum support group turning in anything like that direction. While they retain a hybrid politics — globalist in social form, communalist in economic form — they will face a difficult sell, and potentially disastrous voter leakage in their Northern heartland. There, UKIP is not the braying bunch of Southern hooray henries as represented by Nigel Farage, but a party with real social roots, and many ex-Labour people as members and voters. The wilful leftist illusion of the epoch — that the working class are as globalised and cosmopolitan as the culture-knowledge-policy class groups who form the leadership of the left — could have disastrous consequences for Labour. Having been destroyed in Scotland by one nationalist party, it could be squeezed between very different forces, south of Hadrian’s Wall.
The party’s troubled position can easily be blamed on Corbyn — his lack of leadership abilities, failure to project a confident, assertive alternative, the limits of his capacity to step up to the challenge of ridiculous rituals like PM’s questions in the House. It could be blamed on his and his supporters refusal to create a new left policy that combines an emphasis on production as well as consumption, and does not sound confiscatory and union-dominated to nervous voters in the South. But Corbyn’s rise only occurred because Labour was so hollowed out by a decade of Blair and Brown that it needed him to give the impression that the party remained democratic. When Ed Miliband departed, the leadership contenders were four Blairite or near-Blairite stooges, flat-pak people busy revising their support for the Iraq War, the private finance initiative, etc, as the political situation changed. They lent Corbyn some MP nominees to get him on the ballot, to give the impression that the party was so democratic it would allow good old, silly old Jez to have a go — and the members selected an MP who stood for something.
Many might have chosen a more centre-left figure if a genuine one had been on the ballot. But faced with the prospect of being taken for a mug so utterly as to leave you without a shred of political dignity, voting for someone like Corbyn becomes the only choice possible, if a political project is to retain some sort of meaning. That is what the Blairites did not count on in their destruction of a viable mass party — they are still not counting on it, as they attempt to undermine him afresh. Labour may never be in a position to win with Corbyn, but if the old Blairite elite have their way, there may soon be no party at all. Out if sheer pique, and the fact they were always, really, on the Right, they would only go and bloody do it, they would.