Quite possibly Jeremy Corbyn will not be having the best Christmas ever this year. On the other hand, who knows? He was never a man ambitious for high office.

His ascension came about because the UK Labour party needed the appearance of pluralism in its post-2015 leadership election, and so Andy Burnham, the left Blairite frontrunner, lent him the nominees required to get on the ballot. The reformed Labour party electoral structure put in by Ed Miliband did the rest, empowering a vastly expanded membership to overcome the parliamentary party, and give them a man many of them loathed as leader.

Corbyn, said to be reluctant once actual victory loomed, did his duty. Miliband had done his; he was the son of a Mitteleuropean intellectual father, whose life’s work was to convince people that the UK Labour party was a conservative, establishment organisation whose historical role had been to frustrate the working-class path to socialism.

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Ed, I believe, never lost that critical sense of the party, but by the ’90s the idea of a substituting organisation of the left was over. It was the only game in town, for both the Miliband boys, and Ed’s continuity with his father’s legacy was to do three things: break the block vote hold of the trade union leadership on the party, break the power of the parliamentary party over leadership selection, and defeat his brother David, who had drunk the Blairite Irn-Bru.

The election of Corbyn was the result, great and terrible at the same time. These are epic events, and will come to be seen as such, as the petty squalor and libel of the period fades. But that doesn’t do much for progressives, radicals and leftists at the present moment.

Jeremy Corbyn, one suspects, never expected to win — or even last long as leader when elected in 2015. Then he survived a leadership coup, Brexit got voted up, and Labor won 40% of the vote in 2017.

That happened for one reason above all; by simply saying that Labour respected the referendum result, the intra-party division over immigration was avoided. Northern voters were satisfied that freedom of movement would end, southern progressives that the party hadn’t gone nativist. Once that question was out of the way, the British public showed that it was very willing to vote for a left social democratic program which involved selective nationalisation/socialisations, and a raft of other measures.

But once that question was put into play, Labour was screwed. At the centre of modern tragedy is choice; this tragedy was ancient, of fate. Corbyn and the leadership team around him wanted to hold on to the party long enough to cycle out the Blairites from key positions, to scatter the faction. The Blairites knew this was happening, and that they lacked the numbers to stop it, so they took up the anti-Semitism cause– a real problem, in the new expanded party, but vastly, surreally exaggerated — as a battering ram.

Polls after poll has shown that without Brexit, support for the two major parties equalises, or did, confirming the 2017 election result. But the Corbyn team were trapped. They did not think, I suspect, that they could hold out until a scheduled election in 2022, even though that would have been a better election to fight (wave through Theresa May’s least worst Brexit deal, will of people etc, then relentlessly attack as things got worse, Brexit failing to deliver moonbeam pie). 

But quite aside from concerns about lasting the distance, Labour was undermined by its relentless Remainers, who were unconcerned about the damage they were doing to the party with a sneering globalist elitism that treated a referendum vote — however it came about — as something to be worked around and trashed.

These forces will, and are, using their outlets in the mainstream press to trash Corbyn, his team, and a program that was to the right of Attlee’s 1945 program, and about level with Harold Wilson’s late ’60s positions — mild further nationalisations, staying out of Vietnam, etc.

But they could have been fought off too, had the Remain virus not infected the Corbyn leadership team too. From the outside, and as cliché, they were all a bunch of raving Marxists. This obscured real divisions between the actual internationalist Marxists who believe that sticking with a bad EU is better than re-invoking national autonomy, those from the mainstream Communist tradition who are equivocal, and English radicals, such as Corbyn, who are resolutely anti-EU.

The idea that Corbyn is a “Marxist” — as opposed to finding its theoretical framing useful — has always been laughable. The man has an allotment, makes jam from its fruits, and lives in a council house in Islington, which is far from fully gentrified. He’s a west country boy come to London, who plays Ewan MacColl songs badly on folk guitar. Any more English and he’d be on the lid of a Quality Street tin, for godssake.

So why has this personally gentle man been so calumnied by many beyond the right-wing media, when his opponent is one white cat away from being a Bond villain?

The immediate answer is that Corbyn was dead to a lot of Labour’s traditional voters after 2017, when he prevaricated on Brexit. The longer answer is that many had him on sufferance because of something that many Australians won’t recognise: Corbyn is middle-class, and working-class voters hear and see that instantly. His parents were minor professionals; he went to a minor public school. Once Brexit was betrayed, Corbyn was the middle-class snake, Boris was the bloke who’s alright.

Corbyn should have, unannounced to no one, got up one day in the Commons and supported May’s deal. She’d still be in place, under attack, and the tough times would be on the way. But here we are. British history: tragedy, farce, last episode of Blackadder, again and again and…..

See how power works in this country.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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