I take the title of this blog from the repeated line expressed by Colonel Cathcart in regards to Yossarian in Catch-22. It is a scream of exasperation at Yossarian’s refusal to conform to his plans for order and self-promotion in a situation of insane chaos. He writes on a board ‘Yossarian!’ and then ‘Yossarian?’, neither able to discipline nor understand him.
There seems to be something of an analogy here with the leader of the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn has taken a great deal of flak recently: from his own Parliamentary Party and also from the media. And yet, he remains largely unchanged amidst the venom of the media and the chaos within the Labour Party.
This should not surprise us. I first started reading about Jeremy Corbyn when researching the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK. His name came up frequently as a staunch opponent of apartheid, expressing a consistent message of Black South African liberation and support for the ANC. He remains entirely consistent in his political values, something that is treated by many political commentators as either excessively moralising or politically naïve. This can only be a remarkable piece of analytical gymnastics for those who celebrated the ‘conviction politics’ that Blair honed so well and Cameron took straight from him. Blair left a legacy in which not changing one’s mind in the face of contravening evidence was ostensibly good leadership and strong moral compass. Now, it seems, it is not.
In any case, Corbyn is neither excessively moralising or naïve. He is simply consistent and consistently awkward. He commonly starts by expressing outrage at extreme and mass poverty; he says plainly that refugees are welcome; he declared a desire to reverse privatisation; and he calls himself a pacifist. That he does so in moral terms simply makes him a politician. It is only that the agenda he presents – openly, consistently – is one that the political right dislikes and the Labour Party has become fearful of speaking about plainly.
It is right that Corbyn continues to talk about the poor and vulnerable because the UK is, we should shamefully admit, a country with a major poverty problem. This was why Corbyn started with questions to the Prime Minister with vignettes from poor people that he considered to speak for those who are largely voiceless. The present-day circus of Westminster revolving doors and resignations does not in any way address the effects of recession, austerity politics, massive income inequalities, unemployment and job insecurity, unsustainable indebtedness amongst the income and asset-poor and so on. For Corbyn this is the major political issue and I think he is right.
What the World Bank and other development organisations call ‘chronic poverty’ is very much present in the UK but it does not enjoy much prominence. The political issues that dominate are growth, security, and immigration. A great deal could be said about each of these but none of them has the general well-being of those living the most precarious and exhausting lives at its heart. So, although some have pointed out (usually on their way to some kind of Corbyn critique) ‘Corbynomics’ does not present anything distinctly different from a more left-of-centre social democracy that has always been part of Labour politics, he does frame his policy direction in a way that is distinct. Corbyn is explicitly undoing the New Labour project of appealing to the middle classes.
There is a second aspect of Corbyn’s leadership that makes him awkward. He was elected to the position of Labour leader on the back of the ‘three pounders’ who joined and voted for him. The impression one gets form the social media is that this groundswell of support for Corbyn has come in part from a rather unique political connection: between those who have identified with and been active in social movements since the 1990s when New Labour became an avowedly non-socialist party and a leader who appeals to the social movement worldview. Struggle is back in; capitalism is not nice; the poor and oppressed have become the focus of political concern. And, Corbyn has come to represent a kind of adversarial leadership in which his own position within the Labour Party has been constantly under attack from ‘Blairites’ and the mass media.
He has become a hero for a generation of social movement activists who were on the streets in the 1990s and 2000s protesting against privatisation, war, and austerity. This support verges on the cultish. It gives Corbyn’s support base considerable tenacity, not least because social movement politics is at its most vigorous when protesting. One might speculate that new members are less likely to attend party branch meetings than join Momentum.
Corbyn remains on the ballot sheet, an awkward and tenacious leader who will not stop talking about the poor and oppressed and in doing so gaining increasing support from a broad political movement (or movement of movements) that had until recently been avowedly non- or anti-Westminster. The Parliamentary Labour Party has hardly covered itself in glory in dealing with a leader who is generally not supported and this only adds to Corbyn’s prestige amongst those who joined after he was elected leader. His ability to remain cordial in the face of a remarkable character assassination by the mass media also lends him kudos. Corbyn has triggered a nerve in a time of political uncertainty. If Corbyn wins again he will surely go into the next election as leader of the Labour Party.