Meeting Corbyn

A new politics?

On the 19th August I attended a Corbyn for leader rally in Sheffield city centre. It was unusual to attend such a large rally of the Left and with such a positive atmosphere. Usually it takes something awful to get left-leaning people on the streets en masse: an anti-racism event, stop the war, no to student fees, shut down the City… This was an event in which the atmosphere was quasi-festive, not Anti! or Stop! Or No! but Jez we can! The square was completely full.

The last time I attended a large assembly under Labour Party auspices was in Chesterfield on May Day 2001 where there was a valedictory meeting for Tony Benn who was retiring as MP. At that meeting, it was initially easy to forget that this was a New Labour party public assembly. There were plenty of stalls with socialist books, and fringe/left issue groups. Benn gave a touching and typically eloquent speech and ended it by handing over to his successor with an endorsement of his role in the Labour Party which was – and it seems so long ago now – the ruling party.

Corbyn is sometimes called a Bennite, but in contrast the Chesterfield event fifteen years ago, there was far less of an effort to connect the energy of the assembly to the Labour party. There were no other Labour MPs; Corbyn barely mentioned the Labour party beyond his own work within it; there was almost no attack on the Tory government. The audience looked to me mainly those on the ‘traditional’ (read: union/CND/anti-apartheid) and ‘new social movement’ (read: war, environment and development campaigner) Left rather than from New Labour. Had Blair been mentioned, one suspects that he would have been booed in equal measure to the more familiar booing at the name of Thatcher. Some speakers identified as ‘local’ or ‘socialist’ in order to define themselves apart from the parliamentary party. Some declared that they had come back to Labour after leaving (Iraq and all that). Some spoke as representatives of affiliated organisations, but did so with no positive affirmations about the Labour party beyond comments on Corbyn.


Liminal and popular

Corbyn’s indefatigable and principled political work gives him a certain kind of strength: many political campaigns on the Left have benefitted from his support over the last thirty or so years. The second political organisation I joined (the first was Animal Aid in case you’re interested) was the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Corbyn was one of the few unequivocally oppositional Labour MPs who held a complete commitment to the anti-apartheid (the Labour Party leadership was more equivocal). Corbyn has substantial political capital with organisations of the Left, to a degree that perhaps makes him unique in Parliament. This gives his leadership claim a strong – one might say organic – connection to all sort of campaigns and organisations on the Left. These groups support Corbyn but they do so from outside the party. And, broadly speaking, all of these connections were made during a period in which Corbyn frequently voted against his own party.

Corbyn is a life-long Labour MP, extremely well-connected on the Left more broadly, who has always been marginal to the leadership – more so than Benn was. This gives him a position as leader and leadership contender in which he is both inside and outside his party. A parliamentary veteran and embodiment of hope not only for traditional left campaigns but also for those politicised through social movement campaigns.

This makes one wonder to what extent his popularity is one that connects to the future of Labour as a Parliamentary party at all. He seems likely to win the leadership contest but with only the most fragile (and currently antagonistic) connections to the party’s MPs and governing bodies. In a year of political surprise, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to predict how this situation will work itself through.


Corbyn speaks

Corbyn is managing a difficult position. Marginal to the parliamentary party, tenaciously supported by a broader Left, and enjoying a surge in support from a ‘social movement’ generation, his challenge is to connect these three different political currents together, and as a leader in some fashion to reconcile them. Did his speech provide clues as to how this might be done?

I expected that the main drive of his address would be mobilisational: to feel good and motivated to campaign, phone, donate, for his leadership campaign. It was in part about this. There was also something of a loose manifesto statement in which issues such as the NHS and poverty were customarily at the forefront. This is where Corbyn is strongest. More than any other politician, Corbyn is believable when he speaks about the outrage of poverty, the importance of free health care, the scourge of homelessness and unemployment. There is a strong affective relation between him and his audience here, a kind of credibility that has no spin, posture, or dissembling. It feels genuine. It breaks through his clunky oratorical style.

But there was also something of a lament in Corbyn’s discourse. A reminiscence for an industrial social-democracy that was destroyed in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he first entered Parliament. He gave a rather tired account of the industrial mass employment past, the rise of Thatcherism, and the destruction of working class communities as a result. He spoke of a desire to reconstruct an industrial economy and he spoke disparagingly about the service economy.

How these two values – social justice and a new industrial policy – connect is unclear. One suspects that the £5 members and Corbynistas do not share a vision of a new industrial political economy of unions, but rather want more progressive values in politics and certain issue campaigns to be brought into Government more effectively such as climate change, war, or the NHS.

I was disappointed to hear so much ‘old Labour’ in Corbyn’s speech. Thatcher, after all, did not destroy Britain’s industrial base alone. All kinds of changes in global capitalism were also extremely important which might be shorthanded as ‘neoliberalism’. Britain maintains a substantial industrial base, in fact (especially if you take the ‘offshore’ square mile of The City out of the accounts), but it is now a very different sector in which technology and skilled manufacture provide nothing like the demand for labour that shipyards, collieries, and forges did. And, in any case, what kind of democratic socialist would want to return to the corporatism of large party-connected unions? It is also clearly the case that Corbyn’s team do not have a clear macroeconomic strategy to realise a new industrialism: the leading lights behind ‘Corbynomics’ have all distanced themselves and what remains is a revived medium-term investment plan which is actually far less radical than one might suppose, blurring as it does not only with the strategy of Owen Smith, but also Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown before him.

The passages about the greatness of mass industrial corporate social security did not mobilise and energise as much as his ‘values’ parts. In a sense he seems as unlikely a leader of a broad-based social movement as he does a Parliamentary Labour party. He seems both immensely popular – a man of the people – and also alone in his own party. It is clear that Corbyn is deeply unpopular within Right within the Labour party, but not only them. The Labour MP over the road from me, Lousie Haigh, voted in support of the ‘no confidence’ motion. She is hardly a ‘Blairite’ or ‘centrist’ at all; in fact I wish someone would gerrymander her constituency half a kilometre so that she represented me. But what she did is express concerns about Corbyn’s management of the party, concerns that have been widely and cordially expressed by many MPs, far more than one would expect from a Blairite rump.

So, Corbyn is in – and to some extent has put himself in – a very difficult and in the medium term untenable position. His prospects as Leader of the Opposition will depend on his ability to integrate a traditional civil society Left, a newer social movement supporter base, and a political party. He cannot do this alone.

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