British Politics has always been a bit of a strange beast, and currently the Labour Party are showing how strange it can be. Having suffered an humiliating defeat, it’s currently trying to elect a leader; and in the process, it’s showing itself to be less in touch with its core vote than possibly any party has been in years.
The problem is in the phenomenon of Corbynmania. Jeremy Corbyn, currently looking the most likely leader of the Labour Party, is described all over the place as a Left Winger; someone who subscribes to the ideals of what you might call classical Socialism, and who (unlike it seems many others) is prepared to say so. And the heirarchy are running scared, because he might well win.
Hang on, says the Political Ingenue, aren’t the Labour Party a party of Socialist Priniciples? Isn’t this exactly the sort of person that should be leading the party? However, far from being a party of Socialism, Labour has for many a long year been edging itself away from the left, of being hte party of the workers, and into the centre ground. In some ways, the Gang of Four — the MPs including David Owen and Shirley Williams who left the Labour Party in the 80s to form the SDP — have had the last laugh after all: the party Tony Blair led and got elected was more of a centre ground to a little on the left party than the fearless representative of the Unions and the British Working Class. Yes it retained some of the left; but in reality, the Lib Dems of Paddy Ashdown looked as attractive to thinking socialists as the Labour Party of Blair, and the part of the left that didn’t want to at least stay in Labour (like Corbyn did) instead did what it does best: argue, squabble, and then re-emerge with various splinter groups like TUSC, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, and various others.
In some ways it is strange that this is how it went. Back in the 80s, the Labour Party was awash with people on the outskirts trying to pull the party their way; as well as the centerists who went on to form the SDP, you had the entryism of Militant trying to pull the party ever further to the left. The eventual expulsion of Militant however seems to have caused a rebound that led, following Kinnock’s two defeats and the premature death of John Smith, to the “New Labour” project. However, although Blair was successful at the Ballot Box, that was in reality just papering over a growing split in the party.
The problem is that the split in the party doesn’t necessarily lie where many of the big party figures think it does. The big hitters seem to have been queuing up to tell people that Corbyn is unelectable, that they’re condemning Labour to more years in the wilderness, that it might even lead to the end of Labour as we know it; what they don’t seem to have realised however is that the reaction of the rank and file is less about electability and more about representation: in Jeremy Corbyn, they have found someone who is saying that he does want to represent the working class, and that actually seems to be motivated by principle; the argument is that the main principle of the other candidates is less about representing the concerns of Labour Members, and more about saying whatever will get them elected and into government. And funnily enough, there’s more interest in what seems to be a genuine conviction politician than in others whose main conviction is “I want to be in power”….
This is not to say that Corbyn would make Labour electable. For all that his supporters would like to think so, I suspect that outside the traditional Labour Heartlands, his views will not gain too many votes and indeed it’s more likely to be similar to the narrative when Michael Foot fought the good fight and was crushed back in 1983 (arguably the last time a mainstream party had a genuinley left wing manifesto) than a triumphant entry into Downing Street. But Labour as a movement needs to recognise something: Corbyn is not the cause, he is the symptom. Even if he doesn’t become leader, the support for him shows that there is a significant desire for Labour to reconnect with its roots in the working class; to be able to include the radicals, include the likes of Tony Benn, Michael Foot, and that now vanishing generation of left wing rabble rousers, as well as the more centerist thinking that might give them a chance of power once again. Ignore that voice, and it’s a long road back; after all, it took until 1997 for the splits and divisions of the early 1980s to heal. History may not repeat itself, but Labour needs to learn the lessons of its own past if it is to be a force once again.