Reclaiming the Labour Party? Thoughts on the Corbyn Phenomenon
Note: This article was written back in August 2015, and was originally published on 11 August 2015 in Slugger O’Toole, a popular politics blog with a strong readership in Northern Ireland. It was written when the Jeremy Corbyn entered the leadership campaign fray for the first time, when there was widespread speculation all over about Jeremy’s lack of ability to win the leadership election, let alone steer the party in a positive direction as Labour leader. Two years and a general election later, this article provides a glimpse into the debates and arguments that surrounded the Corbyn leadership election in 2015, and it is an avenue to compare, and take stock of, the contributions that the Corbyn phenomenon has since made to the Labour Party, to politics of the left across Europe and beyond, and to British politics at large. — Chamindra Weerawardhana, Belfast, 17 September 2017.
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The entry of Jeremy Corbyn MP to the 2015 Labour leadership contest injected an unexpected bout of energy to an internal election within the Labour Party that would have otherwise been near-unnoticeable. Media attention to Mr Corbyn has intensified in the aftermath of recent surveys and poll findings that he could well be on the lead. A key factor that distinguishes the Corbyn candidacy is the Blairite political blandness of his contenders for Labour leadership. Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are all schooled in Blairist New Labour politics. So is the present interim leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman MP, whose drift to the right was such that she opted to support the draconian welfare cuts in the recent Tory budget (as opposed, as some analysts have rightly noted, not only to the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Green Party, but also to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party!). As the leadership contest advances, it increasingly appears that the right-wing drift within the Labour Party initially perceived Mr Corbyn as a candidate destined to loose, and not as a serious contender to Party leadership. However, by mid/late July 2015, the Corbyn candidacy has clearly emerged to the forefront, with an impressive outpouring of public support.
Policy agenda: Corbyn priorities in a nutshell
Corbyn’s policy agenda is often described as ‘radical’ in the mainstream media. In reality, this is a euphemism at best, as his policies are based on a nuanced attitude of the left, grounded upon justice, freedom, solidarity and equality for all. In a Britain where politics have veered so much to the right, political views of the ‘left’ are invariably castigated as ‘far-left’. The Independent has outlined ten policy issues on which Mr Corbyn’s views are extremely popular. These notably include rent controls on landlords, a mandatory living wage, the renationalisation of railways, an environment policy that prioritises greener energy and scrapping university tuition fees, best defined as an ‘aspiration tax’ that poses a substantive barrier for young people from low-income backgrounds to access higher education and upward social mobility. His policies on youth involve a complete inversion of the Cameron government’s approach, to say the least. Corbyn also advocates a programme of defence diversification, which involves identifying how the skills of workers in the defence sector can be put to more socially productive use.
Corbyn also stands out in terms of his approach to vital foreign policy issues. A long-standing advocate of the Stop the War’ Coalition, Corbyn is resolute in his opposition to military offensives in which the British government acts in accordance with U.S. agendas, including the on-going debates on Syria. He is also a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament. A Corbyn-led Labour Party, if elected in 2020, has the potential to lead the United Kingdom in playing a conciliatory role in addressing contentious international issues, and consequently, harnessing the country’s profile internationally, especially in conflict-prone regions where the British government tends to be perceived with a sense of antagonism, to say the least. Corbyn’s overall foreign policy outlook is a key factor that the Tories and Labour’s right-wing despise. They systematically castigate Corbyn’s comments calling for dialogue with opposed parties in the Middle East, in an effort to create a headline-grabbing anti-Corbyn media frenzy.
Concerning the UK’s position in the European Union (EU), Corbyn has pledged to work with the EU to transform existing policies, moving towards a ‘better Europe’. In the backdrop of his broader foreign policy agenda, Corbyn has the potential to adopt a sensible and nuanced approach to debates on EU reform, focused on carving out a win-win situation for the United Kingdom. His EU policy is unlikely to carry the self-promoting, antagonistic and hateful attitude of anti-EU Tories.
By entering a political marketplace, designed by Saatchi and Saatchi and the party’s opponents in the media, Labour ensnared itself in a Thatcherite ratchet that led the party gradually to distance itself from the working- class, grassroots activism and socialism in a quest for electability, culminating in the creation of New Labour in 1994. When placed in this context, Thatcher’s onslaught on the postwar consensus was ruthlessly effective, creating the preconditions for the removal of socialist ideology from the mainstream of British politics.
– David Stewart
Several old Blairites have been anonymously briefing the press that Jeremy cannot win the next election, but they said the same about me when I was running for Mayor and some will remember that Mrs Thatcher abolished the 1985 GLC election because we were headed for a landslide. We didn’t lose the last election because we were too Left-wing but because we didn’t have the coherent economic strategy Jeremy is proposing.
The realisation that Corbyn’s support base dramatically increases on a day-to-day basis has sent shockwaves down the Labour Party’s right-wing, with Tony Blairhimself getting involved in the debate, calling for (not unsurprisingly) a Blairite right-wing candidate’s victory, interpreting this as Labour’s only prospect to get re-elected. The pseudo-left, Blairite platform Progress, which emphatically calls itself ‘Labour’s new mainstream’, takes pride in this view. It also rhymes with Ms Kendall’s absolutely obsessive catchphrase “people no longer trust us”. The bottom line of her logic is that in order to be trusted by ‘people’, Labour needs to drift to the right. Some journalists have also sought to advance the same opinion. As Blair’s remarks received tremendous media exposure, they had a ‘reverse effect’. It was Corbyn who benefitted, as more and more people were keen to look him up, examine his policies, and extend their support to his leadership campaign. It is absolutely clear that each right-wing attack helps increase Corbyn’s popularity and support base. This reality, as well as the utter futility of Blair’s comments, has since been criticised by no less a senior party (and Blair government) figure than John Prescott. Anti-Corbyn opposition from Labour’s right-wingers is such that a senior politician requested party members to end the madness with Corbyn, with some Blairites categorically calling to scrap the leadership election altogether.
What advocates of the above-mentioned view willingly or unwillingly forget is that the Labour Party’s austerity-lite policies were at the heart of Labour’s 2015 election defeat. When Labour advocates a milder version of Tory ideological austerity (which is indeed a blatant con to begin with), why not choose the Tories directly instead of Labour? There have been efforts to highlight the opposite, explaining Labour’s 2015 general election defeat as a consequence of not adopting a more pro-austerity approach on the economy. This, if anything, is the inevitable consequence of the long-term absence of a credible alternative to austerity and austerity-lite politics, practiced by both Tories as well as New Labour. Labour also relies on polls, surveys, and analyses from lobbying firms, which can all be manipulated with relative ease to suit a given political position — yet another cause of the Party’s present disarray. A Corbyn leadership has the potential to successfully approach the 34% that abstained at the 2015 general election, especially in the context of George Osborne’s declaration of financial war on young people.
The Media’s Corbyn obsession
The reaction of the media has been most intriguing, with the mainstream press amok with articles that explain, and rather desperately seek to warn Party members of the possible perils of voting for Corbyn. Aside outright condemnation from the likes of ex-Labour leader Neil Kinnock, there have been efforts to adopt more cautious, tactful and argumentative approaches, in an effort to convince people to distance themselves from Corbyn. A fine example is Polly Toynbee’s article expressly calling upon people to back Yvette Cooper instead of Corbyn, published in The Guardian on 4 August 2015. Toynbee categorically castigates Corbyn as the odd specimen, noting that Corbyn does not have the potential to adopt a social democratic vision of gradual change, describing his policies as too radical and unrealistic. Toynbee also refers to a Trades Union Congress (TUC) poll, which highlighted the main reason for voter alienation from Labour at #ge2015 as a lack of certitude on Labour’s economic policy. Polls of this nature need to be read in the context of right-wing (and, most importantly, pseudo-leftist) media propaganda and Tory welfare myths, and the electorate’s drift towards the Green Party and UKIP. That the Miliband-led Labour Party was inconsistent in its economic policy has been the topic of much analysis. What needs to be reiterated is that the likes of Toynbee represent a version of New Labour — a far cry from anything social democratic — as the approach Labour should imperatively pursue. The majority of anti-Corbyn views come from the ‘Tories in red ties’ within the Labour Party, whose Blairite New Labour perspectives do not tally with moderate social democratic politics. It is precisely the task of reclaiming the Labour Party from such individuals that Labour voters are calling for, en masse, rallying around Corbyn.
The argument that Labour ‘has plenty to say about the plight of the poor, but little to offer’ better paid middle classes, is yet another Tory-inspired con. A coherent social democratic policy agenda, drafted, presented to the public and defended by genuine social democrats has the potential to attract public support across the board. This is evidenced in the SNP’s surge in Scotland, and the tremendous popularity that leading SNP figures enjoy beyond Scotland, in other constituent parts of the UK (especially in England and Wales).
The ‘election-winning leader’ fallacy
The Labour leadership campaign analysts in general, and critics of Corbyn in particular, often raise the point that the Party’s next leader should be someone who can win elections. How well could Corbyn market the Labour Party to the British electorate? Right-wingers such as Liz Kendall categorically and repeatedly highlight that Labour needs a marketable leader who can convince a majority of the British public to vote Labour. Ms Kendall further reiterates, on a regular basis, “people don’t trust us anymore”.
Those who advance this argument also invariably place Mr Corbyn in a ‘far-left’ box, castigating him as a non-winner when it comes to elections. Indeed, the debate on whether the Labour Party should focus on its traditional support base, or reach out beyond it, –which strongly came to the fore in the 1980s and in the 1990s as New Labour — also occurred during the 1940s and 1950s. The obvious response to this doubt lies in the flawed classification of Corbyn as representative of a ‘far left’. In reality, his policies represent left-wing, and centre-left positions. Corbyn is a moderate social-democrat, who has fought throughout his political career to remain a social-democrat, avoiding drifts to the right or sacrificing his principles for positions of power and influence. In contrast, those who market themselves as ‘centre-left’ in Labour politics today are, in reality, absolute right-wingers, and in some cases, one wonders why they are members of the Labour Party. It is precisely this category of Westminster politicos that people no longer trust.
The Michael Foot analogy
A recurring analogy among Labour’s right-wingers is that of the late Michael Foot, who assumed Labour leadership from 1980 to 1983. Labour’s splits in the early 1980s were marked by left-wing factionalism, associated with popular figures such as Tony Benn on the one hand, and a rightward drift, which led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), on the other. Similar to the mainstream media campaigns that seek to find fault with Corbyn on a nearly daily basis, Foot (and indeed Benn and Labour’s left wingers) were unpopular with the mainstream media, especially after the Rupert Murdoch-led News International’s acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981, on top of its existing control over the Sun and News of the World. The media endorsed the SDP-Liberal Party alliance and at the 1983 general election, which, given Thatcher’s Falklands victory and divisions within Labour, was very favourable to the Conservatives. Foot, aged 67 when elected party leader, is remembered for Labour’s exceptionally low performance at the 1983 election, and for the challenges he faced in maintaining unity within the Labour Party at a time of crisis.
The Foot-Corbyn analogy may appear to be plausible on the surface, but there are substantive differences between the two men. Despite any basic parallels one could draw, Corbyn is no Foot, and the circumstances in which Corbyn has come to the fore and gained momentum are markedly different from the challenges Labour faced in the early 1980s. Today, Labour is confronted with a post-New Labour crisis. New Labour’s austerity-lite, and abjectly Tory-lite policies have caused disinterest among party members. Blairite policies may have had their day in the mid/late 1990s, but repetitive austerity and the gradual decimation of public services have led to a growing unpopularity of Blairism. Corbyn’s contenders in the Labour leadership race are all advocates of Blairite perspectives to varying degrees. The most important lesson for Labour from the 2015 general election is that Blairite austerity-lite, Tory-lite policies will not lead the Labour Party to any semblance of electoral success in future.
It is in this context that Corbyn’s presence in the Labour leadership campaign triggers unprecedented public interest. As Ken Livingstone affirms, Corbyn’s approach, based on ideas and not personal confrontations, personality clashes or personal attacks, provide a strong basis for him to maintain unity within a Labour Party, which is set to earn more public support if it is to be headed by Corbyn as of next month.
If a cue is to be taken from Corbyn’s rapidly growing popularity, he is the candidate in the Labour leadership race who has presented the strongest potential for public mobilisation, and there is absolutely no logic to the argument that Corbyn is too far removed from the electorate for whatever reason, or that he is not marketable at an election. In reality, Corbyn has all the potential to be the very best marketer UK Labour could ever come across.
Ignoring the periphery: heavy price to pay?
A Corbyn leadership could strongly help address a key issue (and also a comparatively less discussed issue in mainstream media), which is among the reasons behind Labour’s sorry performance at #ge2015. Labour has long upheld a policy of marginalising and in some cases abjectly ignoring its electoral bases outside England. This was the case in Scotland, where Labour took too long to wake up from its slumber, coming up with ideas of reviving its Scottish base only in the run-up to the Scottish referendum and the SNP’s spectacular rise, which can itself be attributed to Labour’s lethargy in Scotland in the first place. Corbyn is set to garner a strong support base in Scotland, with a segment of the ex-Labour voters (who voted SNP at #ge2015) set to rally around the Labour Party and the Corbyn leadership bid.
The same applies to Northern Ireland, where Labour, on the basis of its commitment to the peace process, counts on the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), while still continuing to provide minor financial support to the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI), but systematically preventing the LPNI from contesting elections, including council elections. Whenever it has been evoked, the NILP’s right to contest elections has been UK Labour’s quintessential taboo subject. This is beyond proof for Labour’s disconnect from the province’s political realities, and the extent to which local politics have evolved, post-St Andrew’s, post-May 2007, post-Hillsborough Castle, and post-Stormont House. Today, the Tories differentiate between commitment to the Northern Ireland peace process and their roles in Northern Ireland’s electoral politics. Tories and UKIP, for instance, contested #ge2015 in Northern Ireland. In a pact with the Irish Labour Party, lost in mid-air in the British-Irish dimensions of the Northern Ireland peace process and insensitive to present-day political realities (and to the NILP’s repetitive demands), Labour continues its policy of not contesting elections in Northern Ireland.
Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham has, since 2010, publicly emphasised the importance of Labour contesting in Northern Ireland — a claim he reiterates in 2015, also highlighting the need for consensus with the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party. Corbyn’s links with Northern Ireland, especially with Irish nationalist/republican circles, appear to prevent him from pronouncing clearly on a Corbyn-led Labour Party’s elections policy on Northern Ireland. This, if anything, is an issue on which Corbyn ought to present a clear position, based on the Party’s electoral interests and long-standing links with segments of Northern Ireland’s local polity. Most importantly, Corbyn may trigger varying sentiments in Northern Ireland, given his views favourable to an eventual and gradual unification of the six northerly counties with the 26-county Irish Republic. Concerning political positions and networks, Corbyn continues his close and long-standing ties with Irish republican circles, as evidenced in his meeting with Sinn Fein stalwarts at Portcullis House in late July 2015. Despite political disagreements, Unionism will also benefit from a Corbyn Labour leadership, as there would be an opposition at Westminster committed to combating austerity, which has hit Northern Ireland hard. Most importantly, the presence of an anti-austerity Labour leader with a life-time record of interest in the Irish question, a Corbyn victory could serve to ‘nuance’ political debates in Northern Ireland, which get excessively centred around Sinn Fein and DUP, with vital actors that worked hard at the grassroots such as the Women’s Coalition, are considerably sidelined.
The ‘real’ challenges to a Corbyn victory
Despite the intensity of Blairist diatribes, they are not among the real obstacles to the election of Mr Corbyn as the next Labour leader (or the election of a Prime Minister Corbyn in 2020 for that matter). The real obstacle lies in Britain’s capitalist and antidemocratic establishment. Corbyn is not to the liking of the Murdoch-led media machine, which has launched a massive anti-Corbyn offensive, set to continue if Corbyn does get elected, in order to facilitate some sort of a coup in the Labour Party.
In sum, the arrogant media establishment — with its non-negligible impact on political views and public opinion — wants the Labour Party to operate just like the Conservatives, with minor differences and deviations, which are, at best, a cosmetic and ‘slightly-left-of-Tory’ sham. If either Mr Burnham, Ms Kendall or Ms Cooper is appointed to Labour leadership, it makes it easier for the media establishment to control the Labour party and its leader. This all-powerful lobby absolutely devours Labour’s red princes, such as Tristam Hunt and the younger Straw. Hence the media’s desperate effort to convince the British public that seeing in Jeremy Corbyn a possible Labour leader (and consequently a future prime minister) is a disaster. The mainstream media barons are conscious of the threat Corbyn can pose to their agendas. Corbyn has clearly shown, at occasions such as his recent Channel 4 interview, that he is not to be messed with and pushed against the wall by petty mainstream media interests.
Given Mr Corbyn’s (absolutely sensible) positions on the royal expenses, royalty is bound to be averse to a prime ministerial contender who is resolute, has a strong personality, is intelligent and articulate, and is keen to reduce royal privileges. The Tories’ steps of late to further cement the draconian policy of royal secrecy means that the extent to which the royals influence the ebbs and flows of British politics (and by implication crucial dossiers in world politics) are set to remain unknown to the British public forever. Royal neutrality, just as ideological austerity, is yet another con and an absolute lie — the tip of the iceberg of which could be glimpsed in the revelations of Prince Charles’s successful efforts to interfere in and influence Westminster/Whitehall/Downing Street politics and policymaking processes.
The tax-evading big business establishments are also bound to be averse to the prospect of a Corbyn victory. Mr Corbyn has already made it crystal-clear that he advocates stern action against tax evaders in the Channel Islands, British overseas territories and elsewhere. In order to ensure the continuity of the existing system of exploiting the vulnerable and making the rich richer, such business oligarchs are also likely to deploy all their influence to subvert a Corbyn victory and/or emergence to national leadership.
Despite all odds, a Corbyn leadership is well-placed to ‘salvage’ the Labour Party from New Labour’s right-wing drift, and make Labour a truly progressive social democratic political movement, and a real alternative to Tory ideological austerity.
 Stewart, David, 2008, The British Labour Party, “Parliamentary Socialism” and Thatcherism, 1979–1990: A Visual Perspective, Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 24:2, 173–187.
See, for example, Chapter 3 of Wring, Dominic, 2004, The Politics of Marketing the Labour Party. Basingstoke: Palgrave.