Something extraordinary is happening in the UK Labour Party.
Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership election, his strong showing so far and the lacklustre performance of his rivals, seems to indicate a completely unexpected development: despite, or because, of the New Labour transformation, the left of the party is undergoing an incredible resurgence. This resurgence seems like to cause divisions — possibly irreparable ones — that, whatever the result of the election, will take years resolve, if they ever do.
I’m trying to understand what the Corbyn surge means. What follows is one attempt to do so — as much for my own benefit, to clarify my thoughts. I suggest ten ‘propositions’ that may or may not turn out to be correct.
1. This whole thing is an accident.
By accident, I mean that few people expected or planned for Corbyn’s strong showing, including Corbyn himself. And no one planned that reforms to Labour’s internal democracy would lead to this happening. Because it’s an accident, we need to be very sceptical of anyone who evinces any certainty in predicting what will happen next — everyone’s groping blindly in the dark.
2. Corbyn’s popularity represents a return of the repressed.
Despite the New Labour years, large sections of the left still consider the Labour Party as their natural home. The Corbynites represent the embarrassing, uncivilised tendencies that, since at least the late 1980s, the Labour establishment has been trying to marginalise. This clearly hasn’t worked.
3. Corbyn’s popularity is boosted by the poor quality of his competitors.
Corbyn’s three competitors are competent and adept politicians. Yet, with the possible exception of Liz Kendall, they clearly lack the ability of enthuse and excite. It is painfully apparent that Labour is in a transitional stage, waiting for the new generation to take them forward.
4. Corbyn is not the best that the left can get.
Corbyn’s popularity is as much due to what he represents as what he is. He is not particularly charismatic and he clearly lacks any ability to appeal to those beyond his natural constituency. While many on the UK left are clearly longing for Britain’s Syriza/Podemos moment, it is a delusion to see Corbyn in this way. He is the old guard and totally lacks the creativity and innovation that characterises the best of the new wave of the left.
5. Corbyn’s appeal is based in part on his limitations.
Corbyn is personally ascetic, modest and unambitious. There is clearly a desire from some supporters for a leader of this kind as he appears a breath of fresh air in a world filled with slick, careerist, professional politicians. But while this is some sense admirable, it is the flip side of Corbyn’s inadequacies.
6. Corbyn’s positions on Islamism and on foreign policy are not the basis of his popularity — but are part of the basis of his unpopularity.
Corbyn’s advocates overwhelmingly make his case on the basis of his opposition to austerity and its ramifications. His problematic relationships with Islamists, far-right movements and totalitarian regimes go largely unmentioned outside a relatively small section of activist supporters. However, his positions in this area are certainly the basis of opposition to him from a significant section of his detractors.
7. In order to defeat Corbyn, New Labourists need to keep quiet
For better or worst, a significant section of the Labour Party — including those who are certainly not natural Corbyn supporters — cannot abide New Labour, and Tony Blair in particular. Interventions by Tony Blair and his like are therefore deeply counter-productive.
8. Just as you cannot be beholden to core supporters, you cannot take them for granted either.
New Labour was predicated on the assumption that core voters would not and could not go anywhere else. A Corbyn victory would seem to be a victory for those neglected core supporters and a neglect of anyone else. Both strategies are unwise.
9. We need PR — badly
It is clear that it will be very difficult to keep Labour’s warring tendencies together in the future. In fact, it’s always been difficult, but the show just about stayed on the road. Clearly, we need multiple left of centre parties, but the straightjacket of our electoral system forces us into parties that cannot contain their diversity.
10. We need to act as though PR was already here.
Probably the only way to square the circle between the diversity of the left and the realities of our electoral system, is to change what it means to be a political party. A looser party structure, that acknowledges the reality of different factions, could create a da facto coalition politics that might be able to draw in elements of the SNP and Lib Dems. That would mean local electoral pacts, vote swapping and a sea change in how we see political practice.