I joined the Labour Party last year, having previously signed up as a £3 supporter in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. From that starting point, it’s probably not too surprising that I’ve voted for Corbyn again.
I’m aware that there are good reasons not to vote for Corbyn, and I can’t say I’m sanguine about the near future for Labour if he is re-elected. Corbyn isn’t a shmoozer or a fixer; he isn’t going to win over doubters with his warmth and strength of personality, or whip them into line with threats and inducements. He has his programme, he’d like people to get with it, and if they don’t, well, maybe they’ll be persuaded next time. The problem is, if he isn’t going to charm Labour MPs or threaten them, in a lot of cases he probably isn’t going to communicate with them at all – he’s not going to be talking their language. MPs are in the business of power, and they like the smell of it. So Corbyn needs – at the very least – to have someone beside him who can work the machine, a job which includes making MPs feel as if they matter. Last year I told anyone who’d listen that I was voting for Corbyn and Watson, for precisely this reason. The PLP and the party apparatus could have worked with Corbyn as a whipped party machine – a rather grudging whipped party machine with a few red-line issues, perhaps, but it could have been made to work. What did we get? Watson sitting on his hands for nine months and then supporting a leadership challenge, working hand in hand with Iain McNicol – and who was in the Whips’ office all this time but Conor McGinn, who’s so far Right that he counts Hugh Gaitskell as a political hero (i.e. somewhere to the right of Harold Wilson). In retrospect it looks less like a machine and more like an elaborate booby trap – how could it ever have worked? The problem is, if Corbyn is re-elected, work is what it will have to do.
There’s also the small matter of the divisions in the party. I agree with Simon on many things, but his position on the leadership challenge – that it’s purely a question of individual competence, so that electing Smith could give us all the benefits of Corbyn’s leadership without the drawbacks – strikes me as wishful thinking of the highest order. If it were simply a question of competence, would deposing Corbyn be quite so urgent? Would it necessitate quite so much of what an unsympathetic observer might class as vote-rigging? Wouldn’t it have been possible to present Corbyn’s supporters with an alternative candidate who embodied all of Corbyn’s merits without his personal failings – or to offer them guarantees which would ensure that the momentum of Corbyn’s campaign would not be lost? (SpinningHugo’s comment on that post is instructive.) Come to that, if competence were the key issue, wouldn’t it have been an awful lot simpler not to have a leadership contest at all – to leave Corbyn in place, but develop a more collegiate style of leadership, in which Corbyn does what he’s good at and other people handle the things he’s less good at? (And we’re back with Tom Watson.) Conversely, isn’t it a remarkable coincidence that, nine months after Yvette Cooper (among others) refuses to work with Corbyn and John McTernan (among others) calls for him to be deposed, he turns out to be so incompetent that completely different and unconnected people are refusing to work with him and calling for him to be deposed? The simplest explanation – also the pessimistic explanation, sadly – is that there are many people in the parliamentary party (far beyond the relatively restricted circles of Progress) who are bitterly opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, want it ended, and short of that want it to fail. Considering how far the centre of political gravity in the party has shifted in the last couple of decades, this isn’t surprising. But it would make it difficult for the party to be led by any MP as far to the Left as Owen Smith currently appears to be – let alone one as far to the Left as Corbyn genuinely is.
Personal competence isn’t a non-issue; on this I think Helen Lewis is correct – there were several Labour MPs who genuinely thought Corbyn should be given a chance, and he has pretty much lost them. But all those horror stories could have been avoided with better party management – which isn’t one person’s responsibility. It’s also interesting to imagine how similar stories of failure to communicate between leadership and Shadow Cabinet members would have been reported under Blair; I remember a falling-out between Blair and Clare Short, before the 1997 election, when the comments approvingly quoted on the BBC News came not from Short but from Peter Mandelson, speaking on behalf of Blair on God knows what authority. In one perspective all this is irrelevant – we have to work with the Parliamentary Labour Party, and indeed the news media, that we’ve got. But I dwell on all this because it relates to a point about Corbyn’s support that Lewis missed, or half-missed (the more important half). Two of her eleven “reasons for supporting Jeremy Corbyn” – derived from conversations with Corbyn supporters – are “The PLP undermined him from the start. He didn’t have a chance.” and “The media undermined him from the start. He didn’t have a chance.” But of course lots of people have been undermined by the media over the years, and a fair few have been undermined by the parliamentary Labour Party; if these were reasons to support the person under attack, you’d expect to see widespread popular support for Harvey Proctor and Piers Morgan, Gordon Brown and George Galloway. Rightly or wrongly, the great British public tends to take its steer from the media – and from the PLP – where all these people are concerned.
The fact that a person’s being attacked isn’t a reason to support them in and of itself; it is a reason if you already support the person, and in particular if you think that the attack is grossly unfair and shouldn’t be happening. I’ve talked a lot about bullying over the last couple of months, here and on Twitter; I think it’s something we’ve seen a lot of in the attacks on Corbyn. The core of bullying, I think, is a bad-faith offer of friendship, advanced with conditions which are designed to be impossible to meet. The bully would like to treat you with respect, he assures you, but really, how can he? He has standards! So he’ll only respect you if you’ll not do something you’ve already done (oh, what a shame!), or deny planning to do something you never actually did plan to do (but how can I be sure?), or deny believing something you do believe (I thought you had principles!) – or else, more straightforwardly, if you’ll do what he asks you to do, in exactly the way he wants you to do it (What are you doing? Not like that!). I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the media’s portrayal of Corbyn – from the New Statesman to the Sun – has been laced with bad faith over the past year, and I think something similar can be said of much of the PLP. They don’t actually want him to renounce nuclear disarmament (I thought you had principles!), any more than the Sun actually wanted him to bow any lower. (Think about that for a moment – “Bow! Bow down! Not like that – bow lower!” You couldn’t ask for a better example of bullying.) They don’t want him to do anything differently, they just want him gone. But while he’s still around, they aren’t going to engage with him in good faith – and he can’t make them, so there.
This is the missing second half of both those quoted statements – “The media and the PLP undermined him from the start, and this absolutely should not be happening.” Talking about Corbyn not having ‘earned’ MPs’ loyalty is nonsensical – he earned their loyalty as leader the moment he was elected as leader. (If you’re loyal to the leader, you’re loyal to the leader whoever he or she is. If you’re only loyal to leaders you agree with, that’s not loyalty at all – all you’re doing is going along with someone you agree with.) As for the media – well, we can all surely agree that mainstream media outlets are treating Corbyn with more hostility and (crucially) less respect than any Leader of the Opposition in living memory; there genuinely seems to be an assumption that he’s so far outside the normal range of political debate that the usual rules don’t apply.
And so, day after day, whenever we look at the news, Corbyn supporters are faced with a state of affairs that absolutely should not be happening; it’s like being a vegan living opposite a butcher’s shop. We’re angry, we’re outraged, we’re genuinely shocked (if my own experience is anything to go by), and a lot of the time we feel personally insulted. This happens every day, sometimes several times a day; it’s exhausting, apart from anything else. But it doesn’t make us sympathise with the people who are endorsing those attacks on Corbyn. If anything, it makes us think, This shouldn’t be happening. None of those people are going to stop it happening – they seem quite happy with it. That just leaves Corbyn.
To sum up: Corbyn hasn’t got a reliable team about him; the parliamentary party is divided, a word which here means “mostly a long way to the Right of Corbyn”; and the media in general, along with most of the PLP, responded to the democratic election of a new leader of the party by declaring open season on the funny old beardie man, a course they’ve maintained ever since. As we’ve seen, the third of these factors is really astonishingly counter-productive in terms of influencing Corbyn’s supporters, but all three of them make life very difficult for the man himself. If Corbyn’s re-elected, in spite of all that Iain McNicol can do, there’s good reason to think that it’ll be harder to depose Corbyn the next time – but there’s no reason to think that any of these problems will vanish.
So why prolong the agony by voting Corbyn again? I could have voted for a sneering, sanctimonious, cowardly bully from the best chapel traditions of self-righteous passive aggression… well, no, I couldn’t, but I could have abstained. In the end I voted for Corbyn, in the teeth of all the problems I know he’ll face, for very much the same four reasons that I voted for him in the first place:
- Because I really don’t like being told who I can and can’t vote for.
- Because Miliband-Harmanism had clearly run out of steam; if it’s not the right time to move Left after a defeat like that, facing a government like this, what would be?
- Because a movement of several hundred thousand people, pushing the political spectrum to the Left from the ground up, would be a wonderful thing to have.
- Because I believe in principle and rationality in left-wing politics, and Corbyn – unlike the alternative candidates on offer – displays both.
Picking up on this last point: as I said in last year’s post,
It seems to me that there are four very simple, fundamental steps to take when drawing up policy on an issue or reacting to a government initiative. First, check for ignorance and misrepresentation: however worried people are about immigrants from Belarus, if there are no immigrants from Belarus there is no need for measures to control Belarusian migration. … Second, if it’s a question of responding to what people want, check for other-directed preferences. In other words, check whether they want something because it’ll be good for them, or because it’ll be bad for other people and they like that idea. … Third, quantify. Benefit fraud is a real problem – of course it is: there are greedy people and liars in all walks of life … But how big a problem is it? In particular, how big a problem is it compared to other problems that we could tackle instead? Fourth, beware making matters worse. Will the cost of intervening outweigh the savings? Will more people suffer if you intervene than if you don’t? …
These are very basic principles. What’s been really heartening about the Corbyn campaign is that he’s stuck to them … he hasn’t stayed within the terms of debate set by the government and their friends in the media, or the rolling agenda set by whatever the papers say the polls say the people say they’re worried about; equally, he hasn’t wheeled out the old socialist verities in a comforting wuffly voice, or denounced the machinations of imperialism in tones of blood and thunder. He’s just talked sense – realistic, logically argued, morally decent sense – much more consistently and on a much wider range of issues than the other candidates.
A year on, I stand by all of that; in fact, I think the contrast with Owen Smith makes the case for Corbyn even more strongly than contrasting him with Cooper or Burnham.
I voted for Corbyn because I don’t believe this is about Corbyn as an individual. If Corbyn is defeated, the changes he’s brought about will be rolled back – quickly or slowly, but certainly in good time for 2020 – and we’ll be back to the initial post-election consensus that Ed Miliband lost because he was too left-wing. And where the Labour Party would go from there, or what it would end up standing for, goodness only knows. Ultimately it is about competence: the competence of the Labour Party to offer a genuine alternative and build towards a social-democratic government. The continuation of Corbyn’s leadership is going to pose challenges, but at the moment it’s our only realistic hope.
Update I’m not sure why, but this post seems to have struck a chord; the last time I checked it had had 830 views in seven hours, or about two-thirds of the number of views of (what’s now) my most-viewed post of all time. That post, in case you’re curious, was a comment on the riots of 2011. It included the following lines:
Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)
What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?
No comment is needed, except to say that this reminds me of one of the most bizarre and infuriating things about the people who are still trying to defend the Labour Party against the Corbynite invasion – they really seem to think it’s come out of nowhere.