Saturday, September 12, 2015
The Labour Party has, for the first time ever [or, okay, since George Lansbury], a leader who is both a socialist and, critically, an activist. I don't think this can be said of any other Labour leader [since 1935], not even the overrated Michael Foot. (You will never see Corbyn draping himself in the Union Jack and cheerleading war in the way that Foot did.) Not only that, but he won by 59.5% in the first round. The ultra-Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, got a mere 4.5% of the vote. This is far better than anything we could have legitimately anticipated. In Corbyn's first speech as leader, he has hit all the left notes. He welcomed new members, welcomed back old members driven away by Blairism. He bashed the Tories anti-union laws, stood up for welfare, attacked the Murdoch empire, and said his first act as leader will be to join the big pro-refugees rally in central London, where the atmosphere will no doubt be ecstatic.
For now, much of the response will consist of a fully justified guzzling of #blairitetears. All of the bullying and the moral blackmail and the condescension couldn't hide their fear, and couldn't dissuade a membership energised by a unique, unexpected opportunity, and sick to death of being spoken down to by the undemocratic, managerial rabble at the top of Labour. This is the time to celebrate. This is our Oxi. Oxi to austerity, Oxi to Blairism, Oxi to managed politics, Oxi to a media that went into Project Fear mode the second Corbyn had a chance, Oxi to racism and the politicians who make it respectable, Oxi to the neoliberal consensus.
However. As overwhelming as this result is, supported by mass, enthusiastic meetings up and down the country, including in real backwaters (you know where I mean, the kind of place you grew up in and fled), there remains something very fragile about this. We have to be extremely careful not to lose sight of what's coming. The Blairites have been sufficiently hammered by this result that they can't simply mount a constitutional coup immediately. The party machinery will want stability and legitimacy in the process. Nor will the Blairites be so self-defeating as to leave. They will take their time, nurse their wounds, and patiently wait for the chance to stick the knife in. So there is time, not much, for Corbyn's supporters to position themselves for the coming trench warfare. There is time for them to get their supporters nominated to leading bodies in the party and start pushing for democratic change. There may be time for them to get a few parliamentary and local candidates selected.
But we should be clear that there will be a war in the Labour Party, and that the right-wing will have the backing of the media, the spooks, the civil service, and a good chunk of the membership. Project Fear was just a panicked, clearly ineffectual start. There is also another line of attack which is more subtle. That is to pressure Corbyn to abandon key commitments, to the point where he drains away his support and is decisively weakened. Of course, he will have to compromise on aspects of his agenda. The parliamentary Labour Party will work against him, overwhelming mandate or not. Already, for example, there's a question mark over what Labour will do about Trident - Corbyn has a mandate to oppose it, but he may not be able to force MPs to back his position, especially since Labour went into the last election (the one it lost miserably) on a pro-Trident ticket. The shadow health minister's resignation from the front bench is no great loss in itself - has anyone actually heard of Jamie Reed MP? - but it specifically mentions nuclear policy as a point of contention. As in the Scottish independence referendum, one gets the impression that loyalty to nation and empire are more important to the Labour Right than anything else. As for Rachel Reeves MP, a mobile disaster whose pandering to the Tory tabloids helped Labour to glorious defeat, no one will miss seeing her on the front benches. But Corbyn doesn't just have to represent the balance of forces in the Labour Party, he has to work with the balance of forces in the parliamentary party, which is far more powerful.
Corbyn has said that his campaign is about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. That, it seems to me, is the only chance he and his supporters have. It's the only possible counterweight to the entrenched, institutional power of the right.