Saturday, March 26, 2016
They don't want Labour to win posted by Richard SeymourIt's important to keep this in mind about Corbyn's back bench baiters. They don't want Labour to win. Not like this. Not with a left-wing leadership. Blair was refreshingly candid about this in the run up to the leadership election: even if a left-wing agenda was the route to electoral victory, he would not take it.
But we must go further. The Labour Right would rather crash the party, humiliate it, drag it through the gutter every single day in the news media, than see it win from the Left. They would rather watch the Tories crush the party every day, until its activists finally say 'uncle' and let the professionals take over again. When Labour MPs anonymously brief Blairite insider Dan Hodges to the effect that they want Labour to lose the London mayoral contest in order not to strengthen Corbyn's hand, they are not expressing an extreme point of view - this is what a significant chunk of the back bench belligerati actually want.
That is not stupid or self-defeating on their part, at least in the short-term. The Labour Right has always thrived on defeat and the demoralisation it inculcates among members and activists. They may not have liked the SDP split, but they knew then that it would strengthen their hand against the Bennites and Militant. And while a split would be unavailing today, they certainly want a swift, merciless punishment of the activists and members who dared to put a radical in charge. They want the grassroots to be begging for salvation, pleading for someone, anyone of arguable charisma - and the bar is set astonishingly low at the moment, with Dan Jarvis and Jess Phillips being the cherished candidates - to take control and restore 'electability'.
That is the point of the ongoing pseudo-controversy mill. To create a constant air of crisis, so that the leadership is always wasting its effort responding to some trivial, or confected outrage, and so that the belligerents can claim to be ongoingly exasperated by the party's humiliation - which, insofar as that is taking place, they are co-authors of. As it happens, and against all odds, Labour is actually recovering slowly in the polls. Notwithstanding the histrionics of the Right, most polls now that Labour has now almost eradicated 5-10 percent lead which the Tories have held since May, so that Labour now either draws level, has a slight lead, or is at most two points behind. One hesitates to credit all of this to Corbyn, particularly since the Tories are scoring a number of own goals at the moment, and I am the last person to underestimate the obstacles facing any left-wing political leadership in the UK. But he must be doing a lot more right than his critics give him credit for. After all, we were told to expect a polling meltdown. We were told that Oldham would go Ukip. We were told that Labour under Corbyn would slump to a quarter of the vote. Not a bit of it, thus far. In fact, as Corbyn steadfastly refuses to triangulate on issues like welfare - in stark contrast to previous leaderships - he is actually landing some blows, and shifting the ideological agenda moderately to the left.
The latest such squabble is therefore coming at a time when Corbyn's position, still unassailable among Labour members, is improving among voters. It concerns a leaked list, classifying Labour MPs by reference to their supposed loyalty - or lack thereof - to Corbyn. Whatever its merits, whoever its authors happen to be, it has been siezed upon by a handful of Labour backbenchers to amplify their demand that Corbyn "stand down". As if. The most vocal of these was John Woodcock MP, a fairly standard Blairite MP who represents a constituency whose local economy depends on British Aerospace, and who has been nurtured at the teat of the Ministry of Defence. He was given space in the Mirror to claim that the party was being embarrassed by a dreadful leadership. This is rather typical of the modus operandi of the Labour Right. They don't know who authored the list, but they know enough to say it must be Corbyn's fault.
So then, let me tell you a story about Woodcock. I had the chance to meet and debate the man at QMUL a while ago, about the bombing of Daesh in Syria. He lost the vote at the end of the debate, and would have lost it by a wider margin were it not for the Labour First people in the room. But what struck me about him, beyond his pat politician's way of trying very hard not to be detestable and his passive-aggressive whining about Corbyn, was that he didn't know what he was talking about. He had done no preparation, he made no reference to any of the facts about Daesh or Syria, and he was singularly unable to cope with the argument on its own level. Now I know that MPs don't, as a rule, know what they're talking about. But if you come to a debate to argue for bombing a country, you have to incline in favour of appearing to know something about it. Or, if not that, you have to at least be able to offer red meat to your supporters, show signs of being able to draw blood. Woodcock is not the sort of politician who can draw blood.
Only at one point did he find the slightest wind in his sails. I had commented on the futility of attempting to match Daesh's brutality with spectacular displays of violence - at one point the Pentagon claimed to be killing a thousand Daesh fighters a month, but the elevated rate of recruitment just meant that the number of Daesh fighters was growing, while its territorial footprint mutated and spread to Libya. Woodcock, presumably hoping to rouse a smattering of applause, professed himself aghast and 'offended' that I would compare the RAF to Daesh. I interrupted his pitch with a sharp, loud cackle. He looked crestfallen, and muttered, "well... if that's the tone... I think your books are probably... on the wrong shelf." Alas, the expected applause didn't materialise.
The point of this anecdote is not just that Woodcock is not a substantial person. He, of course, is not: but he isn't unique in the parliamentary Labour Party in that respect, as the ongoing search for a suitable anti-Corbyn figurehead repeatedly demonstrates. It is that, I don't think these people know how to conduct a political fight in this era. I question not just their ideas and principles, but their competence. In a more efficiently managed political and media climate, they would look and sound more convincing than they do. In the echo chamber of Westminster and the broadcast and print media, what they say would be so often repeated, and so broadly across the permissible political spectrum, that it would sound like it made sense. It wouldn't sound as vapid as it does.
But this isn't the 1990s. The traditional ideological monopoly of the major parties and their media auxiliaries is breaking down. The political master-narrative of neoliberalism and its verities - "there is no alternative", "the market works best", etc - no longer summon the same type of deference. Generational transformations, no doubt in part linked to the antiwar and pro-Palestine movements of the last decade, also mean that the comforting certainties of a certain kind of Cold War militarism are no longer as effective as they were. You can't fight and win a political battle from the centre-right merely by re-stating what would sound uncontroversial to mandarins, party managers, or hacks, because they don't rule the roost any more. Woodcock and his yappy little confederates may be annoying, but they are to be gently patronised and otherwise ignored, not worried about. They won't persuade Labour members, and they probably won't win much sympathy from the wider public.
The people to worry about are the ones who keep their powder dry, their knives whistle-clean, their voices low and courteous. The ones who at least sound like they 'get it', and are able to roll with it, patiently, for the time being. One such is implausibly listed among the 'core group plus' of loyalists on the leaked list. His name is Tom Watson MP.