So Jeremy Corbyn is now the leader of the Labour Party. Tom Watson stands by his side as deputy leader. The results for the Labour mayoral candidate came out yesterday, where standard-bearer Sadiq Khan ran on a ‘soft left’ platform and defeated Tessa Jowell. These events fit with a reorientation in Labour politics. It came from the grass-roots upwards. The party machine was caught completely off guard and now it responds with absurd tantrums.
True reactionaries can see it for what it is. “Do all the attackers of Jeremy Corbyn not see that his supporters thrive on their assaults?” Peter Hitchens observed. “This is a great revolt by those who are sick of being told what to do by people like Alastair Campbell.” The surge in ‘outsider’ elements confirms that the torpor of the centre-ground is no kind of stimulant for a disenchanted public. This may be the end times for politics as an advanced form of business management and public relations.
There’s been a tendency in the press to frame Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper as ‘Brownites’ pitched to the left of Blair. By contrast, Liz Kendall was seen as the ‘Blairite’ candidate. This picture lacks nuance. In actuality, Blairism is a broad spectrum with its own left and right. But the differences are minor compared to what unites them. Market liberalism combined with state intervention in social and foreign affairs. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair only disagreed on small details – the euro is a good example – but the project remained, fundamentally, the same. This left a space for right-wing populism to fester.
UKIP came into its own in this period, but the real battle may come now that Labour has a truly left-wing leader. Not to be mistaken for a neo-fascist party, UKIP has tapped into working-class nationalism, while its core remains petit-bourgeois and ultra-libertarian. A return to class politics is the only antidote to the UKIP front of white reaction. Jeremy Corbyn speaks to the people disregarded by Labour since Neil Kinnock began to sow the seeds of New Labour. The good news is that the far-right remains fragmented, and UKIP’s rise is symptomatic of this.
Can Corbyn win in 2020? It’s not impossible as so many middle-class journalists imply. The Conservative majority consists of just 12 seats. This is the smallest majority since 1974 when Labour held on with just three seats. The last similar case was in 1992 when John Major won a majority by 21 seats. In both cases, the incumbents lost the following elections. The Conservative Party won over just 24% of the eligible electorate. Around 34% of the eligible electorate didn’t vote at all. If Corbyn can mobilise this bloc, combined with additional votes from the Greens and even UKIP, victory is within reach.
Of course, there is still the possibility that Labour would lose in 2020 regardless of who leads the party. All social democratic parties in Europe are facing a major crisis. In that case, Jeremy Corbyn may well go down as costing Labour the election, but he will undoubtedly be the best opposition leader. He will change the terms of political debate, in the same way that UKIP did for the Conservatives. In fact, the discourse is already acknowledging questions it wouldn’t normally: austerity is no longer the only game in town. The changing dynamics could well suit the Left in the long-term.
On the other hand, if Cooper or Burnham had won Labour would have taken a slightly more progressive version of the Blairite course. The groundswell has already begun to shift the party. In such a case, Corbyn would have played the role of a vanishing mediator for a moderate form of Blairism. This terrain would have suited the radical Left in the long-run. The Labour Party would continue to die on its feet. The space left over could be subsumed by a new progressive force, or it would likely be filled by a right-wing populist movement. Fascism is, historically, the child of failed revolutions.
At the same time, the Labour Right has no coherence or strength right now. It’s a picture of disarray and ineffectuality, which is why Corbyn overcame all challenges. This isn’t surprising as all the major Blairites have abdicated. Even Tony Blair himself, who now spends his working life in the company of dictators. So Chuka Umunna, a neo-Blairite careerist, if there ever was one, has called for unity before disappearing to the backbenches. Now Andy Burnham is Shadow Home Secretary, it’s clear the new leadership knows how to embrace its opponents.
Overall, the Shadow Cabinet does not look particularly radical. Tony Blair’s former flatmate Lord Falconer will handle the justice portfolio, while Hilary Benn will oversee foreign policy. These are concessions to the Blairite wing. Jeremy Corbyn has to maintain a balance between his political objectives and the dominant forces of the Labour Party. This is why it was necessary to make John McDonnell the Shadow Chancellor. This is an excellent choice because McDonnell has a well-earned reputation for rebellion. He played a major role the GLC under Ken Livingstone and its resistance to the Thatcher government.
Whatever is left of Blairism may have been split. Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham could not even agree on a common strategy to beat the Corbyn insurgency. The exodus of Blair clones to the backbenches should encourage the Corbyn camp. This reflects two things: 1) the Blairites are not going to breakaway, and 2) they are not going to pull a coup d’etat. Furthermore, this clears the way for loyalists to emerge. There may well be savage trench warfare in the years to come. So it’s imperative that Jeremy Corbyn’s base prepares itself for a fight for its survival.
Why should this matter to radicals? There is the argument that the Labour Party can never deliver radical change. Indeed, it is unlikely that its current character can deliver even modest reform. If Labour can be transformed into a social movement – as Corbyn wants it to be – then it might be able to extract concessions from the ruling class. This will be more likely if the economy hits the buffers again (which could well happen). The Left should hedge its bets, it shouldn’t hesitate to back Jeremy Corbyn, but it should look further ahead. The only hope is if Labour can become a part of a mass social movement against austerity.