The plan was straightforward enough. In order to portray the impression that the Party was not utterly bereft of radical ideas and wedded to austerity politics, they’d kindly permit the ageing leftist Jeremy Corbyn to stand in their leadership election. The cunning wheeze would show that Labour still had a left-wing, albeit one muzzled to the point of invisibility. This could be allowed to put its views over, only to be promptly trashed by the sensible majority, steered helpfully by the media. That should have been all that was needed to keep the deluded and gullible socialist minority in the party happy, surely.
Except that it backfired. In fact, the ‘sensible’ parliamentary ‘realists’ of the Labour Party have surpassed themselves in cocking things up so royally. Instead of getting back to unalloyed Blairism after the vacillations of Miliband, they’re now lumbered with something even worse – someone who appears to think principles are important.
With the help of a one-person, one vote system and the ease of joining up and getting a vote, the Blairites have been swept away by a tsunami of those who think having principles might actually be preferable to power without principles and the mindless embrace of neo-liberalism that today passes for social democracy. With a more selective electorate than that at the Scottish referendum last year, amazingly the politics of hope won out over the politics of fear, despite a predictable torrent of increasingly desperate and bizarre media portrayals of Corbyn as the spawn of Satan. Even Ukip voters were found to be keen on Jeremy – anyone but the same tired, old parliamentary consensus crew it seems.
So should Corbyn’s leadership of Labour be regarded as a good thing or a bad thing? As an unreconstructed lifelong libertarian socialist who last voted Labour (and first to come to that) in February 1974, I had little interest in Labour’s leadership popularity contest. And I certainly never contemplated forking out my three quid to help breathe life (if that’s what it is) into its decaying corpse. But from this cynical standpoint I’d say Corbyn’s election was potentially both good and bad.
It could all easily end in tears and on balance probably will. It could be just another half-assed lurch to the ‘left’ by Labour. This will engender the usual naive and myopic enthusiasm from broader progressive elements outside the party. As in the early 1980s, people will rejoin (or join) in their thousands. But the danger is that Labour will remain the same old, centralist, arrogant, English nationalist, state-centric dinosaur, its essential parliamentary politics unchanged.
Incidentally, a more leftist Labour Party better fulfils a useful function for capital and the Establishment. It provides an outlet for disaffection but an essentially tamed and toothless one. Unremittingly savaged by the corporate press from Day One, Corbyn’s Labour will be ruthlessly caricatured as ‘hard’ left, as it is is already, irrespective of any detailed policies it comes up with. The last thing we should expect is careful dissection and discussion of policies in the media. Furthermore, Corbyn and his supporters will be surrounded by the unreconstructed mass of the parliamentary party and besieged by grumbling and plots from an internal second front from the word go. The only way out of this conundrum is to open Labour up and stop confining its role to that of Her Majesty’s ‘loyal opposition.’
If it grasps the opportunity Corbynite Labour could kickstart a genuinely new politics. To do so Labour has to prove that it’s changed its spots. For the next election this means making proportional representation a central plank and the first reform it will undertake. Not AV, but genuine PR, preferably the single transferable vote as for the Irish Dail, the Stormont Assembly or Scottish local councils, a system that reduces the power of the party apparatus. This should be coupled with a more open practice. Local alliances with the Greens, SNP, Plaid and yes, even MK, would give other progressive parties a free run in some places. The Socialist Party in France has done this for decades; it can’t be beyond the wit of Labour to see its advantages. With a PR policy and a properly inclusive and open practice in place, Labour would gain the moral right to call on those of us who don’t vote Labour to lend them our votes this once.
Of course, once PR were in place we would go back to voting Green/nationalist or whatever and the Labour Party itself would no doubt split into its separate social democratic and ‘socialist’ components. But this would only be a more accurate reflection of the pluralism of British politics. On the other hand, if Labour doesn’t grasp this opportunity then its usual tactical ineptitude is likely to guarantee an electoral massacre of the innocents in 2020. This will encompass a (temporary) obliteration of alternative leftist parties (with the possible exception of the SNP), the disillusion of another generation of dreamers and the continuation of a hard-faced Tory hegemony for the next decade or two at least. A high price to pay just to keep the Labour Party intact.