The unexpected personality cult that has developed around Jeremy Corbyn has both positive and negative aspects. Positively, it reflects a groundswell of support for a new kind of politics, more honest, more open. Many look forward to a politics that can root out the malign and corrupt, over-powerful ‘traditional’ influences, from the media, through corporate lobbyists to the City. Others wait impatiently for a politics that can confront the narrow economistic agenda of neoliberalism and the greed it feeds.
On the other hand, Corbynism is formless and vague, more a well-meaning yearning for a better world than a coherent strategy for change. Corbyn himself seems rooted in the 1980s left and has yet to convince he is capable of transforming the rusting hulk of the Labour Party into a streamlined vessel of radical change.
The jury has to remain out on the Labour Party’s capacity to act as the midwife for any ‘new move’ in British politics. While the party is inviting submissions on policy from people beyond its boundaries, there is little evidence as yet of a fundamental shift in its values. Meanwhile, the embittered rump of the parliamentary party have few alternatives to neoliberal economics or support for Trident, are lukewarm on devolution and appear to have little awareness of the issue of climate change and the implications it has for our addiction to fossil-fuelled ‘growth’.
From the outside, whether right or left, too many in the Labour Party still seem wedded to tribalist politics. They cling desperately to the delusion that Labour can wrest power away from the Tories alone, with no need to emerge from its bunker or engage in a radically new politics (as opposed to new policies). Many Labour folk appear to find it difficult to shake off an arrogant and/or condescending authoritarianism in their relations with progressive forces outside the party.
If the Labour Party can’t deliver then all that Corbynism offers is a massive distraction from the long-term struggle to remove the toxic Tories. Energies that could be directed into grassroots struggles or other parties will be sapped in years of internal Labour machine politics and internecine (and obscure) institutional wrangling that will be of absolutely no interest to the majority of voters, whose understanding of politics these days seems to have plumbed new depths.
Electorally, prospects do not look good for Labour. A number of factors, some external, some internal, suggest it faces an uphill battle to appeal to voters, even if Corbyn’s circle can overcome their vocal opponents within the party.
Externally, Labour will lose out from the regular boundary redistributions between elections that are now the norm, the last tired gasp of an electoral system that became unfit for purpose in the 1920s. Regular boundary changes will consolidate the Tories’ ability to transform 40% or less of the votes into massive parliamentary majorities. Strangely therefore, why is Labour so reluctant to make proportional representation a central part of its policy plank?
The structure of party competition also works against Labour. The Liberal Democrats are living evidence of the short-term memory of the British people as they recover from their traumatic coalition caper. As long as they offer a safe home for a soft protest vote, anti-Tory voters will be tempted into the meaningless charade of voting Lib Dem.
Third, the BBC and the press, even the purportedly liberal Guardian, are hell-bent on removing Corbyn and will go on encouraging Labour dissidents, while rubbishing their leader. Expect the current ‘hard left’ and ‘anti-semitic’ abuse to pale into nothing as soon as a real prospect of an election begins to appear on the horizon. Corbyn’s Labour can expect consistently biased media treatment and little opportunity to discuss its policy initiatives sensibly or rationally. So how does it intend to counter this?
And then we have the internal factors militating against Labour success. The first is the patent lack of party unity. The traditional, conservative power-brokers of the party are refusing to bow out gracefully and loath to give up the reins of power to activists at the grassroots. Egged on by their media chums, they’ll fight the internal war as long as it takes. While Labour dithers over whether it’s a socialist or a social democratic, or a centrist party in this way, voters will continue to be uncertain what they’re being asked to vote for.
In such a context they may well vote for the Lib Dems. They’ve already deserted en masse for the SNP in Scotland, And in England of course (and Wales and Cornwall) there’s also Ukip or another far right party. Corbyn’s relaxed attitude to population growth and immigration – he’s ‘unconcerned’ by the numbers – is unlikely to play well outside London and a few liberal cities. Many will see it as smug, the views of a comfortable metropolitan elite out of touch with the realities of everyday life for those who, rightly or wrongly, feel ‘left behind’ and powerless in the face of capitalist restructuring. Unless Corbyn’s Labour Party can come up with a credible (and progressive) alternative on immigration and population growth they’re leaving the field open for Ukip and similar parties.
In a context therefore of an antiquated electoral system in which non-Tory voters are scattered over a number of parties, intense media hostility, internal disunity and the presence of the soft alternative of the Lib Dems and the populist alternative of Ukip, the task of Labour seems formidable to say the least.
Its only chance is to transcend the old politics and embrace the zeitgeist of the new, opening out to others and seeking a progressive electoral alliance. An early test of this arrives in the shape of next year’s local elections, now not much more than six months off. In Cornwall particularly, Labour’s historic weakness means a Labour vote is often wasted and merely serves to split the opposition to the Tories. Is there any sign that Labour is looking to join a progressive alliance, opening out to parties such as MK or the Greens, or even to elements among the Liberal Democrats, in order to maximise the anti-Tory potential in next May’s elections? Or will it stick with its old, familiar, tribalist instincts?