It’s hard to believe that Keir Hardie’s Labour Party has ended up in the hands of Corbyn and McDonnell. Hostile to questioning, tender to totalitarianism, backward on economics and almost certainly set to keep the Labour Party out of power for the next decade; the scale of the damage is vast.
One of the most undisguised aspects of Corbynism is a Nixonian hatred and suspicion of press criticism. Numerable journalists have been harangued with accusations of “tabloid journalism” or “smearing” for the crime of asking some straightforward questions, often involving nothing but playing his own words back to him. This isn’t to say that the conservative press doesn’t have the upper hand, or that it’s immune from overblowing petty issues (the national anthem controversy reminded me of Michael Foot’s donkey jacket), but as Orwell once said, sometimes things are true, even if they’re printed in the Daily Telegraph.
Aggressive refusal to face scrutiny by dismissing it as a sinister conspiracy is a rerun in reverse of Farage’s self-pitying rants about the “liberal establishment” and the “Leftist” BBC. For Corbyn’s followers, the conspiratorial establishment in question is “terrified” of his popularity amongst the silent majority. His straight-talking righteousness is going to expose and destroy these enemies within in a Thatcher-esque manner. These enemies include “closet Tories”, a bit of ditsy Newspeak to describe radical liberals and social democrats amongst the Left – myself included – who don’t subscribe to their party line.
Nick Cohen’s prescient book What’s Left? looks into the creeping Stalinization of large sections of the Left that have managed to become soft on despotism, religious fundamentalism and genocide at the same time. Corbyn was on the right side of history when it came to apartheid or General Pinochet, and he’ll be proven right on Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. But Corbyn was of the opinion that Milosevic’s death squads in Kosovo were victims of an imperialist crusade, rather than racist ethnic cleansers that Nuremburg was supposed to have left behind. I don’t know what his response to the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia or Darfur would have been, but I suspect he’d “Stop the War” and allow the butchering to go unchallenged, the consequences of which are now notoriously visible. With his not-our-problem attitude, the Kurdish resistance in Iraq and Syria – who are on the front line of one of the most important struggles in a generation – won’t be cheering for him.
The kind words Corbyn reserved for his clerical fascist “friends” at Hamas as peaceful cavaliers for social justice was quickly explained away as misunderstood diplomatic politeness. If he’d flattered Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett by the same logic of “building bridges” then I might have believed him, but the extreme wings of Israeli politics don’t qualify for Corbyn’s ultra-polite peacekeeping projects. Ranking footballers as a more sinister presence than the Muslim Brotherhood, he’s even set to boycott the Israeli football team in Cardiff. Theocracy in Iran, military dictatorship in Cuba and pseudo-democracy in Venezuela have also appeared on his list of fawnery, not to mention the worryingly anti-Semitic company he’s kept. Provided the people in question are against Zionism or the American empire, they must be doing something right. Of course while Corbyn makes his desperate excuses and amends the script depending on the audience, people who point these things out to his fans are dismissed as part of a mobilized neoliberal-neoconservative-New Labour plot.
Corbyn’s 20th century attitudes towards society and economics in the 21st century world of technological automation and globalization are analogously reactionary. He doesn’t adopt a materialist conception of history where the forces and relations of production evolve naturally with time; instead he expresses nostalgia for the good old days of mass nationalisation, state education and the coal industry. An excellent Bagehot piece in The Economist identifies some visionary Leftist thought, from Paul Mason’s exploration of the “sharing economy” to Roberto Unger’s theory of a decentralized “empowered democracy”. Corbyn doesn’t even pretend to offer any of this.
Corbyn is one among many who have correctly identified problems with state monopoly capitalism of the banking industry, monopoly capitalism of essential utilities and the chronic housing shortages. McDonnell deserves some praise for not stooping to the level of the ‘green movement,’ which sees economic growth and economies of scale as bad things in themselves; the fact that this is the opposite of socialism is likely to remain an undiscovered fact within the Green Party. There’s also some merit in Corbyn’s life-long campaign for nuclear disarmament; even Ronald Reagan eventually recognised the immorality of mutually assured destruction. The sad truth is that unilateralism will effectively make Britain an American protectorate, a point that Aneurin Bevan faced when he reversed his position on the issue in 1957. Besides, there’s significant resistance to unilateral disarmament amongst the public and the Parliamentary Labour Party.
I used to sympathise with those who are willing to lose an election for the sake of unremitting principle, but happily sitting in opposition unable to implement policy just becomes a vain, self-indulgent waste of time. Tediously pandering to public opinion to win elections is a politician’s job description. Starry-eyed talk of a popular “grassroots” movement is irrelevant in a parliamentary system where leaders have to maintain the confidence of their party colleagues in the House of Commons, unlike in the US where the executive and the legislature are separate.
The Bennite wing of the party consistently fail because they get overexcited by the cheering voices in the packed out meeting, yet they forget the millions of others outside. A tiny fraction of the UK population – around 0.4% – were involved in making Corbynmania a reality in the leadership election. So far, polls indicate that people have been less impressed with Corbyn’s first month than they were with Foot, Kinnock or Miliband. Tony Blair – the man who scribbled Clause IV out of the constitution – is still the only Labour leader to win a general election since 1974. This narcissism has conscripted the Country to at least a decade longer of Conservative rule, which in itself is detriment to the balance of power.
This would be a perfect opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to rekindle the spirit of 1981 and the SDP to mobilize the liberal centre-Left who are now politically homeless. It’s a shame about Tim Farron, but that’s another story.