By Jamie Palmer
How things have changed. When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015, British conservatives could scarcely believe their luck. Labour’s crazy lurch into the mouldering weeds of anachronistic hard Left politics was supposed to usher in a long and possibly terminal spell in electoral oblivion. Labour moderates were inclined to agree, and Corbyn’s listless dispatch box appearances, comically inept comms operation, and consistently dire polling figures seemed to bear these fears out.
Nevertheless, in deference to party loyalty and the democratic will of the membership, Labour MPs attempted a show of unity for a while. But outside the parliamentary party, in the press and the blogosphere, Corbyn’s ascension provoked a furious backlash from Labour centrists and moderates. In electing Corbyn, these critics argued, the membership had committed an act of self-lacerating naivety and unpardonable irresponsibility. Not only were his dusty Marxist politics an electoral liability in a forward-looking 21st century Western liberal democracy, but his longstanding associations with and support for anti-Semites, conspiracists, terrorists, theocrats, and totalitarians were morally disqualifying.
Political debates over crime and social policy, health and welfare, taxation and economics, and so on can be bitterly divisive. But they deal with complex issues about which people of goodwill from across the political spectrum ought to be able to reasonably disagree. Governing in a democracy is not easy, and nor is navigating a fraught and cynical geopolitical landscape. Jeremy Corbyn may rail self-righteously against Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia from the stump; taking such a position is easy given the barbaric nature of the regime there, and doing so costs him nothing. But should he be elected prime minister, he will discover that he too must accommodate that distasteful alliance in the national interest. Compromise comes with the responsibilities of power, which is precisely why inflexible ideologues are better suited to protest than governance.
The alliances Corbyn has made over a long career as a backbench MP and activist, on the other hand, have been unconstrained by the demands of statecraft and geopolitical diplomacy. His outspoken solidarity with terrorist actors like the IRA and Hamas, and his support for the savage revolutionary theocracy in Iran and the Chavez regime in the starvation state of Venezuela, were all freely chosen positions and affirmations of political conscience. When Corbyn appeared on Iran’s propaganda channel and declared that the killing of Osama Bin Laden and Bin Laden’s premeditated murder of nearly 3000 American civilians were somehow comparable tragedies, it was an expression of his own ethical worldview, not some mealy-mouthed diplomatic fudge.
Such arguments, however, left Corbyn’s supporters unmoved. Some of them shared his jaundiced view of Israel and America and the West more broadly as no better – and quite possibly worse – than their despotic enemies. Others had barely heard of Hamas, still less bothered to familiarize themselves with the organisation’s Hitlerian charter or its long record of pitiless suicide murder. If Corbyn said his casual description of such people as ‘friends’ was a requirement of his self-appointed role as an international peacemaker then that must be what it was. Here, they decided, was a gentle idealist who spoke softly about injustice and made his own pots of jam. Everything else was just so much mass media defamation from right-wing elites threatened by a sense of virtue they were too jaded or corrupt to understand.
But this latter view required Corbyn’s more benign supporters to overlook rather a lot. The anti-Zionist ideology he had vehemently espoused throughout his political career emboldened and empowered a particularly nasty section of the radical Left, and the Labour Party soon found itself consumed by an ugly anti-Semitism scandal. The Chakrabarti Report into the controversy commissioned by the party leadership was supposed to put a firm lid on the matter. But when the author of that insipid document was rewarded for her efforts with a peerage, it only exacerbated the divisions it was designed to heal.
It took almost a year of catastrophic headlines and tumbling poll numbers before the parliamentary Labour Party finally roused itself to opposition amid the rubble of Britain’s disastrous 2016 EU referendum. In the view of Labour MPs (and many other sensible observers besides), Corbyn’s sullen foot-dragging had undermined the Remain campaign, a cause for which he had only ever been able to muster tepid support. But in marshalling their subsequent leadership challenge, Labour rebels passed over Corbyn’s totalitarian apologetics with an embarrassed cough and focussed instead on his electability deficit.
This near-sighted strategy was an attempt to appeal to Labour members’ instinct for political self-preservation while flattering their policy preferences. It was entirely self-defeating. Owen Smith offered himself as a younger, more affable, and more electable version of Jeremy Corbyn, and unimpressed Labour members, already smarting from the attempt to overturn their previous vote, duly returned Corbyn with another thumping mandate. The rebels sank into despondency and grimly awaited electoral demolition, consoled only by the knowledge that this would at least allow for the rebuilding of a sane left-of-centre party.
Instead, the June election stripped Theresa May of her parliamentary majority and rebel Labour MPs of their only anti-Corbyn argument. With varying degrees of reluctance and enthusiasm, senior party figures appeared before news cameras like scraping subjects to declare themselves delighted by Corbyn’s electoral vindication and to offer stomach-churning apologies for ever having doubted him. If any of them were alarmed by the consolidation of the hard Left’s control of their party, they could hardly raise ethical objections at this late date now that they were within spitting distance of Downing Street.
However, a more dismaying shift had also occurred outside of the parliamentary party and it began almost as soon as the election date was announced. Progressive bloggers and commentators who had hitherto written passionate condemnations of left-wing anti-Semitism and of Corbyn’s fraternal links with terrorists suddenly discovered that such considerations were not disqualifying after all. In handwringing articles, such transgressions were now redescribed by these same writers as something more like undesirable flaws – regrettable of course, but not the kind of thing that should prevent them or anyone else from voting Labour when there was Conservative austerity to oppose. And once the votes were all counted, they too dutifully lined up with their parliamentary colleagues to recommend unity and a ‘reset’ of relations with the leadership, which they now decided ought to be ‘given a chance’.
But if opposition to the Tories’ political programme was the most pressing consideration of the day, then why all the sound and fury about anti-Semitism and so forth from these quarters in the first place? Raising those unseemly matters had only served to embarrass the Labour leadership and had risked inflicting further damage to the party’s electoral prospects. On the other hand, if these things really were disqualifying, then surely opposing Corbynism at the ballot box (where it really mattered) was no less urgent than it had been a few weeks previously.
It is hard to say with any certainty whether their conscientious objection would have made much difference to the end result. Nevertheless, their votes made them complicit in a hostile takeover of their party they had once vehemently opposed, and in cementing Corbyn’s grip on the leadership. I have since read hopeful musings that the election result was a fluke brought about by an uncommonly useless Conservative campaign and the aftershocks of the Brexit referendum. Corbynism has now peaked, these voices claim, not least because those who voted Labour secure in the knowledge Corbyn couldn’t win will not take that risk a second time.
This analysis may prove prescient but I’m sceptical. Perceptions matter in electoral politics, and the election replaced the aura of incompetence and doom surrounding Corbyn’s leadership with an aura of plausibility overnight. No longer is he simply a cranky footnote in Labour Party history, but a serious prime ministerial prospect. Now that moderates are queuing up to endorse him and carry his water, the stigma they had once striven to attach to the Corbyn brand is evaporating. Next time around, it is not control of the Labour Party that will be at issue, but control of the country and its government. This ought to be particularly alarming at a time when Europe is menaced by threats of Islamist violence, rising anti-Semitism, and Russian revanchism that Corbyn is ideologically unwilling and unable to oppose.
The choice faced by Labour moderates at the next election is not dissimilar to the dilemma faced by ‘Never Trumpers’ after the 2016 Republican convention. For those conservatives, a Trump presidency was a uniquely dangerous and repulsive prospect for reasons that went beyond questions of electability or reasonable differences over policy. Trump’s unstable temperament and gruesome admiration for autocratic rule were defects that superseded all considerations of party loyalty. Not only did these conservatives refuse to vote for Trump, but they used their positions as writers and commentators to do whatever they could to thwart his campaign. Trump’s widely unexpected election victory only increased their political isolation. Spurned by the incoming administration as treacherous and out-of-touch, and distrusted by Democrats, they found themselves stranded for the first time in their lives in political no man’s land.
Labour moderates can expect similar treatment. Even as the expectation of electoral defeat loomed before them, their protests about Corbyn’s manifest unfitness for office were swept aside with derision and contempt. Now that their leader’s position is secure, Corbynistas are in no mood to be magnanimous or conciliatory. Speaking at a Progress event on 24 June, the former broadcaster turned activist Paul Mason had a characteristically blunt message for Blairites:
If you want a centrist party this is not going to be it for the next ten years. If it’s really important to you to have a pro-Remain party that’s in favour of illegal war, in favour of privatisation, form your own party and get on with it!
Appearing on the BBC’s political discussion programme This Week a few days previously, Blairite MP Liz Kendall had done her best to put an optimistic gloss on things. Listening to her, the former Conservative MP turned commentator and broadcaster Michael Portillo could hardly contain his incredulity:
You make Mrs. May sound like a realist. What has happened to your party is it is now firmly in the grip of [hard Left campaigning organization] Momentum. And you know better than anybody that these are very nasty people. And these people are going to drive the likes of you out of the party, they’re going to have you deselected, they’re going to pursue you on social media . . . Suddenly you, and Chuka Umunna in particular, make it sound like the only disagreement you had with Jeremy Corbyn was that he might not win . . . Your party has been taken over by a very dangerous hard Left, people who have sympathized with terror over the years, and these people are now within a hair’s breadth of taking power in this country. And you should be more worried than I am about that.
The truth is we should all be worried. In both the US and the UK, the political parties in power during the Iraq War and the 2008 economic crash have both surrendered to powerful populist insurgencies. For all their differences, these insurgencies are united in their contempt for the post-WWII liberal international order and for their own party establishments. They are anti-NATO, scornful of the European Union, hostile to immigration, Putin-sympathetic, and led by agitators who thrive on the politics of mass rallies and online mobs, unconcerned by – and sometimes openly solicitous of – the bigotry and racism they trail in their wake.
Accusations of racism and questions of experience and basic competence didn’t stop Trump and they may not stop Corbyn either, despite copious evidence for both. Americans are now paying a steep price for ignoring these criteria and British voters can expect the same chaotic result should they decide to reward Corbyn’s vapid sloganeering with the task of actually governing the country. Amidst all the fawning tributes to Labour’s marvellous election campaign, the catastrophic policy interviews given by Corbyn and his shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, and the small matter of extravagant but uncosted manifesto promises, have been quietly forgotten. Meanwhile, shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s reckless description of the Grenfell Tower fire as “social murder” is a reminder of the breathtaking cynicism with which unscrupulous demagogues will inflame grief and rage in the pursuit of political expediency.
Having spent a political lifetime barking into loudhailers at protests and demos, Jeremy Corbyn is scarcely better prepared to shoulder the complex responsibilities of national governance than Donald Trump was. And should a Corbyn administration come to pass, progressives of integrity will be needed to pick up the pieces when it is all over, and to recover what remains of the moral health of left-wing politics. If the radicals who spent the ‘80s and ‘90s griping that they had been disenfranchised by the neoliberal consensus are now in control of the Labour and Republican Parties, it is because they understood something that moderates had better grasp: that luck is when patient preparation meets opportunity.
For now, the outlook for Labour moderates is bleak. Many of them have devoted a lifetime to Labour Party politics and must now contemplate the loneliness of political homelessness and exile. But, like the conservative anti-Trumpers, they should look beyond the horizon of their own tribal politics, fight their corner, and await their moment. Those who opt instead for capitulation before radical populism will not only forfeit their dignity; a movement that considers them worthy only of unqualified disdain will swallow them whole.
In 2002, the Left’s ambivalent response to the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan led American political theorist Michael Walzer to write an essay for Dissent asking, “Can there be a decent Left?” By this he meant an internationalist Left that does not strive to find equivalence between liberal democracies and the theocratic fascists who slaughter their citizens; a progressive Left that has not surrendered its liberal values to masochism and moral relativism; and a democratic Left that prefers political debate to the cult of personality that currently holds the Labour Party in its jaws. In Britain, that kind of Left is in greater peril than ever before. And now that Jeremy Corbyn stands on the threshold of power, the need to speak up in its defence has only become more urgent, not less.