Could Jeremy Corbyn really pull it off? The maverick left-winger’s shock-lead in the first YouGov poll of the Labour leadership election suggests he just might. For the true believers of the hard left, this is the stuff of dreams. Not since Tony Benn missed claiming the deputy leadership by a whisker in 1981 has such an out-and-out radical come so close to seizing power not simply within, but over the Labour Party.
Yet, if the polls are correct, then Corbyn’s success has very little indeed to do with the “hard left”. An ever-peripheral influence in the broad church that makes up the party, the attempts of some to hold up Corbyn as the “true Labour” opposition to the New Labourites represent a reworking of history. Socialist convictions were overshadowed by the conservative inclinations of the trade unions in the Labour Party’s early inception. “Not a single socialist speech” had been heard from the nascent Labour Party, declared the Social Democratic Federation in 1906. Harold Wilson famously conceded that Labour owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx.
The trouble is, if the current leadership contest is anything to go by, the rich history of ideological breadth, nuance and vigour that has so characterised our party’s story has also been written out of the narrative. The vignette that we’re left with suggests a party oscillating wildly between two polarities: the dogmatic Bennite left at one end, the Blairite zealots at the other, all but erasing everything that once came between.
Who would recall that there was once a proudly socialist yet strongly reformist “right” within the Labour Party? Figures like Anthony Crosland, Hugh Gaitskell, Neil Kinnock and John Smith, steeped in the party’s traditions and respectful of the cause, who nonetheless argued that socialism means very little as a political creed if it finds reality only in the pages of academic literature. But these were socialists nonetheless.
For all the talk of “radical social democracy”, Tony Blair did not further the cause of socialism in Britain. Anyone who tries to argue that the New Labour approach to the economy, to tax and spend, to our public services or the financial sector represented anything short of a continuation of the neoliberal consensus is delusional. That should never be taken to mean that New Labour wasn’t a force for good, not simply within the context of its own self-imposed parameters, but in the real lives of often-vulnerable people across the country. Yet trying to frame Blairism as the inheritor of the socialist reformist tradition is just as daft as those who believe Corbyn’s brand of Bennism would in any way represent a return to Labour’s ever-elusive “roots”.
This is partly the reason why the ‘Blue Labour’ agenda has so captured the attention of party members who dare to question the officially-sanctioned truth – that swallowing market-dogma whole represents Labour’s sole route back to power. Branding itself “Labour’s radical tradition”, Blue Labour combines a socialist critique of the power of capital with the language of patriotism and place, neglected by the liberalism of the Blair years.
These two strands are a closer fit than you might think. How, for example, do we respond to the erosion of national sovereignty and identity that globalisation has brought? The free flow of capital across borders, perfectly captured in the European project, presents a real and increasingly felt threat to the rights of citizens to determine their own governance. Keen not to be left out of the club, New Labour cloaked an adherence to Thatcherite market doctrine in the faux-progressive clothes of the European Union, all without ever so much as once consulting the opinion of the British people.
The European question is as good an example as any as to why huge numbers of party members see, in Jeremy Corbyn, a figure willing to smash the cosy consensus of the New Labour years. With Burnham, Kendall and Cooper offering the predictable platitudes when asked about Britain’s membership of the EU, Corbyn was the only candidate who dared to suggest that our role in the European project ought not to be unconditional. However small, this dissent gave voice to those disgusted with the Eurozone’s treatment of the Greek people, or perhaps to those who find themselves on the wrong side of a fishing quota for whom the familiar story of the EU’s benefits just doesn’t ring true.
f the answers Corbyn offers often fall wide of the mark, whether it be his long-held beliefs in extensive nationalisation or potentially crippling hikes in income tax, his candidacy has swiftly become a catchall for Labour members and supporters pushing the party to start asking the difficult but ultimately unavoidable questions. How do we really tackle the scourge of the modern world that is economic inequality? How do we set about shifting the tax burden onto wealth and away from consumption and incomes? How do we champion and defend our public services from the ravages of a system ultimately predicated on their abolition?
What a truly sorry state of affairs it is that it falls to the hard left to even so much as offer a critique of capitalism in the 21st Century. While it would likely be ‘safer’ in the short term for one of the mainstream candidates to take the crown, nothing in the Burnham, Cooper or Kendall prescriptions comes close to offering a renewal of Labour’s radical instincts for a new age. More worryingly, the continuity of bland liberalism that any one of those candidates would represent further risks a haemorrhaging of our core support, not to mention an arrogant refusal to see any worth in speaking for and to the disaffected.
One thing is clear enough: if Corbyn makes good on the current polling predictions, it won’t be the petulance of the Labour Party membership that’s to blame, but a profound failure of the party’s mainstream to convince us that they are offering to build something that counts for more than the mere sum of its parts.