Corbyn’s Labour: lions led by donkey jackets

It is heartbreaking to see idealistic youth attach itself to clueless old sectarians, writes Martin McQuillan

August 6, 2016
Health, Homes, Jobs and Education demonstrators hold Jeremy Corbyn placard, London
Source: Getty

This summer, rather than volunteering on archaeological digs or backpacking around Greek islands, many UK students will find themselves involved in the Labour Party leadership contest. The vast majority of participants will be supporting the candidacy of incumbent Jeremy Corbyn. The state of the Labour Party at the moment is so profoundly dysfunctional that a summer leadership contest threatens to become an annual event.

Corbyn enjoys favourable ratings among the student body. As of 25 July, YouGov put Labour on 49 per cent among 18- to 24-year-olds but only 28 per cent nationally. This despite the fact that the Labour Party is tearing itself apart in a contest between MPs elected with a combined 9.3 million votes and a leadership they have no trust in, elected on a 59.5 per cent first ballot mandate of party members and paid supporters.

However, there is something that needs to be said about all this. It is heartbreaking to see the energy and idealism of England’s youth attach itself to clueless old sectarians such as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the very people who sold them down the river over Europe. They deserve so much better.

The cult of Jeremy Corbyn, particularly strong among the young, is a curious anthropological event. It bears all the hallmarks of a religious experience from the supposed sanctity of the guru and the ecstatic rallies, to its own votive platitudes such as the recent Twitter hashtag #WeAreHisMedia.

Recently, when deputy leader Tom Watson sought an urgent meeting with Corbyn, his handlers responded “we have a duty of care to protect a 70-year-old [sic] man” from bullying. This does not bode well for the rough and tumble of a general election campaign let alone the intense scrutiny of government.

Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party because the talent pool of the New Labour years was exhausted with the resignation of Ed Miliband after the 2015 election defeat. The failure of the established party to put up anything like a plausible candidate led to the accidental emergence of Corbyn under new rules that enabled £3 “clicktivists” to swamp the electoral college.

The absence of a credible alternative to Corbyn as leader is also an indication of the deep existential crisis that Labour faces after the 2015 defeat. There is considerable dissatisfaction among the party’s core vote with a continuation of economic policy that led to the economic crash, and there is a seeming rupture between the expectations of its metropolitan and post-industrial heartlands.

It has also yet to understand how it might offer a wider electoral appeal beyond this core vote. Furthermore, a party that has its historic roots and values in Scotland but that has lost Scotland would seem to be in some trouble. Even without the self-inflicted structural impasse of its leadership electoral college, Labour would still be on its knees trying to come to terms with what happened to it in 2015.

Jeremy Corbyn is a career constituency MP with a history of campaigning for causes: some honourable, some questionable. Long-term observers of the Left know that his record is patchy at best. His appeal to a membership bruised by consecutive electoral defeats was the rearticulation of nostalgic maxims that provided seemingly easy answers for difficult times. 

In his time as leader of the party none of this behaviour has changed. In addition he has demonstrated a remarkable talent for alienating his colleagues, purging swing voters from the party and refusing to engage with the media cycle of modern politics. There is no point in his director of communications complaining about a hostile press, it is their job to make the news. 

In this respect any kind of a policy platform would be helpful. For example, it has been known for some time that a Higher Education and Research Bill would be placed before Parliament. Currently, the official opposition not only has no policy on universities (not even an untenable one), they have no shadow spokesperson for either the Department of Education or the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 

Shadow universities and skills spokesperson Gordon Marsden is reported to have delayed his own resignation merely to offer a token presence in Parliament while the bill passes. It is not good enough for the Labour Party to leave the task of opposing government higher education policy to the House of Lords and money-saving expert Martin Lewis.

Last summer, during his first election campaign, Corbyn promised to abolish tuition fees. Soon afterwards, this was kicked into the long grass of a policy review. It will be interesting to see what line he trots out this summer if asked the relevant question. In the meanwhile, an unchallenged HE bill will create a default inflationary accelerator for tuition fees in perpetuity.

There are platforms for progressive left politics in the Western democracies but they are nothing like the Corbyn-afflicted Labour Party. In Greece, Syriza came to power not on the back of the electorate’s embrace of radicalism but after having tried every other alternative after years of austerity and corruption that are simply not comparable to anything experienced in the UK. 

When the capitulation to the country’s creditors eventually came it was accepted with relief by the electorate (if not party members) and Alex Tsipras now has every prospect of becoming a long-serving, if compromised, social reforming prime minister.

In Spain, Podemos, another organic rather than retro leftist platform, made no progress at the last election, with a split vote on the left allowing the return of a right-wing government. In the United States, Bernie Sanders won historic levels of support for his campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. However, he has now given his backing to Hillary Clinton in the knowledge that something far worse awaits a Democratic Party that cannot mobilise an effective nationwide electoral coalition in December.

Whatever an electable leftist party looks like in the UK, it is not the parodic incompetence of Corbyn and McDonnell. Nor is Owen Smith the answer; he is merely a stalking horse for a PLP that is now surely thinking of its next step after Corbyn’s inevitable summer victory. They will not go quietly into the good night of deselection.

Recent elections to the executive of the National Union of Students have seen it take on a more leftist hue, some of them committed Corbynites. However, before hitching themselves to the cul-de-sac of converting Labour from a parliamentary party into a social movement, students should trust the evidence of their own senses and exercise their own native, critical intelligence by taking a long, hard look at the shambles created by a year of Corbyn as leader.  

It is not that, as Principal Skinner says in The Simpsons, “it’s the kids who are wrong”, but that this most put-upon of generations requires something more than a messiah who is only good at campaigning for his own job. They need a functioning opposition capable of challenging Theresa May’s Brexit Cabinet and then a progressive government capable of legislating to change the material circumstances of the lives of young people. The question has never been “what will Corbyn do as prime minister?”, but “who comes after Corbyn?”

They should also draw on their political science to appreciate that no UK election has ever been held in which the winning party did not have a majority among older voters. There is no point telling people who have campaigned for the party for 40 years that they are not “real Labour”, or fantasising that millions of as-yet-unregistered voters will be motivated to sweep Corbyn into Downing Street. 

This is bad faith politics beneath the dignity of an intelligent person. Any future electoral success therefore lies not in the veneration of political relics but in an intergenerational alliance that, as the poet of decolonisation Aimé Césaire put it, has room for all at the rendezvous of victory.

Martin McQuillan is pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Kingston University.

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