At first, Britain’s Labour leadership contest was just about remixing Tory clichés. Andy Burnham issued bromides of ‘aspiration’ with a Northern accent. Yvette Cooper criticised Ed Miliband’s pledge to ban EU migrants from benefits for two years, on the grounds that it should be four years. Unable to add anything new, Liz Kendall gave up, and accepted almost every Conservative policy.
The entrance of Jeremy Corbyn transformed the campaign. Up until that point, the only choice had been between three forms of neo-Blairism. It made sense. Since the advent of New Labour, in 1994, the party’s center had progressively moved rightwards. Hailed as the return of ‘Old Labour’, Corbyn’s socialism appealed to ‘common sense’, moral clarity and optimism. Nearly everyone outside Westminster and the commentariat was thrilled.
The last real socialist candidate was Tony Benn, in the 1988 leadership contest. Benn took on Neil Kinnock and lost. Formerly a leftist, Kinnock was soon compromising at every turn to Thatcherism. In the end, the Labour chief lost two elections, and gave us Blairism. What Corbyn represents is the first viable opposition to the extreme centre, as Tariq Ali eloquently calls it, in its permanent state of triangulation. That’s what makes his candidacy significant, both in terms of his party’s politics, and in the United Kingdom.
The proof is in the pudding: Labour is the party that refuses to oppose cuts to child tax credits. As if tuition fees, deregulation and PFI contracts weren’t awful enough. Corbyn’s sudden rise is indicative of the growing crisis for Europe’s social democrats, pressed, on one side, by populists, combining welfare state and anti-immigrant politics, on the other, by leftwing anti-austerity parties such as Spain’s Podemos, and Syriza. Corbyn represents a final push against the decline of social democracy.
Can the extreme centre be defeated? It’s hard to be optimistic, given the situation that Syriza has found itself in, forced, as it has, to a regress to a traditional socialist party. Indeed, the barriers to moving left are immense. This was evident in the recent vote on Britain’s welfare bill. Harriet Harman’s orders were disobeyed by just 48 Labour MPs, who were outnumbered by SNP votes.
Harman’s commitment to slashing benefits for single mothers goes back to the first days of Blairism. Despite the rebellion, Harman’s move represented the abdication of the opposition by 184 MPs. Yet the refusal of the 48 does show that there is still life in Labour. It remains the case that the Blairites lack any credible figures, and that Jeremy Corbyn’s growing popularity is a sign of this.
The trade unions, including Unite and Unison, but also RMT, have largely sided with the Corbyn campaign. All the polls seem favourable. Though the social base of Labour – the organised working class – has been in decline since the 1980s, the SNP and the Greens have demonstrated that there is a base for a broad left-wing agenda. Equally, the rise of UKIP confirms the public’s disenchantment with conventional politics, in its appeal to lower income voters. So it’s not just about ‘electability’, which is pointless, unless it is coupled with an oppositional agenda.
The political conditions are much more important. The civil service welcomed the Conservative-Liberal coalition in 2010. It will doubtlessly be hostile to Labour. This is not just in the case of a Corbyn leadership either. The Cameron government has presided over austerity measures, but it pulled back from the edge in time to win the election. The deepest cuts were made in the first two years. According to the Wall Street Journal, this led to the UK economy contracting by 1.5% to 2% by 2013. So the UK government changed gears and relied upon quantitative easing to inflate growth.
The edifice of Thatcherism remains in place. Unemployment stands at 1.8 million, while underemployment was around 3 million last year. At 5.5%, this is the lowest unemployment rate since 2008. Yet unemployment reached its lowest point, 3.4%, in 1973 just as the workers’ share of GDP reached its apogee. It’s been downhill ever since. The best opportunity for Corbyn might be an economic crisis. It would shatter David Cameron’s claim to managerial superiority. The thin ice of popularity on which the government stands would begin to crack.
More importantly, financial crises open up the range of political possibilities. Once the government has to bail out banks, then the case for greater spending for social services can be made. Under Jeremy Corbyn the Labour Party would be capable of making the opposition case. It would likely face internal disputes, and the institutional opposition of the civil service. But these obstacles are not necessarily insurmountable. Especially if a majority of Labour politicians can be convinced that the battle is worth waging. This will be easier if the Tories are bloodied.
In the years ahead, we may well see the end of the United Kingdom, at least as we know it, and even a Brexit. These events will unleash all kinds of unforeseeable forces. So far the Scottish independence bid has led to the emergence of the SNP as a major force in UK politics. It’s possible that the end of the Union could allow Scotland the space to establish itself as a progressive beacon. The English left could be emboldened by such an example. A Brexit has far more ambivalent connotations for the left. It could well inspire the forces of xenophobia.
One of the few drawbacks of Jeremy Corbyn is the faith he still holds in both of the UK’s main unions. Even still, he remains more critical than the average Labourite. But, significantly, Corbyn is consistent on the vital questions: civil liberties, economics and foreign policy. The SNP has made clear it could work with such a Labour leader. Of course, it’s possible that the ultra-leftists are right: Labour is dead meat already.
However, even if Corbyn’s victory brings about the split necessary to reconstruct the opposition, then it will surely be worth it. In this case, Jeremy Corbyn is a vanishing mediator. This possibility cannot be written-off. But, as Terry Eagleton once wrote, “If you do not resist the apparently inevitable, you will never know how inevitable the inevitable was.”
Photographs courtesy of The Weekly Bull. Published under a Creative Commons license.