Jeremy Corbyn represents by far the most promising political project in Europe. It’s a desperately precarious project, often on the back foot, always under threat, always at risk of being smashed or de-railed or co-opted by forces well to the right of it. It could hardly be otherwise for a movement born in bleak times, raised on the arid soil of the Labour Party, and forced to chart a pathway to power through the Brexit labyrinth. History rarely plays nice, and the 21st century has not improved her mood.
But in its combination of radical soul, mass engagement and proximity to power, nothing else in Europe comes near to the Corbyn movement. There is no need to qualify this by saying “nothing else in electoral politics” because at present nothing outside electoral politics has a capacity for anything beyond mild agitation. And there is no need to qualify it by saying “except the SNP”, because the centre of gravity of the SNP is far to the right of the Corbyn movement in every respect except its demand for Scottish independence and its open opposition to Trident (most Corbyn supporters probably oppose Trident too, but they are hamstrung by Labour policy).
As important as elections get
Scottish readers will understand that the previous sentence takes for granted the irrelevance of the Scottish Labour Party. Despite some pockets of decency, Scottish Labour is institutionally hostile to everything the Corbyn movement stands for. It is probably beyond rescue. In any case, Westminster needs a block of pro-independence MPs if the struggle for Scottish independence is to move into its next phase, and the SNP is unfortunately all that is available. But all of us, across the UK and beyond, need Jeremy Corbyn to be Britain’s next Prime Minister. The December election is as important as elections get. It is no exaggeration to compare it to 1945 or 1979.
But we need to keep the heid. Is it really a once in a generation chance? Party political fanboys always get a bit melodramatic at election time. The Lawrence Olivier stuff is fine and inspiring for a day or two, but it is poor preparation for a long fight. Labour may lose. The election may produce a hung Parliament. If Labour wins, the Labour right and the British establishment will intensify their efforts to either overturn Corbyn’s leadership or transform it into something remote from his radical grassroots support. Anyone who wishes to sustain even a moderate shift away from neo-liberalism, let alone a political transformation, will need to be fighting from the first day of the next government.
We will need to fight outside the Labour Party at least as much as inside it, and we will need to dispense with too much sensitivity towards even the best elements of the party. Whether the next government is Labour or Tory or a coalition, we will be fighting not just to deliver a fraternal nudge towards better policies, but for the survival of those of us facing destitition, or the denial of appropriate health and social care, or death beneath British bombs or the bombs of a British ally, or death in a lorry or a boat while navigating the lines constructed to contain us.
The Tories are hoping for a low turnout amongst potential Labour voters. Their dirty-tricks batallions will be working hard to that end. Realism towards Labour must not erode our collective will to drive the Tories from office. But we must not become echo-chambers for Labour Party strategy. We must not stop talking about and organising and fighting for the issues that Labour wants us to leave for another day. If we do that we will lose everything.
Back to the Miliband years
Alastair Campbell’s interview of John McDonnell for GQ magazine has given us fair warning of what may lie ahead. Even if McDonnell’s teeth were gritted beneath the banter and chuminess, the interview – the fact of it and the substance – must reflect a view within the Labour leadership on the price they must pay for power. A crucial moment in the interview (listen to the video at 1m 55s) is missing from GQ’s transcript. It’s the bit where Campbell asks: “Is Tony Blair a war criminal?” McDonnell replies, unequivocally, “No, no.”
In two words, McDonnell has risked taking Labour back to the Miliband years – sorry about the Iraq war, keen to distance itself a bit from Blair’s premiership, but unwilling to do so sharply enough to matter.
The people who built a tsunami of support for Corbyn as leader did so largely because of his record of robust opposition to the Iraq war. The prospects for a leftwards policy shift that is sustainable because it is internationalist largely rest on the same thing. The McDonnell interview is not just a distasteful curio. It is the wolf at the door.
McDonnell was possibly just trying to make sufficient peace with the Blairites to stop them stabbing Labour in the back ahead of the election that everyone could then – at the end of September – see was coming. Possibly he overestimated the time left for backstabbing before the official start of the election campaign. Whatever the reason, it will be hard to prise the Blair-Campbell feet out of the door now that they are in.
We have been here before. In 1997 Blair was not yet the Prince of Darkness and was still struggling to shake off his image as Bambi. But he was already on the right. A theory was doing the rounds that this was just a ploy to win the election, and that once in power a Blair government would tack towards socialism. The theory would have been weak at the knees had it been a red scare conjured up by the right-wing press. But it was being promoted by grassroots Labour voters, apparently sincerely and on their own initiative, to woo distrustful lefties. There was in fact no chance whatever that Labour would be more radical in power than in opposition.
Corbyn is not Blair. The current of people-power that surrounds him feels different to the surge that door-stepped and wrote and broadcast in 1997 to end Tory rule. But it remains very, very optimistic to suppose that Labour will move left in power.
A Corbyn government will open political spaces that have been closed for a long time. It will create a possibility – just a possibility – for the left to take the initiative instead of being perpetually on the defensive, trapped in circumstances not of our making. But the space will be worthless if we choose to vacate it to avoid embarassing Corbyn.