The ironies of history never fail to surprise. Measured by any criteria, Jeremy Corbyn is the most left-wing leader in the history of the Labour Party. He understands that those who do evil abroad are unlikely to do much good at home. He is the staunchest anti-imperialist Member of Parliament. A contrast with his political forebears proves this assertion. Keir Hardie’s socialism floundered on the battlefields of the First World War, with Arthur Henderson serving in Lloyd George’s war cabinet.
Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, worshipped the Dukes and Duchesses of high society and ended up taking the Labour into a National Government and splitting the party. Benefit cuts was the issue. George Lansbury, who led the remnants, was a decent enough man and highly respected but too busy nursing the amputated party to have much of an impact.
Clement Attlee was a great reformer domestically, but abroad his government approved the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, appeased the new masters of the world in Washington, rejected any notion of an independent foreign policy and his ministers were photographed with the decapitated heads of Malaysian communist guerrillas that Britain helped to crush and defeat. The record on the civil war in Greece was not a great improvement on what had been started by the old man in Downing Street.
Harold Wilson redistributed wealth but supported US foreign policy in Vietnam; Michael Foot as Leader of the Opposition was a rabid supporter of Margaret Thatcher’s war to retrieve the Malvinas/Falkland. Neil Kinnock’s triumph was the expulsion of the Militant tendency but he failed to defeat the Tories. John Smith died before he could be tested.
The Thatcherite twins followed Smith. Tony Blair/Gordon Brown had agreed to share power thus creating two power-hungry factions with no political differences except that Blair hungered for both power and money. He gave us the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the second was blissfully oblivious to the vulnerabilities of financialised capitalism and spent billions of tax-payers money to bail out a number of banks that might have (after paying the depositors) been best left to croak. Both bureacratised the Labour Party by neutering the power of the party conference, reducing it to the level of a tacky version of the US Democrats. All show, no substance. They denuded Constituency Labour Party members (CLPs) of the right to select their own prospective parliamentary candidates. This was the only way they could transform a large chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) into a collection of over-promoted office boys and girls together with bandwagon careerists.
Three of them were on regular display in the recent campaign to succeed another one of their number, Ed Miliband. What is ironic is that Miliband’s reform of the party’s electoral system was designed to appease the Blairites and their media chums by eliminating what was left of trade union power in the party and opening it up to outsiders in the lame hope that more congenial voters would ensure the domination of extreme centre politics. So confident were they that a few Blairites gave Corbyn the necessary parliamentary votes to stand as a token lefty and reveal the party’s generosity and attachment to diversity.
Who would have thought that it would backfire so sensationally? Certainly not Corbyn. Nor anyone else. The Guardian came out for Cooper, its Blairite columnists trembling with rage and denouncing the dinosaur from Islington, forgetting that for younger folk dinosaurs are a much loved and missed species. The Daily Mirror backed Burnham.
No one who knows or sees and hears Corbyn can doubt his authenticity. I have shared numerous platforms with him for the last forty years. On the key issues he has remained steadfast. What appealed to the young, who transformed the campaign into a social movement, was precisely what alienated the traditional political and media cliques.
Corbyn was untutored, discursive, too leftwing, wanted to reverse the privatizations of the railways and the utilities, etc. Many who registered to vote for him did so because of this and to break from the bland, colourless, unimaginative and visionless New Labour confections on permanent display.
As a Labourist, Corbyn had underestimated the changes in Scotland, but it was these that actually helped his campaign. An SNP cohort in parliament that wanted to ditch the redundant and over-priced Trident; an electrifying maiden speech by 18 year old Mhairi Black’s that took on the Tories, pleaded with Labour to join the opposition. Her honesty and integrity was unchallengeable. It became a global sensation, tweeted and facebooked all over the world. Was there anyone in the immeasurably inferior PLP who could match such a performance? All this helped the Corbyn campaign. If Scotland, why not England?
What does the future hold? As Labour members elect their most leftwing leader the overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party is in the death grip of the Right. Anyone listening to Sadiq Khan’s acceptance speech after being nominated as Labour’s mayoral choice to run London would have noticed the difference with the Corbyn campaign. Khan’s clichés were a reminder of how isolated Corbyn will be inside the PLP.
What will he do? What will they do?
Corbyn will, unsurprisingly, call on the party to unite behind him. But there is no getting away from the fact that the PLP majority is opposed to his policies. I guess they will try and tire him out and force compromise after compromise to discredit him (remember Tsipras in Greece) but I doubt whether they’ll succeed. Corbyn understands the key issues on which no compromise is possible. He’s been campaigning for them long enough. His closeness to the Green agenda is not a secret and and the single Green MP now has a solid supporter. Taking back public transport from the profiteers is another element; cheap public housing for the young and the old will help rebuild communities. A robust tax regime that reverse the decades of privileges afforded the rich will unleash a fierce offensive by the City and its media and political acolytes, but it’s absolutely necessary. Since the late 70s, The redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich and the very rich has risen faster in Britain than in any other OECD country.
Unlike the Blair cabinet, Corbyn is not interested in power for its own sake or to amass personal wealth. After all they happily supported austerity and Cameron is no different from Blair. We shall see. But whatever happens it will no longer be possible for the self-censoring BBC to keep the views espoused by the new Labour leader off the screen. The living dead have been vanquished, if temporarily. English politics has come to life again.