The UK state – its economy, its culture, its fractured identities and party system – is in a much deeper crisis than many want to accept. Its governors, at least in public, remain in semi-denial. English politicians assumed that the threat to the unitary state had been seen off after they got the result they wanted in the Scottish independence referendum. The results of last year’s general election suggested otherwise. The SNP now exercises a virtual monopoly of Scottish representation in the House of Commons and most opinion polls indicate a small majority in favour of Scottish independence. The impact of this on the crisis of Labourism, old and new, should not be underestimated. It is the most dramatic change in the UK party system since the foundation of the Labour Party itself.
Add to this the following facts: 11.3 million votes obtained 331 seats for the Conservatives; 9.3 million got Labour 232 MPs, the Liberal Democrats with 2.4 million went down to eight, while the Greens and UKIP gained a single MP each for a million plus and 3.8 million votes respectively. A blatantly rigged electoral mechanism is not a cause for celebration; whatever else it may be, this is clearly not a representative democracy. Ed Miliband resigned immediately as leader following his defeat and the caretaker leader, Harriet Harman, decided not to oppose the Tories on the basic tenets of their austerity policies: she knew that a post-2015 Labour government would have done the same. The Labour Party that lost the election was conformist and visionless: it had forgotten what it meant to mount an opposition.
The new system for Labour leadership elections that Miliband introduced in 2014 was meant as a conciliatory gesture. He had been accused of winning the leadership only with the support of the hated trade unions, so he instituted a one member, one vote system, with one vote for any Labour voter or supporter who – though not a party member – was prepared to part with £3 (the French Socialists had used a similar method to elect Hollande). It was a step forward for democratisation, but the new rules also had the overwhelming support of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Most of them assumed that if outsiders had any effect at all it would be to help seal the status quo. And so it might have been had New Labour managed to come up with a halfway credible candidate. In order to preserve the fiction that the PLP remained a broad church that favoured diversity and loved a good debate, a few Blairites gave their vote to support a candidate from the minuscule parliamentary left. This strategy had worked before: last time round David Miliband nominated Diane Abbott as a candidate. In 2015 they hoped a left candidate would take away support from Andy Burnham, who was what passed for leftish, leaving the door open for Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper.
Enter Jeremy Corbyn stage left. He may not be a charismatic figure, but he could never be mistaken for a PR confection. I have shared numerous platforms with him over the past forty years and on key issues he has remained steadfast. During the leadership debates he came across as uninterested in point-scoring and oblivious to media hostility. The Guardian came out for Yvette Cooper, the Mirror for Andy Burnham. Absolutely nobody, including Corbyn himself, thought that he could win. The campaign was intended just to show that there was an alternative to the neoliberal leadership that had ruled the country for the last three decades.
What appealed to the young and to the many who had left the party in disgust during the Blair/Brown years – what appealed to the people who turned the campaign into a genuine social movement – was precisely what alienated the political and media cliques. Corbyn’s campaign generated a mass movement that renewed the base of the Labour Party – nearly two hundred thousand new members and counting – and led to his triumph. He won almost as many votes as all his opponents put together. Blair’s misjudged appeals (‘Hate me as much as you want, but don’t vote Corbyn’) and Brown’s out-of-touch attacks accusing Corbyn of being friendly with dictatorships (he was referring to Venezuela, rather than Saudi Arabia or Kazakhstan, states favoured by the New Labour elite) only won Corbyn more support. The Blairite cohort that dominates the Guardian’s opinion pages – Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee et al – had zero impact on the result, desperate though they were to trash Corbyn. They were desperate enough even to give space – twice – to Blair himself, in the hope of rehabilitating him. Naturally, the paper lost many readers, including me.
Corbyn’s victory was not based on ultra-leftism. His views reflected what many in the country felt, and this is what anti-Corbyn Labour found difficult to grasp. Corbyn spelled it out himself in one of the TV debates:
We also as a party have to face up to something which is an unpleasant truth, that we fought the 2015 election on very good policies included in the manifesto but fundamentally we were going to be making continuing cuts in central government expenditure, we were going to continue underfunding local government, there were still going to be job losses, there were still going to be people suffering because of the cuts we were going to impose by accepting an arbitrary date to move into budget surplus, accepting the language of austerity. My suggestion is that the party has to challenge the politics of austerity, the politics of increasing the gap between the richest and the poorest in society and be prepared to invest in a growing economy rather than accepting what is being foisted on us by the banking crisis of 2008 to 2009. We don’t have to set this arbitrary date, which in effect means the poorest and most vulnerable in our society pay for the banking crisis rather than those that caused it.
How could any Labour MP disagree with that? What they really hated was his questioning of the private sector. John Prescott had been allowed to pledge the renationalisation of the railways at the 1996 Labour Party Conference, but after Blair’s victory the following year the subject was never raised again. Until now.
When I asked him when he first realised he might actually win, Corbyn’s response was characteristic of the activist that he remains: ‘It was in Nottingham during the last weeks of campaigning … you know Nottingham. Normally we think that fifty or sixty people at a meeting is a good turnout. I got four hundred and there were people outside who couldn’t get in. I thought then we might win this one.’ The crowds grew and grew, making clear that Corbyn was capable of mobilising and inspiring large numbers of people, and making clear too how flimsy the support was, outside the media, for the other candidates.
His election animated English politics. His horrified enemies in the PLP immediately started to plot his removal. Lord Mandelson informed us that the PLP wouldn’t destroy their new leader immediately: ‘It would be wrong,’ he wrote, ‘to try and force this issue from within before the public have moved to a clear verdict.’ Blair, angered by this outburst of democracy in a party that he had moulded in his own image, declared that the Labour Party would be unelectable unless Corbyn was removed. Brown kept relatively quiet, perhaps because he was busy negotiating his very own private finance initiative with the investment firm Pimco (Ben Bernanke and the former ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet are also joining its ‘global advisory board’). Simultaneously, his ennobled former chancellor, Lord Darling, was on his way to work for Morgan Stanley in Wall Street. Blair, an adviser to J.P. Morgan since 2008, must have chuckled. At last, a New Labour reunion in the land of the free. All that ‘light-touch’ regulation was bearing rich fruit. Virtually every senior member of the Blair and Brown cabinets went to work for a corporation that had benefited from their policies. The former health secretary Alan Milburn, for example, is on the payroll of several companies involved in private healthcare and is currently working for Cameron as the chair of his Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. It was not just the Iraq War that was responsible for the growing public disenchantment with New Labour.
The establishment decided to wheel out the chief of defence staff, Sir Nicholas Houghton. Interviewed on 8 November, he confided to a purring Andrew Marr that the army was deeply vexed by Corbyn’s unilateralism, which damaged ‘the credibility of deterrence’. On the same show, Maria Eagle, a PLP sniper with a seat on the front bench as the shadow defence secretary, essentially told Marr that she agreed with the general. Just another day in the war against Corbyn. The Sunday Times had previously run an anonymous interview with ‘a senior serving general’. ‘Feelings are running very high within the armed forces,’ the general was quoted as saying, about the very idea of a Corbyn government. ‘You would see … generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn over … Trident, pulling out of Nato and any plans to emasculate and shrink the size of the armed forces … There would be mass resignations at all levels … which would effectively be a mutiny. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.’ If anything expressed the debasement of Britain’s political culture it was the lack of reaction to this military interference in politics. When Corbyn tried to complain, a former Tory grandee, Ken Clarke, declared that the army was not answerable to Parliament, but to the queen. Anything but Corbyn: even a banana monarchy.
In December, Cameron sought parliamentary approval for sending British planes to bomb Islamic State in Syria. From his point of view, a happy possible side effect of the predictably successful vote was that it might make Corbyn’s position as leader untenable. Having been shafted by Maria Eagle he was about to be stabbed in the front by Hilary Benn, whose disingenuous speech – Hitler, with the Spanish Civil War thrown in for good measure – was loudly cheered by Tory and hardcore Blairite MPs. (What a pity that the two-hour row between Hilary Benn and his father over the Iraq War, of which Hilary was an ardent supporter, was never taped and transcribed in Tony Benn’s printed diaries – though he did talk about it to friends.) But this, too, failed to unseat Corbyn. The Labour leader – wrongly, in my opinion – permitted a free vote on the insistence of close colleagues. (John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, insisted it was a ‘matter of conscience’.) In the end 66 Labour MPs voted with the Tories to bomb targets in Syria. Some of them had been given presentations by the Ministry of Defence designed to convince them that there would be no collateral damage. But the majority of the PLP opposed the bombings and voted with Corbyn. Frustrated yet again, the media sought to attribute the failure of more Labour MPs to vote for the bombing to the ‘bullying’ of Stop the War, an organisation of which Corbyn had been the chair since the death of Tony Benn. For a week or so it was open season on the antiwar coalition. One effect was to scare the Greens and cause the party’s former leader Caroline Lucas to resign from the STW committee. Was this really her own decision or was it the idea of the inept Natalie Bennett, fearful that Green supporters were being carried away by the pied piper from Islington? Corbyn himself was unmoved: he told the audience at a STW fundraising dinner that he was proud of the work the organisation had done from the time of the Afghan war onwards, and that he was proud to serve as its chair.
Later in the week of the Syria vote, the Oldham by-election, which had, again, been talked up as a possible disaster for Corbyn (George Eaton in the New Statesman claimed to have been told by ‘an insider’ that ‘defeat was far from unthinkable’) was instead a resounding victory. All this left Corbyn’s enemies on the defensive. A reshuffle early in the New Year removed Eagle and a few others, but Benn was left in place, a reflection of the political difficulties confronting Corbyn. Any attempts to change the political balance of the shadow cabinet have been greeted with threats of mass resignations. How long can Labour MPs carry on this war on their own leader? Corbyn will not be bullied or demoralised into standing down. The snipers will use any ammunition to achieve their goal. Bad local election results in May? Blame Corbyn. Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate in the London mayoral elections, stresses how business-friendly he is – probably more than the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith, who, being wealthy himself, doesn’t have to suck up to the CBI. If Khan wins he’ll be touted as another new challenger for the leadership. If he loses it will, of course, be Corbyn’s fault. As for the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the opinion polls suggest a huge SNP triumph. Corbyn’s fault? Of course. The zombies running Scottish Labour presided over the 2015 meltdown, the worst defeat since Labour was founded. But when they lose this time, it will be Corbyn who is to blame. I doubt very much if this particular claim will stick: too crude and too late.
Even though there is no constitutional mechanism to get rid of a Labour leader through a vote of no confidence by the PLP, there is little doubt that were such a vote to take place, Corbyn would call a new leadership contest. Would he need to repeat the business of getting enough PLP sponsors or could he, as the incumbent, run again automatically? This is a grey area and would probably require a NEC vote that he would win. The rule change would have to be ratified by the Labour Party Conference. His high ratings among party members suggest that Corbyn would win again. What then? A separate grouping of Blairites à la SDP? The latter boasted a few well-known and intelligent social democrats – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen, Peter Jenkins and Polly Toynbee – but they were still destroyed by the electoral system and had to stave off obscurity by a political transplant, merging with the Liberals, an experiment that ended in disaster in 2015. Were they to try the same, the Blairites would fare much worse, even if one of their number vacated a safe seat to make room for David Miliband.
While the mood in Scotland shifted leftwards, the centre of politics in England has moved so far to the right since the 1980s that even though the Corbyn/McDonnell economic programme is not very radical – what it offers on the domestic front is a little bit of social democracy to strengthen the welfare state and a modest, fiscally manipulated form of income distribution – it is nevertheless a break with the consensus established by Thatcher, Blair/Brown and Cameron. The thoughts and habits that have dominated the culture for almost four decades – private better than public, individual more important than society, rich more attractive than poor, a symbiosis of big money and small politics – constitute a serious obstacle. Many who concentrate their fire on Corbyn’s supposed unelectability shy away from its corollary: under the present dispensation there is no room for any progressive alternative. The dogmatic vigour with which the EU and its Troika push back any attempts by the left to shift the obstacle has contributed to a disturbing growth of the right in France, the Netherlands and now Germany, as well as to the election of hard-right governments in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Croatia. This is in part a result of the refusal to tolerate even a modicum of social democracy.
The creation of Momentum, which explains itself as ‘a network of people and organisations to continue the energy and enthusiasm of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign’, united old Bennites long asleep in the Labour Party and young activists drawn to the leadership campaign. Corbyn likes to boast that his own local constituency party has 3300 members and 2000 registered supporters – more than five thousand in all, in a constituency where the Labour vote is nearly 30,000. One in six Labour voters is a party member. This is an astonishing and exemplary figure but one not matched elsewhere. A body like Momentum could help to build support by working within existing campaigns against war and austerity, registering voters, encouraging school leavers and students to become politically active, regularly debating opposing views (and not just on social networks). Only a movement of the sort that elected Corbyn as leader can send him to Downing Street. The effect of the Scottish example on many in England should not be underestimated. Even media cynics were staggered by the degree of politicisation in Scotland and the debates and discussions taking place everywhere before the referendum. The tens of thousands who flocked to join Corbyn’s Labour Party were not that different from those who moved to support the SNP. The SNP’s parliamentary cohort in Westminster provides solid support to the Labour left on a number of issues and will, no doubt, do so again when the Tories bring the projected renewal of Trident to the Commons in April, giving their allies in the PLP another opportunity to destabilise Corbyn, or so they hope.
In Scotland there is a large majority in favour of the removal of nuclear missiles from Scottish shores. Elsewhere in the UK, public opinion is more evenly divided and fluctuates depending on the way the question is posed. A number of retired generals have questioned Trident’s utility, and in his memoirs even Blair admitted that in terms of both cost (£31 billion, with another £10 billion in reserve and lifetime costs predicted to exceed £180 billion) and utility, both ‘common sense and practical argument’ dictated getting rid of it. He was opposed to doing so because it would be ‘too big a downgrading of our status as a nation’. There is no other reason. Britain needs Trident as a symbol – and to be a notch above or below the Germans, depending on one’s point of view. Those who dream of an English finger on the nuclear trigger inhabit a fantasy world: the finger will always be American. That’s why the notion, recently discussed in relation to the EU and Brexit, that the Commons would vote through a motion declaring that the UK is a sovereign state caused much merriment abroad. Everybody knows that Britain has been a vassal state since 1956. Brexit (which I favour for good socialist reasons) can’t restore sovereignty. The only truly sovereign state in the Western world is the United States. It’s worth noting that the SNP is for Nato. So was Syriza in better times. So is Podemos, one of whose leaders recently declared that Nato could help democratise the Spanish Army. To each their illusions.
Corbyn’s radicalism lies not so much in what he is proposing on the domestic front – for that is increasingly the common sense of many economists and others, including the self-declared democratic socialist Bernie Sanders – but in his desire to change foreign policy. His criticism of the absurdly high level of military expenditure is echoed by some prominent US economists in relation to their own country. Joseph Stiglitz (a Corbyn adviser on the economy) and Linda Bilmes have argued that America’s spending on wars since 2003, estimated now at nearly $8 trillion, is crippling the country. ‘A trillion dollars,’ they note,
could have built eight million additional housing units, could have hired some 15 million additional public school teachers for one year; could have paid for 120 million children to attend a year of Head Start; or insured 530 million children for healthcare for one year; or provided 43 million students with four-year scholarships at public universities. Now multiply those numbers by three.
There are a number of US historians and analysts – those of the realist school – who aren’t shy in their criticism of their country’s foreign policy. (Trump’s recent assault on Bush over the Iraq War owes much to their work.) John Mearsheimer at Chicago, Stephen Walt at Harvard, Barry Posen at MIT and Christopher Layne in Texas are joined by a former four-star general, Andrew Bacevich. Their thinking continues to evolve. In American Empire, Bacevich argued against the previous realist view that US Cold War policy was a defensive response to Soviet ambitions and insisted that its expansion of conflict to Eurasia in the 1940s was part of a drive to establish global hegemony. Yet such opinions when voiced by Corbyn and his circle are denounced as anti-American, extremist, a threat to Britain etc. Corbyn has long been hostile to both Nato and the EU as presently constituted, but his views on these matters are so alien to the PLP that they have for the time being been shelved.
During the Blair/Brown period the Labour Party unlearned social democracy of the Crosland variety, no matter anything resembling the classical model of early socialism. Corbyn knows it’s vital that the party relearns social democracy. It once seemed a hopeless task. Now, amazingly, they have a chance. The statistics about global inequality desperately need someone who can explain them in terms that can anger, mobilise and inspire people. If Corbyn can do this, it would mark an important shift in English politics.
This article originally appeared in the London Review of Books.