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Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn, the grand hope of the Labour Party in Britain, is being politically assassinated. The process has been a gradual one, coming in the form of poison administered over a series of months and thinly veiled promises. But now, the issue has become even more violent. The anti-Corbyn clique is now brandishing its weapons in the open.

The Brexit vote has resulted in much blood letting. A Prime Minister fell on his sword, promising to depart to ready the uncertain ship for his successor. The poor Labour campaign, always marred by different ideologies between the Blairites and Corbynistas, was also bound to attract internal scrutiny.

The daggers, dripping with unreconstructed Thatcherism and sour Blairite aftertaste, are being readied against a man who came to power without traditionally seeking it, the rank outsider who capitalised, as have so many in this climate of estrangement with central authority.

He made the most unpardonable of errors to many in his party when nominated: He won the leadership contest. He won a vote for a party he was not meant to. Even his backers were stunned. He came to a show in free fall, a lot in moral decay. And he sought to go about reconstructing what he could, going about cleaning the stables.

Then came the vote on Europe. Europe, as ever, part nightmare and hope. His position on Europe was similarly shaped by an anti-corporate scepticism and fears about a loss of sovereign control. Through the 1970s, and even under Neil Kinnock’s stewardship of Labour in the 1980s, scepticism persisted.

In the remain campaign, Corbyn was never going to unequivocally back a project that was, in itself, refusing to consider a reformist agenda. The EU had certainly done good, but it had not given a good account of itself in the areas of accountability and governance. Conditional endorsement was what he gave in a range of speeches, notably in April. For those who wanted more, this was never going to be enough.

As he tried explaining, focusing the debate upon the ill-intentions of the Tories backing the Brexiteers, the social and labour benefits obtained by European Union membership would be sabotaged by any exit.

In the question and answer segment following his April speech, he articulated his dark vision: “Just imagine what the Tories would do to workers’ rights here in Britain if we voted to leave the EU in June. They’d dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave for agency workers, and on maternity pay, as fast as they could get away with it.”[1]

Not having a Labour government negotiating “a better settlement for working people with the EU” would be disastrous. A Tory government, led in all likelihood by Boris Johnson, with Nigel Farage whooping in the wings, “would negotiate the worst of all worlds: a free market free-for-all shorn of rights and protections.”

Absent from Corbyn’s delivery were the concerns that have reached near hysterical proportions. Immigration, a point that evidently sold well in the Brexit campaign, was not emphasised enough.

With the stench of revolt in the air, something made that much more potent by the results, Corbyn moved to sack Hilary Benn, who served in the Labour cabinet from 2003 to 2010. For Benn, whose tin morality was all too clear over such matters as the Syrian conflict, Corbyn might well be “a good and decent man but he is not a leader.” The tipoff on the rebellion came from the Observer on Saturday, which outed Benn as the chief plotter in the effort to undermine the party leader.

This precipitated a massive departure. Eleven shadow cabinet members quit, not all having been previously designated anti-Corbynistas. The shadow health secretary, Heidi Alexander, expressed her view on Twitter on Sunday morning that she did not believe Corbyn would be an electable leader.

There was never any intention that this party would make a return pilgrimage to its sacred roots. It was the party that had made a Faustian pact in the 1990s, moulded with market values and pro-corporation sensibilities. Talk about traditional labour rights and welfare began to sound marginal and extreme, notably in times of austerity.

Now, it seems that Corbyn will join Cameron as sacrifices of this vote, even though the former remains determined to hold a fort that is being rapidly abandoned. Even the Deputy leader, Tom Watson, is making murmurings of taking a knife against his leader.

The irony is that both the PM and Corbyn fought for a remain campaign they had doubts over, approaching it from different sides of the divide with varying degrees of integrity. History is now playing a terrible joke on its participants, and no one is laughing.

Notes.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/14/corbyns-eu-referendum-speech-verdict-rambling-but-rather-special

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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