Whither the suicide pact formerly known as the Labour Party? If, as expected, we see a comfortable repeat victory for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership race when the results are announced on Saturday, we can expect a continuation of the psychodrama that has wracked the party of Hardie, MacDonald, Attlee and Wilson over the last year. If Owen Smith – a more impressive front bench spokesman than leadership candidate – should miraculously defy expectation, it would probably have the effect of confronting us with another kind of psychodrama, as the new members who have flocked to Corbyn would be reluctant to reconcile themselves to a reverse takeover by the Parliamentary Labour Party. Turning to Corbyn’s foot soldiers, somehow I have managed to get myself on Momentum’s mailing list, and I receive regular messages enjoining me to help keep Jeremy’s show on the road. To maintain the momentum, as it were. The most curious notion that jumps out of these emails is encountered in the regular references to “Jeremy’s leadership”, delivered without irony naturally, but which would strike many observers as impossibly contradictory.
This blog has previously ruminated on what is supposedly unelectable about Corbyn, and largely concluded that it was not so much that he was wildly out of step with the populace, but that he strayed outside boundaries of acceptability policed by different elements of an established status quo. To take one issue that marks the desire to break with Blairism and the broader establishment, most of the party’s supporters don’t want Labour to be a war party. Throughout Corbyn’s year as leader, and again during this campaign, we’ve been obliged to witness preposterous hypothetical scenarios being given solemn treatment, and taken as measures of fitness to lead, namely the “Would you press the button?” question. It was predictable that a mostly right leaning media in full feral mode would deploy every smear they could come up with against Corbyn, that the Conservative Party would play the national security card, and that majority of the PLP would never fully unite behind him. Yet despite the heavy artillery directed at Corbyn over the last year since he first became Labour leader, it appears he is unlikely to lead Labour to apocalypse, even if he is evidently “divisive”. One is almost tempted to believe that, if only the malcontents in the PLP would fall into line, Labour could start to make headway against a Conservative government that will, I believe, struggle to rise above the level of dysfunctional as Brexit bites.
However, dull and uninspiring as it might sound, managerial competence does mean something. The departure of much of the Corbyn team’s economic advisors in stages during the summer didn’t inspire confidence that they could bring intellectual heft to their project. And whatever a party’s general worldview, some semblance of a programme for government is vital for their basic credibility when they present themselves to the electorate. An election may be almost four years away, but Corbyn doesn’t have that kind of time on his side. And it still isn’t entirely clear what Corbyn’s motives are. Or rather, what he thinks are the most effective way of achieving things. There is a common belief among the parts of the left that value ideological purity that important change can be realised without actually winning elections and holding office, and surrendering to the inevitable compromises that go along with that. In some ways, that may be so. Many progressive movements for social change that have been successful attained their aims through dogged campaigning that over time helped to change hearts and minds in the broader society. For example, support for gay rights has become mainstream and co-opted or accepted by political forces to the right. But you can achieve more, particularly in economic policy, by holding power. And critically – as has been brought into focus during this highly uncertain period we have entered – if you are in power, you can prevent egregious things being done by your opponents, opponents that themselves have abandoned pragmatism for ideological dogma.
Labour has always been a tribal party, hostile not only to the Conservatives, but to almost every other party in British political life. And they’ve also incubated their own internal tribes, which rarely conceal their mutual antipathy. You sometimes wonder how the party holds together, and at a deeper level, what its basic purpose is. It’s a question that has occupied observers of the party for many years. This writer went to see David Hare’s The Absence of War last year, a play that examined Labour’s general election defeat in 1992, and it’s fair to say it’s aged well. In those days, Labour merely squandered their prospects in winnable elections. Now the question is a bit more existential. Still, it’s possible to foresee a scenario that almost amounts to success for Corbyn. It partly requires the aides in his office easing off on their hostility towards many Labour MPs, and for John McDonnell to rein in his tendency towards unedifying pugnacity. More seriously, it requires the parliamentary factions to find some way of coexisting after Corbyn’s reelection and take on the challenges of opposition with as much firepower as they can assemble. His supporters mightn’t be inclined to take much advice from a leading figure from Labour’s recent past, but it’s merely a statement of fact that today’s big policy challenges are complex and multifaceted, and will require intellect, guile and nerve if they are to be successfully tackled. Corbyn’s main objective is surely to demonstrate that he is not, as he is repeatedly depicted, simply part of a wider polarisation in world politics where the wider extremes are characterised by vacuous populism. I’m not going to say yet whether or not he’s up to that task, but it seems he’s going to have a second chance to try.