Labour’s Left Wing Bourbon
Monty Skew reviews the new biography of Corbyn
Comrade Corbyn: A very unlikely Coup: How Jeremy Corbyn Stormed to the Labour Leadership, Rosa Prince, Biteback Publishing, 2016, 1-84954-996-7
All MPs have to deal with the whips. Corbyn was once asked how he coped with them. He replied: ‘they leave me alone and I leave them alone.’ He has a record of rebelling and of avoiding any possible front bench responsibility. Unlike John Major’s ‘bastards’ who undermined his government when it had a very small majority, Corbyn and his few colleagues defied the whips even when there were huge majorities. It was a matter of principle not political guile. But how did such a figure, the ‘craft beer of Labour’, become its leader?
How Corbyn won is an indication of just how far Labour’s leadership had drifted from its members. But the Corbynistas in their own way are even more remote. By 2015, Labour had imploded and was no longer the mass party it had once been. Many wards were inquorate; many local parties could not even field enough candidates for local elections. New Labour with its ruthless emphasis on managerialism and ‘winning’ had hollowed out the party. And the war in Iraq led to a mass exodus.
The membership was in meltdown but the candidacy of Corbyn gave the broad left a motive to organise and to bury its bitter sectarian disputes leading to the election of the ‘accidental leader’. The first element was a hyperlink from his website to Labour Party membership and supporters. The second element was that the left used social media to a greater extent although its true impact may have been overstated. The other candidates were slow to follow suit.
Rosa Prince is a Daily Telegraph journalist. What she presents here is not a political analysis of Labour but rather a journalistic impression of how Corbyn was elected. She is not familiar with the internal and inward-looking politics of Labour. It is clear from the many errors in the text that she knows little of the culture of Labour.
Corbyn is a left-wing Bourbon. He has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. His usual speech has changed little since he was first elected in 1983. In the 60s and 70s, many safe Labour seats in London and elsewhere were occupied by MPs with a tenuous attachment to Labour politics. Some of them hardly ever attended the Commons except as lobby fodder. Some did not even bother holding surgeries. Alexander Irvine, Raphael Tuck, Arthur Lewis et al were unpopular right-wingers within the party who could have been in any party. And with the removal in 1974 of Reg Prentice, who later defected to the Tories, came the signal to deselect such MPs.
One such beneficiary was Michael O’Halloran who became Islington North MP after being selected through mass recruitment. Right-wingers in Islington North were silent or actually supported the fake election of Michael O’Halloran as MP in 1969 and were later instrumental in the setting up of the SDP, originally created by Dick Taverne after he left Labour. But Corbyn, a former union organizer, was able to secure the seat and held it with increasing majorities.
The Labour left meanwhile were outmanoeuvred and marginalized. Yet in spite of all the humiliations heaped upon them by the Blairites, left wingers stayed within the party. Their vehicle was the CLPD, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, originally a Bennite faction. Under Ed Miliband a new system was created for electing the leader. A method of electing the leader originally created by the Blairites to tame the Left became a vehicle for left-wing mobilisation inside and outside the party. But contrary to much comment, Corbyn would have won among party members alone. The new supporters only augmented his victory. Corbyn has worked hard in his seat building support within the hardcore but also among pensioners. Islington North is the most urbanised seat in Parliament and half its residents are social renters.
In my youth there was a grouplet calling itself the Action Council for Anti-Imperialist Solidarity. It was avowedly against everything Western on principle including other left groups and supported any ‘movement’ or state provided that it opposed Western interests. In similar vein, Corbyn is best explained by his anti-imperialism and his obsessive internationalism and disdain for all things British. Articulate on foreign issues, he is reduced to vague formulaic replies on domestic ones. His current wife is Mexican and his former wife is Chilean. He speaks fluent Spanish and is on first name terms with activists all over the world. Typically, he will intervene on overseas issues before local ones.
The history of the Left has been a series of vanishing moments. Is his election the strange resurrection of Labour England, a cry in the wilderness from the romantic left? Or is it the Left reasserting control within Labour? Their main interest is evidently not winning elections but being ‘right’. So his election is arguably also a realignment within Labour.
After the defeat of 2010, I attended a leadership hustings and witnessed the usual automatons putting themselves forward. The only one who came close to seeming human was Dianne Abbott (albeit not my favourite MP), also a close ally and allegedly a former lover of Corbyn. The election of Corbyn is a crisis of and for Labour but it was created by the Blairites and their obsession with triangulation, with being all things to all people.
Labour under Corbyn may go down to a resounding defeat. But it would be too simple to blame Corbyn. For Labour in power presided over an increase in inequality and particularly in-work poverty. It also showed a complete arrogance towards its core vote ‘which has nowhere else to go’. Labour shed both its voters and crucially its activists. This is the real reason why it lost in 2010.
Meanwhile the left’s hatred contempt and shame at its own working-class roots has resulted in a drift away. The heartland has gone never to return. But Conservatives who rejoice at the thought of a crushing Labour defeat should also consider that none of the parties now represent a distinct political viewpoint or have answers for their often beleaguered supporters. Tories have also ignored their grass roots on many issues. The equivalent to Corbyn would be a genuine Burkean or Powellite winning against the party machine.
Corbyn supports mass migration and has positions which the average Labour voter, never mind the floating voter, would oppose. But unlike other leftists he has a way of putting people at ease and explaining himself which even charms opponents. He has few personal enemies. Like Dennis Skinner, he was regularly approached by backbenchers of other parties for advice on constituent problems.
Corbyn did not storm into the leadership so much as reveal the emptiness at the heart of Labour. It was a case of the crown being thrust upon him. The Blairites had so emasculated the party that it had become little more than a marketing operation run from a call centre. This made it easier to recapture the party by organised elements. In their arrogance, the party hierarchy never imagined that it could be Corbyn. The best comparison is with George Lansbury, another pacifist and ‘unelectable’ leader. He was torpedoed in 1935 by a speech from a would-be future leader, Aneurin Bevan.
If Corbyn is removed, however, it will not help Labour as the party will then face an internal civil war which might lead to an irrevocable split. Unhappily, Prince does not cast much light on these internal problems within Labour. Hers is a hurriedly researched biography which pays little dividends.
MONTY SKEW is the pen name of a former member of the Labour Party