Four days ago, Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party. His election to that office—the first he’s held or sought in the course of a long parliamentary career—represents the greatest political achievement of the British Left in very many years.
A number of observations can be made about the nature and aftermath of Corbyn’s victory. Firstly, the election itself was a largely democratic exercise. The Labour Party, in doing away with its electoral college and weighted votes, and in allowing members of the public to join as Registered Supporters, facilitated an expansion of the franchise to more than half a million people. It is true that many on the Left were prevented from voting by the Party, which ought to be condemned in the strongest terms for its actions in this regard. But no other leadership election in the history of British politics has taken in so broad a swathe of public opinion.
Secondly, of the 420,000 people who ultimately voted, more than 250,000 cast their first-preference votes in favour of the MP for Islington North. Corbyn’s share of the vote, then, was nearly 60%, which meant that no recourse to second-preference votes was needed. A majority of Affiliated Supporters—members of Labour-affiliated trade unions—and an astonishing 84% of Registered Supporters chose Corbyn above the other candidates. And more fully-fledged members of the Labour Party voted for Corbyn than for his two closest rivals put together. In other words, the new leader’s victory was a crushing one, and he now has a solid mandate to pursue his programme.
Thirdly, the corporate media, which has been smearing Corbyn for months, is not comfortable with these facts. It has tried, for example, to persuade us that the electoral process which culminated in Corbyn’s landslide win was somehow at the mercy of entryists. This desperate falsehood was repeated time and time again before the election, with the trilateral objective of invoking the spirit of the Militant tendency, portraying Corbyn as some kind of ‘hard left’ extremist, and obscuring the fact of widespread popular support for his policies. The notion that a vast army of foaming Trots was responsible for the result is an absurd one, nursed nevertheless by the careerist courtiers on Fleet Street.
The reality is that opposition to austerity and to the empery of finance capital is burgeoning among the British population. Such opposition is unfriendly to the interests of large corporations like News Corp, the Scott Trust, and the multitude of banks and law and consulting firms which so many MPs—Chuka Umunna for one—have served in the past and to which they will return after leaving Parliament. That this opposition has found expression in the election of Corbyn—in spite of a concerted smear campaign—seems to suggest that intended slurs like ‘far left’ and ‘radical’ are losing some of their incantatory power. Perhaps it is the case that we are beginning to see through them.
Fourthly, there was David Cameron’s gracious response to the news of Corbyn’s ascension to the leadership. ‘The Labour Party,’ he tweeted, ‘is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.’ In the event of a Labour victory in 2020, only one of this triad of claims could conceivably be true. If Corbyn makes good on his commitments to renationalise a number of industries; to protect the NHS from the rapacity of the private sector; to raise the rate of corporation tax and eliminate corporate tax fraud; to re-organise labour through greater unionisation; and of course to replace austerity with extensive public investment, then he will begin to encroach upon the outermost edges of the wealth and power which are concentrated in the hands of capital. (Of course, Corbyn’s policies are reformist rather than revolutionary and as such do not aspire to transmute the capitalist mode of production. But for market fundamentalists, any encroachment at all is simply far too much.) The ‘economic security’ to which Cameron refers, then, is not that of the mass of British people, but of the moneyed classes. After all, millions of Britons continue to languish in relative poverty, and many have been driven to suicide by the brutal welfare cuts and sanctions imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions. It is therefore nonsensical to claim that Corbyn rather than Cameron’s own party poses a threat to the economic security of British families.
Cameron’s claim in respect of ‘national security’ is similarly suspect. In the last five years, the doctrine of ‘national security’ has been used by the Tories to justify the criminal bombing of Libya; the use of secret courts; the repressive Counter-Terrorism and Security Act; the ramping up of surveillance; and now the summary killings of British citizens in drone attacks abroad. Society is stricken with fear, but whose security are Western governments really protecting with their repressive measures and systematic use of violence? Noam Chomsky asked just this question a year ago, in the wake of the Snowden revelations, and answered it thus: ‘[p]olicy must assure the security of state authority and concentrations of domestic power, defending them from a frightening enemy: the domestic population, which can become a great danger if not controlled.’ The social movement responsible for propelling Corbyn to the leadership has drawn strength not only from his anti-imperialism and abhorrence of the arms trade—stances which, if adopted as policy, would make the world a safer place—but from the feeling, however optimistic, that a robust Opposition could help to expose the machinations of state-corporate power and lay the ground for genuine systemic change. In light of this, Chomsky’s statement, and Cameron’s too, become a little clearer.
Fifthly, what should be made of the rash of departures from the Shadow Cabinet following Corbyn’s victory? A total of 13 frontbenchers resigned with immediate effect, including the Blairites Umunna and Tristram Hunt, and Corbyn’s defeated rivals Kendall and Cooper. One’s first thought, of course, is ‘good bloody riddance’. These bland careerists, attached in sessile fashion to the neoliberal consensus, have nothing whatsoever to do with the labour movement—never mind socialism—and bear not even the faintest family resemblance to the Bevans and the Skinners of the Party’s past and present. Umunna, Hunt and Cooper et al are nothing more than the spawn of Blair, and no person with a sound understanding of the spirit and the origins of the Labour Party will believe that any of them belong in it. Of course, they have gone to the backbenches only in order to sharpen their knives for another stab at power. But for now, we may rejoice in the humiliation of New Labour, which permitted Corbyn to run partly so that it could give the appearance of fidelity to the Party’s old animating principles, but mainly because it believed that he would never win.
Sixthly, the corporate media is now attacking the composition of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. The appointment of John McDonnell to the position of Shadow Chancellor has attracted particular criticism, although much of it, like this piece by the BBC’s political editor, is as vacuous as that which has been hurled for months at Corbyn. At any rate, how surreal to hear a Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer declare on national television, as McDonnell did two nights ago, that he is essentially a socialist whose aims are to ‘make sure that people understand what capitalism is’ and to encourage discourse on the issue of ‘how we can change it’. Expect a great deal more venom, then, to be flung in McDonnell and Corbyn’s direction.
The other grumble emanating from certain sections of the corporate press in relation to Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet is that there is a lack of women in the ‘top jobs’. Now, by ‘top jobs’, these journalists are referring to the quartet of so-called ‘Great Offices of State’. It is true enough that, in the nineteenth century, these four Cabinet posts were uniquely important to the successful execution of the political affairs of an empire, and of an even more savagely kyriarchical Britain in which both suffrage and infrastructure were relatively limited. But in light of the subsequent development of society, this classification of offices seems obsolete and arbitrary. Are not the Secretaries of State for Health and Education in charge of departments which oversee (at least notionally) the provision of essential services to tens of millions of Britons? And are not their counterparts in Opposition now both women? Indeed, Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet is the first in history to be composed of a majority of women, and so we can say that the smug, mostly white and mostly middle-class purveyors of tokenism across the corporate press are truly scraping the barrel in their latest attempts to smear the new Labour leader.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the question of the future. Those on the Left who voted for Corbyn must not, of course, regard their having done so as amounting to any more than a minor gambit in the fight for the just re-organisation of society. They should not view his victory as any more than a shot across the bows of elite interests. On the other hand, those on the Left who abstained from voting will likely have done so because Parliament—a component of the bourgeois state apparatus—and therefore national politics are simply not capable of delivering us from global capitalism.
Indeed, the prospect of any meaningful change looks bleak even now. After all, the Parliamentary Labour Party will try to force Corbyn into compromise after compromise, and if he proves especially intransigent, a challenger could, with the support of fewer than 50 MPs, render null and void the will of a quarter of a million people. Then again, the Blairites are conscious of Corbyn’s mandate. They know that those who voted for him feel nothing but contempt and disgust for New Labour.
Perhaps a year or two of utterly relentless demonisation—spearheaded of course by the corporate media—might do the trick. The Tories succeeded yesterday in cutting billions of pounds of tax credits from the welfare budget. Meanwhile, Corbyn addressed the Trade Unions Congress on the Tories’ plans to further atomise the workforce. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israeli arms traders are just three of the parties invited by the government to an arms fair—the world’s largest—which began in London a little over twenty-four hours ago. And yet almost every major newspaper leads today with the news that Corbyn, in choosing not to sing the national anthem, declined to prostrate himself before a medieval institution which embodies most purely the grotesque inequality he’s vowed to fight.
At any rate, is it not the case that Corbyn’s ascension to the leadership is the most promising development to have occurred in British politics for years? We must continue as ever to acknowledge the limitations of parliamentary ‘democracy’, but let us also recognise that our efforts to organise and agitate can gain immensely from the social movement sparked by Jeremy Corbyn.