His many missteps notwithstanding,1 Jeremy Corbyn is still the most progressive party leader that the political mainstream in this country has ever thrown up. The Labour Right, full of sound and fury since September 2015, has failed in all that time to articulate even a single substantive critique of Corbyn’s policy proposals, many of which continue to enjoy a large measure of popular support. Instead, his colleagues in the PLP have chosen to busy themselves with snipes about the a priori ‘unelectability’ of their twice-elected leader. As Richard Seymour has written, ‘statements about someone’s ‘electability’ contain a performative element, in that they are usually trying to help create a consensus that they claim to be describing.’2 In the case of Jeremy Corbyn, such statements must be viewed within the wider context of a well-evidenced campaign of vilification, the viciousness of which makes sense only if you understand, as John McDonnell does, that it is in the interests of private capital, media corporations included, to ‘destroy a socialist [sic] who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people’.
If all of the above is true, then aren’t the fake progressives who wrung their hands about Corbyn instead of rolling up their sleeves little more than the useful idiots of the oligarchic class which McDonnell and others have identified? A few short months ago, vis-à-vis Donald Trump, the same liberals recognised very well the necessity of lesser-evil voting; now they prepare to abandon that logic in favour of a man who refused, point-blank, to say if he thought being gay was a ‘sin’. At all times these liberals think of themselves as informed electors exercising independent judgement; but never more fixedly than now have they been fastened to the feeding tubes of a profit-orientated propaganda system whose every poisonous smear they have ingested and internalised. These people ought to be reminded that the sincerity of their own progressivism — of their rage against the Tories — will be gauged by their willingness or otherwise to back Corbyn’s Labour in six weeks’ time.
At any rate, two things must be noted at this juncture in respect of Labour’s plight. Firstly, as far as this snap election is concerned, an eventuality other than bruising defeat is difficult if not impossible to imagine. The aim must be to ‘defend as many Labour seats as possible, blunt the edge of the [Labour] Right’s sabotage, and thus limit their chance to do further damage after the election.’3
Secondly, it should be just as obvious to us all that Labour’s malaise predates the rise of Corbyn and goes far deeper than his leadership. The glossy neo-Thatcherism of Blair and his entryist cadre Progress cost the party 5 million voters between 1997 and 2010, very many of them in the decrepit red heart of post-industrial England. Its share of the vote seven years ago was its smallest since the calamity of 1983, and party membership fell to its lowest recorded level at about the same time. In 2015, the austerity-lite agenda pushed by Miliband, Balls and Murphy was a factor in the decimation of Labour in Scotland, with the effect that the party could only scrape together a total of 232 seats, its lowest haul since 1987. And in the leadership contest triggered by Miliband’s resignation, the Blairite Liz Kendall failed to obtain even 5 per cent of the 422,000 votes cast, as Corbyn cantered to a landslide victory which he proceeded, when challenged, to repeat the following summer.
If those on the Labour Right ‘are going to start lecturing people about winning elections’ or about the supremacy of their neoliberal creed, let them try first to account for each of these facts, which taken together seem to tell a tale of terminal decline.
We should remember that for a party shadowed by the prospect of death by Pasokification, Corbyn’s clear-cut progressivism offered something of a lifeline.4 Indeed, membership ballooned to an historic peak of more than half a million last July, making Labour not just the biggest party in Britain but one of the biggest in all Europe. Yet the party establishment, with help from the corporate press, has sought to thwart at every turn this bottom-up re-animation of the party’s spirit.
It has been understood since Victorian times that ‘the principle of Parliament is obedience to leaders’. In his magnum opus The English Constitution, Bagehot wrote that the penalty of non-adherence to this principle is ‘the penalty of impotence’. To violate it — as Corbyn, qua backbencher, often did — is a necessity when your leader’s agenda is murderous, draconian or neo-Thatcherite — as Tony Blair’s often was. But when that agenda questions the wisdom of austerity and war, and promises tax justice and greater protections for workers, and there is in power a Conservative government of almost unexampled callousness, such recalcitrance is unforgivable, and paralysis does indeed ensue.
Since September 2015, Corbyn’s colleagues in the PLP have continuously undermined their leader by means of endless briefings, plots and resignations and a pre-arranged, ‘death-wish coup attempt amid the country’s most urgent political moment.’5 In just the last couple of days, no fewer than a dozen Labour MPs have decided, most unhelpfully, to stand down rather than contest their seats in June, with at least one stating publicly that he ‘cannot countenance’ voting for Corbyn. Looked at in the round, behaviour such as this amounts to a sustained and pathologically treacherous campaign of wilful sabotage. Indeed, over the past eighteen months the petulance, cynicism and irresponsibility of Corbyn’s critics within the PLP has served no purpose other than to splinter the party in the face of Tory rule, obstruct the business of opposition and heighten the perception of dysfunctionality that is causing so many voters to turn away from Labour or stay firmly a barge-pole’s length away. Still we are asked to believe that the blame for this ‘omnishambles’ is all Corbyn’s.
Meanwhile, the party management, troubled by shifts towards greater democratisation, has spent the better part of the past two years waging war on Corbyn-supporting members and prospective members as well as constituency parties, all with the ultimate aim of dislodging a man possessed of the largest personal mandate of any party leader in British political history.
It seems self-evidently true that no leader who found themselves hobbled in this way, by their own colleagues and their own party machine, could ever hope to lead effectively from day to day, let alone win a national election.
It doesn’t help that the supposedly liberal wing of the corporate media, whose output is consumed by millions every day, has treated the Labour leader with intense and near-unanimous hostility from the moment he announced his candidacy for the leadership. We were wrong, of course, to have been surprised by the rabidity of such treatment. In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman explained that ‘the “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state’, and that the techniques it employs to serve this purpose include ‘selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and… keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.’ Corbyn’s social-democratic platform puts him at odds with such an agenda, and so the media corporations responsible for shaping elite opinion have brought all of the foregoing techniques to bear on him.
Hence a study produced jointly by Birkbeck, University of London and the Media Reform Coalition, for which hundreds of news items were analysed, found ‘clear and consistent bias in favour of critics of Jeremy Corbyn and against his supporters’ — in particular on the BBC — and ‘a domination of comment and opinion articles opposed to the Labour leadership in all but one’ of the news websites under scrutiny (needless to say, the sole exception was not the Guardian). Research by the London School of Economics concluded that Corbyn had been ‘delegitimised [by the national press] as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate, and that he had been ‘represented unfairly… through a process of vilification that [goes] well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy.’ The BBC Trust acknowledged in January that the corporation’s political editor had breached accuracy and impartiality guidelines in misreporting Corbyn’s position on shoot-to-kill policies, delivering some measure of vindication for the 35,000 people who had signed a petition calling for Laura Kuenssberg to be dismissed on account of her persistent anti-Corbyn bias. The Guardian‘s Owen Jones, well aware of the role he plays in defining the limits of the Left in public discourse, has by now more or less disavowed the Labour leader, having told the Evening Standard at the start of the year that ‘I’d find it hard to vote for Corbyn’.
Of all the various smears flung at Corbyn by the press, two stand out above the rest for their malignancy and are therefore worthy of comment. The first is that this lifelong anti-racist foments or tolerates hatred of Jews; the second is that he is responsible for Brexit. Both were exposed as smears before the respective rows around them properly exploded; the weaponisation of anti-Semitism by Jamie Stern-Weiner (and later Norman Finkelstein), and Corbyn’s alleged indifference on the question of Brexit by none other than Angela Eagle, who had stated 10 days prior to the referendum that ‘Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired’. But of course, repeat a lie often enough in the execution of your ‘system-supportive propaganda function’ and it will quickly reach critical mass, taking root in people’s minds and distorting their judgement.
To focus exclusively on the Labour Right and hostile hacks in any analysis of anti-Corbynism would be to ignore the existence of a third implacable force, namely that reactionary segment of the population for whom Corbyn is, and perhaps will always be, no more than one of the ‘bearded fruit-juice drinkers’ or ‘vegetarians with wilting beards’ skewered by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. Subconsciously, this diffuse mass likes its superiors to conform to a phallic ideal of leadership — to resemble Gerald Crich at the level-crossing in Women in Love. It is as deeply opposed to Corbyn and his mildly left-wing program as it is to the triangulations of Blairite neo-liberalism. It prefers the Queen.
But many of us are appalled and disgusted by the Tories as they continue apace with their ideologically driven evisceration of society.6 At the same time, we happen to be seized by fear about the viability of the Left in Britain going forward. It seems utterly inarguable that in most constituencies on June 8, such concerns as these will be best addressed by voting for Corbyn’s Labour.
1. Not even the most blithely optimistic of Corbyn’s supporters can deny that there have been missteps. Soon after his accession to the leadership, Corbyn dropped his commitment to nationalise the energy sector. He declined last autumn to challenge the passage of the Snoopers’ Charter. He imposed a three-line whip on the vote to trigger Article 50. His continued affiliation to Stop the War is somewhat troubling, given that the group routinely silences Syrians who are compelled by their lived experience and those of their loved ones to speak out against Assadist tyranny. None of this should be glossed over. Nor should we shrink from acknowledging that in certain respects, Jezza is no Mélenchon.
6. Academic research has linked the 30,000 excess deaths in England and Wales in 2015 to brutal Tory cuts to the NHS and social care. Between 2011 and 2014, more than 2000 people died shortly after being declared fit to work by the DWP. Relentless welfare cuts and sanctions have driven people to food banks in their droves, and cuts to legal aid are creating a ‘two-tier’ justice system. The United Nations, no less, has condemned the government for its ‘grave and systematic violations’ of disabled people’s rights. There is a crisis in education funding, with schools facing punitive cuts for the first time in decades. And so on and so forth.
Meanwhile, in the course of the past seven years, the government has slashed ‘inheritance tax, the bank levy, capital gains tax, the top rate of income tax and corporation tax’. It has sold off public assets on the cheap and at ‘record pace’ and doubled the national debt. It continues to allow British arms trading corporations to sell the machinery of death to some of the most repressive regimes on Earth.
And there are suggestions that the slender Commons majority which has enabled them to force through their agenda since 2015 was obtained by fraud. Up to 20 Tory MPs are said to be staring down the barrel of prosecution for breaking campaign spending rules at the last election.