The Corbyn leadership campaign: from novelty candidate to juggernaut
Saturday 29th August 2015
We should be in no doubt that ‘Corbynmania’ is the result of blowback from the static wretchedness of Labour policies and decisions over the past two decades, writes JOHN ELLISON
DURING the first weeks which followed Jeremy Corbyn’s electrifying arrival on June 15 as a shortlisted contender for the leadership of the Labour Party (acquiring one MP nomination more than the 35 minimum) he was treated by the weightier press as no more than a novelty candidate.
The “three main candidates,” in the view of the Guardian’s veteran commentator Polly Toynbee — who favours “centrism” flavoured with social compassion — on June 23, were Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper (ministers during Gordon Brown’s premiership) and, joining them as shadow ministers under Ed Miliband’s leadership, Liz Kendall.
Corbyn, never a minister, always a troublemaker, according to this perspective, could not be expected to be taken seriously by prospective voters. The bookmakers agreed.
The “three main candidates” had already labelled Miliband’s general election pitch to the country as too radical for Labour to stomach and did not distance themselves much from the savage policies applied already and promised for the years ahead of us by the Cameron government.
Though Toynbee, on June 23, dismissed Corbyn’s chances of becoming leader, she was alert enough to notice, with the first TV hustings a few days previously in mind, that he “makes the rest sound cautiously lock-jawed.”
Six weeks later, with Corbyn transformed into a front-runner, she acknowledged that his policies “are supported by most Labour members” — but plumped herself for “centrist” Cooper.
Something extraordinary has happened since June 15. While, according to polling, Cooper over time gained strongly on initial bookies’ favourite Burnham, leaving “Tory-manifesto-swallower” Kendall well adrift, the Corbyn campaign has become — borrowing a headline word from the two-page splash in last Sunday’s Observer — a juggernaut.
The Observer added body to the force of Corbyn’s proposals by printing a letter from 42 economists who consider that these make economic sense. Last week’s New Statesman front page featured Corbyn facing up bravely to Darth Vader, last Saturday’s Times editorial expressed anxiety about him as if he were Darth Vader, while Seumas Milne, in the Guardian two days before that, rightly summarised the Corbyn campaign phenomenon as “a democratic explosion unprecedented in British political history.”
“Corbynmania” is the result, we should be in no doubt, of blowback from the static wretchedness of Labour policies and decisions over the past two decades.
It was made possible, of course, by the unforecastable inclusion of Corbyn on the leadership shortlist.
It seems that he may not have qualified for the shortlist had some of his less politically sympathetic sponsors realised that an Aladdin’s cave of support for him would be opened up.
The dramatic nature of the blowback — with hundreds of thousands seeking to vote for Corbyn — has not come as news from nowhere.
The simple fact is that a very large number of Labour Party members, ex-members and potential members, are confident that Blair-Brown near-Toryism is for history books, and not for them.
They have no reverence for tarnished figures like Blair and Brown or for their left-over proteges.
Today’s rebels have respect for Miliband, however, because he did, if timidly, argue for small encroachments on inequality — such as through a mansion tax and energy price freeze — though tragically reliant on a shadow chancellor Ed Balls who had, before being jettisoned from the House of Commons, insisted on continued severe austerity cuts, spread over a longer period than intended by the Tories.
When Blair was elected Labour Party leader on July 21 1994, the Tories had been in power for 15 years.
That remarkable socialist and journalist Paul Foot, sadly missed, neatly characterised Labour’s position at that time in his book The Vote (2005): “Cowed and humiliated by successive election defeats, the party had, for the first time in its history, cut itself off from its roots and abandoned its historic mission to democratise British society.”
Against a background of expulsions of many left-wing socialists from the party, said Foot, most of the remaining members would do anything for victory.
But from the date Blair became leader, the elitist, personally ambitious group for which he was media-besotted spokesperson, embraced wearing Tory uniform with New Labour badges.
This did not preclude, in time, of course, instituting a national minimum wage or increasing investment in schools and health, though at a price of increased privatisation. Labour’s 1997 general election manifesto, read carefully, said it all.
As Foot wrote: “A party that in 1979 declared itself proud to be socialist now announced, in effect, that it was proud not to be socialist.”
There were voters in the 1997 election — who knows how many? — who did not vote Labour then but would have done so had Labour’s manifesto been more old Labour than it was. Though the Labour vote had increased to 13.5 million, and Labour had a handsome parliamentary majority, the overall voter turnout was sharply down on that of 1992.
Within days of the 1997 election, the primacy of Blair and Brown over the Cabinet as decision-makers was settled, while Harriet Harman — then minister for social security, today Labour’s interim leader — announced that welfare benefits would not be “a soft option.”
Within weeks Blair had a meeting with Margaret Thatcher and happily (or even joyfully?) listened to her guessable advice. With socialism out, and Thatcherism in, the Labour Party Conference at the end of September 1997 was organised in a way that embargoed internal dissent.
MP diarist Chris Mullin wrote: “Never have we gone in for leader worship on this scale…” while a few days later, Tony Benn wrote scathingly: “The whole thing was stage-managed to a phenomenal degree … Conference is not the place where you put on a display; it is a place where people discuss alternatives.”
Labour’s general election vote dropped to 10.7m in 2001, to 9.6m in 2005, to 8.6m in 2010 — almost five million down on 1997.
The rot had truly set in, even if, after five years of Tory government, this year’s general election brought the Labour vote up to 9.3m — while 43 per cent of adults either did not vote or did not register to vote. Five years of rich-favouring, poor-punishing, public-services-cutting Cameron government have made life for vast numbers of people in Britain much tougher, while Blair-Brownism still rules in the heads of the majority of Labour MPs.
Meanwhile the “three main candidates” have not yet come to terms with the fact that the show begun by the Blair-Brown circle so hubristically has run its course.
They have not distanced themselves from Blair’s eager participation (with Brown’s compliance) in atrocious US wars.
They have not rejected privatisation or zero-hours contracts and are not demanding robust controls of rents or denying escape routes to the rich from equally robust taxes.
In the Guardian on June 18, Seumas Milne suggested that Corbyn’s intervention “should at least halt the mainstream candidates’ ‘stampede to the right’” from the pre-general election position of Miliband, a step or two to the left of mainstream New Labour.
It is evident that Burnham has moved, cloudily, towards a more old Labour stance, from his position in mid-May, when he told the Observer that he would resolutely defend the Blair-Brown government record and that a mansion tax was too suggestive of the “politics of envy.”
Cooper, for her part, has seemingly continued to be married to Balls’s deficit reduction policy, as well as actually to Balls himself.
But whether Burnham and Cooper are coaxed back to Milibandism or not, and whether Corbyn becomes Labour’s next leader or not, the Corbyn juggernaut has enlarged enormously the anti-austerity and anti-Thatcherism public debate.
Jez we can, and Jez we already have!