Well, that escalated quickly.
When he entered the Labour leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn was best known to historians of British parliamentary rebellions. While he has long been a doughty campaigner for the British left, they had not seen him as being at the very front rank of their depleted ranks. In past elections, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Michael Meacher have all been thought more attractive left standard-bearers than Corbyn.
In this election Corbyn was not the first, second, or third choice of many on the left – names like Jon Trickett, Lisa Nandy and Ian Lavery were floated before his, while leftwing members of parliament felt the best interest of the left lay with Andy Burnham. It was only when they discovered that Burnham was not entirely convinced by their agenda that they sought an alternative.
In more ways than one, then, Corbyn was the last man standing. So what lies behind his rise? It is the changed party, not the man, that provides the best explanation.
After becoming leader, Ed Miliband did everything he could to include the left. He signalled his support for anti-austerity and he entertained the idea of visiting Occupy protests. He appointed Trickett to his shadow cabinet. After the Syria vote, he revelled in his claim to have ‘stopped the war’. His office wanted Ken Livingstone re-elected to the National Executive Committee, twice.
Miliband’s team put significant effort into winning the support of leftwing opinion-formers from Owen Jones to Russell Brand. In selections, a series of safe seats fell into the hands of members of the Labour left, not the Labour centre. Luke Akehurst backed Ed Miliband for Labour leader, but Kate Osamor and Richard Burgon were the leader’s office’s favoured candidates. Clive Lewis and Louise Haigh also became members of parliament.
However, while Miliband sponsored the leftwing of the party, he never committed to them. They were a useful counterweight to his critics on the right of the party, allowing him to hint at a radical agenda, while placing his own politics as a moderate compromise.
While Miliband only indulged the possibility of a radical alternative, others worked to create it. Organisationally, the anti-austerity movement – the People’s Assembly – built a network premised on the left alternative as the way forward for Labour. Equally, the left had solidified, almost unchallenged, their grasp on the union movement, creating a cadre of organisers, campaigners and activists. Union leaders aired the possibility of withdrawing support from the party and establishing a ‘workers’ party’.
Finally, there was a coherent political message. After defeat, in an echo of Miliband’s analysis of Gordon Brown, the left saw Miliband as a leader who was prepared to say the right things, but shrank from doing them. For the left, the lesson of the last five years was clear – if only Miliband had followed through on his radical instincts, he would have delivered on his promise to build a progressive alliance, motivate young and non-voters, unify the anti-austerity left and win.
Since the leadership has been saying for five years that a left-first approach would work, this meant that for many the left sideshow had far more appeal than the moderate big tent. It offers the possibility of victory without compromise.
To work, however, such an argument needs an explanation for our shattering defeat. Here, the Labour ‘right’ – people like you, dear reader – come in. For it was the baleful influence of the Labour right, the Blairites and the crypto-Tories that held Labour back. So the argument goes.
That means we have to be dealt with. Corbynism might have started as a demand for ‘a broader debate’, but the desire for debate has declined. The Communication Workers’ Union called Blairites a ‘virus’. A candidate for London mayor said, ‘We know what we do with Progress candidates …’ Max Shanly, a Corbyn-supporting member of Young Labour’s national committee, told a revolutionary socialist website that the parliamentary Labour party will have to be brought into line, and party staff treated ‘brutally’. At one nomination meeting, Corbyn supporters called their opponents ‘Blairite bitches’. How comradely. Best of all, George Galloway is considering rejoining the party.
In 2010, Neil Kinnock said that he had got his party back. Five years later, Michael Foot might have said the same. Galloway and Livingstone already are.
Do not do unto others …
One word, though, about such language. For all I wish it were true, it was not the left that started the campaign of delegitimising Labour moderation. That began with other campaigns for the leadership. When Liz Kendall declared her agenda as a candidate, Yvette Cooper felt it was appropriate and reasonable live on Andrew Marr’s sofa to accuse her of ‘swallowing the Tory manifesto’ and ‘Tory values’.
Shortly afterwards the newspapers were briefed, anonymously, that Kendall was the ‘Blair Witch candidate’ and represented only the ‘New Labour Taliban’. As well as being poisonous, this was suicidally stupid. It practically invited the accusation to be made about Cooper and Burnham too. This spread like wildfire when the split-the-difference candidates denounced Harriet Harman but then followed her and Kendall in the welfare bill. So it proved, with supporters of both campaigns now complaining of being called Tories, not real Labour, and traitors. Before Brown’s golden rule, there was an earlier one worth heeding. It begins ‘Do not do unto others …’
To end on a slightly different note, one unexpected consequence of the surge of the Labour left is that, by allowing Abbott to ride on the coat-tails of Corbyn, the energy seems to have been sucked almost entirely from Sadiq Khan’s campaign. Khan positioned himself as the acceptable candidate of the left, branding Tessa Jowell, David Lammy and Gareth Thomas ‘Blairites’, challenging the pack as the radical alternative. While the Tories contemplate bringing back hunting, it is Abbott who seems to have shot Khan’s fox.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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