Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Corbyn problem: it's not 1979 any more

In setting out thoughts on Labour's travails and continuing importance to the possibility of a non-Tory administration, the leadership election was not far from my mind.  As a non-member, non-"supporter", my views are those of a sympathetic outsider, rather than enmeshed in the internal rows that make the practice of Catholic apologetics straightforward and which are risible to the point of utter irrelevance in the face of the current political crisis.

There is nothing to suggest that Corbyn is an insincere man, nor that many of his policies would be unsuitable for a democratic socialist programme to pitch to the electorate.  The problems come with respect to the definition of his cause as being that of a movement rather than a political party; the articulation of the views and priorities of the dispossessed and excluded is vital to a change in the ideological climate, but it is not wrapped up in an individual and a retinue of cheer-leaders who appear hell-bent on conflating their own use of Labour party structures with a wider democratic polity that appeals to the electorate, the ultimate arbiters of whether any programme can be enacted.

A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to hear Labour activists proclaiming the need for mandatory reelection and the elimination of MPs whose views differed from their own.  This is exactly the kind of attitude that conflates the behaviour of political activists at constituency levels with relevance and resonance beyond the engaged.  It was the technique that Militant used to gain some leverage within Labour, and although any comparison of the Corbyn acolytes is facile, it is the attempt to force through rule by caucus that is so unappealing.

The vilification of much of the Labour right, extending across to those who are on the left of the spectrum but do not agree with the personality cult, is delighting the Tories.  It mirrors the behaviour of the left under Callaghan and Foot, where the Star Chambers determined the acceptability of politicians across the spectrum.  I have no personal agenda to support Hilary Benn or others, but it does not provide any encouragement to those of us who would like to be engaging in common cause for policy where there is agreement on the outcomes.

Some of Corbyn's on-line cheerleaders are calling for loyalty - forgetting the parallels between Foot, the most vociferous rebel before he became a minister in the 1970s, and Corbyn, whose attitude to discipline is at best myopic and at worst downright hypocritical.  If you are a self-defining rebel, the moral high ground needs to sink in order for you to occupy it when your supporters decry dissent.

If Labour had a coherent programme for government, and a set of high priority policies, this would not matter.   Inventing seemingly laudable policies on the hoof is fine, provided that you then do not undermine deliberative and constitutionally-defined party positions.  Good leaders know when they have to compromise.  We are not living through the early years of Thatcher, we are in a post-capitalist and post-functional governmental phase, and the allegedly leading opposition party is behaving as though it is at an early 1980s theme night.

If this continues, discussions around electability and the future of Labour become moot.  For anyone who cares about a change to the current hegemony this an immense abdication of responsibility.  That is the idiocy.  That is the betrayal.  It is also the reason why, if there is no resolution, the Tories will romp home in 2020 and the redefinition of the opposition will probably not include much of the current Labour Party.

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