Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Corbyn conundrum

For those of us old enough to have experienced life under Thatcher and Major, and to have formed political opinions informed through that particular lens, Labour's current travails have a grotesque quality. Were it not for the requirement for an Opposition, an annoyance that the Tories are sniggering about as they lead the country into perdition, this would be a matter of private grief into which intrusion would be unseemly.

Even eighteen months ago, Labour looked as though there was a chance that it would be able to form part of government.  Despite signing its Scottish death warrant by propping up the Unionist cause in the 2014 referendum, there was the prospect of a strong showing in 2015 that might have changed the course of the UK.  The Tory strategy to destroy their coalition partners was clearly defined, and without hubris and tribalism a leftward shift might have been achieved - a tacit recognition that Labour's success even in the good years depended upon exploiting the electoral system rather than a massive endorsement by the voters would have given another strategic push.

Instead, we are now facing the consequences of a tainted election and a right-wing coup within the Tory Party.  The referendum has thrown everything into the air, and given the Tory uncertainty over what demons they have unleashed, it would have been rational to expect the official Opposition to exploit and articulate this.  There is more effective challenge coming from within the Tories than from Labour at the moment, and if it wasn't for the efforts of the Greens, SNP and Liberal Democrats, alongside Labour stalwarts standing outside the leadership battle, you could be forgiven for imagining that the future prosperity of the country was an unimportant sideshow in the battle for ideological purity.

Corbyn's ambivalence during the referendum campaign is now becoming much easier to understand.  Today's pronouncements on the Single Market, which is the basic building block of all those who seek to retain British engagement with Europe and the world, resemble a spoilt child, confronted with a pick-and-mix sweetshop.  No wonder that the self-defined nuancing during the campaign played out the way that it did, given the fundamental hostility at the leadership's core.

Perhaps this is all for the good, as the extremes peel off on both sides.  Unlike the Kinnock years, Labour cannot expect to regain its ground in a diverse polity, where devolved nations have their own politics.  Instead, the break-up of the uncomfortable political blocs that have dominated a binary narrative is inevitable, and may need to be accelerated.  At one stage, it looked as though the new Labour approach ushered in by Corbyn's win might be more pluralist, but the approach remains that of the vanguard party rather than a player in pluralism.

About the only certainty is that May's honeymoon will end.  Her own party will devour every slip or perceived backslide, and the bastards continue to peddle their racist insanity.  An effective opposition exploits this, which is why the SNP's paradoxical clarity is speaking for the disenfranchised at Westminster so clearly.  Corbyn's supporters are mostly sincere in their desire for change, and the policies put forward, when they are, appear to be broadly in the social democratic space, but the inept handling and the inconsistencies make it difficult to engage with a party which appears to want to turn the political clock back to simpler times.

With the slow-motion catastrophe unfolding, seizing the initiative becomes vital.  Britain's relationship with Europe is central, but the democratic deficit and constitutional horror show that we face is fundamental to resolving this.  What the shape of an transforming political and social force looks like is unclear, but it is unlikely to emerge from within a bunkered mentality.  Had Labour shifted into a more pluralist space as part of its redefinition, it might have become a point of coalescence for this process.  Instead it will be individuals, groups and cross-party debate that can escape the mire - and this may even be exciting and liberating.  It is, after all, the only chance for salvation across the British nations.

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