The Corbyn insurgency

The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon is an insurgency. Insurgencies don’t always involve riots, or people sitting around bonfires for weeks in city squares. Insurgencies occur when people in a country, an institution or political movement refuse to play by the established rules and that defiance strikes a popular chord. Insurgencies feed on their own enthusiasm. Every attempt by the established political leadership to “talk sense” into the insurgents usually backfires and feeds the revolt. That is exactly what is happening in the Labour leadership election.

With very few exceptions, established political leaders are hopeless at handling insurgent movements. They don’t understand the mixture of anger and hope that fuels them (even when they say they do, they don’t). The messages they send out – which boil down to telling people to play by the rules (in this case choosing the an “electable” candidate from among the party’s existing leadership) – not only fall flat, but give the insurgency more fuel. This happens not because people don’t understand the rules – as the leaders usually think – but because people believe they can change the rules. Whether they’re right or wrong, that’s a very powerful thing. It’s a mobilising thing. It’s the kind of thing that makes things happen.

The Labour leadership has got this so spectacularly wrong, it’s becoming hard to see them as credible politicians at all. The über-Blairite John McTernan doesn’t seem to realise that publicly plotting a coup against Corbyn before he’s even won (and threatening “retribution”) only fuels the sense of thwarted democracy and rage against injustice that is driving Corbyn’s campaign. Chuka Umunna calling party members “petulant children” for being angry about the defeats in 2010 and 2015 just makes people angrier still. Alastair Campbell at least acknowledged that a dressing-down from Tony Blair’s spin chief might help the defiantly “unspun” Corbyn, but he doesn’t seem to get that stern lectures on winning elections look ridiculous coming from a leadership that led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row. And even a petulant child could have told Labour leaders that the timorous fudge over tax credits would push even moderate lefties in Corbyn’s direction. But no – on and on they go, piling stupidity on top of ineptitude.

The Labour party is not a fan club. Members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS.What’s wrong with these people? How could they so misread the movement they’re supposed to lead? Did they really think that opening up the contest to “registered supporters” would lead to an influx of centrists and ex-Tory voters suddenly eager to help the party they just rejected at the polls? My 22-year-old stepdaughter has been involved with various left-wing causes since sixth form, but has never been near the Labour party. She has now joined, specifically to vote for Corbyn. She’s not an “entryist”, just one of the very large reservoir of people out there with left-of-centre views who’ve been doing their politics outside the Labour party. Those are exactly the kind of people who are driving the Corbyn insurgency.

And why not? What Labour’s leaders – including the three beardless candidates – don’t seem to get is that Labour is a political movement. It is not a British version of the political machines thrown up in the US to mobilise support for a particular candidate. It’s not a fan club. Party members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS on their way to the green benches. Like any political movement, the Labour party is composed of people who give their time, energy and sometimes their money to a cause they believe in. Dismissing Corbyn’s campaign as a “protest movement” is a stupid way to try to change the mind of people who want to protest, and feel there is a lot to protest about. Protest is about persuasion, and persuasion is the stuff of politics. And isn’t politics what we’re supposed to be doing in the Labour party?

Campbell, McTernan and others like to lecture members about how elections are “won from the centre”. Of course, that cannot be literally true — the Tories are not a centre party and seem to be doing all right, while the Lib-Dems haven’t won an election for a while. In reality, elections are won by the party of left or right which best mobilises its own supporters at the same time as making a convincing appeal to voters who see themselves as neither left nor right.

But the lectures miss the point. The Labour party is not a centre party and never really has been. You can’t take a cow and convince people it’s really a horse. You can persuade them that it’s a really nice cow, that it’s a cow with some very horse-like qualities, but people still know it’s a cow. You can try to turn the Labour party into a centre party, a party which says more or less what it thinks centrist voters want to hear, but then you lose the movement. Because that isn’t politics, it’s just market research.

Politics involves a lot of compromise; that’s inevitable and even welcome. All effective political movements know that. But you have to have a position from which to compromise. What does Labour stand for? Do we accept the right-wing, neoliberal idea of society? How are we going to make a globalised, tech-driven economy work for most people? How are we going to reverse the transformation of London into an investment supermarket for overseas speculators? Are we actually going to do anything about ever-widening inequality and the sharp reversal of social mobility? If so, what? A political movement must be able to answer those questions, and many others too. You may not like the answers Jeremy Corbyn is coming up with, but the other candidates mostly dodge the questions, hiding behind platitudes like “ending child poverty” or trivia like changing the remit of the Low Pay Commission.

Once the accommodation with neoliberalism failed electorally, the movement was always likely to reject it sooner or later. The bloodless electoral calculus of McTernan, Campbell and others would leave the UK without a major socialist or social democratic political party. Whether you like it or not, there is at least very large minority who believe in and want to campaign for the ideas of the left. For the first time in a generation, many of them see the Labour party as a movement that can express those ideas. That is why Jeremy Corbyn will probably be elected leader of the Labour party next month.

9 Comments

  1. A very well articulated argument, and one with which I entirely agree!

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  2. Wanda Lozinska 14 August 2015 at 3:30 am

    Brilliant article!
    Thanks.

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  3. This nails exactly why non-partisan people with a social conscience are flocking to Corbyn. After recent cowardly “opposition” to the Tory government (and loss of social principles to SNP in Scotland) we have lost confidence in New Labour being anything other than Tory-lite.

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  4. Succinctly and eloquently put , Craig. If there was one thought missing it might be that CORBYN supporters and the left general don’t care if he’s unelectable as a PM. The other candidates self dillusion is to think people should vote for them because they stand for a better chance of becoming PM regardless of their empty rhetoric. The importance of Corbyn’s standing is to drag the arguments further left over the next five years.

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    1. That’s correct James, although one had to ask, is it really a problem if Corbyn made it to No 10?

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  5. You could be describing me with these,and other statements

    “And even a petulant child could have told Labour leaders that the timorous fudge over tax credits would push even moderate lefties in Corbyn’s direction. ”
    “not an “entryist”, just one of the very large reservoir of people out there with left-of-centre views who’ve been doing their politics outside the Labour party.”

    “Labour is a political movement. It is not a British version of the political machines thrown up in the US to mobilise support for a particular candidate. It’s not a fan club. ”

    I’m beginning o feel less alone and more on the right side of history,even if he doesn’t win.

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  6. It is hard to believe that Corbyn could lead to a Labour victory in 2020 – but none of the others are credible either. Therefore, the value of voting for him as Leader now is to blow apart (as you wrote in the NS) the cosy consensus which seems to exist in current pragmatic English politics and encourage a proper debate before the next election by which time he may even stand down for a more likely candidate. But that is way ahead.

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  7. Enjoyed your Corbyn piece.
    As a 20+ yr expat I don’t bother to vote, Jack Ashley was both a family friend and ‘our’ MP. When I was eligible it was pointless- Ashley’ s majority was huge.
    The bunch we have had since Kinnock have been dire and many of my voting peers have defected or given up voting altogether. I believe disgust is why so many young, and not so young, have done so.
    I don’t necessarily agree with Corbyn- I would vote for him ( despite being a rentier). The 50 odd % 2015 turnout would not need much of a boost to put him in power. A straw poll of friends and family suggests many of the disillusioned would return.
    And my 30 y old son is interested in politics- for the 1st time.

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  8. Good piece Craig. I’d add a couple of points: narrative and jam.

    It’s often argued that the Tories won the 2010 election, much as they won the 1979 election by spinning a lie into a narrative, then taking control of that narrative. Essentially, framing. The Conservatives have managed to frame UK politics since the late 70s. They were even able to spin the narrative out for another few years following the Financial Crisis, which, like the inflation and unemployment they created in the early 80s, they were able to blame on Labour. That narrative is finally unspooling, as more and more people are reaching the same conclusion: Thatcher’s reforms led ineluctably to 2008. That combined with the release of Cabinet Papers and the death of the arch villain herself, explains the steady stream of revelations relating to institutional corruption during the Thatcher years. The past has become indefensible, it is unusable precisely because it has led us to the present. In short, the Tories have lost the narrative hence the return to Corbyn and the reevaluation of the 1983 Manifesto (unthinkable just a couple of years ago), RTB, nationalisation and, that most epochal of events, the miners’ strike. The lost narrative, that which we now long for, is that of a Britain untouched by Thatcherism and New Labour. Why? Because we know how it ends. Which leads us to jam….on a very simplistic level, people can only take so much bad news. They need hope, something to get out of bed for each morning, the promise of an optimistic future. That’s been in short supply since 2008 and no other candidate or English political party offers it. Jam tomorrow only works if there is a pot of jam.

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