It’s a humble man who makes a speech using the word ‘thank’ 27 times. Such is not the mark of a man of overweening ambition, nor one who aspires to high office. Yet that speech was made as the landslide victor of the Labour leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn. “J.C. (of non-biblical)“, as some have long called him, took Westminster’s political pundits by surprise and the Labour party by storm. And, though the man himself has been a model of unshakable conviction throughout his 32-year career representing Islington North, the next year or so will be marked by incompatibly schizophrenic views about him.
To adherents of ‘Old Labour’ on the one hand—especially those in Scotland—it had been a desperate two decades. Dominant throughout the eighties as the standard-bearers against Thatcher, Scottish Labour boasted fifty MPs, every council of note and a stranglehold on civic and quango appointments. They were embedded in the social fabric of clubs and miners’ welfares across the country, the unswerving representatives of ‘the working man’ and who, in turn, received their unswerving vote. “Ah’ve aye votit Labour” was a doorstep response from Mauchline to Mastrick.
Two decades ago, this monolith was faced with a dilemma; dig in with what they knew or adopt what Blair was doing to achieve power again. With few exceptions, they hung tough, were ever-vigilant on party loyalty and accommodated the Blair years and their victories by staying out of sight and “ca’in a well worn haun’le.” In this, they were joined by Jeremy Corbyn building his maverick reputation by being full-bore Foot’s socialism and dealing with untouchables like Jerry Adams long before any NI peace deal seemed plausible.
This put those here who embraced Blair—Brown, Cook, Darling, Alexander, etc—at odds with their CLPs. But the idea that New Labour had moved so far from its own roots spread like crabgrass. Corbyn would have had a great night out with Keir Hardy; he would have provided the missing seconder to his 1894 counter-motion rejecting the house’s congratulations at the birth of Edward (later VIII) Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and substituting condolences to the families of 280 dead in that year’s Albion Colliery disaster.
For much of Labour Corbyn represents a return to values they understand, for which they have spent years in the party fighting. That the result was so conclusive in all three categories of voters—members, supporters and affiliates—underscores both how deep socialist principles still run within Labour and how rudderless New Labour has become without the evangelical leadership of someone like Blair.
With this broad level of support Corbyn cannot be simply dismissed as some old marginal leftie. Consider several of his policies:
- Scrap Trident and not replace it
- National Education Service, modeled on the NHS
- Cease military action in Syria & Iraq
- Re-introduce rent controls, linking private rents to local earnings
- Take in refugees desperate to get somewhere safe to live
- Recreate a regulated, publicly run service delivering energy
Not all will agree with these or his more radical, positions. But a significant number outside Labour embrace many of those, none achievable under the Tories. He may not be the Messiah, but he represents people who have long felt no major UK party reflected their social conscience; in Scotland, they defected to the SNP in droves. Some see him, rather than Kezia, as the antidote and therefore the salvation of Scottish Labour from oblivion. He presents hope for revival here that none of the other three Blair-lite candidates could.
Then there is the other Corbyn, the one the Tories and a great swathe of the media see: Michael Foot without the donkey jacket; irresponsible disarmer; tax-and-spend fanatic; Joshua to Canary Wharf’s Jericho; veggie-munching cycling nut; Lenin with hair…they go on. And so The Torygraph trumpets: “Death of New Labour as Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist party begins a period of civil war” or the Daily Mail thunders: “Corbyn called Colombian terror group ‘comrades’: Labour leader faces fresh fury over militant beliefs” or UK Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, bleats: “Jeremy Corbyn presents a big “risk” to Britain’s national and economic security.”
Once this sort of ritual bad-mouthing gets into its stride, it will make the ritual abuse that the Yes campaign had to endure last year seem as harmless as an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. It is not just the Tories who will have a go. After two decades of New Labour, there are many in the party who believe in its evolution to this point and are loath to take regressive, if comforting, steps into the past. The resignation of seven front bench members (including all three opponents) signals a strong internal resistance. To call it a split is premature but certainly there have been tensions among factions for some time. Yet, every party is a broad church; Derry Irvine and Dennis Skinner were never even on speaking terms, but most (except, apparently, Scotland’s far left) rub along for the sake of effectiveness through cohesion.
But the key point of attack will be electability. Many comparisons have already been made between Corbyn’s stance and the 1983 Labour manifesto—in Kaufman‘s pithy put-down “The longest suicide note in political history”. Significant numbers within Labour longed for a return to historic ‘Labour values’ from spin-heavy fare peddled by the Shadow Cabinet up to now. But how does that chime with the great apolitical public?
Certainly politics is tainted; principle and backbone are seen as rarities. But old-style socialism proved unelectable in the 1980’s and was ditched as such in the 1990’s with considerable success. The English public since m0ved considerably to the right. The Scots less so but SNP success came from embracing a more centrist position than before. And, despite legendary resolve and principle, they made little headway until voters perceived personal advantage over any risk in voting for them. Corbyn deserves plaudits for being one of the few to keep the red flag flying But will such principle cut any ice with a more fickle, self-interested electorate in the teeth of Tory scaremongering, resentful Blairites and a media fixated on bogey-men?
But nane sall ken whaur he is gane;
O’er his white banes, whan they are bare,
The wind sall blaw fir evermair.