Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign is an emotional spasm

by Rob Marchant

“You call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.”

Aneurin Bevan, shadow foreign secretary, 1959 Labour party conference

Bevan’s withering lines, warning the party against unilateral disarmament, illustrate the fact that we are not in a new place. In the face of a public, for whom two world wars were still a very recent memory, the party’s left had “gone off on one”, on defence and other matters – to be fair, a move largely nurtured by Bevan himself – with the result that Labour wandered in the wilderness for thirteen long years.

A similar effect took place in the 1980s under Michael Foot: seventeen more years. The party now teeters on the brink of a third, post-war wilderness period of comparable length.

Whoever wins the leadership in September, it seems clear that our current stay in opposition will eventually have lasted at least a full decade. A sudden Tory meltdown in this parliament looks remote and, objectively speaking, Cameron has made a better fist of being party leader than most in Labour give him credit for. He has, after all, increased his vote – no mean feat for a leader previously forced into Britain’s first formal coalition since the time of Churchill and Attlee.

No, it is time to take a step back. It is now more a question of, will it be just ten years in the wilderness, or will it be fifteen, or twenty? That is what the next few short weeks will decide.

But Labour, currently engaged in a frantic bout of navel-gazing, seems oblivious to this fact. While Uncut still believes he will not win, the surprising success of Jeremy Corbyn’s unplanned campaign points to a part of the Labour family pathologically incapable of learning from its past.

And the worst thing is not so much that it is veering close to repeating its mistakes, but that such a mistake could have considerably worse consequences than previous times.

For example, Corbyn’s policies strongly echo that previous 1980s wilderness period. But what is striking is how much the world has changed since. If nationalisation did not convince people then, will it really now, with the use of private capital in public bodies a reality which has lasted three-and-a-half decades?

While we can bang on impotently about the “neoliberal consensus” all we like, no-one in any major Western nation has seriously attempted to go back to full public ownership. There isn’t, bluntly, sufficient cash available which voters will stump up for.

And what about policies of open pacifism, in perhaps the most turbulent geopolitical times since that same war Bevan’s generation lived through? It is worth noting that the last time Labour elected a pacifist, George Lansbury, was a very dark time for the party and, though a man of decency, he was forced out of the leadership after only three years.

But it is in the “hostage to fortune” category that Labour’s emotional response is most dangerous. Being a little-known backbencher has its advantages: one is that your every utterance is not pored over by the newspapers.

That now, of course, is changing. Suddenly now common knowledge are facts which until recently were the preserve of political nerds like us: Corbyn’s tolerance of, or open support for, awful regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, Russia or Iran. His “engagement” – or, some would say, chumminess – with Hamas and Hezbollah, two organisations busy oppressing all sections of their own populations to a greater or lesser degree. Not to mention their brutal disregard for the lives of civilians: and not just their enemies’ civilians, but their own.

The reaction against that “tolerant tendency” within the party – let alone the country – is not restricted to the New Labour right: many on the party’s left, too, find these regimes despicable. Indeed, in recent years, the old left-right axis of the party has been joined by a second, quite independent dimension: the tolerance, or not, of authoritarian regimes.

Still, siren voices on all sides of the party talk of “unity”, or “respecting the views of the whole party spectrum”. It is a desperate, stubborn return to “one more heave”, in a world where no-one is listening. We cannot attack, it seems; we must gently persuade.

But what if some of those views are not just complacent, but barking mad? What if they need to be challenged at all costs? At what point do we opt to stand up and be counted?

Stand up, stand up, I say. For the reality is this: there are now just a few short weeks to prevent our emotional responses from turning those ten years into fifteen or twenty.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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11 Responses to “Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign is an emotional spasm”

  1. Don’t worry, Rob. The polls are wrong and Jeremy Corbyn will “finish fourth”. Atul Hatwal has staked his reputation on it.

  2. paul barker says:

    On whether Corbyn will win – for the first couple of weeks of CLP nominations Corbyn got about 1 in 3, over the last week it was more than half. Of course CLPs are more representative of activists than the wider membership but activists are more likely to vote & then you can add the £3 voters & Union members, both apparently going strongly for Corbyn. If the vote was today I think Corbyn would win in the 1st round.
    Can the moderates turn the contest round ? I dont think calling Corbyn supporters mad will help, or wheeling out Elder Statesmen to patronise the masses.
    If all it took was a belief that Corbyn could win to make his vote explode – that suggests his ideas already had a reservoir of support across The Labour movement.

  3. Richard says:

    Even if I were to accept your argument that being left is what made the LP lose the 1980’s elections (though the Falklands, the SDP, a way more powerful right wing press and a leadership more intent on fighting the ‘enemy within’ than the Tories can clearly make a counter argument).
    If was also to accept your position that Camaron is unlikely to make a fist of his premiership, remote you said, in spite of a looming European referendum and extremely harsh and likely unpopular austerity and heaven knows what else is on the horizon.
    Or to accept the increase by 500,000 votes from 2010 to 2015, despite the collapse of the LibDem vote, is to be considered a powerful consolidation of Cameron’s position, I am still struggling to agree with your conclusions.
    The thrust of your position is that Labour members are “pathologically” unable to learn the lessons of the past that (ie. left policies don’t win elections) and if they don’t they will end up in the wilderness, therefore they must reject Corbyn, they must stand up, stand up against him.
    But for what, more for the same?
    The electorate turned away from Labour policiies for the last two elections and they were not radically different in either, despite the ‘red Milliband’ stuff in he press. What makes you think that they will go for the very policies they rejected in the last two elections? What makes you believe that the wilderness you feel a left turn will bring won’t happen anyway if we stop our ‘navel gazing’ and reject Corbyn?
    Not one sentence in your article promotes what to fight for, or why or how this will improve Labour’s chances in the next election, it’s simply ABC, anyone but Corbyn. Not only is it ABC it’s based upon innuendo and half truths, as if he supports terrorism or argues a simple pacifism.
    It’s this approach that turned people away from Labour and politics in general, particularly those who ought to be Labour voters, and is exactly why a candidate like Corbyn inspires them, he has something to say.
    I to have my doubts, but at least he has something to say, at least he offers something to vote FOR.
    I’m sure that folk like you on the right of the party just don’t get the problem, we need something different, not more of the same, and the more you simply scaremonger and offer nothing positive then perhaps all you will achieve is to drive even more people into the arms of Corbyn.

  4. Peter says:

    This article epitomises all that is wrong with the majority of the Labour Party today.

    Resigning themselves to the fact that a Tory government with a very small majority is unlikely to face troubles over the next five years. Well if Labour continues to abstain en masse in contentious votes on important issues, as it did with the Welfare Reform Bill, then the Tories WILL have an easy ride, because Labour, by abstaining are tacitly condoning Tory policies. And then the article goes on to heap praise upon Cameron and suggests that Labour should be giving him more credit for the job he has been doing.

    It is though the Party has been mesmerised into actually believing that because 26% of the electorate voted Conservative then Labour has to out-Tory the Tories to win in 2020.

    Labour do not have to win back those voters who voted Tory a few months ago if they are to win in 2020. Vast swathes of those who either did not vote or voted UKIP or Green did so not because they were totally disinterested in politics or because they all necessarily agreed with the policies of UKIP and the Greens, large numbers either did not vote or placed their votes with those two Parties simply because they rejected the Tories and Labour did not offer anything radically different.

    I don’t care if Corbyn can or cannot win in 2020, the reason he will have my vote is because I want Labour to actually provide and effective opposition which will make it more difficult for the Tories to continue their ideological assault on the type of people who Labour have traditionally stood up for.

  5. @PaulBarker: Think you probably overestimate (even given your comments) the importance of CLP noms. It is often, literally, a handful of activists who decide. The overall vote will dwarf those individual opinions. That doesn’t point to any result with confidence, but it does mean it’s still very unpredictable.

    @Richard: I’m afraid you seem to be asking people to tickle your tummy, rather than facing electoral realities and taking responsibility for supporting a candidate that you yourself probably know cannot possibly become prime minister.

    If that’s what you choose, fair enough, but know that there are consequences. The future of the party is at stake, we cannot afford to be self-indulgently sitting back in our chairs and demanding that people inspire us sufficiently.

  6. @Peter: “I don’t care if Corbyn can or cannot win in 2020, the reason he will have my vote is because I want Labour to actually provide and effective opposition”.

    There, that’s all you need to say. Congratulations, a party of permanent opposition.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Peter, it’s not the welfare/cuts bills that’ll cause Cameron trouble, it’s things like the HRA Europe immigration the BBC, or legal aid, of which, labour will abstain, or gave its en problem on the EU

  8. Corbyn seems to have been able to enthuse a lot of young people, something that New Labour has failed to repeat after its first victory in 97. I wonder why that is Rob?

  9. John. Reid says:

    Danny sleight, they’re too young to call that last time it was tried, it nearly destroyed the party, out us out of power for 18 years

  10. Tafia says:

    John. Reid Danny sleight, they’re too young to call that last time it was tried, it nearly destroyed the party, out us out of power for 18 years

    The main reasons for that were that Labour spent far to much time fighting with each other- especially in public than putting a consistent and coherent Opposition to the tories, and the tories were running the economy the way England wanted (you’ll notiice I said England as opposed to Britain. They have never recovered their vote in either Wales or Scotland from the declines of the Thatcher years and don’t look like they ever will.)

  11. @ John Reid

    But what you don’t explain John, is why New Labour couldn’t get the kids going again after that first ‘Cool Britannia”. Was it because the kids could no longer identify with them?

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