by Rob Marchant
groupthink, n., [grüp-ˌthiŋk]: a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics
Merriam-Webster online dictionary
The saddest thing about party conference this year, as commentator Iain Martin remarked, was “otherwise nice/sensible people trying to persuade themselves it will be ok”.
If there were a fortnight to convince the world otherwise, this must surely have been it.
Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of Labour’s position on bombing Isil, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the rebellion on an actual vote for renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, have all been an unmitigated shambles.
Most immediately, there’s Corbyn’s amazing letter outlining his personal position on British involvement in bombing Isil, pre-empting Monday’s shadow cabinet discussion, astounding shadow ministers and MPs alike.
Then there was his refusal to condemn Stop the War Coalition’s toe-curling and hastily-retracted blog post, blaming the Paris attacks on France and her Western allies. Not to mention a subsequent mauling by his own MPs at the regular PLP meeting, over that, Jihadi John and the government’s shoot-to-kill policy. Then the unprecedented event of Labour MPs criticising their own leader in the Commons and his links to the Stoppers.
In the case of the vote to keep Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent, we had centrist MPs in the bizarre (and surely also unprecedented) position of defying the whip to vote for party policy, as Ben Bradshaw MP drily noted.
And let’s not forget (just 24 hours ago although it already seems longer) the unedifying spectacle of attempted political theatre gone badly wrong. John McDonnell MP – for it was he – chose to respond to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement by waving a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Yes, that Mao, the 20th century’s greatest mass-murderer.
And thus did the tragedy of Labour’s last few months descend into farce.
The picture does not get any better when you consider polling: an October poll showed that Corbyn is the most unpopular new party leader since records began.
But where exactly is the activist base of the Labour Party at right now? YouGov on Tuesday released an amazing statistic: that despite the ongoing political gaffe-fest and disastrous poll rankings, a full 65% of Labour activists maintain that Corbyn is doing “well”.
We have written about groupthink at Uncut before. But even by the tendency towards groupthink of any political party – Labour above all – the ability of that 66% to seemingly block out all external and independently-verifiable sources of information takes some beating.
That is to say, let’s park for a moment the shambles on Syria, the antics of McDonnell and the fiasco of a response to the defence of the country, the first responsibility of any government. Now, on exactly what planet could the leadership be described as doing “well”?
It is no exaggeration to say that this must easily be the greatest divide between public and party perception of a leader since polling began. Indeed, it is hard to think of any moment in the post-war period when Labour’s leadership has been so far from the public.
Michael Foot managed to hold most the party together in the early 1980s – just – after a potentially disastrous split with the SDP; but Foot was a mere moderate compared with Corbyn. How can Corbyn survive where his more moderate, popular forebear only just managed to?
Conclusion: the latter’s tenure cannot, surely, be sustainable, any more than pacifist George Lansbury’s tenure was in the 1930s. Eventually the forces of political gravity have to come to bear and the groupthink disintegrates into painful realisation, as after any traumatic experience. MPs, in the end, have survival instincts (although we can probably exclude those of Corbyn’s thirty-five nominators who did it “to broaden the debate”).
Put another way, just how long can one group of – albeit largely decent and well-meaning – people put their hands over their ears and sing “la la la, I can’t hear you”? It seems we are about to find out.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left