A friend of mine asked my opinion on Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory of the Labour leadership election. Here goes but first a little history.
After John Smith died in May 1994, Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party. With his rebranding of it as New Labour and the dropping of Clause IV* from the party’s constitution, it was clear that the party of Left had abandoned socialism. I did ask socialist friends at the time whether they would continue to support Labour. May of them did not.
It was clear that Labour under Blair was attempting to win power not by attempting to convince people of the justice of their policies but rather by following the voters. This they did and in some ways they were even further to the right than the Conservatives. Selling off of public assets continued at an increased rate compared to the previous Tory government and, after a economically cautious first term, public spending vastly increased. By use of PFI (Private Finance Initiatives) schemes and similar, much of the spending was off-books. Public structures would be built by private industry and then leased back to the government on the long term basis - usually twenty five to thirty years. This has proved to be a deeply expensive way of doing things and certainly helped in overheating the economy during the last decade. When the crash came, the government was already deeply in debt. Certainly the downturn would have been the right time to loosen the public pursestrings but that relies upon governments building up reserves during the good times. Most of gold reserves had been sold off at less than $500 an ounce. Later it topped $1800 and today is still around the $1100 mark. Instead, there was little choice but to go for has come to be known as the policies of austerity. Or cuts, to put it bluntly.
Labour had ditched its socialist identity and frankly lost credibility on economic management. The question had to asked “What is the Labour Party for?” During the election of 2015 and in the face of clear identities offered by both the Conservatives and nationalists parties, it was a question that Labour was unable to answer with any conviction. Simply being not the Tories is no longer enough.
Out of the candidates for the Labour leadership, three out of the four could fairly be described as New Labour. Andy Burnham especially so: as he realised that the membership was more left-leaning than many Labour MPs, he typically went vote chasing.
Jeremy Corbyn was elected as an MP in 1983, very much dark days for the party. Thatcher’s first tern had been a disaster and she was only saved from defeat by victory in the Falklands War. He is a socialist, he predates the creation of New Labour and even the internecine wars of the 1980s which saw the Labour leadership expel hardline socialists and communist members from the party. Corbyn is very much Old Labour and fair play to the guy: he has stuck to his principles for all those decades. It is little wonder that his political visibility had been lower than a snake’s belly, until now at least.
I think that Corbyn has been the beneficiary of popular disillusion with mainstream politics. Many on the left of the political spectrum took up Labour’s offer of £3 membership in order to vote. Some on the right too, apparently, as they see Corbyn as a dinosaur and hope that his victory makes Labour unelectable.
The big question though is will Corbyn be able to return Labour to the party to socialism, or does he even desire to do that? With eight senior members (so far) having either resigned this afternoon or previously have indicated that they would not serve under Corbyn, it looks like that New Labour is prepared for what they see as a fight for the soul of the party.
Personally I would welcome it if Labour did return to socialism. After all, while I do not agree with some socialist solutions they are always worthy of consideration. Readers in America may recall that we in Britain already have many of the things that Bernie Sanders are calling for the US to introduce, such as universal healthcare, which we like very much. The left is necessary in a functioning modern democracy. Often the questions that they pose require addressing, and sometimes, just sometimes, even their suggested solutions are not bad. No party or outlook has a monopoly on wisdom and people deserve to have credible and electable parties to represent their views. That does mean in the United Kingdom that it is necessary to change the voting system. If a Single Transferable Vote system is good enough for the Labour Party to elect its leadership, it certainly should be good enough to elect MPs to Westminster. The First Past the Post voting system, designed for a two party system, is not credible for today’s multifaceted and increasingly sophisticated electorate.
Does Corbyn’s win bode well for Bernie Sanders in the US? The two certainly have similarities: unsupported by the media (Corbyn certainly has been monstered by several media outlets here, including the BBC, and I don’t expect that to stop any time soon) and both certainly to the left of the mainstream and command a large amount of grassroots support. The latter point is critical: Sanders is not going to get the media exposure that others will, both in the Democrats and the Republican Parties. He is probably not going to receive major corporate backing and all of his opponents are going to totally outspend him. He could probably learn a thing or two from Corbyn’s campaign and I would be surprised if there isn’t already contact between the two camps.
Back in the UK, Labour under Corbyn might have a hope of resurrecting its fortunes in Scotland. If he does manage to rebrand and rebuild Labour into a socialist party, or at least something approaching it, no longer will the SNP be able to claim that they are the true party of the left. (They are not anyhow, but that’s a story for another day). Corbyn may well win some support back from the Greens too, as many of that party are openly socialist. It may be good for my own party too, the Liberal Democrats, if Labour does go leftward. The Conservatives are obviously in their true rightwing colours without the LibDems in government to restrain them and a vacuum may well open in the centre ground. The Liberal Democrats are in a good position to fill it, should that occur.
To summarise: Corbyn has his work cut out in taking on the right wing of his own party. Should he manage to unite Labour and draw it leftwards, that would certainly be both good for the democratic process and may even reinvigorate the Labour movement. Personally I cannot see New Labour leading the party anywhere good. It may have had thirteen years of power but it ate its own heart out in the process.
For the record, if I was a member of the Labour party (and that is a cold day in Hell), I would have voted for Yvette Cooper.
* Clause IV: To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.