This article was published on Backbench
He is an honest and principled man, goes the refrain, with fresh ideas, but he’s just not a good enough leader. It’s not his ideas or his principles, just his inability to show more competence and do better in the polls. This has been Labour MPs’ critique of Jeremy Corbyn. The implication is that if there were a strong far-left leader who could get closer to winning, the soft left would support him.
This is a disingenuous argument. The problem with Corbyn is not that he is a bad leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party, it is that he does not care whether he is or not. The hard left is not interested in parliament or winning an election at all, or at least not until they have built up sufficient support from the masses, which probably amounts to the same thing.
Momentum founder Jon Lansman’s recent comments that ‘“Winning” is the small part that matters to elites’ were treated with shock. Yet this attitude that electoral success is not the main priority has hardly been hidden: Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told VICE last year (when Miliband was still leader) “Getting political representation is important, but change comes through using direct action, campaigning, and trade unions”.
The lack of policy under Corbyn, the shambolic management of the shadow cabinet and the complete uninterest in reaching out to Conservatives is not a sign of Corbyn’s failure, because it is irrelevant to his aims. He has succeeded in using Labour as a vehicle to build a large protest movement. In moving the Labour party membership to the left (and under the one member, one vote electoral system, ironically introduced by Miliband under pressure from the right of the party to dilute Union power) it is now inconceivable a centrist could take the reins.
Quite what Corbyn would do as Prime Minister is unclear, because he has no intention of being one. Corbyn’s politics are about opposing specific things, not producing a broader platform for government, which involves reneging on principles in favour of nuance and responsibility. As left-wing economist Richard Murphy – whose ideas Corbyn’s team borrowed – complained “There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing”.
Even to describe the Corbyn campaign as a social movement is rather generous. One Labour member has declared it is “a simulation of a social movement — a form of clicktivism, of gesture politics based on an identification with ‘what Jeremy stands for’”. A real, active social movement would not be so reliant on just one man.
As the blogger Bob From Brockley pointed out, this is not a conventional Trotskyist movement, which would be smaller but much more politically literate, with members knowledgeable about Marxism, the socialist movement and the nature of capitalism. In the post-truth age Corbyn supporters simply fall “so easily into antisemitic memes, conspiracy thinking, crankery, and curtailed forms of anti-capitalism”.
In this sense calling Corbynism a cult would perhaps be more accurate. Any defection from orthodoxy is rigorously scrutinised. Members of the party that when last in power supported private involvement in the NHS are aghast that leadership challenger Owen Smith suggested he supported patient choice in healthcare while working for a pharmaceutical company 11 years ago. Everything is reduced to binaries, so dissenting Labour politicians are branded as Tories (even though they have spent their careers fighting the Conservative party) or Blairites (even though many disagreed with Tony Blair too).
The case for a Labour party without Corbyn is tied up with the case for parliamentary democracy. It is about respecting the raison d’être of Labour: a means to improve the lot of the working-classes through parliament. It is about affirming that Labour MPs should represent the whole electorate rather than be mere puppets for a small group of party constituency members.
It is about proclaiming that politicians, who study serious issues every day, are more qualified to take decisions than the average person on the street, in the face of the anti-intellectual, ‘consumer-is-always-right’ attitude of those who call for deselections of Labour MPs. It is about rejecting the tried-and-tested technique of demagogues all over the world (including Corbyn’s Venezuelan hero Hugo Chavez), who override democratic checks and balances in order to speak directly to ‘the people’.
Representative democracy is the best way humans have so far found to run society, but in these torrid and turbulent political times, when political cynicism is at record levels, we should not be complacent about the threats it faces.
On a final note, what is ironic is how Corbynism – wearing your political purity as an identity badge –ultimately helps the system it wants to destroy. What Corbyn supporters like to call ‘neoliberalism’ has no trouble swallowing up this movement of a couple of hundred thousand people, just as it has the space to accommodate all other movements based around identity politics, from the commercialisation of gay pride events to the proliferation of ‘empowering’ consumer products for women.
In this sense, there is something tragic in the way Corbyn supporters find the fuel for their movement in insular online bubbles provided by the algorithms of regulation-averse Silicon Valley technology companies.