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What the Corbyn moment means for the left

At long last, the left is asking itself whether power without principle is worth having. 

The ultimate triumph of the political right in the 1980s was that its actions eventually forced the left to sell its soul for power – but many of today’s young voters neither remember nor care quite why it did so. All we have known are progressive parties that were callous in office and gutless in opposition. That’s why we almost suspect that it has all been a con. We almost suspect that when Jeremy Corbyn, a sexagenarian socialist with a 32-year parliamentary record of actually having principles and sticking to them, is elected leader of the Labour Party, the jig will be up. Corbyn will pull off his suspicious, bearded mask and underneath will be some baby-faced student organiser, or the unquiet shade of Michael Foot, or Russell Brand declaring that it was just a scam to see what Labour would do with a real left-wing candidate.

What the party has done so far is panic in a manner so incoherent and undignified that the Tories have marvelled, finishing the popcorn and starting on the dodgy dips as they watch the chaos unfold. We are told that a “Free French” resistance is being plotted within the Labour Party. The image of Blairites and vacillating former Miliblands as a “resistance movement” is worth sav­ouring. What on earth would their slogans be? “What do we want? Strategic capitulation to the centre right with a view to contesting an election in five years!” “When do we want it? Subject to legal review!”

The big problem with Corbyn is that he throws the collapsed vacuum of mainstream Labour rhetoric into sharp relief. None of the other three leadership candidates has a single memorable political idea beyond the idea of themselves as leader. The anointed heirs of New Labour appear to believe in nothing apart from their right to rule – and they seem agnostic about even that, given the invertebrates they have put up against the Corbyn threat.

The “electability” conversation is where it all becomes clear. The argument that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable is being made by three candidates who can’t even win an election against Jeremy Corbyn. Their arguments are backed by two former prime ministers: Gordon Brown, whose main claim
to fame is losing an election to the Tories in 2010, and Tony Blair, the Ghost of Bad Decisions Past. Both of them are making the case that the ability to win a general election is the first and only important quality in a leader after years of muttering and shuffling behind Ed Miliband, a very nice man whose middle name could have been “Constitutionally Unable to Win a General Election”.

Corbyn, however, has been re-elected by the people of Islington North consistently since 1983 and, like Bernie Sanders in the US, seems as surprised as anyone suddenly to be reaping the rewards of a lifetime of sticking to his principles – principles that once put Corbyn on the moderate left of Labour and now make him look, at least in the estimation of much of the press, like the nightmare offspring of Che Guevara and Emma Goldman dressed up in a Stalin costume. And all for proposing a modest increase in the top rate of income tax.

Rumours of the death of the political left have been exaggerated. Corbyn, like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the Scottish National Party, is an immune response from a sick and suffering body politic trying to fight off a chronic infection that threatens to swallow hope for ever. There is a crisis in representative democracy in the west and it was established well before the stock-market collapse of 2008. The old centre left is at odds with its electorate because it decided for itself the limits of what was politically possible a decade ago.

The logic is this: it’s all very well to talk about fairer taxes, rent controls, sustainable wages and an end to the scapegoating of migrants and minorities – of course, we would all get behind those ideas if we could – but, in the end, all of the things for which the public has been crying out for decades just won’t make us “electable” and it is better to have power than it is to have principles. So, much as it pains us, we will continue to capitulate to the austerity consensus and wait around for another five years for our next polystyrene leader to fail to inspire a nation.

Corbyn bucks that trend, terrifying a political class that chose power over principles long ago without once asking itself whether power without principles is worth having. The paradox is delicious. For the first time in years, Labour is popular and interesting, but apparently it would rather not be. In some people’s estimation, a surge in party membership of almost a third, from organised labour, the working poor and disenfranchised young people, would be considered a good thing for a party that claims to represent the interests of all three.

Across Europe and the United States, however, professional politicians of the centre left have one idea about what politics should look like and the people they claim to represent increasingly have another. Certain politicians have not properly understood the definition of “representative” democracy.

Today’s voters are not the voters of 1997 or 2005. We are digital and post-geographic; we mobilise fast and we want more. We are not wedded to the electoral machine. Our disenfranchisement has been mistaken for apathy for too long by a political class that claims to want young people to vote but turns out to want young people to do as they’re told and vote for it or not at all.

We want someone to remember that democracy does not begin and end at the ballot box. We want someone to represent the interests of the young, the poor and the marginalised in parliament. These are simple, modest demands. And the most damning indictment on the British political machine is the way in which these simple, modest demands look like a revolution.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.