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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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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