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Can Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs learn to get along?

The leadership candidate has the declared support of just 15 MPs. Both sides are preparing to enter what feels like an alternate universe.  

On the morning of 12 September at the QEII Centre in Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn will be declared the new leader of the Labour Party. This is the outcome that almost all MPs now expect. A result that scriptwriters would have rejected as too outlandish before the contest began is regarded as near inevitable. Given the number of ballots returned in the first week of voting, the game may already be over. “It’s like a bad dream” and “It’s like a bad film”, shadow cabinet ministers told me.

All sides are struggling to adapt to the strange new world in which Corbyn – lifelong backbencher, serial rebel – becomes leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. When his candidacy was announced in four short paragraphs in his local paper, the Islington Tribune, on 3 June, most believed that he would struggle to avoid finishing last. No one believed that he would reduce two former cabinet ministers, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, to an unseemly squabble over which of them is in second place.

Several weeks before the result is announced, blame is already being cast around the party. Labour staff are furious with MPs for allowing Corbyn on to the ballot. Some are preparing their CVs, either having decided they will not serve under Corbyn out of principle or out of fear of being “liquidated by the new regime”.

When MPs lost their “golden share”, which gave them a third of the votes in Labour’s abolished electoral college, the nominations threshold was raised from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent of MPs as a firewall against maverick candidates. Several of those who helped Corbyn over the barriers are now repentant. But others are not. “I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I nominated Jeremy,” Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, told me. “The longer it goes on, the thinner the post-Blair gruel that the other candidates offer us appears. It is going to change the debate and, at the end of the day, we’ll owe Jeremy a huge thanks.”

When Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn by 0.8 percentage points in the 1981 deputy leadership contest, it was the moderate trade unions (with their 40 per cent share) and MPs (with their 30 per cent share) that saw off the hard-left constituency parties. This time, there is no such cavalry available. The two largest unions, Unite and Unison, have endorsed Corbyn, and an MP’s vote is worth no more than that of a registered supporter. Ben Bradshaw, a deputy leadership candidate, whose Exeter constituency party has the second-highest contact rate of any in the country, told me that 10 per cent of “supporters” in his area had consistently voted for other parties. Labour, however, has ruled that individuals cannot be excluded on this basis alone.

“The party’s processes were never set up to cope with this situation and nor was it foreseen that you would have a potential infiltration issue of this scale,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “We don’t have copies of the TUSC [Trade Union and Socialist Coalition] membership list, or the Green Party list, or the Left Unity list, or the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty list. You can’t know how in-depth this has become.”

Yet Corbyn’s success owes less to entryism than thought. There are Labour voters who departed under Blair and now feel liberated to return; left-wing members who joined under Ed Miliband (and regard Corbyn as his successor); and young voters who are losing their political virginity. On the party’s right, there is self-reproach at their failure to sign up moderate supporters to counter the radicals. “We were hideously complacent,” one MP said.

Others attribute Corbyn’s rise to the ­unattractiveness of his opponents. “Andy, Yvette and Liz have a lot to answer for,” a senior MP told me. “If you can’t beat Jeremy Corbyn, how you can beat George Osborne, Boris Johnson or Theresa May?” Some of the other three’s own backers are stunned by how few new ideas they have offered. The decision of all three to position themselves to the right of Miliband following Labour’s defeat is regarded by Corbyn’s supporters as central to his success.

“They trusted Ed’s instincts,” an ally of the former leader said of Labour left-wingers. “They knew how he’d react in a crisis. They don’t feel like that about any of the others.” Burnham, who many expected would occupy this space, alienated the left by beginning his campaign with a pro-business speech at EY (Ernst & Young) and warned of the perception that Labour is “soft on people who want something for nothing”.

However, the Corbyn and Kendall campaigns say that Burnham remains ahead of Cooper in their internal data. Kendall’s chief lieutenants, such as John Woodcock and Toby Perkins, have endorsed Burnham out of fear that his supporters’ second preferences would transfer to Corbyn. But it is the title of leader-in-waiting, rather than leader, that most believe Burnham and Cooper are now fighting for.

The tens of thousands who have signed up explicitly to vote for Corbyn will not be dissuaded by apocalyptic warnings from Labour grandees. The shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett, one of the left-winger’s most senior allies and a former adviser to Miliband, told me: “It’s become an article of almost blind faith for the anti-Corbyn camps that he can’t win an election. But nobody’s actually bothered to set out the case in detail to show he can’t win.”

If Gordon Brown’s intervention on 16 August was regarded as insufficient, those of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson (who suggested that the three other leadership candidates try to halt the race by withdrawing) were regarded as actively helpful to Corbyn. “Mandelson and Blair are making it look as though the three other candidates are interchangeable, as if there are personality differences but no real political differences,” Trickett said. “There are clearly some differences – but essentially the effect of the these grandees’ interventions is to make the three look as though they are all a part of the same political establishment while Jeremy’s in a different camp. The consequence is that all those members who want to use their vote to achieve real change will clearly go to the only candidate who apparently represents something different.”

Conversation in Labour circles is increasingly turning to what the party would look like under Corbyn. Would he be ousted by MPs? Would he be able to form a shadow cabinet? To form a front-bench team? And how would he perform in a general election?

“The idea there’ll be some kind of coup – that’s total nonsense, it won’t happen,” John Mann, the Labour MP and Treasury select committee member, told me. Under Labour’s rulebook, rival candidates are required to attain the support of 20 per cent of MPs (46) in advance of the party’s annual conference. But in these circumstances, there would be nothing to stop Corbyn, or a left-wing successor, standing in the subsequent contest. Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich South, a former BBC journalist and army reservist, is already being identified by some Corbyn supporters as a possible heir. “Personally, I think it’s the political kiss of death,” Lewis told me. “I know Owen [Jones] and others mean well but I’ve seen what this accolade has done to other MPs in the party who’ve had similar prophecies made about them.”

If Corbyn wins he will do so with the declared support of just 15 MPs – 6.5 per cent of Labour’s Commons membership. “I’ll show him as much loyalty as he showed other leaders,” Mike Gapes MP told me. Those senior figures who have publicly pledged not to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet, such as Cooper, Kendall, Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie, intend to keep their word. The view is that he deserves “maximum room for manoeuvre to implement his prospectus”. Shadow cabinet members are alive to the danger of a backlash if they appear to obstruct him. In time, they hope, not merely Corbyn, but his policies, will be discredited.

There will be no SDP-style split but the energetic Umunna is already preparing for life on the back benches. He has formed a new group, Labour for the Common Good, led by himself and Tristram Hunt and open to MPs from “the right to the soft left of the party”.

In spite of “the resistance” (as it has come to be known), most believe Corbyn would be able to form a shadow ministerial team. “The party always comes first,” a senior MP said. Contrary to reports, Corbyn does not intend to bring back shadow cabinet elections, and so could unite MPs from Labour’s old left and from the new intake (13 of whom nominated him). In addition, Clive Lewis told me: “A number of MPs I’ve spoken to who supported both Yvette and Andy are quietly very excited at this turn of events.” He also predicted that “many others, sensing an opportunity to move from virtual political obscurity to front-line politics, an option that wasn’t there three months ago, will do so with guarded enthusiasm”.

Corbyn’s supporters cite his genial manner and modesty as crucial advantages. “He’s one of life’s co-operators and will work with people,” Cat Smith, the newly elected Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, who worked for Corbyn for six years, told me. “He’s not seeking to exclude anybody, that’s not his way of doing things. When I was a member of his [constituency party], Islington North CLP, we had people who were very active and prominent in Progress, people who were in the LRC [Labour Representation Committee] and all the spectrum in the middle. Those CLP meetings were some of the nicest meetings I ever went to because it felt like people left a lot of that baggage at the door. Jeremy’s not going to hold any grudges.”

But MPs question whether Corbyn’s co-ideologues would be similarly ecumenical. “He has said all the way through this that he doesn’t want to do personal politics, he wants it all to be about policies, he’s not going to attack anyone and so on,” Pat McFadden, the shadow minister for Europe, said when we spoke. “And yet some of his supporters are saying some pretty nasty things on social media about other candidates.

“Will his supporters refrain from doing personal things? Jeremy rebelled 500 times against the whip. If other people were to do that would they be afforded the same tolerance that he has been afforded for the past 30 years, or would it be different?”

MPs who plan to oppose Corbyn’s stances fear deselection by their local parties. His team told me that he did not favour the reinstatement of mandatory reselection (abolished under Neil Kinnock in 1990) and would not endorse moves to “depose sitting MPs”. But grass-roots members would still have the power to initiate “trigger ballots” against recalcitrant Blairites.

Corbyn has announced that, if elected, he will review Labour’s membership fee (currently £46.56 a year) with the aim of attracting registered supporters (who paid £3) into the fold. Should he succeed, the party’s centre of gravity will move sharply leftwards. Labour faces a split not just between moderates and radicals but between MPs and members.

There are three early tests that senior figures believe Corbyn would face: Prime Minister’s Questions (his first appearance would be 16 September), relations with the media and next May’s elections in Scotland, Wales and England. John Mann told me that the left-winger had “talked a big game” and that most MPs would judge him by results. “The Tories are rubbing their hands with glee but they also know Labour’s not going to tolerate any leader who performs disastrously in elections.” Others fear, however, that the members will merely blame MPs for being insufficiently supportive of Corbyn if he flounders with the electorate. “It’ll be all our fault. They’re already preparing a great narrative of betrayal,” Gapes said.

Should Corbyn make it to a general election, shadow cabinet members believe that Labour would face a generation or more in opposition. One predicted that the party would lose between 30 and 50 seats and fall below 200 MPs for the first time since 1935. Some fear that the Conservatives, like the Christian Democrats in Italy and the Social Democrats in Sweden in past decades, would attain hegemonic status. The Tories, meanwhile, are divided between those intoxicated by this prospect and those who fear that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would force the Conservatives to move leftwards to occupy a redefined centre ground.

Others note, however, that Margaret Thatcher proved immune from this affliction in the 1980s as she dragged the political consensus rightwards.

In Labour, all sides are preparing to enter what feels like a looking-glass world, or an alternate universe. “There is going to be a new establishment: Corbyn, [Michael] Meacher, [John] McDonnell, [Ken] Livingstone, [Diane] Abbott,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “They are now, for the first time in their political careers, going to be the political establishment. They are going to have responsibility and they will be running things. They won’t be able to pose as being outsiders or insurgents any more: they will be the establishment.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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