18-24 September 2015 issue
Corbyn’s Civil War
A wide-ranging essay by Andrew Marr on the Corbyn upsurge and what the Labour leader’s “movement” needs to decide next.
John Gray: Jeremy Corbyn addresses a non-existent world.
Owen Jones: Corbyn faces a viciously hostile press – but that doesn’t mean he should shut it out.
Stephen Bush: A new faction has emerged and it could decide Labour’s future – the “soft right”.
George Eaton: Even close supporters were dismayed by the new Labour leader’s turbulent first week.
Andrew Marr: Between revolution and reform
In a wide-reaching essay on the political moment, Andrew Marr writes that Jeremy Corbyn may be electable – but his movement needs to decide if it’s revolutionary or reformist. He writes that the “Corbyn upsurge has unleashed an energy and excitement on the scale of the Scottish Yes campaign”:
Now, in victory, it proposes a radical shift of direction for the Labour Party, in terms of public ownership, foreign policy, the redistribution of wealth, Trident, Nato – you name it. The history of the Blair-Brown years, with all their successes, compromises and obvious failures, is to be expunged. Listening to some Corbynites, you get the impression that Tony Blair, apparently the Labour prime minister for some period, is a bigger enemy than the Conservatives.
Yet this poses problems for the party. Marr continues:
It was rammed home again in this year’s general election that the fulcrum of the electorate is currently to the right of where anybody in the Labour Party would like to believe. This year, some 11.3 million people voted Tory and 9.4 million Labour. Compare that difference with the half a million people drawn into the admittedly impressive Labour leadership vote. Just to begin to have an effect on real voting, each of the new £3 members would have to go out and persuade three or four Tory or other non-Labour voters to back Jeremy Corbyn . . . And then, of course, actually to vote.
This is an age of radical instability; politics is merely catching up. Conventional wisdom thought that the SNP was way too far to the left to be a credible force. Oops. And indeed the new challenge in Scotland is coming from further left, not further right, with the new independence movement Rise. Although Ukip was buried under the Tory landslide, the number of second and third places it achieved suggests that story isn’t over, either.
Marr writes that, moving forward, “the crucial question is what you think about the global markets”:
There are two distinct, almost alternative, approaches. The first is to regard the disruptive force as so great that you make yourself its enemy in every way you can: you oppose all further international trade treaties, you want to pull out of international bodies of all kinds, from Nato to the EU, you nationalise and regulate your own economy, probably without compensating shareholders.
[. . .]
The second approach is to say that, for all its disruptive power, capitalism remains a remarkable creator of wealth and spreader of possibility that, however, leads to vast inequalities, international disruption and a horrible mess. The job of social democrats, and government generally, therefore, is to act to soften the inequality, minimise as much of the disruption as possible through agreements with like-minded powers, and to clear up the mess.
Now, I know that lists such as that are pretty puny in themselves – the pabulum of the well-meaning political herbivore – but, shaped by a clear and forthright description of the world as it is, such a programme might serve. Thus far, the old “New Labour” people have given Britain neither a coherent description nor a detailed economic strategy clearly enough distinguished from the right. Meanwhile, the first thing the new Corbyn movement has to decide is whether it is revolutionary or reformist. Perhaps, bizarrely, right now, we don’t really know.
Read the article in full below.
John Gray: The politics of catastrophe
John Gray argues that if the Blairites are beached in the past, Jeremy Corbyn
addresses a non-existent world.
If there is a common theme in the reaction to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn it is that he is a throwback to the politics of a long-gone age. Twenty-first-century politics – we have been encouraged to believe – isn’t driven by ideological conflict.
[. . .]
Corbyn’s decisive victory in the election for the Labour leadership plants a question mark over this assumption.
He believes that Corbyn has New Labour to thank for his success:
Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries. Corbyn is one of the unintended consequences of this project and its recurrent crises.
[. . .]
Corbyn is part of a new politics that is developing alongside the current crises of globalisation. As such, it is a response to real-world problems. The trouble is that Cobynite solutions belong in the realm of fantasy. At the same time, like some manifestations of this new politics in other countries, his rise has given voice to some old and highly toxic attitudes.
Jeremy Corbyn belongs among the new forces that are emerging in a number of countries at the same time as the break-up of centrist politics. It is the former Blairite ascendancy that is beached in the past. Did anyone really believe that Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership could equip Labour to mount a serious challenge to the Conservatives in 2020? Even if one of them had squeaked through to victory, he or she would still have had to come to terms with Corbyn’s mass following in the party. But it is Corbyn that poses the greatest danger to Labour’s future.
If Ed Miliband addressed his campaign to a non-existent country, Corbyn addresses a non-existent world.
At a time of global capitalism, Gray explains, “the notion that Britain can strike out alone on a path to socialism is a triumph of whimsy”:
What would socialism mean? Even if the current phase of globalisation goes into reverse, the technological advance that drives economic change will not slow down. How would eBay, Amazon and Airbnb fit into a Corbynist Britain?
Corbyn may last longer as leader than many currently suppose. As resignations from the shadow cabinet immediately after his victory showed, he faces strong hostility from the parliamentary party. But he won the leadership contest by a large margin, and any attempt to dislodge him will provoke intense resistance from the grass roots. His supporters may organise to deselect uncooperative MPs, taking advantage of the fact that upcoming constituency boundary changes will produce fewer Labour seats. As the new deputy leader, Tom Watson will be a formidable figure. He may be able to exercise a restraining influence over some of Corbyn’s more far-fetched policies; but his first priority will be to defeat any threat to Corbyn’s position. Labour may descend into a civil war more protracted and damaging than the debacle of the early 1980s.
Another scenario is realistically possible, however. Blairites and centrists may be a spent force that has been routed. In its shift towards becoming an extra-parliamentary party, Labour may already have ceased to be a party of government. By electing Corbyn, Labour may have passed a point from which it will be unable to return.
Read the article in full below.
Owen Jones: Jeremy Corbyn faces a viciously hostile press – but that doesn’t mean he should shut it out
For his Lines of Dissent column, Owen Jones turns to Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with the press and warns the new leader not to allow his right-wing opponents to fix his public image. He writes:
Political rebellions are rarely clean and this one is no exception. Here is what we normally see when a politician assumes the leadership of a major party. They have a history of appearing on TV programmes and are well acquainted with influential journalists; they have a highly professional team with experience of dealing with reporters hungry for news lines. They can expect to recruit sympathetic former journalists and have a trusting network of others. Thanks to their long-standing ambitions, they have avoided saying or doing anything controversial for many years.
This is what happens if they are a member of the political elite and accept the current consensus. If you are a backbench MP with no prior personal ambition beyond representing your constituency and your causes – such as workers’ rights and peace – this does not apply. It especially doesn’t apply if you join a party leadership contest at odds of 200-1, with beliefs that put you outside the political consensus accepted by the media.
There are two popular theories about what will happen. The media elite are unpopular and poorly trusted in this country; the situation is “febrile”, as the thoughtful right-wing commentator Iain Martin recently put it. The Scottish independence movement faced near-universal hostility in the press but surged in support to win 45 per cent in last year’s referendum – far above what had originally been predicted – and it led to the SNP’s near-extermination of all other Westminster parties north of the border at the general election. If you have a substantial grass-roots movement, perhaps media hostility can be resisted.
Voters aren’t sheep, somehow programmed by the media, but it would be fantastical to believe that the media’s onslaught in May against Labour had no impact on it. Here’s the undeniable issue: Westminster politics consumes a tiny proportion of most people’s lives. A big event such as the election of a new party leader might be a reason to take more interest but often the effect is only fleeting. If an aggressive campaign by the Tories and their media allies is unchallenged, it may help form a lasting impression that is difficult to shift. Whatever the opposition does, however much it get its act together, the risk is that it will always be seen through that initial prism.
That’s why the conventional media have to be engaged with, however horrible and nasty they are. They still largely monopolise the means of information. Social media is far from being an alternative; otherwise, the Tories would not be in power. Labour needs to have clear, sharp messages and repeat them endlessly, as the Tories do. Smears and distortions need rapid rebuttal. Major stories and lines need to be highlighted and passed to journalists, with good timing. Tory policies must be framed in a way that resonates outside the world of signed-up lefties. Yes, New Labour did all this but it is possible to engage cleverly with the media while maintaining authenticity – and without capitulating to right-wing ideas.
The grass-roots movement gives Corbyn and his supporters an advantage but it’s not either/or. Building a progressive movement with roots in communities can go hand in hand with a sophisticated media operation that refutes lies and transmits messages to millions. Policies and visions that appeal to both low-income and middle-income people need a popular hearing and must be conveyed in a way that is understood by those who don’t, as a rule, think in terms of “left” or “right”. An incredible political moment arrived over the summer. It would be a travesty if it was buried because of an all-out media offensive that wasn’t checked.
Stephen Bush: A new faction has emerged and it could decide Labour’s future – the “soft right”
In this week’s Politics Column, Stephen Bush argues that Jeremy Corbyn’s victory marked the demise of Labour’s “soft left”:
After the flirtation with a leftward shift under Ed Miliband, supporters of Cooper, Kendall and Andy Burnham all expected the soft left to return to its old habits and elect a moderate leader. Instead, for the first time in three decades, Labour’s soft left voted with its heart, not its head, and by a margin so large that no Labour MP can contemplate moving against Corbyn, at least not in the near term.
Now, in place of the soft left, a new group, with Watson pre-eminent, is being born: the “soft right”. These are politicians who are far more moderate than Corbyn but who believe, in the words of one: “We’re going to have to try to make this work.” Two politicians have already emerged as major players: Michael Dugher, Burnham’s campaign chief, and Jon Ashworth, a key supporter of Yvette Cooper. On 13 September, they began calling opposition frontbenchers, putting the case to them for staying in post under Corbyn. For the most part, they were unsuccessful: Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is significantly further to the left than Miliband’s, with most of the centrists out in the cold.
Yet there are still representatives from the party’s moderate wing. Burnham is shadow home secretary, after all, while his allies Charles Falconer, Hilary Benn and Lucy Powell have been given plum positions shadowing Justice, Foreign Affairs and Education.
It is the politicians with superficially less high-powered roles, however, who hold real power and on whom much of the future prospects of Labour’s moderates now rest: Rosie Winterton, who remains as shadow chief whip, Dugher, Ashworth and Gloria De Piero. De Piero, like Dugher and Ashworth, is a protégée of Watson. Winterton, though officially neutral during the leadership contest, was Watson’s nominee for the post of chief whip five years ago.
Ashworth sits on the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, notionally as one of the leader’s picks but in reality as a voice for stability and unity, rather than one advocating fundamental change to the party’s structures. And Dugher, the new shadow culture secretary, will be insulated in his role from some of Corbyn’s more radical positions.
And De Piero? She has the newly created post of “shadow minister for young people and voter registration”, with the right to attend shadow cabinet. The brief gives her licence to travel the country, meeting members, winning them over – ready, perhaps, for the moment when Watson, in his guise as shadow secretary of state for the sword of Damocles, moves against Corbyn.
George Eaton: Even close supporters were dismayed by the new Labour leader’s turbulent first week
In a report from Westminster, George Eaton gives the inside opinion on Jeremy Corbyn’s first week as leader:
When Jeremy Corbyn rose to deliver his acceptance speech at the QEII Centre in Westminster on 12 September, he was greeted with roars and whoops by those who had elected him as leader. Two days later, when he entered committee room 14 to address the Parliamentary Labour Party for the first time, he was met with silence.
The antithetical receptions were evidence of his simultaneous strength and weakness, the combination that may define his leadership. Corbyn was elected with a vote share of 59.5 per cent (amounting to 251,417 votes) under the one-member-one-vote system, giving him a greater mandate than any of his predecessors. But just 14 of his fellow MPs are thought to have backed him.
On Corbyn’s controversial cabinet appointments, Eaton writes:
McDonnell’s appointment was provocative not only for reasons of gender equality. He is Corbyn’s ideological soulmate – and ran his campaign – but far more abrasive and divisive. “People like Jeremy even if they disagree with him,” one MP told me. “They don’t like John.” Because of his back catalogue of incendiary quotes in praise of the IRA and his 2010 joke about assassinating Margaret Thatcher (for which he apologised), McDonnell is shunned by many prepared to break bread with Corbyn.
However, others contend that Corbyn was right to appoint an MP who shares his politics and whom he can unreservedly trust. “The leader and shadow chancellor need to be in harmony with one another. It makes sense in that regard,” Jonathan Reynolds, a Liz Kendall supporter, told me.
Moderates believe that Corbyn’s choice of shadow chancellor, against the advice of the trade unions and others, will make it easier to blame him if his project fails. Others are concerned that the new shadow cabinet is too ideologically impure.
He adds that there are many other factors making Labour MPs uncomfortable:
Corbyn went on to refuse to rule out campaigning for EU withdrawal, humiliating his shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, who had earlier told the Today programme (while standing in for the Labour leader): “We will be campaigning to remain in the European Union in all circumstances.” To the shock of MPs, he refused to confirm that he would wear a red poppy at the Cenotaph, forcing a hasty clarification by the party’s press team.
After the shadow cabinet gathered for the first time for a photocall on Monday 14 September, they were surprised to receive a text message informing them that the usual Tuesday meeting would not take place. Nor would a meeting be held the following week. Shadow cabinet members have not been told when they will speak at the annual party conference in Brighton, which opens on 27 September, nor what the slogan and theme will be.
There is a general sense of bewilderment. “I kept telling myself not to underestimate the left,” a senior moderniser said. “It turns out I overestimated them.” But as one shadow cabinet member noted, Corbyn’s administrative incompetence will be little noticed by his supporters (who have been joined by more than 30,000 full members since his election). A former frontbencher told me that Corbyn should spend as little time in Westminster as possible and concentrate on building the movement that carried him to victory.
“At least nobody’s dead,” a Corbyn supporter told the MP Simon Danczuk in Strangers’ Bar in the Palace of Westminster after the PLP meeting. The internecine warfare that some forecast has been avoided, or at least delayed. Even Corbyn’s most vociferous opponents are prepared to give him time and space in deference to his mandate. But if the chaos and confusion endures, a reckoning will come soon enough.
Laurie Penny: For centuries, there was a quota for the representation of men in politics. It was 100 per cent.
Stanley Johnson: My bike ride to Kolkata, Jeremy Corbyn’s position on HS2, and the plight of the metropolitan hedgehog.
Helen Lewis: Reverse-telescope beliefs, Labour’s lost ground and why there’s nowt so queer as sex.
John Simpson: The streets of the Afghan capital have gone from silence and darkness to chaotic traffic and dodgy offices.
For more press information, please contact Anna Leszkiewicz at: email@example.com