Tuesday 24 November 2015

Understanding Corbynmania

It's not the key factor explaining why Labour aren't doing spectacularly well at the moment, but the never ending tit-for-tat in the press, on the telly, on the internets isn't helping much. It is a truism that divided parties don't win elections, after all.

Then there were these polling figures of Labour Party members. Some 65% of them think Jeremy is doing well as party leader, while only 38% of those polled believe he'll ever make Number 10, and, controversially, 56% say taking a principled line is the correct way to do politics, even if it means losing elections. You can imagine that caused a few feathers to be spat down Portcullis House.

There's no use pretending there aren't divisions. And divisions, I'm afraid, are inevitable in large parties. Not because we're full on ornery b'stards who factionalise for kicks, but because both the big Britain-wide parties are agglomerates of different interests. The Tories aren't simply the party of business and Labour the party of workers, both are sectionalised by occasional tension, occasional competition between types of business, industrial sectors, professions, status, occupational groups. Behind each set of ideas or policy agendas duking it out in committee rooms and association bars are interests they correspond to. It's not that shadowy cabals sit around and think up stuff that helps them (though, of course, this happens too, which is why a lot of corporates and super rich sugardaddies flood think tanks with cash), but rather at some point down the line an idea is caught up with or pushes against certain interests that structure British politics. For example, Liam Byrne's economics appear neutral and technocratic, but implementing them would meet stiff resistance by sections of business, despite offering a programme that business-as-a-whole stands to benefit from. I digress. The divisions we see between Jeremy and his majority, and the PLP and their minority in the party likewise map onto those competing interests, and they're not going to go away. The job for the leadership - any leadership - is to manage them, and for any challengers to be aware of how they balance out and ride them when they feel it's opportune.

This in mind, how then are the, for want of a better phrase, - Corbynites - to be understood? I think, more or less, there are two broad groups. There were the members and long-time supporters that voted Jeremy in the leadership campaign. These are 'party people', comrades who are Labour to their marrow, folks who understand the party's culture, understand the party is a coalition, and understand that if we're going to get anywhere we have to pull together as a collective and pool our talents as well as our energies. Everyone who supported Jeremy that I know in real life come from this group.

The second group, and the real topic of this post, are the more visible and more "enthusiastic" Corbyn supporters. The ones who enjoy trolling the likes of Mike Gapes and other standard bearers of the ancien regime. The ones who launch change.org petitions against recalcitrant MPs, and festoon their social media with markers of Corbyn authenticity. There's a lot of them, and a good chunk have joined the party. Yet in the main, their Labour support begins and ends with Jeremy. I see the "if Jeremy is toppled I'm leaving the party" refrain everyday, give or take. The party and the movement isn't the repository of progressive social change, a single man is. Ironic considering this 'great man' approach is a million miles away from Jeremy's own politics. They swell constituency membership lists, but tend not to get involved in meetings or campaigns, preferring to keep their activism, such as it is, online. As a whole, they tend to be raw and new to politics - hence why they share analogous characteristics with cybernats and UKIP supporters one tends to bump into online: a black and white view of the world, faith in one or two leading figures, scathing responses to naysayers, and dare I also say an assumed victimhood?

It's the latter group, of course, that attract the headlines and the moaning in the papers, as if sending a few nasty tweets was akin to getting a midnight visit from the GPU. Yet it is entirely explicable and, perhaps, avoidable.

Let's have another lesson from history. Political radicalism, of whatever stripe, takes root and puts on mass weight when large numbers of people are excluded from political process. Hamas, for example, owes its support amongst the imprisoned population of Gaza because, whatever you think of them, they portray themselves and have a record of being Israel's most implacable foe. That wouldn't be possible without Israel sitting on them. Why did the Provos assume a republican socialist character in Northern Ireland? Because militancy and armed struggle was perceived by the Catholic minority to be the only language the British state understood. Why did the early mass workers' parties of Western Europe adopt Marxist and revolutionary politics? Had the exclusion from official politics of the proletarian mass have something to do with it?

Corbynmania finds its ultimate source not in the whiz-bang campaigning skills of Jeremy's leadership team, but the exclusion of members and the perceived interests of working class people from having any meaningful influence over the direction of the party since at least His Blairness took over in 1994. For example, trade union exec after trade union exec lined up behind Jeremy because they remember being taken for cash cows and little else at best, or potential enemies at worst. The truth of the matter is Blair's centralisation of the party institutionalised an organised distrust of the members. It was the PLP who had the nation's pulse, not the activists who, being "real people" themselves, presumably mix with "real people" daily. And as lines for directing policy from the constituencies were shut down, and candidate selections were manipulated and circumvented for the benefit of favoured folk, and, let's be honest, right-wing policies adopted on grounds of supposed electoral expediency, a resentment built in the party and the trade union movement against all of this. The initial offerings in the Labour leadership contest, followed by the cack-handed debacle of the tax credit vote catalysed the resentment and burst open the repressive bonds that had hitherto held it in check. We know the rest. In hindsight, is it any surprise Jeremy trounced all-comers?

This brings us back to the poll. These numbers are being fed by a perception that, despite winning the leadership, there are plenty in the PLP carrying on in the old way, of trying to exclude and thwart the newly empowered membership. The more certain MPs carry on, the more they're making a rod for their own back. That resentment that took 20 years to fester is still there, and many Corbynites feel it keenly. And it's not a battle our PLP refuseniks can win. I know what the calculation is. Many couldn't give two hoots if tens of thousands of new party members decamped if they manage to toss Jeremy out of a window. They suppose that the potential for deselection is lessened. True, but it is also a possibility - one that had grown increasingly probable thanks to the foundation of Momentum - that many raw Corbynites are integrated into the party and become "proper" party people. On the one hand they're not going to look too kindly upon MPs seeking reselection in redrawn constituencies if they've been vocal in their opposition or seen to have undermined Jeremy. And second, by virtue of their behaviour, a stab-in-the-back myth could be persuasively powerful in mobilising a winning majority behind a leftist successor. No wonder there are those on the centre and right of the party who keep their mutterings to themselves and think active opposition is most unwise.


Phil said...

I think you reach something like the right conclusion, but you get distracted by froth halfway through. Remember that Corbyn got a solid majority among affiliated members and was within hailing distance of a majority among full members. Who were they, this bloc of half of the party's members? Come to that, who were the 80% of three-quid supporters? You divide them 'party people', comrades who are Labour to their marrow on one hand and Corbynite zoomers on the other - the more visible and more "enthusiastic" Corbyn supporters ... [whose] Labour support begins and ends with Jeremy - but that can't possibly be the whole story.

I think an awful lot of Corbyn's support came from people who are either new to active involvement in the party or new to the party full stop. And it's very early days for those people to be making any kind of impact. I think a lot of those people were pleasantly surprised that Corbyn won so convincingly, but were then very unpleasantly surprised by the level of opposition he's received within the party, and are now wondering what they should do next: if they go to ward meetings, will they even be welcomed? if they are welcomed, will that last until the end of the evening?

They haven't even got to the stage of feeling their strength, in other words; they probably aren't going to go away, and they probably are going to end up making a difference in the party at all levels, but it's still early days. (And when I say 'they' I mean 'we', as I myself voted for Corbyn and subsequently joined the party. I've had invitations to three local LP events so far and been to one - at which I avoided talking politics (!) but still got the impression my support for the party's leader wasn't universally shared.)

Phil said...

To put it another way, you don't need to understand 'Corbynmania'. What you need to understand is that lots of people support Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, and are increasingly puzzled and irked by the refusal of large swathes of the centre-left to recognise it. This article is good, too.

ejh said...

it's not a battle our PLP refuseniks can win

I really don't understand why you think this. Surely they will keep on with their destabilisation campaign (something which a war climate will make particularly easy) until the mass membership is so ground down by the resulting poll ratings that they accept that Corbyn "needs"to be got rid of. Yes, of course there's a serious likelihood that the members won't choose to reward people they may consider to blame for this, but at the same time, those people will obviusly have thought of this already and decided it's a risk they're happy to run. (And let's face it, there aren't going to be mass deselections, are there?) Anyway, presumably the assumption is that they do their Tim-Robbbins-saving-the-film-in-The-Player act, tell the membership that only [insert name here, quite likely Dan Jarvis] can save the movie and Richard E Grant, I mean the membership, gratefully accepts the offer for want of any alternative.

I briefly considered joining the Labour Party after Corbyn won. I decided not to - well, I don't think I ever really considered it seriously - because I could see this coming and I thought the left had no real chance of overcoming the enor mous eight of opinion against them in the PLP (and for that matter, that Labour have no chance of wnning an election as a divided party). I've seen nothing so far to make me change my mind one bit. Matter of fact it's been worse than I expected.

If there's a plan to overcome these enormous obstacles, I'd like to know what it is. Absent a plan, I think you're dandelions in a hurricane.

ejh said...

And while I'm in the mood for a little and-another-thing - the clowns who think that it's a good idea to make people's lives miserable on Twitter, or who consider it appropriate, when they've been around for thirty minutes, to tell Labour MPs wih decades in the party that they don't belong - they need to be told to shut up, and they need to be told it soon, and they need to be told by somebody with the moral and political authroity to make it stick. Yes, I'm sure loads of these people are new to politics and I'm sure what experience they've had has been in trying to win flame wars on the internet and always trying to have the last word. But it's useless and destructive. The only conceivable way to win is by taking their arguments to the public and trying to convince people, which is a whole different way of doing things. In the meantime, making a dickhead of yourself, because you think your adversary is a dickhead, is the politics of the dickhead.

Speedy said...

I agree with the other Phil - there's no getting away from the fact that JC did resoundingly well from the old guard too. And you know what, original Phil, he may always have done so well post-Blair.

If the Berlin Wall was the hammer, the Blair years (and particularly Iraq among the middle class, immigration among the working class) were the nail in the coffin for most "traditional" Labour supporters.

Jeremy Corbyn is a sign of despair rather than hope, as no one believes he, or any of his ilk, are ever going to govern. The Labour Party as we know it is finished as an electoral force because, thanks to Momentum etc, the rules will be changed to ensure the dingbats and their supporters cement their support. Most of these people are, of course, middle class, who will do quite well under permanent right of centre rule anyway, and rather enjoy the politics of protest. The "labour movement" in any meaningful sense, is dead - this is a bourgeois revolution.

BCFG said...

The Tories have been ruling this country for the last 40 years or so. they have also been the opposition throughout most of this entire period! We have what you may call, a one party, pluralistic state!

That is until Corbyn became leader.

Now we have Tory rule but with an opposition of the 'labour movement'.

That is better than anything we have had in the last 40 years. Time to be cheerful comrades!

Igor Belanov said...

Like ejh I considered joining Labour after Corbyn's election, but common sense and the anthem fiasco persuaded me otherwise.

The problem is that the hierarchical nature of the party and the overwhelming strength of the professional politicians meant that the Left could only succeed in one of two ways. Either Corbyn had to act immediately and decisively to restructure the party and throw policy decision-making to the members, or the membership/supporters needed to mount a coup themselves and effectively impose democratic structures on the party.

Unfortunately, these positions were a non-starter. Corbyn and McDonnell are principled supporters of worthy causes, but not men of action. They crippled themselves from the beginning by their unwillingness to take risks that might split the party, and their acceptance of 'conventional' electoral politics that diluted their anti-establishment appeal. The 'Corbynites' and left-wing entryists, on the other hand, have shown too much faith in the position of party leader and a somewhat naive belief in the ease in which a party's whole ethos and institutional nature can be transformed. I'm sure that the party's failings are inherent.

In essence, the Labour Party is deeply dysfunctional and only the desperation of the different sides to keep hold of the valuable asset of the party's 'brand name' is keeping it together. The tag 'Labour Party' is worth millions of votes to whoever holds it, and both Blairites and Communist entryists are well aware of this.