Sunday 12 February 2017

Is the Corbyn Moment Over?

The seisometers are registering something. Is it a tremor triggered by the usual grumbles, or are the plates storing up a major event? This is the problem when it comes to analysing the travails of the Labour leadership. With the irreconcilables tactically and temporarily reconciled to the present state of affairs, the cracks are feeling their way across the Corbynist edifice. Clive Lewis had to resign his business brief after defying the three line whip to support the triggering of Article 50. Before David Davis assaulted her, Diane Abbott's migraines were the stuff of Westminster gossip. Owen Jones has cast doubt on whether he would vote for Jeremy Corbyn again, while doing his bit to big up our Clive. There is (unserious) speculation about another leadership challenge, and the papers today are stuffed with grumblings - including leaked focus group findings checking out the viability of Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey as heirs to Jeremy. Is this yet another episodic difficulty, or a sign the Corbyn era, barely 18 months old, is drawing to a close?

The precipitating factor behind the latest round of chuntering was the aforementioned Article 50 vote and the deep splits that cleaved into the Parliamentary Labour Party. As it happens, I believe Jeremy Corbyn absolutely made the right choice, and I'm sure any leader would have done the same in his position. Plebiscites and referenda are regressive and a step back from representative democracy, let alone the more substantive forms of democracy we should be aiming for. Nevertheless, we have to deal with the outcome of Dave's gamble because we - the parties, the campaigns, the voters - all signed up to it, and woe betide the political consequences for any of the big parties should they seek to defy the result.

The problem is, from the standpoint of Corbynism and its watchers, is while the enthusiastic uprising of hundreds of thousands of new members put their man in the leader's office, they themselves were overwhelmingly pro-EU while Jez was, by repute, historically opposed. And since the referendum there has been a strand, in and outside the party, that has tried tying the responsibility for Remain's loss to him. Never mind that the Prime Minister of the day only persuaded fewer than half of his party's voters to support his case. Nevertheless, this notion that Jez was/is a secret Brexiteer has persisted and that his actions during the last fortnight should be read in these terms. Pure poppycock, but it has certainly knocked the stuffing out of sections of his support. Is this the beginning of the end?

Firstly, no. There is not going to be a leadership challenge. There is no appetite in the party, and the PLP remain mindful about what happened last year. As the boundary review and battle over merged seats lies ahead, no one is in the mood to upset the party membership. I don't think shock losses in in Copeland and sunny Stoke-on-Trent Central make that any more likely, either. Nor is anything going to come from the unions. They are very concerned about the poor polling figures, but cannot be seen and will not make the first move to oust Corbyn, especially as it would sow serious division between them. Two years hence the situation might be different, but not now.

All that said, how long can Corbynism go on for if it's feeling the pinch of real division and failing to gain traction in the country at large? The answer to whether the moment is over is ... not yet. Labour is in a dark place, but we should be wary of treating politics as if everything is fixed and ordered in advance. Look out the window and everything is all over the place. In Britain, the dynamic that fed UKIP is dissipating and the LibDems are making an unlikely comeback. Brexit so far has kept the Tories together, but as negotiations get underway it will surely be impossible to keep a lid on things. And with the danger of talks collapsing completely which, thanks to May's complacency and the arrogance of her lieutenants, cannot be completely ruled out the possibility is the roughest, most frightening part of the road to travel may still lie ahead. And then there is the small matter of Donald Trump's innumerable idiocies and the government's evident desire to act as his bag carriers. To go all Rumsfeldian for a moment, these are the known unknowns. Even without them, British politics is still wracked by uncertainty. These problems, insecurity, precarity, fatalism, frustrated aspiration, have not gone away and the government is set to do little about them. These will find expression in some way - indeed, Corbynism is a symptom of it. The spectre of the unknown unknown is abroad.

Is the Corbyn moment over? If we understand it as a consequence of the flux and pulse of political crisis, probably not. It might in fact just be starting.


Anonymous said...

"Brexit so far has kept the Tories together, but as negotiations get underway it will surely be impossible to keep a lid on things..."
It must be a year, or longer, that you have treated us to tales of the forthcoming Tory split. Oh, if only t'were thus!

Instead we are being treated to a long drawn-out Labour split. I don't welcome it but Corbyn is in the driving seat and made or acquiesced in the decision to ignore most of Labour which had backed Remain. The divide now is between those looking out and of an international bent and those that are intent on backing a hard Brexit that will severely damage Britain and divide it even further for decades to come.

I hope you are proved right about Stoke and that Nuttall does not win there. And that the Tories don't win in Copeland. You appear rather too dismissive of the impact on Labour of losing one or both seats.

Syzygy said...

Good assessment. We are certainly in a place of uncertainty but there are good reasons to think that this might be the bottom of the pit. In my own Conservative/Remain constituency Labour has lost some members but has actually had a net gain over the last few months. Reading BTL on Conservative Home indicates that all is not confident for the future, in Toryland… and certainly there is a degree of churn as Tory remainers leave for the LDs.

Anonymous said...

Yet again, most Labour constituencies voted for Brexit.

Remainiacs blithely wave this aside as if this was of no import. In fact it is pivotal, and why Corbyn's A50 decision was the correct one.

Speedy said...

It is an irony that the middle class twits who backed Corbyn didn't realise he was an outer and would torpedo the cause probably closest to their hearts. They didn't care about getting elected because the Tories wouldn't affect their future, just the working class who had deserted the party in droves. They didn't see this one coming though! Definition of "blowback".

Boffy said...

Its not Corbyn himself that is necessarily the problem in terms of being a closet Brexiter, its those around him that influence him and policy. Its the Stalinists like Milne, its the coterie of former members of Socialist Action, and the pressure from the idiot anti-imperialists of Counterfire, STwC, and so on, all of whom have an attachment to the Little Englander, national socialist mentality of the AES.

If you listen to what Dianne Abbot said at the weekend, its fairly clear that that explains that side of the pressure that Corbyn was under, when she talked about sections of the left pressuring him on the basis of some kind of fulfilment of Tony Benn's dream of an EU withdrawal, and the building of Social Democracy in one island.

On top of that, the soft left/right of the party had already caved in to the electoral pressure to abandon the principle of free movement that it took workers centuries to win.

Metatone said...

Of course, it ain't over until it's over - and there's no reason to believe that there will be a change of leadership any time soon. And events can always save a leader - a Trumpian Middle-East adventure which draws May in is an obvious candidate.

Yet, the failure to make any significant resistance of Art.50 has damaged Corbyn with younger voters. Since older voters don't like him anyway, I think we have to say that the 3-line whip (in particular) was a deeply short-sighted move, b/c in a years time no-one will remember whether it was a 3-line or not.

Just as with Harman & bedroom tax, the leadership has been seen to be spineless and lacking in the will to stand up to the government and the newspapers. Given that this is how Corbyn's movement got a kickstart, you'd think they would have understood that. No-one will give Lab. any credit if Brexit turns out ok, any more than they will to Harman if the bedroom tax suddenly looks like a better solution than it does now. As such, the 3-line just caused more division inside the party for no gain. Hard to see it as anything other than stupid and indeed, unless events save him, the beginning of the end for Corbyn and a massive wasted chance for the left.

Anonymous said...

Things could be a lot worse. Imagine another Blairite leadership. Bouffants. Sharp suits, Grins. Tory-lite policies. I shudder at the thought.

Ed said...

"the principle of free movement that it took workers centuries to win."

Eh? I'm afraid this is an example of the wild hyperbole that has been swirling around in the past few weeks over the Brexit/Article 50 vote. I think FOM in its current form is a good thing and worth defending. But 'centuries'? If you go back a few centuries, most people worked on the land; they might go their whole lives without travelling further than the nearest market town; they had only the haziest sense (if any) of belonging to one nation rather than another. The idea of travelling to live and work in another country wouldn't even have occurred to them. Free movement within the EU came about as a by-product of European integration since the 1950s; I don't think it owed much to pressure from European labour movements.

As for describing the AES as 'national socialist'—what could you possibly be hinting at by combining those two words? Really, this is the sort of talk that's best left to the other side. I came across a breathless tribute to Emmanuel Macron yesterday which claims that Corbyn, Podemos and Syriza were exactly the same as the European far right because they believed in national sovereignty; the author was an MEP from Spain's hard-right 'liberal' party, whose main priority is imposing Spanish national sovereignty on the Basques and Catalans at all costs. Let's leave the slanderous conflation of political opponents to them, yeah?

Phil said...

This comment from Helen on the Facebook:

I'd be surprised if too many people expected Corbyn to be a Prime Minister in waiting, but I think most of us expected Corbyn to begin laying the foundations of a new Labour future, setting out a new directing purpose that would enable people to know what Labour stood for in the 21st century.

Sadly, while the attempted coup didn't help, Corbyn has been found wanting. He is a natural backroom worker, someobdy whose first response to testing is a passive aggressive stance and to go dark while a response is considered. This is fine for backbench campaigning, but it simply isn't a model for leading a major political party.

It doesn't help that Seamus Milne has been an absolute disaster as aide/media/pr/ person. Whatever he's supposed to be doing, it's not just not owrking, it's absolutely counter-productive.
So Corbyn may be over, but the currents in society that propelled the backlash to blairism for which he became a standard bearer have not gone away and will become more urgent in the next few years as brexit and Maybe wreak havoc to UK civic society.

Boffy said...


You complain about the comment that free movement is a right that workers took centuries to achieve, and then talk about the fact that for centuries under feudalism, labourers were limited to staying in their own parish! Precisely, it was that restriction on their liberty, and the other feudal monopolies that they joined with the bourgeoisie in overthrowing!

And, having obtained that right - incidentally if those that support such restrictions are to be consistent they should oppose workers in say Yorkshire putting strain on housing, healthcare etc. in London, by moving there for work - it applied not just within national boundaries but across them. The restriction on such migration, in Britain, for example, only started in 1905 with the Aliens Act, designed to stop Russian Jews coming here. More extensive Immigration Controls were only introduced in the 1960's.

The term "national socialism" derives from Trotsky's use of that term to describe the policy of Stalinism enshrined in the theory of "Socialism in One Country", and that concept is what was behind the nationalistic AES with its calls for import controls and so on, and alliances with the British capitalists, who were to be encouraged to implement all sorts of worker friendly measures, in return for protection against all those nasty foreign workers and capitalists

Robert said...

If Corbyn goes well before the next election Labour might have a chance. There is no chance whatever as long as he is leader. It's Michael Foot all over again.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as an anonymous observer, Labour are lacking two qualities:

1: Forming a coherent narrative - why austerity should be opposed, what harm it is causing, what the country could achieve without a Tory government, an optimistic vision for the future etc.

2: Pushing that narrative everywhere, from Question Time to Facebook.

Whether it's Corbyn himself or his inner circle, the leadership and the shadow cabinet aren't doing this at all.

Ed said...

Oh please, give me a break; you know perfectly well that when people hear the phrase 'national socialism', they don't think about Trotsky's critique of Stalinism. If you wanted to evoke those memories, you would have written 'socialism in one country'. I can remember a right-wing newspaper columnist in Ireland sagely informing people that Sinn Fein 'are nationalists, and they are socialists; therefore they are NATIONAL SOCIALISTS!' Let's leave that kind of silly rhetoric to people of that ilk, shall we?

For many, many, many years after the formal abolition of serfdom in Western Europe, the great majority of people didn't have the slightest notion of moving to another country, and wouldn't have had the means to do so anyway. I wasn't talking about people being forbidden to leave their parish by feudal lords, as should have been clear from what I wrote. I think free movement of labour within the currently existing EU is a good thing and worth defending, but it's daft to pretend that it's been a central demand of the European working class for centuries; for one thing, the European working class hasn't even existed as a political actor for that long.

Boffy said...


"Ots Michael Foot all over again."

Are you aware that after Michael foot became leader of the Labour Party, and began organising marches and rallies across the country in opposition to the Tory wrecking of the economy, as unemployment soared towards 6 million, Labour's standing in the polls went up to 56%?

It stayed well up over 50% until the Gang of Four split the anti-Tory vote. Even then Labour had the largest poll share, until Thatcher rallied the country around the flag sacrificing thousands of soldiers lives to boost her election hopes.

Speedy said...

"Thatcher rallied the country around the flag sacrificing thousands of soldiers lives to boost her election hopes."

Hm... post-truth history now? About as historically accurate as "national socialism" standing for Stalin, in whatever alternative universe you live in. Too much Man In A High Castle?

And before you say it - it was incompetence that led the Argies to invade and Thatcher did what she did (supported by Foot I seem to recall). No conspiracy.