By Gareth R Roberts
For a very short while in 2017, it made sense. It was a bit like a drunken snog on a work’s night out – we’d been flirting for a bit, and then, in the midst of all the excitement and in the absence of a better offer, I enthusiastically put my cross in the Labour candidate’s box.
‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn….’
And I do get it. I did get it.
I get the initial attraction of Jeremy Corbyn – he was the obvious reaction to the years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Years of electoral success, but coming, some would argue, at an ideological cost. Because whichever way you look at it or spin it New Labour was not a socialist party. To the contrary, at the heart of the New Labour project there was the aim to create a more inclusive form of capitalism that accepted many of the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s. New Labour was relaxed about the rich because it was content that it would create opportunities for everyone, and that meant being fiscally mature, socially liberal and economically inclusive; it meant the odd sprinkling of policies that were self-evidently progressive and self-evidently right, such as the minimum wage, the Human Right’s Act and the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales and it meant governing with a certain degree of expediency.
Now, I am neither an apologist nor a detractor of New Labour – but, how many of us now long for the years between 1997 and 2001, when everything seemed so settled and optimistic.
But New Labour began to eat itself: being relaxed about wealth allowed some to become so wealthy that it seemed unfair, particularly when Labour introduced top-up tuition fees and average wages didn’t quite rise as much as we all hoped; similarly, being socially liberal was at odds with the decision to give unconditional backing to America’s decision to invade Iraq on what most of us could clearly see was the spurious assertion that Iraq posed an immediate threat to us.
Things started to go awry.
There was the banking crisis, after which the Tories were able to strike home with their erroneous claim that it was Labour profligacy that had contributed to the recession; whilst the Labour leadership – with the rumbling antagonism between the two pillars of New Labour, Blair and Brown, becoming an increasingly negative distraction – struggled to meet that accusation that Labour had caused the financial crisis.
Brown was replaced by Ed Miliband, who sadly, and with all respect to Ed, who I quite liked, was hardly a politician to set the pulse rocketing.
By the 2015 general election his Labour Party was clearly struggling for an identity and failed to adequately address one of the most contrived political movements of our time: austerity. All that ‘triple lock’ on spending, and ‘prudence’ wasn’t enough. Labour didn’t make the case for public expenditure in key areas of public life, Labour didn’t make the case that with interest rates at an all time low, there was not the critical need to cut public spending – in short it wasn’t strong enough or bold enough to argue that austerity was a con.
And Cameron was elected.
And then along came Jeremy Corbyn: and he did make the case for public expenditure, and he was clearly never going to invade a foreign country for no better reason than the Americans had asked, and he was perpetuating a message that seemed to come from the heart rather than the focus group.
And, as I say, Jeremy started to look attractive. It was why, in the 2017 General Election, he was a surprisingly impressive alternative to the awkward and stiff Theresa May.
But, really, in the dehydrated sobriety of morning, Jeremy Corbyn should never be anything more than a quick knee trembler, a good turn at a rally, someone to remind us that if we want a proper socialist alternative there is one available. But effective Leader of the Opposition? Genuine future Prime Minister? Leading politician in a moment of massive constitutional and political uncertainty?
Corbyn’s problem is his purity and the way in which this ideological purity has manifested itself into the party’s organisation, culture and ultimately policy.
Let’s consider it carefully. First, Jeremy Corbyn is an unashamed Marxist – I don’t mean this as a pejorative assertion, just as I wouldn’t use the term, Pope Francis II is an unashamed Catholic to be an insult: it’s a statement of fact. But, as an ideologically driven politician, it is more difficult for him to tailor his political ideas to the issues of the day – Brexit has proved impossible for him because fundamentally a European Union, allied closely to the USA and pursuing a broadly capitalist agenda is anathema.
Given this, it should have been no surprise that Corbyn went missing during the referendum campaign and that he whipped his MPs to pass article 50 with what was clearly far too much haste, and it is no surprise that his esoteric policy on the EU question has exasperated most of his moderate MPs and confused the electorate.
But, it is not just Brexit that has dogged Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – the accusation of anti-semitism has been repeatedly laid at his feet. Now, I don’t think that Corbyn is a racist, quite the opposite, however, it is without doubt that he has allied himself some seriously anti-zionist and anti-Israeli groups over the years – and these groups have stated in terms that they don’t believe in the existence of a Jewish state – if you ally yourself with these groups then, with the best will in the world you are leaving yourself open to the allegation of anti-semitism, particularly if some members of your own inner-circle, start to enthusiastically adopt the language of anti-semitism and particularly if you fail to take adequate steps to stamp it out.
But, again, it comes down to ideological purity because when Jewish Labour MPs and members have complained that they are the victims of anti-semitism, Corbyn’s instinctive reaction is to blame the state of Israel as much as the aggressive tone of those who are doing the taunting.
It’s not a good look – but, sadly, it is part of the way in which Jeremy Corbyn’s party has developed since the heady days of 2017.
And the development has been given a brutal shunt by Momentum. Initially a Corbyn cheer leading squad, Momentum has turned itself into an, at times, sinister secret police, dominating the social media platforms and ingratiating itself into many local constituency parties, calling out any one who dares to disagree with the blessed leader, with accusations of being a Tory, or a Blairite, or not caring. I’ve lost count of the number of times a tweet urging the Labour Party to adopt a more ‘remain’ stance on Brexit, or criticising some action of the Labour leadership has led to a barrage of abusive tweets in response basically accusing me of being a middle-class elitist bastard with no compassion and no interest in the plight of the poor or the destitute. You can’t win that argument over twitter. You can’t even argue it properly.
And I’m not alone. People of much greater consequence than me with a long and tremendous record of work within the Labour Party and in public office have found that their party has become a dark and uncomfortable place – people like Alistair Campbell, Margaret Hodge, Jess Philips, Tom Watson, Louise Ellman and others have all found themselves accused of being a ‘class traitor’ a ‘tory’ or an ‘establishment lackie’ because they have refused to toe the Corbyn line. Whilst party procedure has been used in an attempt to deselect and remove those who are not as pure as the leadership – should we be worried about this? Damn right we should.
I have no doubt that the Labour Party manifesto will contain much that I and many of us who would see ourselves as being broadly on the left could not disagree with, I have no doubt, that the argument that ‘only Labour can deliver such a radical agenda,’ will resonate with many. But the bullying, centralising and cult-like qualities of Corbyn’s Labour Party are not going to dissipate if Jeremy got into power, whilst many, may conclude that at this particular period of our history demands leaders who are pragmatic and inclusive, capable of intellectual and political dexterity rather than a leader who is welded to the socialism of the 1970s.
We will see plenty of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ moments over the next six weeks, but will we ultimately see a Corbyn government? Well, unless the Tories implode or the mood of the nation shifts massively and Mondeo Man and Workington Woman suddenly want to embrace the Marxist political dialectic, then I doubt it.
I doubt it too. Corbyn’s unfortunate tendency to divide us into disciples or detractors has made the party pretty unelectable with him at the helm. He’s good ‘on the stump’, and may attract some voters that way. Many more, like me, have left the party because of his – er- leadership style and his stance on Brexit. The Remain alliance is unlikely to come to anything without Labour involvement. This can’t end well.