In post-crisis politics, everyone always wants to be the ‘change’ candidate. There is no slogan quite like ‘a new kind of politics’ or ‘a clean and fresh start’ to fire up grassroots activists and send the proverbial gears of the party machine back into action. These phrases will, of course, be very familiar to followers of Labour over the last few months. Jeremy Corbyn most effectively articulated himself as embodying that priceless quality of change, and has duly reaped the rewards.
But what is British politics to make of our new political icon, and how did he fare in his first real opportunity to showcase his leadership talents at party conference?
Jeremy Corbyn has certainly never been one to shy away from controversy or conflict. He has stuck to his core values with admirable consistency over 32 years in Parliament, leading to a rebuttal of the party whip over 500 times during his tenure. But his commitment to ideology over disciplined pragmatism may prove problematic. Disgruntled occupants of the Labour benches will unsurprisingly question why they should be expected to profess their loyalty to a man who so often failed to tow the party line.
Uniting his own party may indeed be the most arduous challenge facing Corbyn over the next five years. Arguably in anticipation of a Corbyn victory, Chuka Umunna and Tristam Hunt set up a so-called ‘resistance cell’ named Labour for the Common Good, though the revolutionary intentions of which continue to be downplayed. Yet, the ethics of any internal party insurrection are acutely complex.
On the one hand, sticking to their Blairite guns in the face of socialist realignment is the sort of dogmatism so admired in Corbyn himself. But, equally, resisting the man who received overwhelming and extraordinary mandate from the party faithful would threaten to further the growing disconnect between the PLP and the Labour Party en masse. Who would ever want to be a politician?
Internal quarrels aside, the central conundrum for Corbyn will be his electability, as already widely discussed by Palatinate online. His keynote speech at the party conference will do little to alleviate fears over his stance on nuclear weapons, a hot topic which continues to draw battle lines across the Labour Cabinet but inspire the loyal army of Corbynistas in equal measure. Nonetheless, the Islington North MP has certainly not nuked his chances of becoming PM quite yet. The conventional argument goes that moving to the left will result in inevitable electoral oblivion, as demonstrated by Labour’s failure at the previous election. Yet this has been based on a number of mistaken assumptions.
Firstly, that Labour lost in 2015 as a result of Miliband being too far left. In reality, among other things, Labour lost because of its lack of credibility on the economy, and its inability to articulate a coherent alternative to Osborne’s austerity. The party leadership failed to exercise the ghosts of post-recession New Labour, bolstering the Tory narrative that Labour had broken Britain, and that David Cameron was therefore the only man capable to ‘finish the job’ he started.
Secondly, and more pertinently, there is the reductionist hypothesis that Corbyn socialism is merely a regressive, almost evolutionary, lurch to the left. But Corbyn’s vision for the party is fundamentally distinct from his predecessor, Ed Miliband. While the latter busied himself with top-down proposals for a gentler form of capitalism, Corbyn has already stated his desire to convert Labour into more of a ‘social movement’, rooted in a form of eclectic neo-Bennism emphasising the need to change Labour into a vehicle of popular mobilisation. This has been astutely reflected by his inclusive approach to the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions and his proposals for a bottom-up policy-making process.
It is clear that Corbynism goes further than the customary ideological pigeonholes of British politics. It poses a forceful challenge to the ways in which Liberals, Conservatives, and Labourites all practice their politics, and it must be treated as such.
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Photograph: Ninian Reid via Flickr