- I continue to find Owen Smith profoundly unconvincing. The potential force of the ‘electability’ critique is severely blunted by the fact the supposedly ‘electable’ alternative is in actual fact a compromise candidate, markedly inferior even in the narrow centrist terms bound into the discourse of electability. He’s demonstrably untested, widely unknown and his frequent missteps during a very brief period in the spotlight speak of precisely the incompetence that he accuses the Labour leadership of, a point which can also be made of the PLP plotters who are a necessary but insufficient cause of his candidacy. These facts bolster my belief in Jeremy Corbyn simply because they performatively invalidate the critique made against him, revealing him to in fact be a profoundly popular leader of an opposition party in a period of regrouping who has only been in office for a year. Furthermore, it’s not obvious to me on a psephological level that Smith is best placed to fight the threat UKIP poses to Labour, win over remaining Lib Dems and Greens, win back the 5 million voters who deserted Labour from 1997 onwards or attract those Lib Dems whose desertion to the Tories in 2015 was key to the present government’s narrow majority. Despite the endless bleating about Corbyn’s ‘failure’ on Brexit, his reluctant remainer position is much more in step with the Labour membership than Smith’s boosterism and much less objectionable to former Labour voters who have defected to UKIP.
- The enormous growth of the Labour party is not something that can be written off as a spontaneously emerging personality cult of no institutional significance. As Phil BC and others have argued, we are seeing a long-range structural change beginning to emerge, for entirely contingent reasons, within the confines of an existing political party rather than as an oppositional movement outside existing parties. As a counter-weight to a long-term trend of what Colin Crouch calls post-democracy, in which formal structures of participation sit alongside a declining influence upon political life by all but the most powerful, this is enormously significant for leftist politics and for British democracy as a whole. The key challenge now is to establish this nascent movement and allow it to articulate itself, something which becomes all the more important given the profoundly reactionary forces in Britain unleashed by the Brexit vote. This does not mean Corbyn is the end of this movement, or even necessarily the means in the medium or long-term. But it does mean that to embrace ‘pragmatism’ now, the strategic and tactical doxa consolidated during the new Labour era in a political world 1997-2007 entirely unlike our present one, risks suffocating this movement before it has even been born. There’s also the possibility of a new model of funding the Labour party which would reduce its reliance upon elite donors.
- The idea that Corbyn is unappealing to the electorate needs to be qualified in terms of his evident appeal to many, while recognising that this group to whom he intuitively appeals may be atypical of the electorate. But the facets of political culture most commonly invoked to hold him in disdain also give reason for hope. The evident authenticity of the man is an electoral asset and when I’ve seen him speak in person I’ve been struck by how weirdly charismatic he is, a virtue stemming most of all from him being the first politician I’ve ever heard who I did not doubt believed every word he was saying. His lack of polish, his unimpeachable history of conviction and his absence of showmanship could all, under the right circumstances, come to be immense electoral assets in an era of demonstrable distrust and distaste for politicians. Handled right, his personal brand as well as the broader movement that Corbynism represents the birth of, could herald a much needed repoliticisation of politics.
My doubts? The world still works the way it does, even if the old order is disintegrating. I can’t see how an opposition leader can function effectively without the support of their parliamentary party and I can’t see how the rump of the parliamentary party – whose professional socialisation took place during the New Labour era and I suspect for the most part cannot learn to do politics differently – can be dispensed with without causing the very split that the vast majority of us seek to avoid. I can’t see how norms of ‘prime ministeriality’ can be changed without time and power, but I can’t see how power can be attained while these norms still exercise a hold over the minds of much of the electorate.
I also wonder if someone who has never wanted executive power is best equipped to hold it, contra to the instinctive anarchism which still shapes my political sensibility if no longer my considered beliefs. Corbyn clearly feels a sense of responsibility towards the movement that has built up around him but is this enough to sustain him through the endless amount of bullshit and hostility that his role entails*? I assume it’s the mad drive to power, the probably pathological urge to attain high office and the greedy concern for the personal enrichment that now follows from this, which sustains others through these dark times. I support Corbyn precisely because he lacks these things but perhaps on some level they could be seen as a functional adaptation to the deeply dysfunctional political system the last few decades have gifted us.
Finally, the stories of incompetence by his office are too numerous and detailed to be dismissed as dark propaganda. Why is there not an effective media operation around Corbyn? Why has the ambitious policy agenda launched by himself and John McDonnell been allowed to drift? Why was the wonderful idea of the economic advisory council allowed to fall apart as dramatically as it has?
*E.g. feeling the need to apologise in the debate this morning for not being able to recognise Ant and Dec.