Jeremy Corbyn wants power so that he can do something with it. His rebellious centrist MPs also want power, but are unable or unwilling to articulate what they want to do with it
For a blog with solidly conservatarian credentials such as this, Semi-Partisan Politics seems to be spending an awful lot of our time defending somebody who is about as doggedly, severely left-wing as it is possible to be.
And yet I must continue defending Jeremy Corbyn against the onslaught of outraged centrist criticism and juvenile student-union style plots to unseat him, because this blog will always choose principle over self-interested triangulation. And because most of the criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn emanating from centrist Labour reveal a lot more about their author than they wound their target.
The latest establishment type to come gunning for Corbyn is Nick Cohen, writing in The Observer:
Anyone can be against austerity and poverty, spin and the Westminster bubble, the bankers and the corporations, if there is no price to pay. Students can project their hopes on to the blank slate Corbyn offers them. Old soixante-huitards and the militants of the Thatcher era can refight the battles of their youth as painlessly as the Sealed Knot refights the Civil War. Wykehamist Marxists can stand shoulder to shoulder with exhibitionist celebrities; wild intellectuals with the justifiably furious shop stewards.
Empty leftism gave Corbyn control of the Labour party, but little else. He has the lowest popularity rating of any opposition leader in history. The public sees a political movement that doesn’t want to govern them and does not much like them either. Government necessarily involves the trade-offs the far left pretends need never trouble us. Labour’s founding constitution of 1918 said its first purpose was to establish and retain, in parliament and in the country, a political Labour party. The far left has to reject it because it can never win elections without losing its illusions.
As the opposition collapsed last week, Paul Mason insisted that Labour must be transformed from a party that seeks to govern into a “social movement”. Mason, along with Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Milne, is part of a group of journalists who have poisoned public life by taking braggart swagger and cocksure certainties of newspaper punditry into politics. But in this instance, he was authentically reflecting “the people” or, rather, that tiny section of “the people” who pay £3 and click on a link to show they agree with him.
[..] Vacuity leads not only to political impotence but political fear. Uncomprehending hatred fills the empty space where policy should be and brings with it the threat of violence that hovers above Labour like yellow cigarette smoke in a Munich beer hall. It was thought that the killing of Jo Cox might alter the mood. But the misogyny, homophobia, antisemitism, death threats, rape threats and insane conspiracy theories against Labour MPs endure. The foul climate shows that Corbynism has sociopathic consequences. When his supporters believe that all they need do to oppose austerity, the bankers, etc, is to say they are against them, then, by definition, their opponents cannot have honest objections, only evil intentions. Like sin, they must be purged.
There is so much to unpick here that it is difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start with the stuff which we can agree on. Paul Mason and Seumas Milne are indeed nasty, toxic people and a scourge on British politics. They accrue cult-like followings based on peddling glib and superficial critiques of their targets (capitalism, conservatism, America, Britain, wealth, success or whatever else riles them up on any given day).
But for Nick Cohen to speak of the “vacuity” of the Corbynite Left is hypocritical in the extreme. The only reason that Jeremy Corbyn was able to come to power in the first place was that the mainstream, centrist Left had nothing – absolutely nothing, tumbleweeds – to say to their traditional working class base, or to those who are feeling the pinch from globalisation and a future filled with insecure, low-paying jobs.
Blairism in a time of plenty just about worked – one could simply shovel more and more people into the arms of the welfare state, declaring them unfit for work and then forgetting about them, while lavishing exorbitant sums on unreformed and terminally dysfunctional public servives like the NHS. And so long as economic growth continued at a fair clip, the day of reckoning could always be postponed, one more day, and another, and another.
But Blairite/Brownite/Milibandism simply doesn’t butter any parsnips when there is no money left. Because now you have a huge swathe of the population who have been raised to be dependent on government, even taught that such subsistence is their “human right”, up in arms because this support structure has either been ripped away from them or pared back due to more stringent means-testing or benefit freezes. And suddenly, hearing some well-heeled member of the metropolitan left-wing elite claiming to sympathise with your plight while not doing the first damn thing to change it doesn’t produce an overwhelming desire to vote for that leader (Miliband) or party.
Nick Cohen talks about the vacuity of Labour’s left-wing, but what about the centrists? These are people who, despite their continued denunciations of Corbyn and accusations that in less than year he has failed to flesh out a detailed and fully costed policy platform, haven’t come up with a single alternative policy platform of their own (just like Ed Miliband’s policy platform was a “blank sheet of paper” at this stage of his own leadership).
Surely if it is now such a crime for a Labour leader to not have a fully costed and worked out policy platform, the centrists vying to unseat Corbyn must be brimming over with whole policy suites and agendas of their own. Surely they know exactly what tax reforms they would enact, who would be punished and whose wallets would be fattened. Surely they know exactly what to do about the NHS, in more detail than simply shovelling more money at that insatiable organisation. Surely they have comprehensive plans for pensions, welfare, defence, education, trade and industry.
But we know that the centrists have none of those things. When Angela Eagle hit the TV studios last weekend to launch her leadership challenge, she failed to name a single area of policy disagreement with Jeremy Corbyn, despite being asked numerous times. Owen Smith was marginally better when he launched his own campaign a couple of days ago, but hardly came out of the starting blocks with his pre-printed manifesto ready to go. Why? If Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is so ideologically extreme, surely it should be the easiest thing in the world to highlight just a few clear examples where an Eagle/Smith led party would chart a different, more centrist course?
The fact that they do not is damning evidence that the centrists are every bit as vacuous as they accuse Corbyn of being. They, too, want to pretend that endlessly bountiful public services can be funded at no cost to anyone through the munificence of the magical money tree. They too want to make every citizen’s passing whim their immediate and sacred “human right”. They too plan to worship at the sacred altar of the NHS, singing endless hymns of praise to St. Aneurin Bevan of Tredegar without doing a damn thing to improve health outcomes for Britons.
Therefore, what we are now witnessing from Labour’s disgruntled centrists (and their media mouthpieces like Nick Cohen) is not some earnest, pragmatic criticism that Corbyn is failing to grapple with the real issues facing the country. No. It is simply an aggrieved and self-entitled howl of anguish that somebody other than them is getting a turn at calling the shots.
Given time, Jeremy Corbyn will undoubtedly come out with a manifesto just like every other party leader has done before him. This blog will doubtless disagree with nearly all of it. It will probably involve re-nationalisation of flagship industries like rail and energy, massive tax hikes on the wealthy and cuts for the poorest, massive injections of borrowed money into public services and infrastructure on the spurious grounds that such investment will “pay for itself”, the immediate cooling of the special relationship with the United States and much more power to the trades union. We may even see strengthened rights to strike and a greater emphasis on national collective bargaining as John McDonnell goes all out to recreate the 1970s.
Such a manifesto will, it hardly needs to be said, not win Labour a general election against anybody, least of all a Conservative Party which continues to hew shamefully to the centre under the leadership of Theresa May. But it will at least be ideologically coherent, even as it is scorned.
What will the centrists’ alternative Labour manifesto contain? We don’t know, because they haven’t told us yet. And why haven’t they told us the kind of policies which they will advocate? Because their focus groups haven’t told them yet. And because their PR people haven’t worked out quite how the likes of Angela Eagle and Owen Smith can best continue advocating for the unacceptable status quo while making it sound like they are being fearsome, revolutionary reformers and champions of the poor.
The day that this blog will give the time of day to some self-entitled, born to rule centrist from Labour’s metropolitan middle class clerisy is the day which they come packing a serious, heavyweight alternative policy agenda which amounts to more than Cameron/May centrism with an added dash of sanctimonious waffle about equality and fairness.
Until then, and so long as the current Labour leadership stands for demonstrably different values and policies to the stale centrism which has led us to this present cul de sac (and no matter how much this blog may disagree with those values), this blog remains planted in Jeremy Corbyn’s corner.
Top Image: BBC
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I agree with you here. The centrists have no philosophy of government any more, just a set of nostrums.
The next election is going to be a bloodbath. Good.