Having signed up as a Labour supporter two weeks ago, I’m no closer to deciding between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. Neither candidate will likely solve Labour’s problems and, rather than a real debate of ideas, the leadership election has been defined by mutual loathing, with rival supporters tearing cyber chunks out of each other on social media and news comment feeds. While Corbyn fans on Twitter seem more adept at this, at least it says a lot about Corbyn as a candidate worth fighting for. The passion that Corbyn inspires has brought 200,000 new members and transformed Labour into a grassroots movement with an energy not seen since Tony Benn during the 1980s. Enthusiasm among young people provides a lesson to youth voter turnout campaigns worldwide: you need to feel something.
Yet both sides are descending into an unquestioning worship of their corresponding political spirit animals.
I fear we are unreasonable projecting onto Corbyn an image of a perfect socialist messiah on whom we depend rather than principled policies that his team must promote more effectively. Where policies don’t exist, we take comfort in his glow and curse doubters. At worst, we’ve co-opted him as our trending political brand. A bearded, scruffy anti-politician who oozes vintage socialist-chic as our ironic anti-establishment statement but could end up as out of vogue as the pair of maroon Topshop trousers sitting at the bottom of our wardrobes. As a result, we can be too content with our social media and rally-based validation bubble to acknowledge valid concerns with Corbyn’s leadership abilities and outreach to Labour’s regional, working class English former base. The volume of complaints from former Shadow Cabinet ministers and his economic advisory team members – from lack of political, economic and media strategy to personal blunders – are too large to dismiss as political and media collusion. Critics of all stripes – even soft-leftists or allies like Owen Jones – are accused of treachery. Smith himself is too readily accused of being a pharma-corporate Blair – something of an insult to both his good work as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and to working and middle class voters employed by corporations who would feel uncomfortable with such career purism. If Labour is to become the grassroots juggernaut that Corbyn envisions, then he cannot be infallible and must be held the same standard as we hold Smith. Internal dissent for his more questionable decisions can only make the movement stronger.
Ironically, Owen Smith’s campaign is a cult of anti-personality. His main problem is still ‘Owen Who?’ – an unknown who generates little enthusiasm among his supporters. This isn’t Smith’s fault. He seems an interesting, smart, skilled, dedicated politician but this is no longer enough compared to Corbyn. During the last leadership election, Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper as calculating, talking point-spouting human cyborgs of Westminster ruined leadership chances for all former Blair and Brown special advisors. Smith as Burnham 2.0 is a vast improvement but provides nowhere near Corbyn’s principled authenticity. He is the Remain campaign of leadership candidates in that no one is passionate about the project but are more driven by fear of the consequences of losing to those whose supporters they deemed ignorant, hysterical and unrealistic. Like with Brexit, this won’t work. As the establishment candidate – with over 80% backing from the PLP and mainstream media commentators – it is difficult for Smith to win support from members who feel ignored and currently denigrated by many of his political and pundit backers. The movement around Smith opposes Corbynism but responds with a Corbynite policy platform wrapped in a bouquet of condescension and vagueness that to many signals a return to top-down, professional politics that Labour members despise. Old approaches are unconvincing in a post-Global Financial Crisis, Scottish nationalist, post-Brexit Britain.
For me, this is a battle between my inner socialist and inner pundit in which I will seek to avoid absolutes. Corbyn isn’t perfect nor will Theresa May garrotte a weakened Labour to death in a ditch unless they follow a bland, outdated conventional political checklist. Regardless of who wins, to keep Labour together and viable the party leadership must equally inspire passion, listen and give real power to party members and run a smart operation that plans ahead and reacts swiftly. Call it a ‘red-vanilla swirl’ for a party that united that to stay together – at least for now – must be equal parts red and vanilla.
It is claimed that the UK Labour establishment is in panic over opinion polls and endorsements indicating that left-wing leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn is the frontrunner in the leadership election. Former leadership candidate Chuka Umunna has fronted criticism of Corbyn in an attempt to temper left-wing Labour members with realism, yet this might not be enough. Corbyn’s level of support arguably reflects a wider shift in centre-left values worldwide. In this environment, there are signs that primary voters are moving away from mainstream options in favour of their ideal candidates. Hillary Clinton’s strongest challenger in the Democratic primaries is independent, self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is running on a left-wing platform similar to Corbyn, and is performing far better than anticipated. Both candidates are fuelled by grassroots campaigns with strong youth support. In that sense, Corbyn’s obvious parallel is Tony Benn’s close challenge to Labour deputy leader Dennis Healey in 1981.Corbyn and Sanders are, like McCarthy and Benn, transformed from rebels to serious contenders. Sanders’ campaign has similar vigour to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, in which a narrow Johnson victory in the New Hampshire primary caused him to drop out. The outcome of these elections depends more on how their mainstream opponents respond to the new political environment.
So far, the Labour leadership election campaign has been lacklustre and often limited to the ad-nauseum repetition of words such as ‘aspiration‘ that have stripped of meaning to a degree that it wouldn’t be entirely surprise the public if the main candidates are either clones or alien replicants. Though Liz Kendall has arguably had more success articulating a coherent, down to earth narrative than other mainstream candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, Corbyn has been the main beneficiary of this, probably because he has claimed the mantle of idealism. Corbyn acts as a Tony Benn-like figure representing a grassroots socialism and whose appeal contrasts with the image of professionally-designed, poll-driven, focus-group tested, policy and talking points communicated in pure political speak synonymous with the downside of New Labour. Likewise, Hillary Clinton is hindered by a long-entrenched image as an inauthentic, calculating politician in opposition to the curmudgeonly but passionate Sanders who has taken up the abandoned mantle of idealism which Obama had used to defeat her in 2008. In any case, what worked for Tony Blair in 1997 and Bill Clinton in 1992 might not succeed in 2015. In a world of austerity, ongoing inequality, mass data collection, drone strikes, and failed military interventions, there is an arguably greater passion for figures like Corbyn, Sanders, and others who articulate an passionate idealism rather than those who stake out calculated, strategic, tested positions. Candidates must acknowledge the limits of an overly cautious, professional approach.
The basic challenge of whoever wins is to achieve what Ed Miliband failed to do: channel empathy and articulate policies that make a meaningful difference in peoples lives in a way that captures an idealistic desire for change. For Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, or Clinton in America to win, this means communicating with authenticity and empathy rather than gimmicks and orthodox solutions. UK Labour MP Simon Danczuk cites Andy Burnham’s idea of more regional accents in shadow cabinet as a patronising, cosmetic solution that doesn’t address a deep distrust of politicians. Danczuk proposes that leadership candidates should listen, communicate authentically, and relinquish greater power to local government and service users for communities to find solutions to unemployment, poverty, and education that reflect their needs. This approach articulates both idealism for political change that is also pragmatically grounded.
If Burnham, Cooper, Kendall, Clinton or any centre-left politicians worldwide disagree with radical opponents, they would be better served with an authentic, pragmatic idealism rather than dismissal. If they cannot do this, then candidates like Corbyn and Sanders become – at least by default – the best candidates.