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.
On my morning commute today, I stopped to see the gathered press and crowd outside Boris Johnson’s house in Islington, who was greeted with some cheers and mostly shouts of ‘wanker’ on his quick dash to a waiting car that whisked him away for the first day of his possible ascendency to the premiership. Then, in a quintissentially British comedic moment, his car pulled up to the traffic lights at a cyclist-crowded intersection, who proceeded to shake their fists, berate and refuse to let him pass – only cleared away by police a few minutes later. Such a vitriolic reaction is expected in pro-Remain Islington – the home of the political establishment including Boris, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn – this would be far less likely outside London.
Remain ran a terrible campaign that failed to appeal to peoples’ real daily concerns, instead thinking that a combination of complex economic statistics that no one understood and were difficult to verify, would rationalise the people into voting Remain. By default, this favoured the Leave campaign, who appealed to everyday examples of perceived personal powerlessness such as alleged EU powers to regulate banana bunches and immigration changing the country while Boris and Nigel – disingenuously – offered us our independence back. This was a truly great failure of the political establishment from David Cameron to Jeremy Corbyn and many on the left to truly understand both the political and social divisions within the country.
This is a symbolic divide between London and other large, cosmopolitain cities and the regions – between geographically close locations such as Labour-voting Hackney and Islington and UKIP stronghold town of Clacton-On-Sea. London and regional Britain appear to be different countries with distinctive concerns, experiences and priorities. Brexit confirmed a perception of London as a centre of unaccountable, dysfunctional economic and political power who care little for those outside – an attitude we regularly prove with an open, tolerated contempt. Birmingham is widely known as a terrible place though few of us have actually been. The North is supposedly full of loutish white trash based on football riots and Oasis. Unless the Guardian has done a travel section article on these locations and their bespoke raw food tapas bars, we do little to engage or understand them.
This isn’t isolated to Britain but a worldwide problem among many liberals and leftists from large, cosmopolitain cities who cannot fathom the depth of different experiences and problems of areas outside their immediate confines. Brexit and anti-immigration, Nigel and Boris – these are symptoms of a wider economic and political malaise in which political and economic establishment are gaining too much unaccountable power and tend to be synonymous with the most powerful cities. Many in London, New York, Melbourne, Auckland, Paris, Berlin and others need to take a long, hard look at themselves. Are the ‘common people‘ who we claim to care about only valuable to us to the degree that they think, act, read, listen to the same music, read the same books and use the same analytical frameworks like us? If this is the case, then we are merely elitists who live in in a not dissimilar bubble to the Boris Johnsons and rich kids of Instagram who we criticise for being out of touch.
Predictably, we spent today in a state of defensiveness from insinuations that Brexiters are obese, uneducated, racist chavs, tacky nouveau riche and inbred aristocracy or threats to move to Scotland. Now should be a challenge to try and understand why people outside London might be angry. This transcends fears about immigration as a means for those who want their voices to be heard to be taken seriously. Conservatives worldwide are more successful at this because they are less judgemental of peoples personal tastes and attitudes and are better at finding ways to unite disparate groups under promises of employment, security and consumer freedom. Socialist saviours such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders don’t matter if they and we cannot reach beyond our comfort zones and conceive of people beyond their alleged racism, sexism and conservatism as human beings. Political and social change won’t happen with a narrative of ‘everything is shit and your beliefs are stupid’ but through real dialogue and attempts to systematically address our problems together.
Brexit Britons aren’t stupid and their lives are meaningful rather than afflictions to be overcome but as valuable as ours. Former US Presidential candidate Howard Dean once spoke of the need to address the needs of everyone, to great criticism at the time. “I’m going to go to the South and say to White guys who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag details…. ‘We want your vote too because your kids don’t have health insurance either.” If attitudes do not change, then Boris Johnson is going to be perpetually surrounded by Islington cyclist flash mobs during what could be a long tenure as Prime Minister.
‘Go to hell, you old bastard’
New Labour is dead. Jeremy Corybyn’s 59.5% of the vote in the first round of the Labour leadership election is as revolutionary as Tony Blair’s 57% in 1994. Even if Corbyn loses the 2020 general election, is deposed or resigns, the membership and supporter-based electoral system makes it impossible for leadership candidates to ignore or dismiss principled leftism as ‘Old Labour’ or return to the days of Blair. This is a disaster for aspiring politicians who chose the New Labour parliamentary advisor path to elected office over the trade unionist, activist, or community development alternative. Unless they all quickly adopt Breton caps and find work at Oxfam, they’ll fast become the manky strays of the political world, surviving off scraps from Blairite think tanks.
With the election of Corbyn signalling the end of New Labour, it’s now possible for Labour to achieve what it has struggled to do since 1979: provide a credible answer to Thatcherism. New Labour wasn’t a modern social democratic response but more a string of focus group-tested, voter-friendly strategic positions that remained within the free market economic structures created by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government. Any real gains in poverty reduction were built on sand already partially subsided by Iraq, easily kicked down by Tory beach bullies, and washed away with the tide of public opinion.
A key challenge of this answer is to reclaim from Thatcherism the concept of freedom to control your own destiny. Corbyn’s association with 1980s radical Labour hero Tony Benn is indicative that this is understood. Both have advocated a more participatory, democratic ‘socialism from below’ rather than ‘socialism from above’ in which government solves all problems and synonymous with welfare state. This could prove an appealing, relevant answer to Thatcherism in post-GFC Britain rather than the 1980s. Such a vision of freedom would require being equally critical of big government and big corporate. Where the role of government would be to set electorally-mandated minimum, universal standards while communities and the public are empowered with greater political and economic decision-making powers. Where ministerial and public servant-based policy development is balanced with strong mechanisms for public participation – something even the Conservatives have experimented with through patient participation in NHS policy development. With local authorities and users of health, education, housing, transport, and employment and economic development services having greater control over ability to raise revenue, spending, and approaches. Where companies would be required to have worker representation on boards and there is a greater role for worker and consumer-owned enterprises. Rather than Corbyn as a saviour who will solve our problems for us, there is an opportunity to empower people with a real freedoms and opportunities in their lives.
No one could have predicted the likely outcome of the Labour leadership election: that a 66 year old backbench MP from Islington will defeat three opponents who were basically bred to be potential Labour leaders. In the scramble to make sense, two opposing schools of thought have emerged on the consequences of a Corbyn victory. Those who support Corbyn believe he will usher in a socialist Britain and cleanse Labour of the flesh-eating virus known as Blairism. Corbyn opponents argue that the sock-and-sandal-wearing pensioner will contribute to a Conservative dystopia where City traders will have the legal right to use the unemployed as piggy back taxis. However what if, between Owen Jones’s unflappable self-assurance and Tony Blair’s five yearly vanity bender reminding us how he won three consecutive elections, both sides are correct?
Corbyn supporters are right that his principled left-wing beliefs and authentic persona are more appealing to Labour supporters. Socialist ideology consistent since 1983. A beard and vegetarian diet before they were cool. When a photo of an exhausted Corbyn on a London Night Bus went viral, this symbolised the success of his campaign: an appeal to everyday, honest left-wing values. Call it London Night Bus Socialism. In comparison, Blairite centrism feels dispassionate and inauthentic and voters aren’t stupid or naïve for wanting more than what else is on offer – image wise. Preened, over-rehersed former special advisors whose carefully-crafted positions appear to lack solid answers for inequality, housing prices, and international conflict – issues exacerbated and/ or ignored under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendal appear more like examples of what would happen if Japanese robot hotel technology was applied to Westminster. Basic movement, repetition of fluffy but positive soundbites, and can complete basic tasks but lacking in capacity for human connection and expression of depth. Mandelson’s Mandydroids. Because Labour was founded as the political representative of working people, it is better served representing supporters rather than function as a career ladder for Oxbridge graduate special advisors to fulfil their childhood ambitions of becoming Prime Minister.
However, Corbyn’s opponents are correct that he is not an ideal leader. He has had no experience in cabinet and a well-founded reputation as a party rebel – hardly the case for an experienced or unifying leader. Even Tony Benn had cabinet experience. Because Labour is a big tent, Corbyn has to lead a party in which many MPs despise him. In his defence, Corbyn has expressed willingness to appoint Blairites to his shadow cabinet but it’s Kendall and Cooper who have publicly refused to serve on his team – which is like claiming to be the life of the party while huddled in the corner snidely gossiping about others with close friends. Corbyn’s leadership would also require him to make decisions and policy compromises that many supporters will dislike but can work if it maintains the core principles and anti-politician humbleness that has energised his campaign. Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London is a good example that this is possible for an old-school socialist. However, with the weight of political elites, corporate leadership, and octagenerian Australian-owned media conglomerate power who stand to lose from a Corbyn victory united against him, compromise might not be enough and would require leadership skills he might not have.
In a final push for votes, Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall would be wise not to only criticise Corbyn as an extremist or resort to dystopian threats, but to appeal more to the Night Bus Socialism that has been key to Corbyn’s success. Corbyn supporters enamoured with idealism for a new socialist Jerusalem where their saviour will throw out the moneylenders could have a better sense of the realities of politics and the sheer challenge. A Corbyn leadership would need to master juggling credibility, political nous, and core principles – a tough ask. If both sides can listen and learn from each others’ valid concerns, perhaps Labour can unite as a party that doesn’t ignore ‘political reality’ but isn’t afraid to promote bold, appealing, authentic policies regardless of who is leader.
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.