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.
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.