Unless there is a dramatic and unlikely political upset, Jeremy Corbyn will again win the Labour leadership contest. It will be a victory gifted by his opponents. Last year, his triumph was dismissed as a combination of madness, petulance and zealotry. But many commentators lack any understanding or curiosity about political movements outside their comfort zone. Political analysts who scramble over one another to understand, say, the rise of Ukip have precious little interest in a similar treatment of Corbynism, abandoning scholarship for sneers. The likes of Ukip or Donald Trump or the French Front National are understood as manifestations, however unfortunate, of genuine grievances: the movements behind Bernie Sanders, Podemos and Jeremy Corbyn are dismissed as armies of the self-indulgent and the deluded.
A few days ago, I wrote a piece about the Labour leadership’s desperate need to get a handle on strategy, vision and competence, and reach beyond its comfort zone. A failure to do so could mean not just its own eventual demise, but that of Labour and the left for a generation or more. Among some, this piece provoked dismay and even fury. Yet Corbyn’s victory is all but assured, and if the left wishes to govern and transform the country as well as a political party, these are questions that have to be addressed – and a leadership contest that may be swiftly followed by a potentially disastrous snap election is exactly the right time. But that is of limited comfort to Corbyn’s opponents – some of whom are now dragging their own party’s membership through the courts. They often seem incapable of soul-searching or reflection.
Corbyn originally stood not to become leader, but to shift the terms of debate. His leadership campaign believed it was charging at a door made of reinforced steel. It turned out to be made of paper. Corbyn’s rise was facilitated by the abolition of Labour’s electoral college and the introduction of a registered supporters scheme. The biggest cheerleaders included Blairites; much of the left was opposed, regarding it – quite legitimately – as an attempt to dilute Labour’s trade union link. When the reform package was introduced, Tony Blair called it “bold and strong”, adding that he probably “should have done it when I was leader”. Two years ago, arch-Blairite columnist John Rentoul applauded the reforms, believing they helped guarantee Ed Miliband would be succeeded by a Blairite. Whoops.
Here was a semi-open primary in which candidates had an opportunity to enthuse the wider public: Corbyn’s opponents failed to do so. The French Socialists managed to attract 2.5 million people to select their presidential candidate in 2011; a similar number voted in the Italian Democratic party’s primary in 2013. In the early stages of last year’s leadership contest, members of Liz Kendall’s team were briefing that she could end up with a million votes. The hubris. The candidates preaching electability had the least traction with a wider electorate. There are many decent Labour MPs, but it is difficult to think of any with the stature of the party’s past giants: Barbara Castle, Nye Bevan, Ernie Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Margaret Bondfield, Harold Wilson, Stafford Cripps, Ellen Wilkinson. Machine politics hollowed out the party, and at great long-term cost. If, last year, there had been a Labour leadership candidate with a clear shot at winning a general election, Labour members might have compromised on their beliefs: there wasn’t, and so they didn’t.
When a political party faces a catastrophic election defeat, a protracted period of reflection and self-criticism is normally expected. Why were we rejected, and how do we win people back? But in Labour’s internal battle, there has been precious little soul-searching by the defeated. Mirroring those on the left who blame media brainwashing for the Tories’ electoral victories, they simply believe they have been invaded by hordes of far-left zombies assembled by Momentum. The membership are reduced to, at best, petulant children; at worst, sinister hate-filled mobs. Some of those now mustering outrage at Corbynistas for smearing Labour critics as Tories were the same people who applied “Trot” as a blanket term for leftwingers in the Blair era. Although Tom Watson (no Blairite) accepts there are Momentum members “deeply interested in political change”, he has raised the spectre of the shrivelled remnants of British Trotskyism manipulating younger members; but surely he accepts they have agency and are capable of thinking for themselves? Arch critics reduce Corbynism to a personality cult, which is wrong. In any case, when Blair was leader, I recall his staunchest devotees behaving like boy-band groupies. I remember Blair’s final speech to party conference – delegates produced supposedly homemade placards declaring“TB 4 eva” and “We love you Tony”.
Corbynism is assailed for having an authoritarian grip on the party, mostly because it wins victories through internal elections and court judgments: ironic, given that Blairism used to be a byword for “control freakery”. Corbyn’s harshest critics claimed superior political nous, judgment and strategy, then launched a disastrously incompetent coup in the midst of a post-Brexit national crisis, deflecting attention from the Tories, sending Labour’s polling position hurtling from poor to calamitous, and provoking almost all-out war between Labour’s membership and the parliamentary party: all for the sake of possibly gifting their enemy an even greater personal mandate. They denounce Corbyn’s foreign associations, but have little to say about former leader Blair literally having been in the pay of Kazakhstan’s dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose regime stands accused of torture and the killing of opponents. Corbyn’s bitterest enemies preach the need to win over middle-class voters, then sneer at Corbynistas for being too middle class (even though, as a point of fact, polling last year found that Corbyn’s voters were the least middle class). They dismiss Corbynistas as entryists lacking loyalty to the Labour party, then leak plans to the Telegraph – the Tories’ in-house paper – to split the party.
It is the absence of any compelling vision that, above all else, created the vacuum Corbyn filled. Despite New Labour’s many limitations and failings, in its heyday it offered something: a minimum wage, a windfall tax on privatised utilities, LGBT rights, tax credits, devolution, public investment. What do Corbyn’s staunchest opponents within Labour actually stand for? Vision was abandoned in favour of finger-wagging about electability with no evidence to back it up. Owen Smith offers no shortage of policies: but it is last summer’s political insurgency within Labour’s ranks one must thank for putting them on the agenda. Some MPs now back him not because they believe in these policies – they certainly do not, and follow Blair’s line that he would prefer a party on a clearly leftwing programme to lose – but because they believe he is a stop-gap.
Anything other than gratitude for New Labour’s record is regarded as unforgivable self-indulgence. The Iraq war – which took the lives of countless civilians and soldiers, plunged the region into chaos and helped spawn Islamic State – is regarded as a freakish, irrational, leftwing obsession. The left defended New Labour against the monstrously untruthful charge that overspending caused the crash, but the failure to properly regulate the banks (yes, the Tories wanted even less regulation) certainly made it far worse, with dire consequences. On these, two of the biggest judgment calls of our time, the left was right and still seethes with resentment that it wasn’t listened to.
The problems go much deeper, of course. Social democracy is in crisis across Europe: there are many factors responsible, from the changing nature of the modern workforce to the current model of globalisation, to the financial crash, to its support for cuts and privatisation. Still, that is no excuse for a failure to reflect. Corbyn’s opponents have long lacked a compelling vision, a significant support base and a strategy to win. When Labour fails at the ballot box, its cheerleaders are often accused of blaming their opponents rather than examining their own failures.
The same accusation can be levelled now at Corbyn’s opponents. They are, by turns, bewildered, infuriated, aghast, miserable about the rise of Corbynism. But they should take ownership of it, because it is their creation. Unless they reflect on their own failures – rather than spit fury at the success of others – they have no future. Deep down, they know it themselves.