313,209 people currently hold British politics hostage.
That’s the number of Labour members who have just re-elected Jeremy Corbyn as their leader. Forming nearly 62 per cent of party members, their support is the weapon with which Corbyn hopes to bludgeon the rest of the party into final submission and take it in a dramatically new direction. And while he enjoys such support, Labour is out of contention as a party of government: the vote for Corbyn was in effect a vote for continued Conservative rule.
Corbyn wants to fundamentally transform the party so that, according to his chief propagandist Paul Mason, it becomes a radical, campaigning ‘social movement’ that will ‘engage’ with communities across the country and persuade people of the need to adopt a post-austerity, socialist course. That is also the object of Momentum, set up by Corbyn supporters after his 2015 election, and which claims a membership of 18,000, not all of who are Labour members.
What these Corbyn supporters want to do has no precedent in the party’s history – or that of European social democracy. They seek to transform an essentially parliamentary party into something akin to the Stop the War coalition and Occupy movement. If they succeed Labour will become a body in which the declamatory politics of the street is likely to take precedence over conventional electoral activity. Few outside their ranks figure it will work as no similar organisation anywhere in the developed world has succeeded. It’s the political equivalent of the Hail Mary pass, political science fiction.
Despite the optimistic cry of ‘Jez we can’, things look very dark for Corbyn’s Labour
It is unlikely that everyone voting Corbyn in 2016 was aware of these ambitions, or might even think them desirable. A potpourri of fluffy-headed tree-huggers, hard-nosed Trotskyists, Iraq War obsessives, crazed anti-Zionists and long-standing Labour members clinging to a desperate hope for an immediate alternative to austerity, Corbyn’s constituency is a small but mixed bag. Corbyn’s support constitutes a phenomenon that cannot be understood in purely political terms: anthropologists and psychologists are needed to properly explain the thing. Corbyn has however become the human catalyst for these strands, giving them concrete shape. Indeed, a significant number joined the party simply to support his leadership and look upon Corbyn in such heroic terms some believe they form a cult. There is certainly much evidence for that charge: as one of the Poets for Corbyn recently wrote:
‘Someone crept in
and lit a candle in our hearts
and that someone happened
to be him’.
Poets are nonetheless rarely representative figures and the party’s current position is not so bright. In the wake of the 2008 fiscal crisis, for Labour, the lights went out across Middle England and since Corbyn’s ascendancy even more candles have been extinguished in what were once the party’s working-class heartlands. Despite the optimistic cry of ‘Jez We Can’, things look very dark for Corbyn’s Labour, trailing the Conservatives as it does by 10 points in many polls and left for dead when it comes to who voters consider best able to manage the economy. Right from the start of his leadership, the British people made their views of Corbyn clear: unlike his small band of followers they do not see him as a serious political figure.
Labour was sick well before Corbyn. Indeed one reason why he was elected in 2015 was because his opponents were unable to present a message that resonated with members in the wake of two general election defeats. Corbyn in some ways filled the vacuum created by their own confusion. For the 2008 fiscal crisis had taken away a critical factor in the success of Tony Blair’s New Labour: economic growth. Blair might have accepted most of Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal reforms but in office he increased spending on public services and made society somewhat less unequal. The banking crisis changed all that: the politics of austerity replaced that of affluence – and Labour’s parliamentarians were unable to find a course and language appropriate to this new era. And Ed Miliband’s ambiguous and poorly executed shifting of the party slightly to the left during 2010-15 pleased neither voters nor members.
It may take years – and a general election defeat or two – to end the Corbyn Supremacy
It is clear that those MPs who tried to unseat Corbyn this summer still lack the tools to win back the party and country. Owen Smith not only failed to defeat Corbyn but was forced to adopt virtually all of Corbyn’s policies in the attempt. Had he won, Smith would have found his platform a tricky sell in any general election, what with many voters having refused to vote Labour in the 2015 general election because they considered the party too left wing. Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s recent speech to the party conference won applause from those hostile to Corbyn but all he did was restate the established social democratic case of making the market work for Labour ends. If this has formed the basis for all Labour governments since the one led by Clement Attlee in 1945, the present moment requires more. If Watson looked back not forward, there are few signs of new thinking amongst his other opponents to match Corbyn within the party and the Conservatives outside.
The truth is that if Corbyn’s opponents can point to the disastrous consequences of his leadership they cannot yet end it, although they may perhaps delay his advance. But when the present is your enemy you need to make the future your friend. And, while Momentum is determined to embed the Corbyn revolution – by deselecting troublesome MPs – it may not take much for their hero to be unseated. Only 20 per cent of those who just voted Corbyn – 60,000 people – need change their minds. Corbyn might even do his opponents’ work for them by disappointing his fans – some of them have expectations that can never be met – over matters such as unilateral nuclear disarmament. Organisations like Labour First may also recruit new members whose object is vote Corbyn out.
It may take years – and a general election defeat or two – to end the Corbyn Supremacy but happen it undoubtedly will, although what will remain of Labour at that point is an open question. In any case, while Corbyn’s opponents lack a compelling strategy to address the party’s pre-existing problems the party’s problems will not end with Corbyn’s departure. And until they do, whoever leads the party, Britain can look forward to an uninterrupted period of Conservative government.
Getting rid of Corbyn will be easy in comparison to getting Labour back to the heady days of 1945, 1966 or 1997.
Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. This article was first published on the website Disclaimer Mag and can be found here. Image credit: Screencap/Youtube.