Corbyn’s Achilles heel

In the eyes of the Labour establishment, Ed Miliband’s defeat in May’s general election was supposed to be the shock that brought the Labour Party to its senses. Flirtation with left-wing ideas (in even the mild and tentative form adopted by Miliband) had had its chance and failed. No more talk about predators and producers, energy bill freezes and ‘predistribution’; it was time to get real, which means back to the New Labour script. Andy Burnham, the early frontrunner, criticised the Labour campaign for not ‘celebrating the spirit of enterprise’. The ostensibly neutral acting leader, Harriet Harman, warned members that, having been so roundly rejected at the ballot box, it was necessary to pick someone outside Labour’s comfort zone. In an attempt to insulate Labour’s next leader from charges of acting at the behest of the unions, and under pressure from the right of the party to dilute the influence of activists (usually more left-wing than the establishment), the rules had been changed to a ‘one member, one vote’ system, inviting Labour-sympathising members of the public to buy a vote for the sum of three pounds.

The best laid plans. Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and part of the Labour Left’s ‘awkward squad’, a serial rebel against the party whip in the New Labour days, secured the bare minimum of MP nominations to squeak onto the ballot with ten minutes to spare. His campaign rapidly eclipsed those of his rivals, drawing overflow crowds all over the country and generating a resurgence of interest in the Labour Party that has seen over a hundred thousand new members join since the general election. One might imagine that such a rejuvenation would be welcomed, but reactions from the party establishment have registered on a spectrum from alarm to panic. The other candidates have been thrown into disarray as they attempt to formulate appropriate responses: condescending blandishments from Andy Burnham, who has never encountered a wind he didn’t try to tack into; a pained yet forbearing attitude of deep concern from the Gordon Brown-approved candidate, Yvette Cooper; and flinty opposition from Liz Kendall, the Blairite pick. Tony Blair himself showed outright contempt, urging members whose ‘heart is with’ Corbyn to ‘get a heart transplant’.

Listening to the overwrought and overdetermined barrage of objections to Corbyn’s candidacy is like playing Freudian bingo. The mutual contradictions are reminiscent of Freud’s ‘kettle logic’, in which a series of mutually contradictory claims are assembled and presented as if they were compatible: ‘the kettle wasn’t broken when I returned it to you’; ‘it was already broken when I borrowed it’; ‘I never borrowed that kettle from you’ (this phenomenon is also used by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek to describe justifications for the war on Iraq). Often, the impulses and motivations ascribed to the Corbyn campaign seem suspiciously congruent with the Blairites’ own actions and disavowed impulses: a textbook case of projection. A Corbyn victory would be driven by entryism! cry the remnants of a tiny coterie who captured power despite being so ideologically opposed to the mainstream of the party that they openly embraced the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. Handwringing warnings of splits — remember the Gang of Four! — are being made by those most likely to carry them out (even, shamelessly, by those who were involved in the original SDP split from Labour), making them closer to threats than to warnings. The mastermind behind the infamous ‘dodgy dossier’, cobbled together to justify the rush to invade Iraq, has sternly urged the party not to do anything rash. ‘Does he even want to be leader?’ scoff a political class despised for knowing no principle but personal ambition and the will to power. And repeated most frequently, with a sharpening note of desperation, is the claim that a Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn would be unelectable, a mere party of protest.

The keepers of Blairite flame appear to believe that they possess a unique recipe for electoral success, but despite Tony Blair’s much-touted record, we shouldn’t take this claim at face value. As the journalist Peter Oborne commented in the wake of May’s general election, ‘the conditions which allowed Tony Blair his success have disappeared’. The pretence that social justice can be achieved at the same time as bending over backwards to accommodate business interests was never sustainable; the recession put paid to that illusion. The obscene distortions of the British electoral system, which has traditionally forced coalitions to be established in advance, within parties, meant for a long time that Labour’s traditional supporters had nowhere else to go, allowing the New Labour clique to brew clever tactical wins over a cauldron of focus groups, targeted to the interests and prejudices of undecided voters in a handful of marginal seats. The SNP’s wipeout of Scottish Labour, and the encroachment of UKIP into the Labour vote in its northern heartlands, demonstrates that this game is up.

In any case, by ceding so much ground to the Tories, pursuing privatisation and financial deregulation with a zeal that belied their ‘post-ideological’ posture, New Labour eroded the ground on which it stood. Buoyed by a period of sustained economic growth, Gordon Brown as chancellor was able to defer the hard questions, with tax credits propping up low wages, and generous dollops of borrowed money fudging the contradiction between unsustainably low rates of tax, and a solid level of public expenditure (not, by any means, the profligate behaviour of which they were later accused in hindsight — by a Tory party that had pledged to match them pound for pound — but certainly a level incommensurate with touting Britain as a tax haven) while allowing the economy to rely ever more on the libidinally driven and ultimately disastrous folly of deregulated financial services. The financial crash put an end to the fiction that one can please everyone all of the time, that all that matters is what works, and that social justice can be delivered by turbo-capitalism with the hard edges smoothed off: Thatcherism with a human face. Elite, centralised, and secretive, the Labour Party became unmoored from any social movement, its membership dwindling, its identity as New Labour defined by its antagonism to trade unions. The speed with which so-called ‘redistribution by stealth’ was rolled back by the Coalition, and now by the Tories alone, has proven New Labour’s achievements to be ephemeral, sketches in the sand, easily washed away by a tide of Tory selfishness. The individualist legacy of Margaret Thatcher profoundly changed the nature of the public sphere and redefined political common sense in a way that the Blair and Brown governments failed to do.

It is unclear whether or not a new settlement can be achieved by the kind of conviction politics that Jeremy Corbyn’s candidature represents. Certainly, much of his program — rail nationalisation, removing private contracting from the NHS, rent controls, opposition to military intervention — is popular with a majority of the public, and, despite all the fuss made by the media, the Tories and the other candidates, isn’t even particularly radical; his opposition to austerity was recently supported by forty leading economists. But a Labour victory under Corbyn would only be achieved in the teeth of a hostile corporate media and the establishment of both main parties. What does seem certain is that Kendall’s fidelity to New Labour is exhausted and outdated, and that the split-the-difference candidates Cooper and Burnham offer only managed decline. In the case of the latter, the electability argument is a quite extraordinary admission: yes, I would love to say the kind of things Corbyn says, but I believe they are unacceptable to the public and will therefore say something else instead that I think they will like better. At least Kendall honestly believes in her pabulum about aspiration and values.

In the face of such unelectable opponents, one would think the electability argument would lose much of its force. But it is repeated, again and again, even as Labour Party membership surges and enormous crowds attend Corbyn’s speeches. One cannot help wondering if it stands as a proxy for something, a displacement for another argument, an unspeakable one.

An obvious candidate for this subtext is the one suggested by the journalist Andrew Rawnsley – that ‘Labour is really two parties’, forced together by the logic of a first-past-the-post electoral system, and that these parties ‘can no longer stand each other’s company’. True enough: if the House of Commons was elected by a system of proportional representation such as is common across the rest of Europe (and indeed in the regional parliaments in Edinburgh, Stormont and Cardiff), it is hard to imagine that a single party would contain Diane Abbott and Tristram Hunt. Tony Blair gave the game away in a recent speech to the Progress think-tank when he said, candidly: ‘I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.’

But although the electability argument contains an ideological tendency disguised as pragmatism, this is only part of the story. There is a pragmatic argument against a Corbyn leadership that carries more weight than the supposed limits of public acceptance of, or tolerance for, social democratic policies; but this argument cannot be articulated openly by the other candidates or their centrist allies. They can only refer to it obliquely with euphemisms like ‘business-friendly’. To spell it out would be to admit that national democracy is in important respects a sham, a choice of managers with a remit narrowly defined not by the electorate but by those to whom national politicians are ultimately answerable, the international markets; ‘capitalo-parliamentarianism’, in the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s phrase. At the end of a recent interview with Corbyn, the video-blogger Aaron Bastani asks the question directly. He likens the situation to the presidency of François Mitterrand, who came to power in 1981 on a promise of redistributive policies and investment in public services but was forced by to reverse course, and more recently to the capitulation of Syriza:

… the kind of agenda you’re advancing, the second you’re in the power, there’s capital flight, markets will attack the pound; it’s not sustainable in a globalised economy.

Corbyn’s answer is instructive in its vagueness. He points out, correctly, that multinational corporations lack accountability, and that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is going to make matters worse; he says that Syriza inherited a very difficult situation, which is also true, but on the subject of dealings with the troika offers only a denunciation of its unwisdom and cruelty. He’s right to denounce them, but it’s a moral argument, not a strategic or even a tactical one. On the question of accountability to the electorate versus answering to the demands of the markets, he again makes an ethical, rather than political, appeal: ‘hang on, we live in a democracy.’ His only practical answer is to ‘use the levers of power we’ve got, such as the Bank of England’ and he predicts that widespread anger at the European Central Bank’s imposition of austerity will fuel the rise of popular movements across Europe to resist it.

A large part of Corbyn’s appeal is the contrast between his approach and that of his rivals. Rather than constructing a managerial program calibrated to carve out modest gains within the parameters of political acceptability, he makes normative claims: sovereignty of the people over the markets, the obscenity of tolerance for poverty in a wealthy society, the principle that public money should go directly to delivery of public services without profit being skimmed off the top. In order to give voice to a set of demands that aim to change the status quo, rather than to work around or ameliorate it, requires a certain stubbornness, even a degree of faux naïveté.

But as Bastani suggests, there are limits to what can be accomplished using the levers of power available to the nation-state. Financial markets, multinational corporations and the institutions of global capitalism mete out savage punishment on states that prioritise the wellbeing of their citizens over the interests of capital. During the Cold War, the threat of revolutionary contagion helped to bolster poplar demands in the West for workers’ rights, progressive taxation and decent public services: better to bend a little than to break. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, there has been a steady rise in privatisation and a widening gap between rich and poor. Capital flows freely across the globe, picking the cheapest labour force it can; workers of different countries are pitted against each other in a race to the bottom on wages, working conditions and rates of tax on the operation of companies. It seems a quixotic venture to attempt to establish socialism — or even social democracy — in one country, when the benefits accruing to its citizens can be wiped out by currency devaluation, disinvestment and an exodus of industry to a country with lower (or to use the euphemism preferred by politicians, more ’competitive’) labour costs and tax.

This is what makes the only real counterweight to the interests of capital, popular resistance, so crucial. Politicians can be bought and outmanoeuvred; popular solidarity may be harder to build, but once established, is also much harder to neutralise. But just as capital knows no borders, so any popular resistance to it must be international if it is to succeed. Corbyn is right to emphasise the importance of mass movements across Europe.

And this brings us to the Achilles heel of the Corbyn campaign, and that of the Labour Left more broadly: its ambivalence towards Europe.

The Labour leadership debate is taking place in the shadow of the upcoming EU referendum, promised by David Cameron to placate his rabid backbench and in a ham-fisted attempt to defang the threat of UKIP on his right flank. The opinion polls show a plurality in favour of staying in the EU, but the situation is unpredictable, and a number of circumstances are converging to put Britain’s place in the EU at risk. On top of the steady diet of tabloid codswallop about Brussels, widespread anger has grown among much of the working class over immigrant labour from Eastern Europe, and a sense of embattled insularity intensified by the desperate attempts of refugees in Calais to enter the country via the Eurotunnel. It’s unlikely that whatever agreements Cameron manages to cobble together in advance of the referendum will satisfy his profoundly Europhobic backbenches, or even much of his cabinet. When the time comes, the Tories will be riven, many of them siding with UKIP in the ‘Out’ camp. If Labour is half-hearted or divided on the issue, the risk of ‘Brexit’ will be significantly greater. Early in the leadership contest, Corbyn himself several times asserted that his position on the EU referendum would depend on the outcome of Cameron’s negotiations with other EU leaders; Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain’s biggest union, had taken a similar line, arguing that Cameron should not expect a carte blanche. Later, Corbyn modified his position, saying that it would better to stay within the EU and work for reform from the inside. But he has been critical of the EU for a long time, voting against the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. The term ‘euro-sceptic’ applies more aptly to Corbyn’s attitude than to the nationalists and xenophobes to whom it is usually applied, as Corbyn’s opposition to the EU has been based on objections to its undemocratic institutional structure, its accommodations of big business at the expense of workers’ rights, and the restrictions it places on politically progressive endeavours at the national level, most recently the draconian treatment of Greece at the behest of the European Central Bank and the hard-nosed German finance minister, Gerhard Schröder.

Doesn’t Corbyn have a point, though? Why should Labour continue to back an institution that seems to have made the imposition of austerity on the weaker Eurozone economies its mission in life? Might it not be time, as the columnist Owen Jones argues, to revive the Labour Left tradition of euro-scepticism espoused by Tony Benn?

The problem with this view is that a vote against Europe is also a vote for another kind of political entity, a country significantly different than the one that entered what was then the EEC, back in 1971. I am not here warning of Scotland leaving a post-Brexit UK, though that’s entirely possible. Rather, it’s the fact that the world has undergone profound changes in its economic structure. To imagine that the people of the UK would achieve political freedom outside Europe is to misdiagnose the cause of the erosion of democratic accountability that has deprived Parliament of the power to bring about real change: not Brussels, but the unprecedented ease with which money can move around the world.

The EU is not a natural or neutral grouping – but nor is the nation-state. If there is a natural political entity, a polis truly coterminous with its demos, it can only be small-scale: the village, the tribe, the commune — at a stretch, the city. Any scale beyond that is an artifice, and that includes the UK itself as much as the EU. ‘National borders come and go’, the political thinker Ulrike Guérot argues, ‘they are a man-made artefact of history, a fiction, whereas regions are authentic reality and Heimat to people’. The UK in particular is an imperial creation, a relic of its own empire: the early stirrings of English colonialism predate the first Act of Union by about a century. The question posed by the referendum — ‘should we (the British) stay within the EU?’ — is loaded with premises that the Left should not accept. More than ever, the Left must be international, or be nothing: no one, no community, no country can expect to be left alone in our globalised world. To opt for a separatist UK, marooned between the North Sea and the Atlantic, is to reduce one’s sphere of operation and opportunities for collective action from the only regional bloc available to us, to an isolation that would prove anything but splendid: exposed to the vagaries of the international markets without even the chance to build a political project sizeable enough to combat them.

The EU in its current form, of course, is a catastrophe. Especially in the Eurozone, economic policy is largely determined at the federal level by unaccountable elites, while tax and social policies are implemented piecemeal by national governments. The European Parliament is toothless, with most decisions made by the European Council, allowing the larger countries to bully the smaller ones, most obviously in the case of Germany and Greece. The old order is riven by contradictions, but nothing new has yet taken its place; it’s a time of monsters, in Gramsci’s phrase. Corbyn is absolutely right when he says that we need to ‘remake a Europe of solidarity’. How should this be accomplished? Corbyn urges: ‘I ask my fellow Labour leadership candidates to echo this call to the Prime Minister, and for him to heed this call.’

It is understandable that Corbyn wants to use the means available to him, as a parliamentarian, to assert pressure. It is also very likely to be a futile endeavour. The central contradiction of the EU is the gap between national interests and pan-European ones, and the lack of a sufficiently powerful democratic system to resolve the differences. Heads of government getting together and trying to come to agreement, despite the injustice built in to the vast disparities between the nations of Europe, is just how we got into this mess.

In order to bring about justice, solidarity and democracy for any of Europe, it is necessary to achieve it for all; those are the stakes. Romantic notions about the sovereignty of national parliaments are a nostalgia we cannot afford. Exit from the EU would be to exclude ourselves from the struggle. We can either comfort ourselves with the illusion of national democracy, or join the fight to establish a new democratic order of sufficient scale and clout in the world economy to facilitate genuine popular control; not a union of nation-states but a democratic republic. A European republic, as Ulrike Guérot urges. Such a republic can only be brought into being by popular demand for genuine democracy. The Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri argues:

We need Frankfurt and a European currency if we don’t want to fall prey to global finance and to policies dictated by the US or other continental giants asserting themselves against Europe. But we must recover Frankfurt for democracy. Frankfurt should be stormed by Europe to turn the European parliament into a constituent assembly …We must do away with left nationalism. Only a Europeanist left, transformed by the democratic radicalism of the movements against austerity, can construct a democratic Europe.

Corbyn is a decent and sincere politician — even his enemies will grant him that — and vastly preferable to the other contenders for the Labour leadership. But the term ‘Corbyn-mania’, used by the British media to describe the large crowds that have greeted his campaign, is not only superficial, but a category error. Corbyn himself has repeatedly acknowledged that the movement for which he has become the unlikely figurehead is not about one person, but a popular movement. The old party political model of mobilising sufficient voters once every four or five years and remaining docile the rest of the time, while the politicians that their dutiful votes have installed figure out what’s best for them, is as bankrupt as New Labour. In order to be effective, the movement that is coalescing around Corbyn must be independent, must apply pressure as well as support, and most crucially, must join hands with other mass movements across Europe.

Joshua Mostafa

Joshua Mostafa is a fiction writer and doctoral candidate at the Writing and Society Centre, Western Sydney University, researching the poetics of prehistory in fiction. His novella Offshore (2019) won the 2019 Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

His creative practice explores the interstices of prose and metrical poetry, of narrative and the lyric, and of the written and the spoken word. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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