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It was founded in 1900, but does the Labour Party have a future? (Photo: Wkimedia Commons.)

More than 100 years after it was founded, the Labour Party’s future as a progressive force is up for debate (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

Can Corbyn’s message of social decency     change our political landscape?

Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric rise since he entered Labour’s leadership contest has got the world in a tizzy – suppose he actually wins?! Would that make Labour unelectable or a force for radical change? HOT asked two local activists, Rachel Lever and Clive Gross, to write for and against the following proposition: Is it realistic to suppose that the Labour Party, which in the general election endorsed the Tories’ austerity policy and now appears to have difficulty seeing itself as the opposition, can lead the struggle for a society based on a fair distribution of wealth and resources and sustainable environmental policies? Below is Rachel’s argument in favour. Clive’s argument against is here.

Can Corbyn lead Labour to government power? And is Labour, even led by Corbyn, worth electing at all?

The first question comes from the Right, who are actually far more worried that he might win, not lose, in 2020. The second is from the Left, from the social campaigners who have written off Labour.

First question: is Corbyn too far left to be electable?

That depends on whether you think Ed Miliband lost the election for being too far left or for being ineffectual and Tory-lite.

Those who repeat that Corbyn is ‘hard’ left are clearly just desperate to stop him. However, because the ground has shifted so far to the right, and the old Far Left has shrivelled up and almost died out, the ‘hard left’ jibe might have had some credibility – but for the thousands of perfectly normal people queueing up round the block to listen to him.

So the threats of ‘unelectability’ have been about as effective as trying to stop a speeding train with a feather duster. The ‘Corbyn mania”’that gives the lie to ‘unelectability’ has gripped the country and especially the young. The rudeness and abuse against his message of communal decency is just proving his point.

The long-range forecast of electoral disaster is in any case not evidence, but completely unfounded prediction.

Out with the new and in with the old.

Out with the new and in with the old.

They also say he’s about opposing, not governing: but Labour, if it’s doing the job properly, is always in opposition to the system, either in or out of government. And what we desperately need now is a strong opposition.

Such an opposition will demonstrate in practice the clear alternative that people can vote for in 2020, and also in by-elections and local elections en route. So the next election campaign starts here and now, the message constantly reinforced by opposition to a savage slash-and-burn Tory government.

In and of itself, leadership of the Labour Party will lend authority and normality to policies such as a healthy welfare state and mixed economy that were established, fully working, and part of the scenery for decades, before the Thatcher-Blair era. Already Corbyn’s programme of popular, traditional centre-left policies is shifting and extending the perceived political spectrum.

An effective opposition that speaks to millions, forges an anti-austerity alliance, inspires young voters and a high turnout, could create a left bloc to at least demolish the Tories’ 10-seat majority. Only Corbyn could build such an alliance.

But can he pull the centre ground? Surely an army of young idealists can’t win the suburbs and the “aspirational” middle incomes? Or can they?

It’s actually a caricature to see this Centre as smug, cocooned and comfortable. They too are users of services, their parents may need care and their children need education, jobs and affordable housing. They all need the NHS, use the trains, and don’t want to ‘Go Compare’ expensive energy suppliers. Corbyn isn’t tearing up stability but offering a costed redistribution. It’s all standard Labour stuff.

A revealing YouGov poll also finds:
* Over 60%, including recent Tory, Lib Dem and even Ukip voters, agree with Corbyn on controlling private rents, de-privatising rail and energy; on nuclear weapons and Trident, the Iraq war, university fees, a national living wage and a supertax on incomes over £1m.

Harriet Harman, justifying capitulation on the welfare bill, talked about “sending a message” to the electorate that “we are listening to them”. But political parties actually thrive by changing people’s minds as well as listening, and leading by articulating an alternative. They are more likely to fail if they pander to every existing prejudice.

Second question: is Labour, even with a Corbyn leadership, too compromised by running capitalism to fight for justice and equality?

After the toothless Labour abstention on the welfare bill, someone wrote on Facebook that “organising locally is the only socialism that is now available, and direct protest is the only democracy we’ll get”.

Without going into the reform vs revolution question, here are six benefits that we could hope for from a revived Labour Party:

1. Corbyn is a fellow activist on all the issues that matter to the Left beyond Labour. The huge Camden rally “Grassroots for Jeremy” was prefaced: “Jeremy Corbyn believes real social change happens outside parliament. A Labour leader like Jeremy will strengthen our grassroots struggles.” If Labour can “become a social movement again”, it won’t be on its own but allied with these left refuseniks.

2. A democratised Labour Party answerable to its rank and file, that’s responsive to protest movements, can turn their demands into law. Crucial legal reforms and rights (such as the Equal Pay Act) that started out from the grassroots are now taken for granted or are the subject of passionate rearguard defence.

3. Labour may not overthrow capitalism, but it might save the bees, or buy solar power from North Africa or stop arming Israel. A foreign and climate policy independent of Washington and the multinational lobby would be a gain well worth having.

Labour's partnership with the trade unions should be a source of strength, not an embarrassment.

Labour’s partnership with the trade unions should be a source of strength, not an embarrassment.

4. However shameful many of its actions and attitudes, the Labour Party, affiliated to major trade unions, is too big a working class resource to walk away from. Together they gave strength, dignity, solidarity and confidence to working class communities, and brought many advances in human rights, gender rights, education and health, and working conditions. If we miss out on the very rare chance Corbyn offers, we will see more and more of these gains wiped out.

5. The unattached radical movement lacks continuity and structural ties with organised workers. A renewed Labour Party could combine the two, to produce a more radical workers’ movement and a more rooted social justice movement. Together at grassroots level they could keep Labour on a radical track: that would be a change of historic proportions.

6. When mainstream social democracy is supine, it can lead to the rise of the Far Right, especially in times of economic upheaval. The pseudo-protest of Ukip is a prime product of a Labour Party that failed as an alternative, that adopted and validated the right-wing ideology designed to divide the working class, and allowed a societal drift to the right and the blaming and hatred of immigrants and claimants.

Corbyn stands out by meeting these issues head-on instead of pandering to them. Apparently this is the way to deal with an attacking shark, and the analogy is apt: reversing course could even collapse the Ukip vote, returning many to Labour who were lured away by Ukip’s “bolshy” veneer.

If Corbyn’s Labour could offer a cohesive, inclusive sense of community, it will be a lot deeper and more meaningful than the sum of his policies. The possibility of changing our societal values and priorities from profits to people is at the root of the Corbyn appeal. And that in itself, at the present time, would be a small revolution.

 

See also Vote, vote, vote for Jeremy Corbyn, Rachel’s account of the Hastings for Corbyn campaign.

 

Posted 21:40 Thursday, Aug 6, 2015 In: Politics

4 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. T. Brown

    DAR’s comment is very valid. As a labour voter turned UKIP, the issue of uncontrolled immigration is at the top of my list of concerns for the future, with all the implications on housing, education, overcrowding etc. Why should these concerns be labelled as racist?

    Comment by T. Brown — Saturday, Aug 15, 2015 @ 11:44

  2. J.vaughan

    Just what the labour party needs. Definite aims …

    Comment by J.vaughan — Thursday, Aug 13, 2015 @ 17:21

  3. Patrick Burton

    All these pro-Corbyn articles and even the non-pro Corbyn article by Clive Gross is hardly a robust reply, but more a sort of obituary for the Labour Party.

    Is HOT unable to find a columnist who deviates far from the Corbyn line? Suddenly the National Press, that has had a range of articles, seems positively alternative to the Alternative Press.

    I am not a writer, and very much not a proto–journalist, just a voter and Labour Party past-member and supporter, and sometimes canvasser who has been involved in community action.

    It’s great that Margaret Becket, the past Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and others not on the Far Left of the Party, nominated Jeremy Corbyn. As they no doubt intended, his candidature has positively sparked up what would have been a rather boring election; although I doubt if they expected him to win!

    There has long been a need for a fundamental discussion on the future of the Party, the Left of Centre and of the Country. It’s brilliant that it has involved people who previously had little interest in the outcome, especially young people. And it looks as if he will win, not least with all those £3 a head voters from who knows which political persuasion. Politics could become interesting indeed.

    I just hope that if he wins, all those idealistic supporters won’t melt away when he inevitably starts having to make the sort of compromises necessary to run the Party, let alone the Country.

    In spite of Rachel Lever eloquently dismissing the issue, there is a recognised problem of the ability of Labour winning with a Far Left Leader who may find it difficult to capture the ‘middle ground’. Concerned by all the things and more that Rachel rightly outlines, would they see a Corbyn Labour Party as the solution? Would a party concentrating on offering ‘a cohesive, inclusive sense of community’ rather than concentrating on ‘the sum of policies’ stand up to the scrutiny of policies by the Press and other parties at an election?

    For example, would people vote for an expensive policy such as re-nationalisation? Nationalised industries were not popular, were generally very inefficient and subject to political, not industrial or workers’ interests, and weren’t in any way ‘socialist’.

    Would people vote for a return to increased legal rights for Trades Unions? Remember the Closed Shop, plus the threat of wildcat strikes and strikes in support of workers in other companies and industries? Sadly as an ex -member, Trades Unions are rarely popular; and during the Tube Strike in London, drivers were easily characterised as greedy and anti-social. The major Unions are big Corbyn backers.

    Would people vote for the higher taxes required by Corbyn? A wealth tax wouldn’t come near to what would be needed to even to nationalise railways and energy, let alone build all those homes. There has been a pattern over many recent years of people saying they would vote for higher taxes for the common good, but then voting for lower taxes. And would they be willing to put the country’s and their economic future in the hands of a Party suspicious of business?

    I suspect that many core Labour party members and voters dislike the wholesale denigration of the Blair /Brown government as outlined by Corbyn and his supporters. There were many achievements, many of which I was very aware of working in two of the most deprived boroughs in London, working in community arts and culture and being Chair of my Tenants and Residents Association in Southwark and having children. I’m partly Irish and with my family being part of the history, found the Irish settlement was an extraordinary achievement. The economy (capitalist variety) was well managed and apart from the fairly predictable disaster of Iraq, some of the interventions were necessary and successful– remember the Ivory Coast and Kosovo? There were also massive failures, not least not to more fully regulate the Financial Sector, as well as some of the others outlined by Clive Gross. All governments fail and in reality are restricted in what they can do, in any context. Labour was, and if it gets into government again, with or without Corbyn, will be so again.

    The Labour Party is not a protest movement; if it is to serve the mass of the electorate, and more specifically the often-deprived people I worked with and for. It has to be a party of government to carry out its programme. To win it has to have a leadership that the mass of the electorate believe it can manage the Country.

    Jeremy Corbyn,like Michael Foot is a decent man, imbued with principles and, as having never been in government or the Shadow Cabinet, ‘clean’ of compromise. But we need someone who can win!

    The Tories must be delighted about what is happening. Echoes of their own lurch to the Right and being out of power during the Blair/Brown years.

    Comment by Patrick Burton — Thursday, Aug 13, 2015 @ 15:37

  4. DAR

    A lot of Corbyn’s agenda makes sense, but what’s he going to do about immigration and asylum? Generalised, ad hominem-type remarks like “hatred of immigrants and claimants” are just as knee-jerk and crass as “weirdy-beardy geography teacher”. Lots of “ordinary people” (including working-class erstwhile Labour voters) are tired of being sneered at by middle-class intellectuals and told that their concerns about this issue are “misguided”, “irrelevant”, “stupid”, “racist” and so on when they are daily affected by what they can see as a rapid increase in the size of the population with all that implies for jobs, housing, education, energy and water use etc.etc., and an accompanying sense of societal fragmentation. It seems to me that many who deny this issue is problematic won’t ever say how many is enough when it comes to immigrants/asylum seekers entering the country each year. Currently we are at 300,000 (net migration) annually. That’s around half the population of East Sussex! Is half a million per year still OK? A million? Come on, let’s have an answer, Rachel et al!

    I could very well vote for Corbyn in 2020 (if he wins the Labour leadership contest), but only if his Labour manifesto included unequivocal withdrawal from the EU, the introduction of identity cards, and a temporary withdrawal from the 1951 Convention (for at least 5 years) so that political asylum was no longer available in order that the backlog of asylum applications could be properly sorted.

    Comment by DAR — Thursday, Aug 13, 2015 @ 14:23

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