Despite his histrionic harangue, he has failed to kill off social democracy in the UK, writes Joyce McMillan
He’s tall, perhaps in his Sixties, with a neat white beard. He has a thin, kindly, intelligent face, and a charismatic presence as a public speaker, which he uses to call for “a radical change”; and although he wins a landslide victory when his people are asked to choose between him and a younger colleague, his success divides and finally destroys the organisation to which he has given his life.
He even looks a little bit like Jeremy Corbyn, the radical liberal Pastor Paul in the Gate Theatre of London’s powerful play The Christians, playing at the Traverse this festival; the actor William Gaminara, best known from the television series Silent Witness, gives a brilliant performance in the role. And what’s most fascinating about the play is its insight into what happens when a leader misjudges the group he leads, and moves a step too far; the pain, the doubt, the division, and the once-loyal members stepping up to admit that their loyalty may have been stretched to breaking point.
And it’s certainly in this light that the Blairite right of the Labour Party would like us to see the “surprise” front-runner in the UK Labour leadership race, in this last lap of the campaign. Jeremy Corbyn, they say, is a man of honest radical convictions, and therefore has a superficial appeal to the young and the disaffected.
His election as leader, though, would in their view be a disaster, splitting the party, and rendering it – in their favourite word – “unelectable”; in an impassioned piece for Wednesday’s Guardian, Tony Blair even raised the prospect of Labour “annihilation” at the ballot-box, if Corbyn ever comes anywhere near the leader’s office.
Yet the more this argument is advanced, the odder it seems. Essentially what Tony Blair and many other grandees seem to be saying is that the people of Britain no longer want any kind of left-wing or even centre-left government, and so should not be offered one; that the party must simply follow the perceived rightward shift of British public opinion over the last 40 years, or face electoral extinction. To most people of the left, what Jeremy Corbyn is saying on the campaign trail seems pretty much like common sense; yet faced with that unremarkable social-democratic talk, the Labour Party’s top brass start to snarl and froth like a set of vampires glimpsing a crucifix, and to instruct their members to believe at least two impossible things before breakfast.
The first is to believe that “the British people” as a whole have moved substantially towards the Tories on all matters – even though David Cameron’s government actually attracted little more than a third of the vote at the general election in May.
The second is to believe that that supposed change is so permanent and immutable that Labour should essentially abandon centre-left arguments; it is strange to observe a generation of politicians who often greatly admire Margaret Thatcher’s leadership skills, so completely failing to grasp that she began by embracing supposedly “unelectable” right-wing positions, and then shifted the entire ground of British politics by sheer force of argument.
The truth is, though, that the right of the Labour Party no longer want to shift the entire ground of British politics; they are pretty comfortable with the establishment neoliberal consensus that was Margaret Thatcher’s most significant legacy.
So the final and underlying impossible thing they want their members to believe is that the British people have turned away from social democracy (if they have done so) because social democracy is just plain wrong.
Baring his ideological teeth towards the end of his newspaper column, Tony Blair dismisses it as “policies from the past that were rejected by the people because they didn’t work” – this despite the voluminous evidence that they did work, and gave ordinary British people, among others across the west, the longest period of sustained and transformative growth in security and living standards that they have ever known.
And this, I think, is the battle-ground on which politics now stands, at flash-points across Europe, and beyond. For thinking voters of the centre-left, the present global financial dispensation is obviously becoming unviable. From the stand-off between the Greek people and the high priests of the eurozone, through the shrill “othering’ and dismissal of the SNP’s anti-austerity stance, to Labour’s increasingly absurd attempts to bar assorted people of the left from its “open” leadership election, the current political establishment in the “democratic” west finds itself increasingly trying to interdict and prevent the re-emergence into the mainstream of even quite moderate social democratic ideas. And although they have yet to face a rebellion which they cannot contain, the inherent instability, injustice and lack of accountabilty in the system they defend means that these rebellions – from the Bernie Sanders movement in the USA to Podemos in Spain – are only likely to gain in strength.
And it is true, as Tony Blair argues, that Britain’s deeply divided Labour Party may well be one of the casualties of this moment of change. Before they start to demonise Jeremy Corbyn as the man who split the party, though, Tony Blair and his allies should think back a decade or more, and ask themselves whose messianic speeches, from the annual conference pulpit and elsewhere, really broke the thing we once called the Labour movement. Back then – even before Tony Blair’s fateful decision to join in the Iraq war – there were plenty of people in the congregation struggling with the new neoliberal ideas that were being preached; joining obediently in standing ovations, while inwardly their hearts sank, and their minds misgave them.
Like Pastor Paul, though, the leader failed to hear them, or to respect the sense of betrayal they felt. And although, a dozen years on, he is not the leader who will reap the tempest of rebellion now being unleashed through the Corbyn campaign, we can see – if we look beyond the beard – that it was Tony Blair, back then, who sowed the seeds of it; the leader who went too far, who drove away too many of the party’s natural supporters, and who now watches in dismay as they rejoin the party in droves, in an effort to declare the age of Thatcherism and Blairism over, at last.