THE only party that ever gave working people a voice looks like splitting, through no fault of leader, writes Joyce McMillan
A couple of weeks ago, at the Durham Miners’ Gala, a journalist asked the beleaguered Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn how he was coping with all the pressure being brought to bear on him, as members of the Parliamentary Labour Party tried to unseat him in a Westminster Palace coup. The conventional political answer would have been to say that the pressure was tough, but that Corbyn would be equal to it.
Instead, though – in a reply that speaks volumes about why so many Labour supporters like Corbyn and his style – he simply said that so far as he was concerned, there was no pressure on him. Pressure, he said, is when you don’t have enough money to feed your kids, when you have no job security or guaranteed hours; and if you haven’t experienced that, he said, you don’t really know the meaning of the word.
Whether Jeremy Corbyn experiences it as pressure or not, though, the political focus on him is unrelenting, as the latest Labour leadership contest takes shape. It’s not only that 80 per cent of the parliamentary Labour Party do not support him, and have taken to humiliating him in the chamber of the House of Commons, to the obvious delight of the Tories. It’s also the orchestrated campaigns from the Labour right seeking – fairly or unfairly – to associate him with anti-Semitism, terrorist sympathies, and now with an alleged wave of misogyny and bullying in the party; campaigns reflected in the hostility to Corbyn shown by most of the UK media, and exposed this week in a London School of Economics report.
And what is most alarming about the present obsessive focus on Jeremy Corbyn is that for many leading Labour figures, it seems to have become a substitute for any serious thought about what has actually happened to the party over the last decade. For the truth is that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is not the cause of Labour’s problems, but a sign of how severe they had become. Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader only in September last year, after Ed Miliband led the party to defeat in the 2015 general election; and Corbyn won the leadership because the other candidates were, to put it bluntly, lamentable. Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall toured the television studios mouthing Powerpoint managerial platitudes, while Corbyn simply told it as it was, about the grotesque inequalities and skewed priorities that now disfigure British society.
Yet as soon as Corbyn was elected, the profound post-New-Labour existential crisis which had led to his election was forgotten, as the majority of the PLP began an aggressive campaign to get rid of him at any cost. Rather than take responsibility for the sharp decline in Labour’s fortunes over the last decade, seek to understand the electoral ravages caused by the popular revolt against New Labourism in Scotland and parts of northern England, and try to assess why so many members of the Labour Party now found Jeremy Corbyn preferable to the establishment options, the right of the Labour Party preferred to frame the whole phenomenon as some kind of party plot, and to try to deal with it as such. Hence the spectacle voters now see, as the nation’s principal opposition party indulges in internecine warfare of the most unattractive kind between the leader and his parliamentary party; small wonder that the Tories are currently 11 points ahead in the polls, after level- pegging with Labour just a few months ago.
And it is truly difficult to calculate the extent of the price everyone in these islands may eventually pay for this failure of mature self-examination on the part of the majority of the Labour Party at Westminster. Their abject failure even to attempt to understand the collapse of their support in Scotland, their similar failure to hear the voices of economic despair in northern England, and their apparent deafness to everything except the superficial reaction against immigrants that is a symptom of that despair and insecurity, has made the break-up of Britain more likely, and has also opened the way for Ukip, and all the outright evils of a new English politics openly based on blinkered xenophobia. And as a result of those weaknesses of analysis and understanding, they now face the triumphant post-Brexit Tories across the Commons, as a party so hopelessly divided that they cannot provide effective opposition, far less a credible alternative government.
Yet for all the sound and fury directed against Jeremy Corbyn, the truth – obvious to anyone who looks at the situation of mainstream centre-left parties across Europe and beyond – is that the source of the problem is not the Corbyn left, which was completely marginalised through most of the last 20 years, but New Labour itself, the supposedly social-democratic party that fell in love with a crass and cruel model of capitalism at precisely the moment when they should have been subjecting it to ever more rigorous criticism, that failed to oppose austerity, and that voted for George W Bush’s illegal adventure in Iraq, at costs which are now all too apparent. It was because of despair over their performance that so many Labour supporters voted for Jeremy Corbyn last summer. And in the light of that performance, it is perfectly clear that if Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer to the Labour Party’s current ills, then neither are they; indeed from a Scottish perspective, the very suggestion that they might be seems absurd.
So now, the party that once gave us the nearest thing to social justice we have ever seen, in this small and wealth-skewed island, faces a grim choice between a man who enjoys mass support but cannot unite the party, and a man supported only by a few dozen MPs, who none the less says he can. A split seems almost inevitable; the prospects for the Labour Party’s survival, never mind its success, look doubtful. And the only people who will truly rejoice in its downfall are those who care nothing for the values it once represented; or for the ordinary working people of Britain, who now stand to lose the only party that has ever given them a truly effective voice, in the UK’s highest corridors of power.