Paris Gourtsoyannis: How Corbyn may have saved the Labour party
Trying to make sense of Europe’s latest paradigm-shifting election? While surveying the chaos from this side of the Channel, it’s worth considering what might have been.
The latest shock to the political system comes from Italy, where a party founded by a comedian and conspiracy theorist promoting deeply troubling views about foreigners and a profound antipathy towards the EU has topped the polls.
One of Europe’s largest economies and more unstable democracies is now effectively ungovernable, caught between the Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and a resurgent far-right. To underline where things stand, global markets are relying on the day being saved by the moderating influence of Silvio Berlusconi. But while it’s easy to be transfixed by the latest populist juggernaut, it’s worth paying attention to what it leaves in its wake: another battered, humiliated party of the left.
Barely one in five voters in Italy backed parties of the left coalition. Matteo Renzi, the leader of the biggest of those parties, was hailed as a political maverick when he rose from Mayor of Florence to Prime Minister of Italy, bringing with him the nickname “il rottamatore” – the scrapper.
He gambled on a constitutional referendum that cost him the premiership in 2016, and is now expected to quit Italian politics, where second acts are common but mainly belong to Berlusconi.
Diagnosing a crisis on the European left is an old hobby, but rarely has the failure seemed more complete or widespread. To recap, consider that the president of the Socialist International when the Great Recession struck was the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou.
His Pasok party, bound up in Greece’s post-war story of the descent into and emergence from dictatorship, no longer exists, crushed by the country’s creditors and now subsumed into an alliance with other centre-left splinters.
Pasok’s ruin was so complete that its name survives as a slur to describe what happens to a left-leaning political party that collapses under the weight of its compromises and contradictions. Other parties across Europe have so far avoided the same fate, but only just.
In Spain, the Socialist Party has been cannibalised by new political movements on the left and right, and on current trends has no expectation of governing on its own again.
Austria’s Social Democratic Party was nearly overtaken by the far-right in parliamentary elections last year, and has been replaced as a coalition partner in government.
France’s Socialist Party was not only beaten into the second round of presidential elections by the far-right, but was obliterated as a parliamentary force by Emmanuel Macron’s upstart movement.
And in Germany, the wounded Social Democratic Party looks to be at greatest risk of outright ‘Pasokification’ after going into coalition to save Angela Merkel’s political life. It is now being out-polled by the far-right, sitting in third place for the first time in its history.
Compared to that wreckage, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour looks in pretty good shape, and not at all like a party at war with itself for the best part of two years and still trying to decide its Brexit policy.
That’s arguably because the Labour leader has acted as a shock-absorber for the forces that have pummelled parties of the left across Europe.
Corbyn’s leadership campaign removed the need for a left-wing, anti-politics uprising outside Labour, because he himself served the same purpose from inside it. His backers in Momentum built a mass-participation movement driven by digital engagement, something that defines populist parties in other countries, and which the likes of Grillo’s Five Star have used as a weapon against more established opponents. It hasn’t fit comfortably inside the Labour chassis, but since the election Corbyn’s critics have grudgingly had to give the machine its due.
Likewise, after the first year of his leadership, Corbyn’s critics within Labour had to make an impossible choice – stay and accept their lot, or leave. Almost all of them chose to stay, and they now have some real gains to show for it.
Collective internal and external pressure, most significantly from the unions, turned Corbyn around on having a customs union with the EU, putting Labour in a position to defeat the government on a key aspect of Brexit policy.
What’s more, if a government led by Theresa May can’t command a Commons majority for leaving the customs union, then Tory MPs will know a Boris Johnson administration definitely won’t. Now that he’s confirmed his willingness to be pragmatic, Corbyn’s soft euroscepticism could prove an asset.
Counter-factuals are harmless fun, so how about this – can you imagine an Andy Burnham-led Labour Party withstanding all the pressures unleashed by the EU referendum as well? I’m not convinced, and anyone who thinks Labour could never be supplanted as the pre-eminent party of the left needs to remember that it already happened over a decade ago – in Scotland.
The latest factional conflict within Labour over the general secretary post vacated by Momentum punch-bag Iain McNicol has split the unions from the Momentum foot soldiers, suggesting there could still be perpetual revolution even when Corbyn’s own position is unchallenged. There remain deep concerns about the party’s response to bullying, sexism and anti-Semitism among some of its new supporters. And, of course, Corbyn could still fail to lead Labour into power.
But from a European perspective, it is a success that an established party of the left has managed to survive, remains (broadly) united, and is in a position to challenge the government. In a few years’ time, its warring factions may have each other to thank for that.