I haven’t watched most of the debates between the four Labour leadership contenders, mainly because too much exposure to Cooper, Burnham and Kendall is bad for my blood pressure and has been scientifically proven to reduce my life expectancy by about seven years. Nevertheless, last night I decided to ignore my doctor’s advice and watch the Channel 4 hustings.
I should have known better, because it wasn’t long before I began to experience the same familiar symptoms: first I found myself shaking my head in exasperation; then I began muttering curses under my breath and finally – this was around the point when Andy Burnham had the temerity to deny having abstained in the welfare bill vote while simultaneously promising to stand up for the victims of austerity – I found myself throwing my arms up in the air and reaching for the invisible sword with which to commit harakiri.
In the end I shrank into a ball of frustration and despair before I reached for the zapper. It was a real roller coaster readers, and I don’t intend to go through it again because if politics just consisted of debates like this there would be no point in politics at all.
Needless to say it wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn who brought on this political near-death experience. I thought Corbyn was quietly impressive, though he sounded tired, which isn’t surprising given the number of speeches he’s given this summer. Perhaps he just didn’t feel the need to make an energetic contribution to the debate, given that his position regarding the other three contenders is now akin that of an impregnable sea wall with waves feebly beating against it.
The other three ranged from poor and lacklustre to downright pathetic. Yvette Cooper sounded briefly as though she had actually discovered what a moral conviction was when she argued that the UK should take in 10,000 refugees. Burnham, hapless triangulating opportunist that he is, continues to try frantically to guess what everyone else wants at the same time without seeming to realize that it is too late, and that for this Tommy the war is over.
Trying rather awkwardly to sound humane and Ukip-friendly at the same time – a difficult combination to be sure – he suggested that the government should take in more refugees so that it could make a ‘stronger case’ for reducing migration from within the EU. Kendall waffled on this point and many others, perhaps conscious now of her complete irrelevance to the proceedings.
Both she and Burnham reiterated the same lie – that EU migrants are coming here and taking our benefits. Of course neither of them said this explicitly because neither she, nor Cooper, nor Burnham dare say anything explicitly. Kendall is clearly still smarting at the destruction of her political ambitions at the hands of the Corbynites, and stared at her nemesis with a weird intensity that was disturbingly reminiscent of Sissy Spacek confronting her high school tormentors in Carrie.
Like Burnham and Cooper, she came across as intellectually shallow and more concerned with chipping away at the architect of her downfall than articulating deeply-felt or thoughtful ideas which she clearly doesn’t have. The others were just the same. Corbyn met with Hamas. Tick. Corbyn is endangering our security. Tick. Corbyn threatens to diminish ‘Britain’s place in the world’ by pulling out of NATO and scrapping Trident. Tick. Corbyn is soft on Putin. Tick.
When the subject of Russia came up Kendall fixed Corbyn with her vampirella stare and accused him of ‘defending Putin’. Burnham immediately jumped in and agreed with her. Cooper tried to sound more like a foreign policy sophisticate with gravita, and pontificated that it had been proven that only ‘hard power’ could ‘stop Putin.’
Really Yvette? Where has it been proven? Oh never mind. Cooper is clearly the most intelligent of Corbyn’s three rivals, but she is no less shallow, evasive and politically shifty. This shallowness and dishonesty was especially visible during the discussion on the Iraq war and whether they supported putting Tony Blair on trial.
Cooper reiterated the stale argument that ‘everybody thought there were WMD’ in Iraq at the time, and said that there was no point talking about judicial procedures until the Chilcot Inquiry was concluded, but she didn’t believe anyone deliberately misled anyone. Burnham, who like her voted for the Iraq war, said pretty much the same thing, and criticized critics of the war, saying that it was ‘easy’ for people to sit around making judgements about Iraq years afterwards, and that the decision was taken at a difficult time, after 9/11 and blah, blah, blah.
All this is straight from the Tony Blair I Did it My Way songbook, but if Burnham thinks that critics of the war lack gravitas or seriousness, then he really ought to look a bit closer in the mirror. Kendall said that she hadn’t been an MP at the time, but her touching acceptance that those who were in power at the time made the best decisions they could make it clear how she would have voted.
Nowhere, except from Corbyn, was there the slightest recognition of the horrors unleashed by those dreadful decisions, or any indication of their geopolitical consequences in Iraq and elsewhere.
Asked whether they would support future military action in Syria and elsewhere, the three of them hedged their bets, because bet-hedging is what they do, and argued that it would depend on what its aims and objectives were, and whether the decision was taken in conjunction with our ‘international partners’ – New Labour shorthand for ‘whatever the US wants us to do.’
When Corbyn pointed out that the Syrian Civil War was not a straightforward conflict between two sides, but a multifaceted conflict involving various protagonists, the three of them stared at him with incomprehension, as though he had suddenly started talking in a foreign language.
Burnham, Cooper and Kendall repeatedly referred to our ‘uncertain world’ as a justification for NATO, Trident and anything else, without exhibiting the slightest indication of any insight into why our world is the way it is, or the contribution that our government and its allies have made to that ‘uncertainty.’ Listening to them trying to sound like foreign policy wonks, I wondered if any of them have ever read a book or an article on Iraq and the Middle East that didn’t simply reflect the ideas that they have so thoughtlessly and uncritically recycled for so many tired years, or consulted someone who might have provided some counterpoint to their endless clichés.
For everything that has been said about Corbyn’s unelectibility, I couldn’t imagine that any of these three could win an election unless the Tory cabinet were proven to be running a paedophile ring. I also thought that politicians like this will never forgive what Corbyn has done to them, and will never understand or accept the movement that has wrecked their aspirations for the Big Job.
On the contrary, I suspect that they will do everything they can to undermine and destroy him. How they do this remains to be seen. In his Observer article on Sunday, Blair pondered whether the right way to deal with the ‘parallel reality’ of Corbynism was to ‘ go full frontal and take it on or …try to build a bridge between the two realities.’
The prospect of Tony Blair going ‘full frontal’ is not a pleasant prospect to think about for long, but I really doubt if the Labour right will attempt bridgebuilding in this context. So far they have thrown everything at Corbyn and accused him of just about everything except crucifying Jesus, and none of it has worked.
Faced with the inevitability of a Corbyn victory and the startling emergence of a genuine leftist upsurge within the party for the first time in more than three decades, I suspect that what they will do is take a leaf from Iago and Machiavelli and work behind the scenes within what Kendall calls the ‘resistance’, in an attempt to undermine and humiliate Corbyn and frustrate him at every turn.
Some of them will pretend to accept the new status quo – for now. Thus Chuka Umunna has extended an ‘olive branch’ to Corbyn and declared that the views of the left could not be dismissed ‘out of hand’ and that the party should accept the result of the election. Accept the result of an election in which the winner is projected to win a massive majority? What a novel concept.
And the left may not be dismissed out of hand, but it will be dismissed, and if were Corbyn I would check very carefully what that olive branch has on it. Lyndon Johnson once said that it was better to have his enemies inside the tent and pissing out than outside pissing in. That may not be the case in this situation.
Corbyn’s enemies inside the party will have powerful friends outside the party to help them, who will continue what they have been doing all through his campaign.
All this, as John Rees has argued, makes it even more essential that he has friends inside and outside the party to fight the fight that needs to be fought. Because it isn’t necessary to place all the hopes of the left in a revitalized and democratized Labour Party, and there is no doubt that ‘hope’ itself can be a counterproductive and destructive political force if all it can do is raise expectations that are crushed and ignored.
But as things stand, Corbyn’s campaign represents the biggest opening for the left in decades, and belongs to a wider social movement that extends far beyond the dismal debate that I saw last night.