With Jeremy Corbyn now the clear frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, the uneasy and incredulous mutterings that have been spreading through the Labour Party establishment and the commentariat in recent weeks have risen to an increasingly strident and hysterical chorus. Tony Blair has crawled out from his gilded swamp to declare that he would prefer to lose an election than win on a ‘traditional leftist platform’ and told Labour supporters who say their heart is with Corbyn to ‘get a transplant.’
Alan Milburn – one of the most egregious Labour troughers who has profited so handsomely from the NHS ‘reforms’ that he promoted in office – has accused Corbyn supporters of a political ‘death wish.’ The entrepreneur John Mills, Labour’s richest donor and a contributor to Liz Kendall’s campaign, has warned that a Corbyn victory might trigger the formation of a new ‘SDP-type party’ if Labour becomes a ‘party of the far left.’ And now Labour MP John Mann, an Yvette Cooper supporter, has accused Corbyn of inaction over paedophile allegations in his Islington constituency in the 1970s and 80s.
Facing defeat, the other contenders are now talking about transforming the robotic Andy Burnham into a ‘Stop Corbyn candidate’. It’s all getting rather nasty and unseemly, and it’s not just the politicians. At the Telegraph, the gruesome Blairite Dan Hodges has described the Corbyn surge as an ’emotional spasm’ which might presage a ‘full-blown nervous breakdown.’ The liberal commentariat is equally scornful and dismissive. Opinion pieces and news reports in the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent routinely refer to Corbyn as a ‘far left’ or ‘hard right’ dinosaur who has mysteriously broken into the political theme park.
None of these papers support him, and the language they use to condemn him says a great deal about the dismal rightwing bubble that British politics have been trapped in for such a long time. For one thing Corbyn is not on the ‘far left’ or the ‘hard left’ . On the contrary, he is an MP on the leftwing of the Labour Party, and the endlessly snide Citizen Smith-type cracks about his beard and ‘Lenin cap’ ignore the fact that he is a social democrat not a Bolshevik or a Trotskyist.
His economic proposals are a Keynsian social democratic redistributive alternative to austerity, which contain many ideas that already have widespread public support. But both the Labour Party and the majority of the British commentariat appear to regard even the concept of progressive taxation as a revolutionary gesture akin to the storming of the Winter Palace and the establishment of soviets.
Criticisms of Corbyn in the liberal press are sprinkled with Thatcherite warnings of the dangers of ‘tax-and-spend’ or the ‘big state’ and the dangers of turning away from ‘reform’, which only reveal how much even the supposedly left-of-centre media has come to take Tory nostrums for granted.
Consider this analysis of Yvette Cooper by Ian Dunt, the editor of Politics.co.uk. Dunt has been an astute critic of Tory policies on prisons and immigration, among other things, and his piece is a lament at Cooper’s failure to bear out his own tendentious assertion that she is ‘the most intellectually impressive of the candidates.’
To bear out Cooper’s supposed intellectual prowess, Dunt cites her response to George Osborne’s plans to cut tax credits in a recent interview:
‘They are actually discouraging parents from working harder,” she said. This was exactly the right response. Cooper understood that the most effective argument against a Tory policy is based on Tory premises. Instead of talking solely about fairness, it was best to focus on the argument that a cut to tax credits would be a disincentive to getting people into work.’
Why should Labour adopt ‘Tory premises’ to refute a policy that is so blatantly unjust and vindictively targeted at the marginalized poor? It is precisely because Labour has done this kind of thing for so long that it cannot articulate a genuinely progressive alternative to Tory economic brutalism. It is the reason why Labour politicians sound so hollow, why their language is so convoluted and evasive and so pathetically designed to please all of the people all of the time.
Dunt accuses Cooper of selling herself short and offering nothing but a ‘string of platitudes’ in a recent interview, but this is what inevitably happens to politicians who ape their opponents and try to appropriate their language and concepts simply in order to win elections. It’s what happens when you are determined to avoid saying anything controversial, challenging, or which might open you up to accusations from the tabloid press that you are ‘soft on immigration’, ‘soft on welfare’ or ‘anti-business’.
One of the reasons why Corbyn appears so fresh to his supporters and so shocking to the politicians and the commentariat is precisely because he doesn’t do this. Unlike any Labour politician in years, he has offered an alternative to austerity which is attractive and appealing to a constituency that is not limited to the ‘far left.’ As the Guardian notes Corbyn’s ‘uncompromising anti-austerity stance seems to be particularly inspiring to the tens of thousands of recently joined Labour members and to trade unionists’.
Like the rightwing politicians who dominate the Labour establishment, the Guardian clearly doesn’t approve of this unwelcome development, and would rather a ‘modernizing’ candidate who is prepared to compromise with a government that ought to be fought on every single front, rather than appeased.
This week all the Labour leadership contenders except Corbyn abstained from a bill that they should and could have opposed, while still claiming to oppose it. They and their supporters would like to believe that this strategy represents mature, adult politics.
Others will interpret it as gutless opportunism, and conclude that these are not the politicians to lead the opposition to the massive cuts that are now looming, or fight the battles that must be fought in order to prevent the Tory dystopia from becoming even more nightmarish than it already is.
It is now clear that many Labour members who think this way are turning to Corbyn, and if the Labour leadership succeeds in destroying him and imposing yet another political hologram in his place, it may find that they are the ones who are leading the party to political destruction.