Andy Burnham, Blairism, Democracy, History, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour, Labour Leadership Election 2015, Liz Kendall, New Labour, Opinion, Politics, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Syriza, Tom Devine, Tony Blair, Tories, Yvette Cooper
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” (1845).
“The surname may also have derived as a nickname for a man with strikingly glossy black hair or for one with a raucous voice, from the Middle English or the Old French “Corbin” Corbun”, raven…. A Coat of Arms was granted to a Corbin family in Guernsey, which depicts three black ravens on a gold chief, with a silver shield or three ravens proper on an engraved chief, with a red and blue shield. The family motto is “Deus pascit corvos”, God feeds the ravens.”
“I asked her if she’d ever heard Grandma Margot use the saying: away the Crow Road (or the Craw Rod, if she was being especially broad-accented that day). It meant dying; being dead. “Aye, he’s away the crow road,” meant “He’s dead.””
Iain Banks, The Crow Road (1992).
Crucial to Scottish nationalism’s intrinsic status as a farce is its magnificent timing. The Scottish people rejected a new social democracy funded by oil revenues weeks before the floor fell out of the oil price. The slapstick was here executed with breathtaking aplomb. It is the same with yesterday’s election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the UK Labour Party. Countless activists on the Scottish Left had previously decided to vote SNP, on the grounds that Labour was no longer left-wing enough, only for Labour to then go and acquire a leadership which veers as leftwards from the SNP as Old Labour had once done from New Labour. Scotland is now abandoned with its 56 SNP MPs who, when compared to the new man Corbyn, are practically Blairites. Yes, it is quite clownish.
What Corbynism means for Scotland will depend upon the eventual divulgence of what on earth Corbynism is. And by this I am not referring merely to day-to-day policy decisions, but to Corbyn’s own exact place in history. Is he a profound figure or a bumptious one? Does he react to events or act independently of them?
I find it flatly terrifying that so few political commentators predicted an outright win for the Tories in the last UK General Election. Even fewer predicted the affront to history of the Old Left making a comeback in the person of Corbyn. Not many commentators predicted a Tory win in 1992, but back then the commentary consisted of a handful of newspaper columns and four TV channels. Today, by contrast, we have more tweets and blogs, blog comments and vlogs, than any educated person is capable of reasonably consuming. Yet the herd, swollen to monstrous proportions, still seems to lumber about after the news in the same old witless, conformist way. To put it mildly, the “new” online media is not yet functioning as it is meant to.
The historian Professor Tom Devine is famous for telling Scottish newspapers that “the future is not my period.” I have never felt that this was a legitimate statement. What is the use of studying history if it does not give you any more political nous than a random person on the street? Leon Trotsky, for example, referred routinely to history as if it was data which one had a stern duty to interpret correctly. He was warning about the rise of Nazism, and its dangers, whilst Churchill was still sniffing about after Gandhi. If Trotsky was around today, or rather after this year’s General Election, could he have predicted the rise of Jeremy Corbyn? Would he have been there at the very beginning, when Corbyn was at 500:1, handing over a fat wad of rubles? Could he have isolated and resolutely traced the fine thread which would run through countless impossible entanglements to Corbyn’s ultimate victory?
I have held off from writing about Jeremy Corbyn over the last few months because I have been in a perpetual dither over him. What I think about Corbyn depends upon what side of the bed I wake up in. But this cannot do for much longer. I will have to cultivate an opinion about him, and stick to it, and hope that it wears well.
So this is what I think. I think that there is nothing more to Corbyn than the complete, devastating moral collapse of Blairism and/or the New Labour project (I confess that I never saw the Brownites as being anything other than disgruntled Blairites). Throughout the leadership contest these people had no ideas, no programme of government, and no viable candidate.
Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had been pathological strongmen who had surrounded themselves with little courts of sympathisers, loyalists, and yes-men. Once Blair and Brown were gone, only their refuse was left – yes-men who between them had nobody left to agree with. Figures such as Andy Burnham had only ever been promoted because they were safe, pliable individuals without any discernible leadership skills or capacity for independent thought. If Blair and Brown had never trusted these people with unsupervised leadership, then why should we? The Blairite candidate in the leadership election, Liz Kendall, received 18,857 votes from across the whole nation. To put this in context, it was barely three thousand more votes than she had won in her own constituency during the General Election. Ouch! – a bone has been crunched! The New Labour representatives were still too wretched, however, to contemplate sacrificing their own careers and putting up one “moderniser” candidate who could “save the party.”
It was a leadership election in which New Labour discovered that it had precisely no powerbase. The Blairites’ good-for-nothingness was fulsomely advertised within Blair’s last two articles for the Guardian. They were written to try to snap his party out of “walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge.” Strangely, I found myself liking these two articles very much. They came across as witty, urgent, full of wisdom, and hungry for power. This is nonetheless why Blair and the Blairites were handicapped. When up against the Tories they could make no headway at all, because the Tories had, in ring-fencing healthcare and foreign-aid spending, remodeled themselves as a consummately Blairite political party. The Blairites were left locked out of their own ideology, in an enforced hibernation from which they could only ever spring out into action when up against the membership of their own party. To tweak that mangled phrase once again, Blair’s articles were two of the most beautifully written suicide notes in Labour’s history.
Labour’s internal electorate may be painfully few in number and on another frequency to the rest of the population, but they are not stupid. They were regaled with four nonentities and they saw that three of them were positioned nowhere on any useable political map. Corbyn alone offered an affable demeanor, a kind of weather-beaten self-confidence, and, unlike the others, a few bad words to say against the Tories. It was a race in which there was effectively one candidate.
In addition, Corbyn can be found shuffling about within an apolitical blankness which is indispensable these days for any fashionable left-flavoured party. Look at Corbyn and what do you see? I see somebody who usually resembles an Archbishop of Canterbury, with the same Anglican mildness and an attitude of passive, platitudinous concern. He is weirdly photogenic, with dainty gentle features which are altogether lacking in Blair’s goblin lustre. In unflattering photographs, he sometimes looks acutely like a Liberal Democrat, almost to the point of caricature.
You cannot list any of his policies on one hand (a former policy, such as opposing the Iraq war, and a stance, such as being vaguely Eurosceptic, aren’t policies!). And so as with the SNP and Syriza, two neoliberal parties which like to occasionally pose as left-wing when it does not cost them anything, usually to young supporters who have no working knowledge of left-wing power politics, Corbyn allows himself to have your left-wing fantasies projected on to his ghostly, noncommittal features. He is almost a walking screen. It was vital for Syriza in the early stages, to have the essence of Che Guevara splashed about them like cheap cologne, before they knuckled down to asset stripping their own country more ruthlessly than any conservative or fascist government ever could.
This knowing, joyous use of left-wing slogans, imagery, and clichés should these days inspire immediate distrust. Apart from SNP and Syriza suits into political office, and Owen Jones into a newspaper column, it has never led anybody anywhere!
Corbyn owes his election to a tiny number of largely inquisitive political enthusiasts. 422,664 voters took part in the leadership election, which is less than the population of Edinburgh (only the fourteenth largest urban area in the UK). Furthermore, the majority of Corbyn’s voters are members of the public who paid a comically small fee to participate, whilst the numbers of trade union affiliates (i.e. the politically-organised working class) who voted amount to less than 10% of those who took part in Blair’s election in 1994. This mortifying statistic should turn any notion that Corbyn’s victory is a triumph for the Left upside down.
The masses are, believe me, not talking about Jeremy Corbyn. The politicised middle class is charmed by his humility and curious about his newness. But Corbyn has yet to construct a political product which can be sold around the UK to millions of people. He was endorsed by less than 10% of the parliamentary Labour party; many of his closest supporters are not household names, or competent media performers. He has to whip up a seven-course-dinner when there is barely a pan of boiling water on the stove. And on the crucial question of democracy, this is where everything is most discouraging. Corbyn’s voters were not voting for a cabinet, or a policy programme, or any identifiable system of decision making. They were instead voting, probably half-maliciously, for a fun Presidential figure who is meant to subsequently cook up some entertaining disruption. It is fantasy politics – sheer political irresponsibility! It does not even demonstrate the virtues of adventurism, since for most of Corbyn’s supporters nothing is being ventured aside from £3.
If Corbyn is going to make any actual headway, as the leader of an ailing socially democratic party, he will need to cut through everything with bold political initiatives. “People’s quantitative easing” is, believe me, not a slogan which is going to ring around the nation’s workplaces. There is a danger that he spends all of his time explaining how a greeting that he once used to serenade Hamas is not condoning terrorism, or how his phrasing of regret at Bin Laden’s assassination was not excessively regretful. He must very quickly learn how to distinguish trivia from the cleanness of the message which he needs to be sending out to the people. Today’s article for the Guardian, when the first detectable mention of a policy concerned fighting the new trade union bill, is not the most surefooted start for the waiting nation. Trade unions are certainly something to fight over but they play a negligible role in most voters’ lives.
Corbyn’s name recognisably derives from the term for a raven. In Scotland, a corby crow is a crow which eats carrion. Maybe Corbyn is an apocalyptic figure – the Raven King! – but he needs to assure us that Labour is not away with the crows. To a historian, the symbolism is startlingly apposite for a narrative about the end of the road.