On Corbyn, Electability, and Compromise
The other night we watched Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film about the US president. It covers just a few months towards the end of the civil war and his life, during the time when he was trying to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution through the House of Representatives (the Senate having already passed it). That’s the amendment that outlaws slavery.
It was dramatised, of course.1But what struck me, and what held resonances with our current situation, was the sheer amount of compromising he had to do.
Then I read an article on Vox about Hillary Clinton, which included this:
politics, as Clinton never tires of reminding audiences, is about getting real things done for real people.
This is the problem that Labour is having now. Whether it’s Jeremy Corbyn’s fault or that of the MPs not backing him, in Labour’s current position it has no chance of getting into government. And if we don’t get into government we can’t do those “real things” for “real people.”
However, I’m far from being convinced that Owen Smith, even if he were to be elected as leader, would put us in any better a position. As well as being largely unknown in the country, he has what looks a slightly shady past, with his lobbying for Pfizer and speaking against the NHS. Though to be fair he rejects any talk of privatisation now.
Corbyn is constantly criticised for not building bridges, not reaching out to people within the party – even within his cabinet, as I linked to the other day. I think it’s fair at this point to say that he is at fault to some degree on the Remain campaign. And I’m certainly unhappy with his call, early on the day after the referendum, for Article 50 to be invoked immediately. That does strongly suggest that his support of the Remain campaign was only ever half-hearted at best.
But even if that’s all true, it doesn’t mean he is solely or even mainly to blame for the disastrous result of the referendum.
And the ongoing, slow-motion disaster that is besetting the Labour Party is at least as much the fault of the plotters. In particular, their behaviour at Prime Minister’s Questions the other day was disgraceful. Their point – renewing Trident was party policy, so the leader should not be speaking against it – was a valid one, but the floor of the House of Commons during the most important event of the parliamentary week, is not the place to argue about it.
The idea of Britain still being a nuclear power, and the doctrine of deterrence, are even more ludicrous now than they were during the 80s when I was a member of CND. But like I say, there’s a time and a place to have that argument, and it’s the party conference.
Maya Goodfellow has a great piece about it all in The Guardian:
The coup itself is unique in recent times, but Labour’s navel gazing is not.
The tribalism that grasps the Labour party is part of its problem. There’s an idea among lifelong supporters and MPs that you’re born Labour, you call the party your own and you will never leave it. This makes some sense – these are people whose families for generations have been Labour members, who spend their weekends canvassing and invest all their spare time, emotional energy and money into the party. They want to feel they have control over it.
But it [the tribalism] is also partly responsible for the current divisions. The people who feel entitled to call the party their own have competing viewpoints; some of them want to see a leftward shift and others range from wanting Miliband 2.0 to the rebirth of Blairism.
The idea too often seems to be “Vote for Labour because we aren’t the Tories”.
Instead of slinging insults at opponents or branding them all Blairites, Corbyn supporters would do better to focus on the task at hand – winning a future general election.
That idea of the divisions on the left go further than just the Labour party. I thought it was well summed up by this banner that I saw on the Palestine Solidarity march two years ago:
“Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist),” it says. You can just feel the layers of splits down the years that have led it to such an unwieldy name. Splits on the left are far from new. It’s an old criticism that we spend more time fighting among ourselves than fighting the real enemies.
Or in this case, than working out how to get back into power. Because going back to Lincoln2 and his compromises, to Hillary and her desire to get things done: it’s all for nothing if we don’t get a Labour government into power.
The problem is that Corbyn is “unelectable.” Is he? I’m not sure we know that. He’s sometimes compared to Michael Foot, who famously failed to win an election. But things are very different today from how they were in the eighties. It won’t be easy, but a Labour Party that got fully behind a left-wing leader might well be in a position to win power in 2020, when the next election is due. Or sooner, if May goes to the country over Brexit or otherwise.
In the end I wonder if Corbyn’s biggest problem isn’t just handling the Media. Maybe he needs an Alistair Campbell figure (or hell, why not: a Malcolm Tucker one). Does he even have a press secretary or Director of Communications?
All of this leaves me not knowing how to vote in the new leadership election. My heart is with Corbyn, as most of his policies match my own principles. But if the MPs won’t get behind him again, then we’ll be right back where we are now, with the party not providing a useful opposition, and with no likelihood of electoral success.3
Owen Smith, on the other hand, seems more likely to fight for us to remain in the EU. But can we trust him?
And either way, what will it do to the party as a whole? A party divided against itself, or worse, a party split in two, has no chance of forming a government.