Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have some major positives going for them. He has been re-elected Labour leader with a huge majority in an election in which over half a million people voted. On the wave of a surge of excitement and engagement, Labour’s membership has risen to 650,000 – over four times that of the Tories, and representing the largest political party in all Europe.
On top of that Jeremy Corbyn is clearly a different kind of politician. He is untainted by the Blair years, numerous wars or parliamentary sleaze. All of this counts for something.
Yet saying all of the above the party faces huge challenges which cannot be wished away. Its electoral prospects are currently dire and going backward, after two election defeats. What it stands for is unclear or vague beyond the most generalist sentiments and platitudes, with no evidence of major economic policies or ideas emerging from the Corbyn leadership in the last year. And the party leadership has no real idea what to do with all the enthusiasm and anticipation it has unleashed.
The recent leadership contest was the perfect anecdote for Corbyn and his allies: it turned Corbyn back into the insurgent who won in 2015, and allowed him to run on an anti-establishment ticket. It brought people flocking in their droves into the party, further galvinised Momentum (the pro-Corbyn grassoots group), but it begs the question – what now? It isn’t easy to turn that energy outwards to the country because everything in argument, message and tone would have to be different.
There is still a lack of competence in the leadership. It has little understanding of how to do strategic PR and communications – all previously dismissed as Blairite/Brownite obsessions. At conference, the art of party management is inelegant and clumsy; a shift on Trident at the last minute, while the party’s eight agreed priorities debated over the week doesn’t include Brexit – which may suit Corbyn – but is a missed open goal to pile pressure on the Tories.
In the longer term, there are much more serious pitfalls such as the constant mistake of assuming the party is the country. Thus, Corbyn has continually justified his agnostic position in the EU referendum by saying 65% of Labour’s voters supported remain. His recital of this indicates that he sees his responsibility as only to the party and at its most generous, its voters. Nowhere has he reflected that as leader of the official opposition he is meant to speak for an alternative government – and for the whole country.
Many moons ago in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in what almost seems a different world, the Labour left mistook talking about the party for the country – with the idea that seizing control of the party through mandatory reselection, a wider franchise for the leader, and party control of the manifesto would allow them to hold the parliamentary party’s feet to the fire. It paid a heavy price for such an internal pre-occupation – with Labour’s 1983 defeat being the party’s worst since 1918.
Nowadays the left is repeating the same formula. After the election of Corbyn on Saturday, for the next couple of days the air was filled with the same old talk of party manoeuvrings only slightly different from the 1980s. Thus, it was all about the NEC and how the party’s governing body will be made up, the basis on which Scottish and Welsh places will be filled, how the shadow cabinet is going to be chosen and potentially elected, and that old favourite, mandatory reselection.
To make this mistake first time round is human, to do so a second time is tragic. It illustrates that the Labour Party, like many organisations (the BBC being another prime example) loves talking to and about itself. It is a kind of displacement activity and one which reassures itself how special and unique it is.
But it is worse than that. In the past parties were much more coherent entities with more fixed identities and boundaries. The Corbyn revolution unleashed around him has shown that party boundaries aren’t what they used to be, yet Corbyn and his main allies stick to the same old mantras of the 1970s and 1980s.
Scotland has played a bit part in all this. Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale supported plans to oust Corbyn and then rowed back once it became clear he was going to win. For this she has faced brickbats and rumours that moves are afoot to get rid of her. Not so London mayor Sadiq Khan, who similarly opposed Corbyn and has kept to his guns post-election.
What this shows is that Dugdale, unlike Khan, has no political fuel in the tank: he is a winner with a mandate, she is a loser going backwards. Most of this isn’t her fault. She inherited a hollowed out party which had already been routed in 2015 and one where the only energy seems to come from plotters out to move against her should the party, as everyone expects, get a severe kicking in next year’s local elections.
The Corbyn phenomenon contains something massively positive – demonstrating impatience, frustration and desires to shake up the pale, discredited politics of the mainstream. But it also has something problematic – in that the leadership and inner team around Corbyn are deeply conservative, wedded to a set of policies and thinking stuck in the 1970s, and profoundly uncurious and questioning about the times we live in. Their solutions and ideas were out of time and found wanting in the 1980s when they briefly took over Labour; they are even more out of kilter and irrelevant to today.
There is something very prevalent in modern times in hoping to find the answer in some supposed golden age and face complexity and confusion with certainty and simplicity. Thus, Labour has always been obsessed with its past, but now it is everywhere: 'What would Keir Hardie say?’ books (he died in 1915 before Labour was a national party); the reification of 'Citizen Clem’ Attlee, and celebration of uber-partisan moments such as Nye Bevan saying 'the Tories are lower than vermin’ in 1948 (available on mug or t-shirt). That speaks of a party which doesn’t see itself as creating a bright, new future, but instead is firmly rooted in the past.
This is a party with a new-found zeal for tribalism: the 'Never Kissed a Tory’ badges, 'Still Hate Thatcher’ mugs and much more. But this does tap an expression across numerous areas of life from politics (seen in the Yes movement in the indyref) to identity issues and even football supporters (witness the recent mutual loathing at the Aberdeen v Rangers game). The uncertainties and pressures of modern life produce in some the opposite of a tolerant, liberal pluralism – and instead an assertion of exclusive, partisan identities. Both the left and Yes tribes struggle to understand how they come across beyond their own shores.
This is a new Labour Party – as opposed to a New Labour party. The party may self-reference its past endlessly but the Blair-Brown era is widely viewed nearly entirely negatively. ‘We all hate Tony Blair’ one Labour member told Corbyn and Owen Smith in one of the many leadership debates – dismissing the record of Labour’s most successful ever electoral leader. Whatever your view of Blair that’s not very smart politics and the sort of thing Tories would never do.
How all this ends no one is quite sure. There could just be a general election next year, in which case this will come to a head even sooner. The moderate wing of the party has been out-maneouvred, discredited and appears to have few policies or ideas. But the Corbyn wing with all its energy and members has few detailed policies, if any. The stand-off between the two wings cannot go on indefinitely: 81% of Labour MPs having voted against Corbyn in a no-confidence vote while 65 shadow ministers resigned from their posts.
The conventional Labour politics that most of us have known – irrespective of what we thought of it – have gone forever. Labour politics are for the foreseeable future going to be more populist, disruptive and chaotic than they have ever been. It is easy to be a believer or a dismisser of all of this, but none of us really knows how this very British insurrection is going to end. This is about much more than Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and however it turns out it probably won’t be neat and tidy. Labour has decided that there are more important things than winning elections and electability, and that has huge consequences for all of us.