Friday, 9 October 2015

Against Parliamentary Cretinism

According to one chronicler of Blairism, lifting his eyes to survey the "new politics," Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have a stubborn little plan: "to stay exactly where they are." That is, stranded at the heart of Labour, a curious island in a hostile storm.

Since Corbyn's election as leader most have focused their attention on if and how he can win over the top brass in his party. But that is not the real problem. Labour "moderates" have a point. If Corbyn hangs on for long enough, wasting his and his movement's energies on a doomed seduction of the Party's right, he might just contest a disastrous election. They know in advance that the top of Labour's hierarchy will never be won over to Corbynism. They know this because they make up the bulk of  this hierarchy and - get this! - they hate him.

Before the leadership election Corbyn supporters insisted Labour MPs would come round to the leader's point of view. They would queue up to respect his democratic mandate. So too would the Murdoch press for that matter. How wrong they were and how right the Blairites are proving.

Corbyn's failure has been pre-written far in advance. The establishment has an extremely well-drilled plan for how to deal with any such incursion on its power. What, if anything, can be done to reverse this star-cross'd script? Corbyn can do one thing, which is after all the principal role of a left-wing leader. This thirty-year veteran of extra-parliamentary protest must loudly insist, contradicting all of Labour leadership history, that parliament is not all of politics.

He must say that what goes on outside parliament in terms of popular campaigns, solidarity projects, protests and union activity is even more important than what happens in the staid Commons. He must embrace popular activism. Without it he is dead in the water. But this is a hard task indeed, since for its entire history the Labour leadership in parliament has existed to peacefully channel and neutralise extra-parliamentary energy into "reformism." Corbyn himself is almost certainly not immune to this disease.

Already the signs do not look good. He and McDonnell have distanced themselves from old socialist shibboleths about "insurrection." Fine. But the question is how they do so. Jeremy Corbyn, interviewed by Andrew Marr, said he supported only responsible opposition in parliament "because that's why we have a democratic system." He is of course under a great deal of pressure himself to act "responsibly." The press and the Tories and the rest of the establishment - including his own party - are backing him into a corner. He needs to look moderate to gain acceptance, they say.

Yet moderation is his most fundamental enemy. Moderation will make him look like a bearded Miliband. Another uninspiring Labour dogooder hounded by the press for being a bit awkward. If Corbyn looks moderate he also looks boring. If he looks radical he also looks dangerous. The establishment will screw him either way.

Corbyn cannot win if he plays by the rules. About this much the moderates are right. So he needs to start breaking rules. Only if he can communicate effectively with the nascent movement that elected him will that movement grow. It will fight for him, but only if he invites it to.  Mass movements need leadership in order to build their confidence. Corbyn must be that leadership. He needs to be bold, to refuse to sink into the humdrum of opposition, and call for action beyond parliament. Not only the Tories but the media and - perhaps most vociferously of all - the Labour right will insist that politics is and can only be Parliament, pressure groups, press halls and stuffy conferences.

It is only outside the regulated, sanitised and alienating environs of traditional politics - parliament and press hall alike - that Corbyn can win. If he does that the "new politics" will be worthy of its name.

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