01.10.2015 Author: Seth Ferris

Jeremy Corbyn: The Chicken Coming Home To Roost

20475392928In the 1980s Western Europe was obsessed with building nuclear shelters, as the end of civilization as we knew it was about to be rained upon us. Since the end of the Cold War these shelters have been sold off, but often not publicly, the reasoning for their existence having been proved false, and an embarrassment, even though it seemed sensible at the time.

Now a similar hysteria has erupted over another 1980s relic – Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. This man has just become leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party. They aren’t in power, they can’t influence much, so “big deal”, you might say. But not only in the UK but all over Europe, his election, and the mere prospect of it, provoked plenty of rhetoric, and genuine fear, of the same end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it variety.

So what’s so scary about this quietly spoken 66-year old? Nothing he’s actually accused of being. Politicians, particularly fellow Labourites, and mainstream commentators are running scared because he is capable of proving them all wrong. If he does that, people will start asking why his opponents were so convinced they were right – and that’s what so many people will never be prepared to contemplate.

Living proof

Corbyn first entered the UK parliament at the 1983 general election. This was the one in which Labour produced what is seen as its worst performance ever. After governing four years previously it barely held on to second place in the popular vote, on the back of a left-leaning manifesto described as “the longest suicide note in history”.

Corbyn was also elected for the Islington North constituency, which he still represents, and was thus seen as part of the problem. Islington was considered synonymous with the excesses of the radical left – its Labour council was so ideological that the term “black coffee” was banned for being racist, it granted premises to a fake organisation called “Lesbian Collective Against State Oppression” invented by a freelance journalist and created a large number of high-paid council jobs for Labour Party members by creating “support units” which propagandised the activities of the council departments.

Labour had known for a long time that it could no longer win on the back of its old core support. The industrial working class was now the industrial wanting-to-be-middle-class, and the country was tired of the trade unions exploiting their members more than employers were, and seemingly trying to bring down governments on their say-so.

But the gradual leftward drift of local Labour branches, which was partly the product of deliberate “entryist” tactics by far left groups who could not get votes any other way, was the last straw. Labour’s image was so badly damaged by being associated with neo-Soviet ideology that it was unelectable, and several prominent MPs had already left it to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which became the “acceptable face” of Labour to many voters.

In order to survive in the face of this and working class desertions to Margaret Thatcher’s self-reliant Conservatism Labour embarked on a major rebranding campaign. Some prominent left-wing activists were expelled, and the party even changed its primary colour from red to grey for a while. To general surprise, it regained some of its support at the next election at the expense of the Alliance. It still came nowhere near winning, but this

convinced the party that the hard left, which Corbyn was held to represent, was a danger it had to eradicate if it were to regain power.

Such an approach eventually persuaded many of the grassroots members who had defected to the SDP to return to the Labour fold. Feeling justified, they elected the sharp suited “moderniser” Tony Blair as their leader, who continually referred to his party as “New Labour” and made it as much like the Conservatives as possible. These New Labourites were just as intolerant as the far leftists had once been. But when the other parties imploded in splits and scandals Blair’s New Labour won a landslide victory in 1997. Point proven, so everyone said.

Through all this Jeremy Corbyn MP remained Old Labour – believing in more social welfare, nuclear disarmament, free university education etcetera. Obviously figures like him had to be sidelined by New Labour, as the public had rejected such views and the party which held them. But he has retained the confidence of his local constituency party, and thus remained their candidate, and Islington North residents have continued electing him their MP despite knowing he is not New Labour.

Corbyn’s tenure is ascribed to a personal vote, not an endorsement of what he represents. But the question no one in Labour will answer is: how can someone with unelectable views obtain a personal vote? Is it possible that New Labour, too, is not as aligned with the rest of the world as it thinks it is? If it isn’t, where does that leave the rest of the world?

Innocent by implication

It is this which has everyone running scared. The rise of New Labour brought with it a new consensus, in which the failures of solutions designed for the “working man” by others were seen as negatively as the loony left policies of 1983 Labour were. The two concepts have been lumped together: a particular set of radical policies, which were actually drafted by the old right rather than the hard left, did not work with the electors in ‘83, so Old Labour policies will never work in practice, even if voted for, so the thinking goes.

The problem, as those who have gained from this consensus know, is that you can get away with rather too much as long as a consensus exists. The global financial system was ruined by bankers acting according to the same consensus, who would not tolerate economic views which did not have the consensus’ approval. The West declared war on Iraq on the basis of fictitious reports because the consensus said Saddam was dangerous, although it ignored his many actual crimes for a long time because the same consensus declared Iraq’s enemy, Iran, a greater danger.

Corbyn is turning the consensus on its head by exploiting what no politician likes to hear. When people vote for, or refuse to vote for, a political party it is not because they have any great agreement or disagreement with its programme. Usually they know very little, and care less, about what each party actually wants to do. They vote on the basis of a vague idea of what that party is, and the clearer the idea is, without actually being specific, the more likely it is to win.

The Labour voters of 1983 didn’t reject the loony left-infiltrated Labour because they disagreed with what the left was saying. Who doesn’t want free education, more social protection and more jobs, if these things can be had alongside individual prosperity? They rejected Labour because the party they knew had always kept its hard leftists on the fringes. They were considered dangerous, abstract intellectuals, living in a doctrinaire world of their own. Now they were apparently dictating policy. The voters didn’t understand that, so they couldn’t vote for it, even if they wanted the same things.

Now the situation is different. Labour enjoyed 13 years of power under Blair and Gordon Brown. The distinguishing feature of the Blair/Brown years was that the government found out what sounded good to certain groups of people and did that thing for the sake of it. It was a common experience for those who had dialogue with that government that even the ministers who wrote the laws had no idea what they actually said, or what their consequences would be. The words sounded nice, and that was all that mattered, or so Labour thought for a long time.

From the beginning even those convinced by Labour were concerned about this approach. Eventually the voters wanted more. Labour couldn’t provide it because, by definition, PR exercises lack any real substance. But the Old Labour values everyone’s parents knew do have substance now. They have been demonised for so long that this has created a very clear idea in people’s heads of what they are. When the alternative is a neo-Tory fudge which isn’t winning votes any more, Corbyn’s old school socialism suddenly has a broad public appeal, and he is demonstrating as much.

Not without reason

As chess players know, certain moves are considered the best because everybody says so, and it only takes one game to change everybody’s mind. But only those who understand and agree with the analysis behind the accepted moves can use those moves effectively. You can’t make them work unless you know why they do, and the opponent doesn’t know how his moves work as well as you.

Corbyn campaigned for the Labour leadership by doing everything wrong. He said publicly that socialism works, a statement that has got people put in mental hospitals since the collapse of the USSR. He said that great leader Tony Blair could be indicted for war crimes at The Hague over the Iraq War. He advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament in a country which is gripped by fear of the unknown, accepting austerity because it is afraid of an economic meltdown it does not know the consequences of.

But all this struck a chord with a wide range of people. Many natural Labour supporters who had felt disenfranchised by the shiny modern version rejoined the party simply to vote for Corbyn. Economists who uphold the general consensus stated during the campaign that Corbyn’s anti-austerity proposals are not unreasonable and not unworkable. People who would never dream of voting Labour saw that he has a point: the poor and vulnerable have been neglected for too long, and if Labour doesn’t give them a voice, who will?

The New Labourites who thought they had taken over the party by being “normal” suddenly had to come out with reasons. They couldn’t just say that they were doing what everyone agrees with. They had to say why their views are actually better, rather than temporarily more popular. They also had to explain why Corbyn’s views, which are supposed to be so wrong, seemed to be at least as popular among the same people.

Put up or shut up

The Corbyn problem comes down to expediency. Politicians often say that they have to do certain things because external factors oblige them to. The EU tells Greece it has to take fiscal measures which have failed elsewhere without knowing why they will work this time, and justifies this by saying everyone knows it has to do this. The US supports governments which are the antithesis of what it claims to stand for to protect US interests, even though this creates violent hatred of the US, and goes on doing it because everyone knows it has to.

We have all got so used to this that we do not ask “why?” often enough. The general consensus thought Corbyn could not win the Labour leadership, but he gained 59% of first preference votes while his nearest challenger, “voice of reason” Andy Burnham, gained a mere 19%. The same consensus also says a Corbyn-led Labour party can never win a general election, but for the same reasons he couldn’t be elected Labour leader, which have been proven false.

So what else have we had to accept because the consensus says so, without there being a valid reason why? As the general consensus doesn’t know why it’s right, it will now be forced to explain itself and its actions. The step from, for example, supporting public spending cuts to allowing a paedophile ring to operate at the UK parliament for many years is not a very big one when both actions were justified by an expediency which is never supported by saying why. That’s the real danger Corbyn represents, one felt far beyond the United Kingdom’s borders.

Corbyn is the impossible candidate who a little thing like reality might prove to be anything but. Then a wide range of people will have to explain why they thought him impossible, and built their careers, and other people’s lives, on erroneous views deriving from this. They know they won’t be able to hide the rest of their actions behind what “everyone thinks” now Corbyn is there to remind them that, actually, there is no such thing.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.