Corbyn shows Labour never really dropped far-Left baggage

Jeremy Corbyn is riding a wave of far-Left nostalgia from an unreconstructed Labour activist core, blown along by the success of Nicola Sturgeon. But the Corbyn factor comes down to this: they would if they could; but they can't so they won't

Comrade Corbyn
the commentator
On 17 July 2015 09:03

Anyone who has ever met Jeremy Corbyn, the far-Left candidate heading the field in the race to be the next leader of the Labour Party, might agree that he has two outstandingly obvious characteristics:

First, on a personal level, he is disarmingly charming; a genuinely nice guy whom you would enjoy having a pint with.

Second, on a political level, he's an unreconstructed, far-Left ideologue with ideas on the world that would not have got him into too much trouble as a member of a pre-Gorbachev, Soviet politburo (just so long as he kept his mouth shut about Trotsky).

But, it might also be agreed that, unlike the late Tony Benn, he isn't bonkers. He knows what he is doing, and exactly why his campaign to succeed Ed Miliband is going so well.

Let's take one step back, and two steps sideways, starting with a bit of history.

Why, how, and to what extent did the British Labour Party reform and modernise in the first place? You have to go back to the 1980s to get a feel for this.

As anyone who remembers it will testify, it was the most ideological decade in British politics since the end of World War II. It all but turned Britain into a war zone, and it had a wartime leader to be reckoned with, armed to the teeth with an ideology of her own.

The core idea behind Thatcherism was not that socialism was a good idea in theory which didn't work in practice, but that it was a fundamentally evil doctrine which didn't work in practice because the theory ran against the grain of human nature in general, and the spirit of freedom and enterprise in particular.

Throw into the mix her steadfast patriotism, and those two words -- freedom and enterprise -- pretty much sum up the driving force behind everything Margaret Thatcher tried to do.

How did the Left respond? In the first instance, Labour elected Michael Foot as its leader. Foot looked a rather ridiculous figure outside Labour activist circles -- a kind of mixture of (or mix up between?) Che Guevara and Worzel Gummidge.

Foot's domestic agenda was, basically, to nationalise everything. His foreign agenda was to capitulate to the Soviet Union by disarming unilaterally and destroying NATO.

Labour was duly put to the sword at the 1983 general election, at which point they elected Neil Kinnock, who did his best to see off the far-Left but still failed to get Labour into power on account of being unelectable for less ideological reasons: he didn't understand even basic economics, and, frankly, came across as a bit of a twerp to Middle England.

Shooting through Labour Party history in a manner that careful scholars might view as indecently hasty, we ultimately got to Tony Blair, and New Labour. Three election victories followed, and the result was that the Labour Party loved him for it, or rather they didn't.

In fact, Tony Blair is probably a bigger hate figure for most Labour activists than Margaret Thatcher. Recognising why helps us understand the Corbyn factor better.

Everyone points to the Iraq war. They are right to do so, but not because of dodgy dossiers or the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. What makes the Left hate Tony Blair over Iraq is that it represented the final insult to the ideological activist core following the injury many felt so deeply at the Western victory in the Cold War a decade and a half or so previously.

Now, let us be clear. It isn't so much that the Labour Left felt sympathy for the Soviet Union, so much as the searing pain they all suffered at the victory of the American-led West. For the Left, the 1990s were in some ways more troubling than the 1980s.

And when the Labour Party leader took Britain to war in Iraq, along with a particularly brash Republican U.S. president, it seemed to the activist core as if all their worst nightmares were starting to come true. The Cold War victory had now turned into a licence for the capitalist West to do whatever it wanted.

Combine that with Blair's apparent affection for the City -- "nice work if you can get it" -- and the acitivists were effectively being told that everything they had ever stood for had come to nothing. They were being slapped back and forth across the face. Socialism was dead, and the leader of Britain's Labour Party had killed it.

There or there abouts you will find the reasons why significant sections of the Labour Party will never forgive Tony Blair. And this is essential context for understanding Corbyn's appeal.

Now, two steps sideways.

First, ask yourself this. Who today in British politics is the most admired figure among the political Left? Leaving aside Corbyn himself for a moment, there's only one answer: Nicola Sturgeon.

The SNP leader is the kind of throw-back to the 1980s Left that Labour activist have yearned for, the more so because she is popular.

She was a big supporter of pro-Soviet CND. She retains all the retrograde anti-freedom foreign policy prejudices that go with such a past. She plainly despises liberal-captalism, though her thinking may be driven as much by populism as by ideology. No matter, she does the trick.

Second, look at Labour's caretaker leader Harriet Harman. It was just a blink of an eye ago (2008 to be precise) when she was describing the murderous Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as a "hero of the Left". Castro, let us not forget, was responsible for at minimum 15-17,000 politically motivated deaths, a figure that makes Benito Mussolini (scream "fascist" at this point) seem like a minor figure in the history of 20th century repression.

The more relevant point is that the most mainstream figure in today's Labour Party herself retains a deep affection for one of the great symbols of communist totalitarianism -- which in the last 100 years claimed up to 100 million lives -- and no-one sees that as seriously problematic, (though, it is fair to say, Gordon Brown did disagree with her remarks when she made them).

You wouldn't need to do a great deal of investigation at Labour activist meetings to find lots of people who retain this residual affection for people like Castro, and you'd find vast numbers whose ideological agenda has mutated from such beginnings to include the obligatory hostility to Israel -- the great litmus test issue -- and the belief that the real threat facing the West today isn't militant Islam, but, of course, "Islamophobia".

The fact is that the worldview of many inside the Labour Party hasn't really changed all that much, though, to underline, it has mutated to suit new conditions. The 2007/8 financial crisis has put wind in their sails, and given them hope that all they thought they had lost may now be regained.

Hence, the success so far of Jeremy Corbyn.

In the end, it remains unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will get Labour's top job if only because it would guarantee that Labour loses the next election. In contrast with the 1980s, even the activist core is aware there is a disconnect between potential voters and themselves.

Sturgeon is an anomaly, explicable in ideological terms because of the unique way in which Scottish nationalism has developed over time. She'd get nowhere if she spoke with an English accent and had to present her case to and on behalf of the wider British public. It is delusional to think otherwise.

Jeremy Corbyn is riding a bit of a wave. And with the above factors in mind, it's not all that taxing to work out why. But, unless Labour is intent on committing suicide, it won't last, disappointing as many activists will find it.

And that's what the Corbyn factor comes down to; they would if they could; but they can't so they won't.

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