Jeremy Corbyn: An Idealist or a Pragmatist?

Disclaimer from Heinsight: Recent events have shown I was fundamentally wrong in this post. For my up-to-date views on the matter, please see these more recent posts.

What if Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t an out of touch nineteen-eighty-three-Labour-manifesto relic? What if he wasn’t an idealist who refuses to reckon with the tough decisions the party needs to take in order to ever be elected again? What if Corbyn was actually the only candidate to recognise how fundamental the predicament is? What if he were actually the only pragmatist standing for election?

There are many questions flying around Corbyn. Does he really think he can get elected? Doesn’t he realise the world has changed? On the other side: can he pull it off? Were he to be elected, could he prevent a Blairite rebellion? I think the real question is: why now?

That the new electoral system is the first in which someone like Corbyn could win is one reason, but not a sufficient explanation. If this were the only reason, why leave his candidacy so late? The other three announced their candidacy within a week of electoral defeat. Further, the left of Labour has been broadly content to stay in the back benches and let the Blairites do their thing. In truth, Corbyn isn’t far left in any meaningful sense of the term, or he wouldn’t be in the Labour party in the first place. He seems to have always been democratic pragmatist, following the will of the party, even when that will took the party to policies that he disagreed with, notably Iraq. What he voted for and against is irrelevant, he stayed in the party.

It is not nothing that he would put himself forward, making the leadership debate more frantic than it could have been. Why would an Old Labour left winger—which includes doing what the PLP tell you to do—choose this moment to come out of the shadows of the back bench and highlight the fracturing of the party, after Miliband did such a good job of holding them all together? That he simply got tired of being told to shut up and took this chance to speak to his ideals is possible, but not convincing to me. It would go against what appears to be a career of pragmatism and working for the good of the party.

It seems, only Burnham and Corbyn understand this last point, given that they alone, in my observation, have been controlling their rhetoric to remind audience how much all four candidates have in common, and Burnham’s clever admission tonight that he would work in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet because of the obligation to do what the party asks of you. This mirrors Corbyn’s suggestion on Sunday that, if Liz Kendall were elected as a member of the shadow cabinet, he would work with her. In contrast, it seems utterly lost on Liz Kendall, who said she would simply would not work with Jeremy Corbyn because she doesn’t believe in what he believes in, hardly democratic. As in the 80s, any split comes from the right and not the left.

All the candidates have an analysis of what went wrong on polling day, and what should be done next. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are saying more or less the same thing on this point. The only distinctively right-of-party comments Kendall makes come out on other issues, such as Greece and her aforementioned refusal to accept Jeremy Corbyn as a legitimate leader.

The analysis reads that Miliband’s manifesto was too narrow, that voters didn’t trust Labour on the economy, and that the party needs to broaden out to offer more to more people. Of the three, I find Burnham most convincing as someone actually able to do that and, should he win, the party would be in good hands. But, it is Corbyn I am thinking about at the moment.

The above election post-mortem is based on a broadly consumerist concept of electoral success. Political parties offer a product to the people. The people act as customers. It is up to the parties to maintain and develop their brand so that their product can be effectively marketed and eventually bought by this consumer electorate. With this concept, the electoral defeat is bound to be interpreted as a failure by the party to market itself effectively against their opposition. If there is fault, it is not in the customer making the wrong choice, but of the party failing to sell their product effectively enough.

With this market-led conception of democracy, the conclusions drawn were inevitable: the problem was Labour didn’t convince people that they could be trusted on the economy or immigration. They failed to rebrand the Labour party as the party of fiscal responsibility. This is the line taken rather than, for example, the line that people are gullible, don’t understand economics and were therefore conned by the Conservatives into thinking Labour were untrustworthy.

There are many problems with this paradigm. More than I have the ability to articulate. The key points are as follows.

  1. It thinks of voters as static, not accounting for change of circumstance and of opinion. It is not just the swing voter’s vote that swings, the basis for their choice can too. Their priorities and interpretation of the political situation can change. One of the major reasons for Conservative success is how successfully they have indoctrinated the country with neoliberal ideology. This indoctrination has changed what voters want and how their assess political parties in the Tories favour. If the Tories has simply pandered to voters, simply following public opinion, Labour would have won in 2010.
  2. The consumer model treats voters as selfish, self-interested individuals who only vote for their own welfare and not for the common good. In other words, it tacitly accepts the principles of liberal capitalist society to a level even to the right of Blair. “By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we would alone” is not convincing when the sort of people it aims at have been encouraged to regard their success as their achievement alone, and their high quality of life as entirely down to their own ingenuity and responsible work ethic. In short, the first principle of this model lays down a priori that even a right wing Labour government is impossible. See my last post, where I was clearly thinking in this way.
  3. It constantly has the party on the run in a way that is highly obvious and very visible in the public eye. If one has to wait for the focus groups to tell you what your policy should be, the party will always look weak and opportunistic. Rather than leading the public debate, it limps after yesterday’s consensus as Achilles chases the hare to infinity without hope of ever catching it.
  4. It probably wasn’t how Blair got elected. I’m not an expert on political history, but to consider The Third Way as a trick of marketing seems to me to be incredibly naive. Agree with it or not, New Labour was a political project of its own that inspired people and changed public opinion. As much as Blair parroted Kendall this morning, it wasn’t about getting in power; they genuinely believed in The Third Way and sought to implement it.

If only this idea was right, and it was simply a matter of rebranding the party in a perverse anti-Cameronism, selling it to voter-customers. But, the problem runs deeper than that. Voting statistics and the numbers of seats that Kendall likes to quote are only a surface phenomenon. As much as the polling defeat was great, it is only a tip on the iceberg of the ideological defeat the left have suffered in this country since Thatcher. To paraphrase a Nietzschean concept, it is increasingly impossible for society to believe in the sort of being that it is. That is, it is increasingly impossible for society to recognise itself as a community, rather than an arbitrary collection of isolated, self-sufficient individuals who need to look after number one. If the liberalisation of our cultural self-interpretation cannot at least be decelerated, not only is Labour beyond hope but the labour movement itself is dead. Why would you rely on a union to look after you when you can look after yourself?

This is why I think Corbyn put himself forward. Not because he is an idealist misguidedly trying to build a utopia, but he has recognised that the old tricks are no longer going to work and, as he says himself, that the party needs to rebuild the movement, be a voice of protest and hope, and give people something to fight for. Not a product that will improve their lives, but a common good. I think it is right to say that Labour would be unelectable for some time with this strategy. Building a movement that engages people in politics in meetings and protests rather than newspapers and tv studios will take many parliaments. But, I certainly think that Corbyn wouldn’t be running if he didn’t think it was the party’s only option. But none of the other candidates have an answer to the ideological problem. And, with no answer at all, I don’t believe they can be elected except by accident, should the Tories score a sufficient number of own goals (not beyond the realms of possibility).

This isn’t an argument for voting for Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t know how I’ll vote yet. It is an argument for rejecting the framing of the debate as idealism versus pragmatism, values versus victory,, or head versus heart. “Head and heart are connected,” as Corbyn says in the above video. No Labour politicians are idealists, and Corbyn seems to me to be the grimmest realist of them all, in spite of the palpable feeling of hope he inspires. I think that those where Corbyn is on the political spectrum would not come forward as he has done unless the situation was desperate. For Kendall’s talk of tough decisions and hard truths, the hardest truth and toughest decision might be to sacrifice 2020 for a stronger party in 2025.

"Our party must become a social movement again. It was founded to stand up to injustice, and too often we have lost our way, ignored our supporters or been cowed by powerful commerical interests and the press" - Jeremy Corbyn

Disclaimer: I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m not sure how to vote, and the following is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

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