How was a committed socialist on the fringes of Westminster politics able to win one of the strongest leadership mandates in British political history? Tom Mills reviews Richard Seymour’s new book, ‘Corbyn: the strange rebirth of radical politics’ and finds an astute analysis of the socio-political conditions which have given rise to Corbynism, its future prospects and the substantial obstacles it will inevitably face.
By Tom Mills
A book like Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is inevitably described as ‘timely’, and despite the best efforts of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) it remains so. With the ill-judged Palace of Westminster coup having fallen flat, Corbyn’s enemies at first sought some sort of negotiated settlement, backing down from a democratic contest they feared – on good grounds – they would lose. Now, with those talks having been suddenly aborted, Angela Eagle has announced she will indeed challenge Corbyn for the leadership.
Lord knows what these people are thinking. Unless they can keep Corbyn off the ballot, it looks like a kamikaze mission. Support for Corbyn has likely waned amongst some Labour members and supporters anxious about the future of the party, but there has meanwhile been a remarkable influx of new members, who are likely overwhelmingly supportive of the besieged leader. Bar an act of incredible self-destruction on behalf of the PLP, Corbyn thus looks to have not only survived the greatest threat to his leadership yet. He has also consolidated his position on the ‘front benches’ and likely greatly strengthened his already considerable support amongst the membership.
Naturally the leaders of what has become known as the ‘Chicken Coup’ want the current crisis they have unleashed within the party to be discussed in terms of Corbyn’s alleged failings and weaknesses, as well as Labour’s short term electoral prospects, as if the latter were reducible to the former. But as Seymour convincingly argues in the book, the current electoral prospects of the party need to be understood as part of a long-term decline. It is a symptom of neoliberalism and the exhaustion of Blairism, which had undermined the very basis of ‘labourism’.
In this context, Corbyn faces an uphill struggle in electoral terms, no doubt. Seymour notes that Labour have for some time polled in the low thirties, and he is not confident that Corbyn can reverse this. But there is certainly no reason to think any other potential leadership candidate would fare any better, and good reason to think they would likely do worse.
Corbyn’s political fate is crucial for the political trajectory of British politics, which is at present in a moment of severe crisis, and especially so given his strong commitment to anti-racist politics. But Corbynism is of course about much more than Corbyn, even if the two remain in the short-to-medium term inseparable. And Corbyn is not about Corbyn in much the same way that Richard Seymour’s earlier and much shorter book, The Meaning of David Cameron, wasn’t really about its eponymous anti-hero. Rather it is an analysis – and an astute one – of the socio-political conditions which have given rise to Corbynism, its future prospects and the substantial obstacles it will inevitably face.
In The Meaning of David Cameron, Seymour argued that the now wrecked project known as ‘Cameronism’ should be understood as a particular ruling class adaptation to politics in a post-democratic society, and more particularly to the political culture wrought by Blair and co. As a political project, he argued, Cameronism built upon the superficial strengths, and the fundamental weaknesses, of Blairism, aping its electoral strategies and political rhetoric for a revived Toryism ‘just at the time when an epochal social crisis with deep political polarisation is about to be visited on this unhappy island-state.’ In Corbyn, Seymour similarly situates Corbynism in the context of the hollowing-out of the Labour Party in particular, and representative democracy in general.
The protagonists in the two books could not be more different, however. Cameron is known most of all for his polished media persona and his political malleability; and will likely be remembered for his reckless ambition and arrogance. Corbyn possesses none of these qualities so characteristic of the ‘political class’. ‘Ever the activist, never an operator,’ Seymour writes, Corbyn ‘was more likely to be found working for the Anti-Apartheid Movement or the Palestine Solidarity Campaign than wheeling and dealing for favour and influence. He was found, during the expenses scandal that befell British parliamentarians in 2009, to have claimed the smallest sum of expenses of any MP – £8.95 for a printer cartridge.’
Whilst Cameron fancied himself Prime Minister because he thought he’d ‘be rather good at it’, Corbyn showed no interest in power. And whilst Cameron sought to master the political game defined by Thatcher and Blair, Corbyn, by contrast, was unexpectedly propelled into a position of leadership, precisely because he had refused to play ball.
How was a committed socialist who had been thoroughly marginalised in Westminster politics able to win what must be one of the strongest leadership mandates in British political history? The ins-and-outs of the story are now fairly well known – the voting reform introduced by Miliband, ironically intended to strengthen the right, the last-ditch efforts by the Labour Left to win the necessary votes for Corbyn’s nomination, the embarrassingly uninspiring performances of the main candidates – and they are relayed by Seymour in the opening chapter, along with an account of the ineffectual and increasingly desperate response of the political-media Establishment, ‘Project Fear’.
It makes for an enjoyable read. But Seymour cautions Corbyn supporters that the extraordinary success of last year came not from the strength of the left, but the weakness of the right and, perhaps more importantly, that of the labour movement itself. He is not optimistic about the prospects for electoral success, let alone the possibilities of an effective left-wing government in the UK, and sees Corbynism mainly as holding out the promise of a longer term renewal and reorientation of left-wing politics.
In the meantime, he warns, Corbyn is ‘surrounded by a surprisingly resilient and bellicose old guard’ and will not be able to keep ‘the right-wing attack dogs on the back foot for long’. He predicted, though, that the rogue right-wingers in the party ‘ceaselessly agitating for a party coup are likely, through their bombastic, deluded air of entitlement, to powerfully alienate those whom they would need as supporters and allies.’
Perhaps he was giving the MPs too much credit. In fact, the attempted coup came quite quickly, and with the overwhelming support of the PLP. Seymour initially expressed surprise at the move, which he thought ‘idiotic’ given Corbyn’s strong mandate from the membership and the disarray within the Conservative Party, and it would appear that he has better political judgement than the PLP.
How could they have been so stupid? The obvious answer is that they are. But, to be fair, the political conditions after the Referendum looked like as good an opportunity as any to strike, and the danger was that Corbyn might consolidate his position by capitalising on the implosion of the Tories and the publication of the Chilcot Report.
It has been suggested that the plotters were expecting a narrow victory for Remain, and that after some consideration decided to go ahead with their plan anyway. Perhaps it looked a good opportunity to mobilise the traumatised Leave voters against Corbyn. The majority of Labour supporters voted to Remain, as did the huge majority of party members, and the hope was probably that in the wake of the Brexit vote some of this anger and disbelief might be channelled against Corbyn, who it was claimed had been ‘lacklustre’ in his campaigning.
Not that it seems to matter much when it comes to politics, but the idea that Corbyn was to blame for the referendum result is completely baseless. The majority of Labour supporters voted for Remain, whilst the majority of Conservatives voted Leave, and whilst in proportional terms support for Leave was strongest in the Labour ‘heartlands’, the majority of the Leave vote came from the middle classes, and from the south. Professor John Curtice, one of Britain’s leading experts on voting behaviour and public attitudes, has pointed out that the real cause of the Brexit vote was the failure of Cameron to persuade Conservative voters to back Remain. He concludes that the ‘outcome looks more like a pretext for an attempt to secure Mr Corbyn’s removal than a reason.’
Indeed, as research conducted by Loughborough University shows, the whole referendum campaign was dominated by the Conservatives, whose relative prominence was three to five times that of Labour. The six most regular media appearances were all top Tories, and Cameron himself appeared in a quarter of all items. One can, of course, argue that these figures represent a failure of Corbyn’s Labour Party to win sufficient space within the media. But the fact is that the campaign was led by coup leaders Angela Eagle and Hilary Benn, and headed by the Blairite Alan Johnson.
During the campaign, Angela Eagle told the Guardian: ‘Jeremy is up and down the country, pursuing an itinerary that would make a 25-year-old tired, he has not stopped. We are doing our best, but if we are not reported, it is very difficult. This whole thing is about Tory big beasts having a battle like rutting stags…’ This was an honest and accurate assessment of how events unfolded. But reality, as the Referendum campaign so grimly illustrated, has little purchase in contemporary politics.
With the whole political Establishment plunged into crisis, the PLP swung into action. The move against Corbyn was carefully planned and managed with the help of professional lobbyists and political consultants. Shadow Cabinet resignations were staggered so as to maximise political pressure, and this was followed by a ‘no confidence’ motion which received overwhelming support from the PLP. The various resignation letters declared – each with sadness and regret – that in a moment of national crisis and deep political divisions, what was required was unity and strong leadership, for the sake of the party and the country.
The resignation letter of Karl Turner MP was typical. It consisted of some circular reasoning; an expression of admiration for Corbyn’s personal qualities; and a few reminiscences about their time working together. Like so many others, it was delivered with a ‘heavy heart’. The ‘country is calling out for strong leadership and opposition’, the erstwhile Shadow Attorney General explained, but ‘it has become increasingly clear that you do not hold the support of the Shadow Cabinet and the wider Parliamentary Labour Party.’
That much at least was perfectly clear already. What remained somewhat opaque though – at the level of logic rather than political rhetoric – was in what sense the PLP’s refusal to back the party’s democratically elected leader could itself be proffered as a rationale for them attempting to unseat him. The same curious line of argument was repeated again and again as the MPs paraded their heavy hearts on TV and radio: Corbyn is a decent man, no doubt, but not a leader. This formulation has the advantage of sounding like an explanation, without in fact offering one, which is at least good enough for a sympathetic airing on the BBC.
Though lacking substance, the ‘leadership’ line was not politically misjudged. Whilst throwing down the gauntlet to Labour members and making a clear statement that a left-wing leadership will not be accepted by the Parliamentary Party, it also gestured towards Corbyn’s conciliatory, modest style; the obvious problems he faces with an implacably hostile news media; as well as something of common sense amongst political commentators, shared by some who are broadly sympathetic to Corbyn’s politics: that he and his team are simply not up to the job.
The fundamental problem with this argument is that it assumes ‘the job’ of managing a political party and projecting an effective public image via the media can be understood in purely technocratic terms. When it comes to party management, it is on the contrary a question of whether or not the bureaucracy is prepared to support the leadership. And as Seymour notes, though Corbyn has received a strong mandate from members, power has not shifted to the grass roots. It is still with the party machine, and a largely right-wing parliamentary group. The institutions of Labour are ranged against Corbyn and his supporters, and they are backed up by their connections to the state, the media, think tanks and business.
Corbyn’s capacity to offer ‘leadership’, then, is obviously a political question, just as the alleged insularity of his leadership is plainly a result of the political conditions it has to operate in.
The question of PR and media strategy is slightly more complex. Of course, there are actual skills which PR professionals and political consultants possess, and some could be usefully honed by Corbyn’s team. But such skills are also adaptations to the particular networks of power within which such people operate, and are in any case difficult to divorce from the personnel relationships which are so indispensable to the most effective political professionals.
Blairism was, and is, entangled with the world of corporate lobbying and communications and its apparently accomplished public relations operations, just like its much vaunted occupation of the political ‘centre ground’, reflected not a politically neutral communicative acumen, but a particular set of alliances and political orientations: its cultivation of business, finance, and most especially the private media, as well as the targeting of key middle-class swing voters in marginal constituencies. Spin and PR were used to consolidate these elite alliances, and depended upon them for its success. Moreover, it was by adapting to these networks of power, and these political conditions, that the Blairites crafted their reputation for political competency. Yet as the political fortunes of Gordon Brown illustrate, when the confidence of key constituencies is lost, the bubble bursts.
Corbynism, as Seymour’s account makes clear, is a very different political project, which is not orientated merely towards narrow electoral success and technocratic management. Corbyn is a genuine radical of a type that has never led the Labour Party and his supporters cannot build their movement through savvy media operations. Corbyn will likely never receive sympathetic, or even fair, media coverage, because the BBC, the other broadcasters and the press are, like the broader communicative structures of society, not neutral political territory, but networks of power arranged around particular interests – and these interests are fundamentally opposed to any transformative political project. None of this means that Corbyn and his supporters can afford to cede this territory, but their critics on the left should bear all this in mind before they rush to judgment about the alleged failings of Corbyn’s team, and should not underestimate the role that ‘spin’ has played in the hollowing out of democratic politics.
In contrast to Blairism, Corbynism has attempted to stake out democratic territory beyond the established channels of power and publicity. This has been both Corbynism’s strength and its weakness, as was arguably illustrated by the ‘chicken coup’. The MPs apparently assumed that Corbyn could be removed undemocratically through political pressure from Parliament and the media, which, as Seymour argues, operate as entwined circuits of power. What they had apparently not anticipated was that Corbyn would refuse to budge, inviting a democratic challenge from his detractors in Parliament and appealing directly to the membership for support. The resulting stalemate highlighted the basic problem that Corbyn’s enemies in the Labour Party face: Corbyn may be weak in some ways, but there is no alternative. There’s no obvious candidate to replace him from any wing of the party; there is no support amongst the membership for any rightward shift, absent of the political blackmail of the PLP; and there is no alternative vision or strategic direction coming from his detractors.
Yet, as Seymour cautions, none of this should lead to any hubris amongst Corbyn’s supporters. The whole political Establishment stands firmly against them (or us, as I count myself among them), and the way forward in such circumstances for an embattled, but galvanised, if not yet potent, political movement is not clear. Figuring this out will require careful thought, and this intelligent and accessible book is an excellent place to start.
Whether or not Seymour’s exuberant pessimism will prove ill-founded remains to be seen. I hope so. He and his friends are right that wishful thinking can be profoundly demoralising in the long term. But these are strange times. And right now no one really knows what is politically possible, or even likely.
Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politicsby Richard Seymour
Paperback, 256 pages