Many things are impossible; a great many people would say convincingly, that a Labour party committed to challenging austerity, redistributing wealth and empowering democracy, is merely a relic of the 1980s. Of course, progressive politics is ‘unelectable’ says both the liberal and Tory media, who are quick to ignore the 5 million voters who deserted New Labour between 1997-2010. But the narrative dictates that Blair dragged the party to ‘centrist electability’ and you would be forgiven for expecting the Labour Leadership contest to be a mere personality contest between the electables/reasonables/moderates.
Instead, youth and activists have poured into the Labour Party to announce their support for the left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. Up to 150,000 people have joined Labour since the election, with a third under the age of 30. Obviously, more party members doesn’t necessarily translate to more voters as the Greens learnt. But it means that in spite of Labour’s disappointing defeat, there’s bold new ideas and energy coming to rejuvenate the party. Yet, Labour’s hierarchy are uncomfortable with the sudden leftward growth of the party. It is one of many foolish contradictions of Labour that growth of the party membership is something derided as undemocratic; as though widening the internal debate to encompass environmentalism, anti-austerity and alternative narratives is a threat. Whether the same outrage would have occurred if Burnham or Kendall received a sudden influx in support is very unlikely.
Corbyn faces more-or-less unanimous negative media coverage, dubbed a ‘catastrophe’, ’emotional spasm’ and yes, even ‘worm-eating’; it is clear that whatever he is, he represents a break. The often mentioned ‘politics of hope’ has found its place in Corbyn; a leftist visionary untested and inexperienced and perhaps it would be madness to consider such a man. As we rally towards his defiant flame, we must have an honest discussion on the limitations of any progressive campaign trying to overturn the entire political arena.
First, on the vessel. There’s no question that many of Corbyn’s policies enjoy popular support: most people want public railways, the scrapping of Trident and a more progressive taxation policy. And from the young people flocking to his campaign, that his campaign is a brilliant example of youth engagement. And yet he represents a drastic step back in terms of diversity and modernity. While lefty populists like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, are led by young men of 36 and 41 respectively; Corbyn will be 71 for the 2020 election. He was elected in the backwards, unimaginable 1980s where Whatsapp and 9Gag were but dreams! The bothersome contradiction of a ‘New-er Labour’ under Corbyn is the sad implications for racial, gender and youth representation. Why is Labour lacking a Chuka Ummuna or Stella Creasy with radical politics? Why are we turning invariably to old, white men to lead a 21st progressive movement?
Secondly, even if Corbyn wins the Labour Party election and then miracles occur and he wins the 2020 election – what then? He barely became a contender due to a lack of progressive MPs within the party; only achieving the necessary nominations 20 mins before the deadline. Why? Well, Labour is a party fundamentally wedded to neoliberalism and austerity economics. The party has lost not only the past two elections, but also the concept of opposition as we saw with the cowardly decision to abstain on the welfare reform legislation. That courageous decision proved that Labour was not only unwilling to commit to a radical progressive campaign, but even the achievements of ‘New Labour’ regarding public spending and child tax credits are to be sacrificed in the name of electability. So Labour has lurched further right than Blair? In that case, what on Earth is the point of an ‘Opposition’ and do we even want Corbyn leading a Labour party so antagonistic to his politics? What’s to stop the Blairites launching a coup or refusing to back his policies en masse?
But lets remember that limitations aren’t harbingers of doom. As he’s demonstrated, Corbyn has a policy of actually putting deeds before talk. He has launched commitments ensuring gender parity within the Labour party and backed Diane Abbot in her bid for London Mayor with corresponding fairer racial representation within his team. From the sheer mass of young people pouring into his campaign, his university visits and the release of a ‘Youth Manifesto’ it’s clear Corbyn is enviably successful in achieving youth engagement.
My generation has never respected political loyalties, we vote polyamorously, flitting between party memberships and voting according to what is on offer with no faith in party promises. Political apathy is the result of our cynicism and with that, the inability to demarcate the petty self-proclaimed differences between parties. Have you ever read a party manifesto? On paper, the left, is all about solidarity, fairness, equality and liberty; but in reality, there is division and sectarianism with the Labour Party, Green Party, Liberal Democrat, SNP and regional parties all campaigning in the same seats and simultaenously ruining any chance of leftist victory. That’s why Corbyn holds the potential for progressive unity, reaching out to liberals, socialists and environmentalists to enact a ‘social movement’ finally capable of abolishing austerity.
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and these important challenges could simply prove to be the dawn of a ‘New-er’ Labour; a Labour Party forced to shake up diversity, a Labour Party forced to stop its tribalism and embrace a broad alliance and a Labour Party ready to overturn years of poverty and inequality. Maybe our bearded Corbyn can lead that Labour. Let’s just wait and see.