Thursday, 28 September 2017

Take me to your ('moderate') leader

They still think they're the voice of reason in a (constantly expanding) room of deluded fools but, as many before have asked: show me your alternative. I still meet Corbyn detractors who idolise Blair, or talk of Ed Milliband's time as the halcyon days of sensible opposition. Let's compare recent leaders for what they were/are:

Tony Blair: successful, war monger, Thatcherite.
Gordon Brown: smart, out-of-date, inflexible.
Ed Milliband: decent, conflicted, push-over.
Jeremy Corbyn: principled, genuine, improving.

Blair is a Thatcherite. Whilst New Labour initially reached out to everyone, there were no long-term solutions for post-industrial decline and their (seemingly keen) embrace of deregulation ensured the global financial crash brought down our economy, and hit the poorest hardest (you understand I'm not blaming Labour for this: but they didn't take the opportunity to reverse the deregulation started under the conservatives - in fact the tories cheered as Brown announced the removal of further regulatory control). It was under his leadership that the Labour party moved to within a sliver of the electoral spectrum from the conservatives and created the opinion that "they're all the same" which eventually, under financial strain, would lead to UKIP, Brexit and Corbyn.

Brown is a smart man, albeit one who listened to the established neoliberal 'experts' and chose to dismiss any cautious voices. Even if I disagree with some of the decisions beforehand, his reaction (along with Alistair Darling) to the financial crash avoided much more disastrous immediate consequences and briefly returned the UK to growth before the Tories chopped down the forest. But he was out of his time: Blair's media persona worked well as television moved into the era of 24 hour rolling news; Brown wasn't comfortable on camera and came across as dour - ironically his personality would have been suited to the austerity politics brought in by his victors.

Milliband found it hard to balance his progressive, socialist ideals with the party powerbase who were willing to besmirch their own economic track record by agreeing that austerity was the only way to fix the broken economy. He wasn't a leader behind the scenes, he wasn't sure how to defend the Tories' attacks on Labour's economic credibility, and we only saw rare glimpses of the sort of leader he could have been.

Corbyn never bought into Thatcherism and he opposed the Iraq war. These two key areas meant members saw him a clean break not only with Labour's recent failures but as a fresh option that might appeal to an apathetic electorate. His detractors saw him as a relic, clinging on to a failed socialist ideology. They felt he was unelectable and they told the world that nobody in their right mind would vote for him. He struggled to begin with: the vast majority of the PLP didn't want him; he was not used to appearing in the media; his internal opposition controlled communications and he had a hard time competing with the tories' savage and well-drilled spin artists.

While the unpopular establishment told a disenfranchised population how to vote in the EU referendum, Corbyn was portrayed as a loose cog in the remain campaign. Whether he truly believed the UK should remain part of the EU or not is uncertain: critical in the past, he would now claim he is broadly in favour. It would be true to say we didn't see the passion that we have seen since Theresa May called the election - although during the EU referendum campaign he was undoubtedly hindered by an uncooperative Labour press office.

In those early days, it seemed the only way for the left to succeed would be to carefully position a younger, more dynamic successor who might be more palatable to the sceptics in the party. Instead what seems to have happened is the resignations designed to bring him down have played into Corbyn's hands. He may have had to turn to new and unknown MPs to fill his shadow cabinet but they performed very well and Labour managed to force the government into u-turn after u-turn on key policies. As the membership grew and Corbyn survived repeated internal attacks and a defence of his leadership, he has grown in stature. Perhaps it is the confidence gained in these successes that has helped him to handle himself in interviews and at the dispatch box in a way that suits him and promotes his authenticity.

Brexit continues to be an area of uncertainty: Labour appear to be trying to walk a tightrope between supporting the outcome of the referendum and keeping disgruntled remainers onside. Whatever Corbyn's true opinion on the EU, it must be recognised that somehow, perhaps by accident, he has, so far, been able to appeal to both remainers and Brexiters (though clearly not everybody in either camp). There is more work to do: remainers are beginning to question the certainty of Brexit, given the sheer ineptitude displayed by the Tory government, and so - as appears to be the case at the Labour conference - Labour need to show they will do what they can to keep us in the single market at least.

There are no strong centrist challengers being touted, as far as I have heard. Since the last round of coordinated internal attacks failed, Corbyn's brand of genuine, progressive, compassionate socialist politics has confounded media commentators and 'moderate' Labour members alike. Some fail to see that it was Thatcherism and New Labour's embrace of it that brought down our economy and gave us the widespread disillusionment which led to Brexit, Whether they like it or not, we need a fundamental shift in British politics: tinkering around the edges of dogmatic neoliberalism will not reverse the damage done by the tories to our public services, job security and wages and to the lives of the most vulnerable.

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