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The Same Failed Road

Jeremy Corbyn may be a socialist, but his Labour Party leadership bid is still a dead-end for the British left.

Jeremy Corbyn, a British MP and candidate for Labour Party leader.

Facebook and Twitter are abuzz over Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy for leader of the British Labour Party, with his nomination (securing the backing of thirty-six of his parliamentary colleagues) seen as a breakthrough for the Left. The kindly Islington North member of parliament (MP) seemed as surprised as anyone by his nomination, though it must also be said that his victory owed principally to Labour machine politics and the calculations of his opponents lending him support.

For Andy Burnham, for example, it is useful to have Corbyn as a foil, a real socialist to position himself against so that he himself should not be seen as the most left-wing candidate in the race. The media has already been quick to paint Burnham as Len McCluskey’s man, continuing their previous attack on former Labour leader Ed Miliband as reliant on trade union patronage.

It is scarcely credible that grassroots pressure played any significant role in getting Corbyn on the ballot paper, any more than in the case of Diane Abbott in 2010, whose nomination owed to transfers from David Miliband, then the most right-wing candidate. Indeed, close to half of the MPs nominating Corbyn openly stated that they do not support his candidacy, and just wanted to see a “real debate” (in other words: to see the Left openly confronted and defeated).

While of course it is possible that even such cynical calculations could backfire, and that Corbyn will do better than his Blairite nominees imagined (for example, by scoring 15–20 percent), it is difficult to see why this will pull the party into a stronger anti-austerity position.

Not only will any high score invariably be chalked up (by the party apparatus and the media) to malicious entryism (both the Trots willing to pay £3 to register as Labour supporters and vote for Corbyn, and the Toby Young and Louise Mensch Tory wrecking campaign to do the same), but the actual composition of the parliamentary Labour Party would forbid any left turn.

The vast bulk of Labour MPs have made careers in student and trade union politics arguing against the far left, and are not about to abandon their own mostly Brownite and Blairite views just because of an election with all the democratic probity of an online poll.

In the hypothetical (but entirely fantastical) case that the Islington North MP won the contest, the Labour right would not split away from the party. No: Corbyn himself would immediately be no-confidenced and the election reorganized.

As the nomination process demonstrated, only about 15 of his 231 fellow MPs have anything like his politics. Not just the three failed Apprentice candidates standing against him, but the vast bulk of the soft left, would refuse to knock on doors arguing against border controls or nuclear weapons or seriously claim that Corbyn should be prime minister.

Even the grassroots and trade unionist membership of the Labour Party is not particularly left-wing. The party’s rightward turn beginning in the 1980s was not the result of Kinnockian or Blairite bad faith; the supposed betrayal or coup in question had the active backing of the large majority of the membership at the time (e.g., Blair was elected leader on 57 percent of the vote, and his opponents, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, were hardly left-wing).

The dominant logic of Labour support (and trade union funding for it) is lesser-evilism, which is why even the Conqueror of Baghdad could get the party, including the Left, to knock on doors for his election for more than a decade.

After all, Labour has become a neoliberal party not because of a clique of bad leaders, but through a process that has taken place to varying degrees in all Western countries. The base for social democracy has been radically reduced by capitalist globalization and the displacement of industry to low-wage economies, undermining the strategic power of not just trade unions, but even the states bobbing on the waters of international finance.

The weakening of Western governments relative to markets, visible as early as the French Socialist administrations of the 1980s, is today most alarmingly on display in Greece, where even the doubtless well-intentioned leaders of Syriza have been forced to abandon many aspects of their reformist program in compliance with their European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund creditors.

No social-democratic party in Europe has taken a left turn during the crisis period (except insofar as entering opposition allowed them to take potshots at ruling conservatives), and it is hard to see why the Labour Party ought to be the exception.

The problem is not that this is a waste of time or energy, or that it would not be amusing to see the farce of Corbyn defeating the party machine. No, the depressing thing is that the bulk of the far left is so enthusiastic in throwing itself onto this bandwagon, regardless of any of its past analysis of the structural basis of neoliberalism, of the limits of parliamentarism, or of the Labour Party itself.

Why should working-class voters follow the lead of full-time political thinkers who one minute say that Labour is a wholly bourgeois party hostile to their interests, and the next minute that its internal elections offer a new hope for the Left? If you know that Labour is so hollow and conservative that it’s not worth committing to it as a member, what is the point of a two-month campaign for Corbyn?

This belief in Seizing The Big Opportunity For a Breakthrough is itself curiously elitist, a shortcut past actually building movements with real social roots. It is the mentality of the activist’s burden, forever rolling a boulder up the mountain of the next demonstration, the next rally, the next campaign, but with no strategy and nothing learned. No bandwagon un-jumped-on, no corner ever turned.

This is not a route to political success, and stands in sharp contrast to the strategic approach taken by parties like Syriza and even the Scottish National Party. Yes, the situation is urgent, just as it was six years ago when the Tories got elected, and also when Gordon Brown was privatizing the National Health Service before that.

But after all this time, is the great new idea of the English left . . . to join the Labour Party?