The British Labour party conference, held in Brighton this week, demonstrated the close affinity of newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn with the party’s rank and file. The Guardian’s Seumas Milne remarked: “Corbyn brought delegates to their feet with his appeal to popular decency and solidarity, his rejection of illegal warmaking and Trident renewal, and his unqualified opposition to the new benefit and tax credit cuts about to be imposed on millions across Britain.”
His popular support meant that anti-Corbyn MPs could not challenge him on austerity and the economy. But his opponents, including some in the shadow cabinet, loudly voiced their hostility to Corbyn’s aim of scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system, whose usefulness is a myth furiously propagated by the Tories, the military high command, the armaments industry, and some rightwing union leaders.
As Milne noted: “the gap between the party’s leader, elected by hundreds of thousands, and the majority of its MPs, who didn’t vote for him, is stark.” British politics is highly ideological, and so is all about using and manipulating symbols of state legitimacy. For example, the press and BBC have attacked Corbyn on whether he would authorize a nuclear strike, his willingness to sing the national anthem, and possibly not wearing a red poppy on Armistice Day.
Corbyn’s conference speech, which so resonated with the party membership, countered these attacks with an alternative symbol, the unifying ideal of “shared majority British values” such as “fair play for all,” defined against the selfish individualism of hedge fund-backed Tory leaders. He said he was elected on the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society. … We are going to put these values back into the heart of politics in this country,” the subtext being that these values had been abandoned by the Blairite leadership in its quest for electability.
Gary Younge commented: “The speech was clear. It had purpose. It anchored a party that has for too long been adrift by reminding it of its core principles and core mission. Corbyn spoke in unequivocal terms about his support for the weak against the strong and fairness against inequality. He voiced support for refugees, trade unions, council housing, peace, international law and human rights. Amazingly, for a Labour party leader, this already made it an exception.”
Corbyn does not stand so much for a new politics as for rolling back the tide of neoliberalism. Despite the descriptions of him as having a far left agenda, he didn’t call for a change in society’s structure, but only for an end to the diversion of resources to financiers that has defunded social services for the working and middle class, and the privatization of public assets. Through his rhetoric of common values, he gave direction to party members to reground the party’s policies.
His speech implied that building a movement was more important than electoral success, troubling Labour MPs and their house journal, the New Statesman, which noted “how little he had to say about the importance of winning elections and of returning to government.” This is what his opponents call realism. But the reality for most people in Britain is that they are experiencing decline in just about every aspect of life: housing, jobs, wages, health, benefits, road and railway commutes, issues which are driving the movement against austerity, and which the Blairites failed to challenge.
This poses a conceptual problem for the British left. Socialist Workers Party supporters object that, since the Labour party is aligned to achieving a parliamentary majority, “How would Corbyn actually implement his moderate programme of social reform and end austerity?” Like the New Statesman they are asking how he would achieve change through parliament. This indicates they see the movement that elected him as being incorporated into the traditional Labour left, and not changing anything in the political climate. But they are missing how the Labour party is being transformed by an anti-austerity movement that has grown both inside and outside of it.
The real struggle now is between Labour’s newly-enlarged membership and the party establishment. While Corbyn proposed that its values would drive party policy, Rafael Behr commented: “the question of what policy is adopted is really a subset of the battle for control of the party machine. That tussle, well under way, is conducted mostly behind closed doors. It focuses on appointments, nominations and votes for positions on the key committees … what we used to call the ‘old Labour right’ (tribal centrists who mostly backed Yvette Cooper for the leadership) is doing its best to defend the machine from infiltration and control by the hard left.”
But Corbyn’s values have in fact reverberated within Labour’s membership and a significant slice of British society. So the stage is set for a clash in the constituencies as the membership begin to assert their sovereignty over policy. Labour activists want democracy within the party as a precondition of achieving democratic support in the country.
Public opinion in Britain is constructed with a monolithic barrage of propaganda from the press and media. So far, Corbyn has succeeded in neutralizing much of it by giving a voice to ordinary people. In doing this, he becomes part of a European-wide trend to reassert the politics of the local against the interests of the globalized banking system, the “enemies of democracy” in Thomas Piketty’s words. When the New Statesman argues that Corbyn wants to live in a “perfect world” and is reluctant to deal with real problems like intervening in Syria or hard choices about public spending, it is tone-deaf to these new political forces, manifested in Scotland, Greece and Catalonia.
It contrasted the “admirable idealist” Abraham Lincoln’s “cold-eyed realism” in hedging and compromising his way towards abolition with what it sees as Corbyn’s reluctance to deal with real issues of government. But Lincoln’s adoption of abolition depended on the campaigning of radical abolitionists to change the discourse of the country before the Civil War. As Lincoln’s foremost biographer, Eric Foner, explains: “They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn.”
Corbyn’s anti-austerity campaigners have a great opportunity now to change the political discourse in Britain – not in parliament or the media, but on the doorsteps of the country. But first they have to deal with the supporters of the status quo within the Labour party itself.