by Ewan Watt:
Unlike previous leadership campaigns for Her Majesty’s Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn’s successful endeavor to succeed Ed Miliband at the helm of the British Labour Party received a curious amount of media attention in the United States. The parallels with Bernie Sanders appear to be the root of most intrigue, while the seemingly suicidal decision by Labour’s grassroots to elect a “Trotskyite tribute act” to take on the governing Tories has galvanized interest elsewhere. What should have been a dull, but necessary, shift to the center ground now appears to be a march off a cliff.
Interestingly nearly nine years to the day of Corbyn’s victory the Labour Party wasn’t bickering over who should lead them in opposition, but how to prolong its eight years in government. That fateful day, and four months after Tony Blair led Labour to an unprecedented third term in office, coup plotters successfully coerced the prime minister into announcing plans to step aside the following year. While it would be absentminded to ignore Blair’s then electoral liability as well as general voter fatigue, since then Labour has lost the knack of winning elections, even succumbing to defeats in Scotland under an electoral system designed to designed to keep it in perpetual power.
And yet if it is true that Thatcher’s true legacy was reining in the excesses of socialism through Blair, history might claim Labour’s most successful prime minister has given us Corbyn. Having famously defeated John Major in a landslide, Blair remarked that he had fought and won the general election “as ‘New’ Labour and would govern as ‘New’ Labour.” This fusion of market-forces with astronomical social spending never sat well with the party’s left that has since been far more vigilant to check moves to make it more electorally appeaing.
Unlike Blair, the party’s left has always struggled to understand why voters view social services as akin to religious institutions while also being autonomously aspirational. Labour’s devotion to government excess has therefore made winning elections an extremely daunting task because winning solely on ideology is impossible and dropping socialist baggage violates principle. To Corbyn, however, this might not be much about winning elections but saving the soul of British socialism even if it means oblivion for its main electoral vehicle. The class struggle doesn’t need elections.
For the so-called ‘Blairites’ (or what’s left of them) or even the vast majority of Labour’s members of Parliament, the survival of Britain’s opposition appears uncertain. While many called it quits even under the previous more left-leaning regimes, there is a slow realization that the Labour Party no longer represents ‘big tent’ social democracy but unreconstructed socialism. Michael Foot’s disastrous defeat in 1983 to the Iron Lady wasn’t a missed opportunity to halt Thatcherism, but a victory because over 8 million people voted for socialist manifesto. What many analysts have got wrong is that they still claim that the party’s “moderate mainstream” opposed Corbyn and will continue to make life difficult for him. And yet this fails to explain how 59 percent of the party faithful backed someone who is committed to an agenda far more Bolivarian than Blairite.
Corbyn’s defenders have been quick to point out, however, that his candidacy has seen an upsurge in party membership and grassroots engagement—two key ingredients Labour requires to even contemplate a return to government. But the as it has been pointed out by critics, the members who voted for Corbyn will not even be enough to carry ten constituencies in a general election. The fact that Corbyn could win a Labour leadership election without compromising his socialist principles is certainly one thing, but with such a high profile race his radical philosophy was hardly ignored by voters. Just one Labour leader of the last ten started off lower in the polls than Corbyn. In addition, claims that his ascendency will mitigate yet further disaster in former Labour heartlands in Scotland (one of his supporters’ key messages) also appear questionable. In fact, after a the Union barely survived last year, some have predicted that “a generation of Tory governments delivered by an unelectable Labour Party will give voters the final shove they need [to back independence].” Corbyn might not only signal the death knell for Labour, but for the United Kingdom itself.
The trouble for the Labour left is that it’s convinced itself that millions of people just like them exist, but are simply allergic to the ballot box. What’s tragic for democratic socialism is that millions of people are potentially Labour voters, but not socialists per se. The party has succeeded here in the past, but Blair’s success through selling a tempered social democracy has forever left him in pariah status. Arguably Corbyn has accomplished what many of his Marxist idols have also achieved: a one party state. Unfortunately for him and the future of democratic socialism, for the foreseeable future the Conservative Party will be the only game in town.
Ewan Watt writes extensively on political issues in Scotland and the United States. A native of Scotland, he recently became a U.S. citizen. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt.