Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ is dividing Portsmouth Labour Party – many welcome the return to socialism, others are resigning in disgust. Taking a more nuanced view, Portsmouth University lecturer Stephen Harper wonders whether one man – however progressive he sounds – can deliver meaningful change from within a flawed and limited political system.
These days, the name of Jeremy Corbyn is on everybody’s lips. Or so it seems to me. In a canteen yesterday, I misheard a fellow diner’s order of ‘spaghetti carbonara’ as ‘Corbynara’. And who knows, if Corbyn’s star continues to rise, we might yet see the day when the Labour leftist – who is already considered a savoury dish by many of his admirers – has a pasta named after him.
For the time being, though, Corbyn is under fire from his many adversaries. The right-wing press attacks Jezza at every turn, often in the most salacious, moralising and trivialising terms. Article after article excoriates Corbyn as a scruffy love rat who once had a habit of eating cold beans from a tin. Such is the all-too-familiar viciousness of the British tabloid press.
But the chorus of mockery isn’t confined to the redtops and the Daily Mail. In a recent BBC Panorama presented by former Sun journalist John Ware, Corbyn was subjected to a tabloid-style whacking, and even the liberal journalists at The Guardian have been putting the boot in. Raphael Behr, for instance, has provocatively compared Corbyn’s ‘populist’ politics to those of UKIP’s ultra-nationalist Nigel Farage.
In recent days, The Guardian has published some more sympathetic pieces about the Labour leader; but Corbyn is likely to be vilified by most of the media for as long as he remains at the helm of the Labour party. The British public now breathlessly awaits the further revelations that Corbyn is a paedophile, eats babies, or shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
But why is so much of the media so hostile towards Corbyn? And does this hostility mean that Corbyn is a radical? Can the politics that he represents really help to bring about socialism and a ‘fairer society’, as many of his supporters believe?
Corbyn’s ascendancy comes as something of a shock for those of us old enough to remember him from earlier decades. We knew Corbyn as a campaigning leftist politician, but few of us could have guessed that he would become Labour leader. His extraordinary rise is a consequence of his ability to attract the support of a broad range of leftists and party members, many of whom recently joined Labour specifically to vote for the man they believe represents ‘a new kind of politics’.
The media are hostile towards Corbyn largely because they – and their advertisers and owners – fear the ideological reorientation he seems to represent. Corbyn’s election as leader has restored the dreaded word ‘socialism’ to public discourse. And many of Corbyn’s ideas are certainly radical. For example, on foreign policy, Corbyn opposes airstrikes on Syria, and on education, the scrapping of university tuition fees. Sounds good. And it’s great to hear Corby talking of the need for a ‘kinder society’ in which refugees are treated with respect. To oppose such sentiments one would have to be an idiot or Tory (or, as is all too often the case, both).
But even if a Corbyn-led government were elected – and the next opportunity for that is a full five years away – it is doubtful that any of Corbyn’s enlightened policies would by then be intact, let alone implementable. And we’d do well to remember that radical promises are easily broken. Before the 2010 election, Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, promised the end of university tuition fees, only to renege later upon his pledge. That’s how politicians roll. In fact, we don’t even have to wait for promises to be broken: earlier this year, Corbyn voted in support of Labour’s Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, a scheme involving an element of ‘workfare’ – unpaid work in return for benefits – something Corbyn has elsewhere claimed to oppose.
Here’s the thing. The political system in a country such as Britain has both a right-wing and a left-wing ‘face’. For the last five years we have been staring into the former, and the view has not been pretty. Under the Conservatives, many British workers have seen drastic reductions in their wages and living conditions. Disabled people and welfare recipients (dubbed ‘benefit claimants’ in the tabloid media) have been particularly hard hit. In London, rents and house prices have reached insane levels, leading to a veritable social cleansing of the poor. While no mass movement has yet emerged to oppose them, these developments have left people bitter, furious and in many cases suicidal.
It’s hardly surprising that those seeking an end to this miserable state of affairs eagerly embrace political promises of a ‘fairer society’, or even ‘socialism’. And it is here that the left-wing ‘face’ of capitalism hoves into view. At moments when people become disillusioned with the system, left-wing political parties can help to contain public anger by channelling it into the safety and, ultimately, futility of parliamentary politics. The ‘anti-austerity’ party Syriza has recently played this role in Greece.
There’s no reason to think that a newly ‘radical’ Labour party, were it elected, would do any better than Syriza. On the contrary, we’ve been here before. I vividly remember the celebrations in Glasgow in May 1997 when ‘New’ Labour came to power after 18 years of Conservative rule. As the parties spilled into the streets, one man bellowed ‘SOCIALISM NOW!’ into the night sky. But such hopes were quickly dashed. After 1997, Tony Blair’s party did not contribute to the creation of a more decent society, either at home, where inequality deepened, or abroad, where the ‘humanitarian’ bombs rained down, from Belgrade to Baghdad.
Corbyn, of course, rejects Blairism and New Labour. His ideal Labour party, by his own admission, would resemble that of the Wilson/Callaghan government of the 1970s. In fact, Corbyn was a close friend of a key member of that government, the late Tony Benn, a man who delivered searing indictments of the capitalist system when he no longer played any part in government, but who, as Secretary of State for Energy, was partly responsible for devastating pit closures and the repression of striking workers. Whatever fine phrases he uttered in the 1980s and 90s, as a minister Benn was hardly on the side of the British working class. In assessing the meaning of Corbyn, too, we should take into account the gap between left-wing rhetoric and the historical reality of the left in power.
In terms of personal authenticity and genuine commitment to his constituents, Corbyn scores highly and his many radical statements show that it is possible to oppose and humanize the political discourse of the right. This is no small thing after many years in which the media and political parties in Britain have poured vitriol on immigrants, the poor and the unemployed. Ultimately, however, I think that it’s a mistake to devote much time or effort to supporting Corbyn or the Labour party. A genuinely ‘new kind of politics’ can only come about through the self-organisation of ordinary people working outside the political system to resist – and perhaps one day overcome – capitalism.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.