Inside Story

Jeremy Corbyn, the vanishing commissar

British Labour’s MPs are mutinous, its leader defiant, its members divided. What now, asks David Hayes

David Hayes 1 July 2016 3026 words

“A cleansing thing”: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks to supporters in Parliament Square on Monday. Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP

“Friends, straight after we won the leadership election last year, we came to this same spot to speak up for the right of refugees to live in our society. And one of the horrible disfigurements of our society is racism and intolerance, and the violence that’s often associated with it, and sadly this has increased over the last few days. Can we all agree that we are going to unite together, as one people, one society, one community, to oppose racism in any form!”

Jeremy Corbyn is in his element. On an improvised platform, surrounded by comrades, giving a stump speech to an adoring crowd waving red flags, banners and placards. Cheering and applause greet his every sentence. Some in the crowd display affiliation to the Socialist Workers Party, or SWP, others to Momentum, a pro-Corbyn union-funded network which acts as a party within the party. The scene is Parliament Square, London. It’s four days since Britain voted to leave the European Union.

“And recognise that the grotesque exploitation of workers on zero-hours contracts in factories around Britain, called out quite brilliantly by Dennis Skinner in the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago, shows that we don’t need the blame culture, we need the unite culture of working together for the social justice to which we all aspire!”

After discoursing on housing, poverty and privatisation “of at least half of our national health service,” the Labour Party leader continues:

“So when we contested the Labour leadership last year, it was fundamentally on an economic question. John McDonnell as our shadow chancellor called this out, and turned our party into an anti-austerity party. I thank John for all the work he has done. And I thank Diane [Abbott] for all the work she did at the Department of International Development, and I’m delighted that she is now the shadow secretary of state for health.”

A cheer goes up at each name, both of them fellow Labour MPs and veterans of the rigid left, both of them close to Corbyn since the 1970s, both of them beside him on the stage. He and Abbott were lovers in that era and, as the press gleefully revealed, chose the German Democratic Republic for a holiday.

“Because all these issues have to be linked together fundamentally to economic inequalities within our society. Our movement, our Labour movement, was founded on the immense struggle. Those who laid down their lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Those who were gunned down campaigning for the right to vote. Those who were gunned down trying to become trade unionists. Not just here but all around the world. It’s the spirit of hope or the spirit of despair. Which are we? We’re obviously hope, not despair.”

The stage is a fire engine ringed with scaffolding. The cast of speakers includes union presidents Tosh McDonald (an early riser so that he could enjoy an extra hour of hating Margaret Thatcher, he says), Dave Ward (“the Blairite virus is back [among Labour MPs] and we need to top up the antidote”) and Ronnie Draper (these MPs are “traitorous”); the writer-activist Paul Mason; and the “anti-Zionist” student leader Malia Bouattia. The crowd of, at most, a thousand – the organisers would claim 10,000, but then they always do – has been gathered via Facebook.

“So that hope recognises that those that struggle against racism, those that struggle for rights to be lesbian, to be gay, to be whatever you want to be. Those who struggle to achieve those things. Those who struggled to gain the right for women to vote. All of those things were gained by struggle. And I would want nothing more than our history teaching in schools to so improve that our children understand the rights they have, the rights they enjoy, came from those that laid down their lives before.”

This is not Corbyn on a bad day. All his days, like all his speeches, are the same. Tony Benn, his predecessor as the left’s idol, was a supreme orator. Corbyn’s language, by contrast, is a string of slogans, never an argument. 

“But it’s also about the kind of society and kind of world we want to live in. I’ve mentioned economic injustice, I’ve mentioned the services we have. But we also have to think about our natural world and our environment. Either we live in the natural world and accept that we have to sustain it by defending it, or we grotesquely exploit it. So I want to see a government in Britain that does house people, that does protect and defend our environment, that does protect and extend our health service, and also reaches out with attitudes in society.”

At sixty-seven, Corbyn has now spent five decades in the struggle, and it shows. He can speak extempore and forever in windy generalities. In thirty-three years as an MP, he has piloted no bill to the statute book, has no legislative achievement to his name. Instead he has been the politician-as-activist-and-social-worker, and survived to become that obligatory English type: the invariant, venerable leftist who projects a simulacrum of authenticity. This explains his appeal to the credulous young and embittered old left alike.

There follows a long section that references mental health, intergenerational inequality, economic orthodoxy, human rights, and using “the brilliance of science and technology” as an opportunity for wealth distribution and economic development. He concludes, or rather ends:

“That’s why the movement we now have here in Britain, the movement for social justice and the movement for equality, is so strong, why it reaches out so broadly. Because we learn from each other, because we learn from the values of each other, because we learn from the history of each other, because we learn from the tolerance of each other, whatever grouping or ethnicity we happen to be. That is where unity comes and that’s what makes us strong. Don’t let the media divide us, don’t let those people who wish us ill divide us. Stay strong and united for the kind of world we want to build!”

“Corbyn, Corbyn!” chant the fervent. “Corbyn in, Tories out!” declare the posters. “Eradicate the right-wing Blairite vermin,” announce the T-shirts. It’s the standard fare of Britain’s left, which the incisive American writer Christopher Caldwell described to me late last year as unusually vicious.

But two things raise the occasion to the surreal. First, Britain is convulsed by the aftermath of the EU referendum, with its 51.9–48.1 per cent choice for “Brexit.” The country is stunned and split, the government rudderless, the ruling Conservatives embroiled in a leadership tussle. Yet the leader of the Labour Party, in his ten-minute ramble, mentions none of this. Second, twenty members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet had resigned over the previous day, following his sacking of the shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn (Tony Benn’s son). Labour, too, had been sundered by the vote on 23 June. Again, this Monday after the Thursday before, Corbyn – the coded defiance of those last words apart – is silent on the biggest crisis facing the party since 1931. Welcome to Corbynland.

Labour’s internal convulsion, as with others in these extraordinary days, is hurtling towards an unknown outcome. The referendum was the catalyst. More than a third of the party’s voters had voted to leave the European Union, against the party’s policy to remain. Many MPs blamed Corbyn, whose lukewarm backing of the latter case was laced with signals of his lifelong opposition to the EU as a “capitalist club.” That handicapped Labour’s already listless official campaign and sowed a trail of confusion about what its message to voters was.

In the dismayed aftermath, there were reports that the leader’s office had “sabotaged” the campaign, even that Corbyn had voted with his instincts. Loyalists, citing the result, claimed that his ambiguous stance aligned with the popular mood. Critics retorted that a leader’s job is to lead, and that clarity and unity are vital in the heat of struggle. A deeper tension was implicit: was Labour to be a movement party with MPs as delegates channelling an activist base, or an electoral one whose MPs represent millions of voters and seek to govern on the whole nation’s behalf?

Behind shock at the result and anger at Corbyn’s torpid effort lay a wider dread: that Labour now faced permanent marginalisation, even oblivion. Scotland, where slow decay had culminated in wipeout by the pro-independence Scottish National Party in 2015, was an awful warning. The UK Independence Party had long been eating into Labour’s working-class core. Its anti-Europe and anti-immigrant klaxons, amplified further in the referendum, expressed a form of gut English nationalism that Labour lacked the persuasive arguments or demotic language – and, perhaps above all, the inner conviction – to contest.

Shock, anger and dread were ignited by a strategic calculation. David Cameron’s resignation after his referendum debacle, to take effect by early September, means a new Conservative leader and prime minister who might choose (or be pressed) to seek a fresh mandate. An early election would threaten an English reprise of the Scottish experience. After three consecutive defeats, there might be no way back. This was becoming existential. Jeremy Corbyn, elected leader only in September 2015 on a wave of enthusiasm from new and old party members, had to go.

The first pebble was the tabling of a no-confidence motion by two senior MPs, Ann Coffey and Margaret Hodge. Much larger was Hilary Benn’s removal in the midnight hours, which followed a report in Sunday’s Observer that he was preparing to lead coordinated resignations from the shadow cabinet. An avalanche followed: on Sunday, ten of its members left, followed by thirty-nine others in the next three days. They significantly included left-wingers such as Lisa Nandy and Lilian Greenwood as well as pragmatists who had joined Corbyn’s team in, as they thought, the best interests of the party.

Monday’s rally was the comrades’ bold response. Corbyn simultaneously replenished his depleted team from the backbenches while pushing already over-promoted favourites (such as the boorish Richard Burgon) from one sinecure to another. The new shadow cabinet was unveiled before the cameras on Tuesday, only for a visibly uneasy Corbyn to request a pause for regrouping: on the cabinet’s return, the rotund figure of Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson (just returned from a Glastonbury jaunt replete with facetious posts) and true believer Cat Smith had been replaced by Corbyn’s parliamentary aide Steve Rotherham and London ally Emily Thornberry. The echo of the late David King’s The Commissar Vanishes, his magnificent study of Soviet-era photographic falsification, was irresistible. Not least as the stunt was the work of Corbyn’s chief aide, Seumas Milne, on leave from his sulphurous Guardian column, whose lifetime’s political journey has been from Stalinism to Putinism.

Amid the chaos, many turned to Labour’s rulebook, which specifies that 20 per cent of MPs (and members of the European parliament, or MEPs) – currently fifty – are needed to challenge an incumbent leader. It wasn’t certain that the variegated non-Corbynites could agree on a single candidate, far less win any election conducted on the same basis (one-person-one-vote + open-door membership + entryism) that had given Corbyn his 59 per cent of first preferences. Both sides were consulting lawyers over whether the existing leader had to be nominated or qualified automatically. The precedent of 1988 – when Tony Benn (with Corbyn’s support) challenged Neil Kinnock – leaned to the latter. But the actual text is, in the best Labour tradition, ambiguous.

That the point mattered became clear on Tuesday evening, when a motion of no confidence in Corbyn was opposed by only forty of Labour’s 229 MPs (172 voted against him, thirteen abstained, and four spoiled their ballot paper). Five hundred Labour councillors also called on him to resign, as did a battery of Labour grandees, its leader in Scotland, and its twenty MEPs. Even more resonant had been quiet interviews with several of the resigners, notably shadow business secretary Angela Eagle, whose anguish at what their party and they were going through was palpable.

By midweek, Watson, the politician-as-operator, and Eagle, a sardonically effective Commons performer, were being touted for the role, with the latter emerging as favourite. Her campaign launch was scheduled for Thursday afternoon but postponed after the former shadow work minister Owen Smith pushed his claim. Labour MPs, far from united even in these desperate times for the party, are now scheduled to meet on 4 July to agree on a candidate. No one would bet against dramatic events before then.

Towards those wounded by Labour’s turmoil, Richard Burgon had roared his contempt at the Parliament Square hate-fest: “To all Labour MPs touring the TV studios with hankies in hands, crying into those hankies, I say this: consider this, at this crucial moment, what do you want to be remembered as? Do you want to be remembered as a fighter for socialism, as a fighter for our class? Or do you want to be remembered as somebody, one of some, who ended up trying to destroy all that we have built?”

Such swaggering machismo is unrestrained online, where women MPs (of all parties) are the brunt of vituperative comments. Activists have also targeted dissident MPs’ offices. The shadow chancellor John McDonnell – a truly sinister figure – urged Monday’s crowd to continue “turning up in demonstrations to express their view,” which “a number of MPs have complained” about. “Some have described it as rabble, or mob rule or whatever. Let me be clear. People have the right to peaceful protest. The protests will be peaceful, but the reason the protests are taking place is that we will not allow a handful of MPs to subvert Jeremy’s mandate.”

Ian Murray, just-resigned Scottish secretary (and now Scotland’s only Labour MP), appealed to Corbyn to “call off the dogs” intimidating his Edinburgh staff. Lucy Powell and Vicky Foxcroft are among other MPs who have been abused or received threats. “When John McDonnell calls on Momentum activists to campaign against their MPs,” Foxcroft says, “it doesn’t take much for people to feel they should take things into their own hands.” It is only three weeks since the Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered while attending to her constituents. The Labour Party is in danger in more ways than one.

In Corbynworld, 30 June was just another day. But across town, the Conservative leadership campaign was becoming a Shakespearean drama, as Michael Gove wrecked the chances of his Brexit ally Boris Johnson in spectacular fashion. Labour, however, was in no position to challenge its opponents. Nor does Corbyn, busy soaking up his fans’ endless adulation, want to. “It’s not up to me to intrude into private grief in the Tory party,” he had told a meeting in Manchester a week before the referendum. Kevin Schofield, the sharp editor of PoliticsHome, riposted: “That is literally his job.”

Corbyn was now presenting a report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which he had been obliged to commission after a series of hateful incidents. The meeting was tarnished by his inept association of Israel with the Islamic State, and by insinuating comments from a Momentum activist directed at the Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, who walked out in distress. Smeeth, who is Jewish, later said that “the fact that [Corbyn] failed to intervene” showed him to be “unfit to lead.” As the meeting ended, Corbyn warmly greeted the activist, an old comrade from the London left. At the same moment, he ignored a repeated question from the BBC’s estimable John Pienaar: “Mr Corbyn, is the break-up of the Labour Party a price worth paying for your continued leadership?”

The question is not rhetorical. His close supporters are sure that Corbyn will see off any challenge thanks to his devotees in Momentum, trade unions and the old left. “It will be a cleansing thing,” says one close friend; fighting to the end is worthwhile even if it “breaks” the party, says another. Even the loyal Mirror, which now also calls for Corbyn’s resignation, reports that he is “prepared to take down the Labour Party.”

The calibre of Corbyn and the people around him can be gauged from a revealing Vice documentary, Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider, made by a sympathiser and Labour voter, Ben Ferguson. (Another Seumas Milne stunt, it generated Jon Harvey’s witty response, The Opposition.)

The documentary, like that parting shot in the speech of 27 June, shows his detestation of the media. Corbyn runs away from journalists, is suspicious of enquiry, misses every chance to make a case. It looks odd, but there are reasons. At root he is not a politician leading a democratic party but the head of a cult, one in which he too is now trapped. A cult, after all, can be huge as well as tiny.

This goes far deeper than politics, which is why therapeutic and anti-bullying expertise will be needed. Breaking the spell, understanding the reality, speaking the truth, is the sine qua non of any road back. It is not yet too late. Corbynworld is a trauma from which the Labour Party must try to recover. And that will make the commissars vanish. •