The Corbyn Catastrophe…or The Oblivion of Unity
As the British Political Establishment and their Associated Meejah go into full-blown, panic-stricken melt-down mode in a way that we haven’t seen since those few unbelievable days last September when the polls indicated that there might be a Yes vote, I want to indulge in a little Corbyn Crystal Ball gazing of my own.
From a strictly sectarian SNP perspective. for reasons that are not entirely respectable, the spectacle of Tony Blair and Co yelling all too familiar insults about the ultra left feels a little like enjoying someone else’s grief. You could take an article from any paper in the first half of September last year, and cut and paste “Jeremy Corbyn victory” over “SNP fanatics” and not even have to get a copy editor in for a rewrite.
For the last twenty years, the SNP have been engaging in a long term “replacement” strategy that has eroded the credibility of Scottish labour to a point where it scarcely even seems worth while considering “the enemy.” And one baleful effect of Labour’s existential UK crisis is the terrible temptation to keep hold of the the fixation. It’s like staring at a car accident. But now, as Andrew Tickell pointed out in the Scotsman the other week, with total dominance in both Westminster and Holyrood, it might be good for the party and the country to get past that that.
The trouble is, of course, that the dead horse in question is lying there muttering “Hit me.” The extraordinary farce of the abstention vote “against” the welfare cuts was a self-inflicted wound of quite staggering political torpor, moral exhaustion and tactical ineptitude. The Labour Party make the SNP look brilliant. The 56 of them scarcely need to turn up or even get out of bed to look like geniuses. The same is true, however, of George Osborne, unfortunately. It is not just the SNP who are fortunate in their opposition right now, and I do think there is a terrible temptation to sit back and indulge in Scottish Superiority in a way that will do us more harm than good in the long run.
However, it is someone else’s long run I want to think about. I think we need to take advantage of having a little critical distance on Labour’s crisis, as well as being in some ways ahead of the game in thinking about the previously unthinkable, to get past the Schadenfreude and onto thinking about what these islands might look like five or so years from now depending on which of a number of scenarios work out.
First, Jeremy Corbyn might win. And if he does, given the level of current hysteria, I don’t see any way in which the Labour Party holds together as a unit. The SDP would rise from the dead like an opportunist zombie, with Tony Blair and David Owen gibbering from one and same winding sheet. One difference, however, is that the gang of four would be a gang of about 200, and it would be the Labour party under Corbyn that would be left as a rump.
But would it really get that far, even if the Bennites finally won?
The Labour party has always been an amalgamation of interests, of course, a coalition of trade union pragmatists, radical intellectuals and morally supine careerists. What is called “a broad church.” What held it together was the prospect of power and a sense of possibility…that there might actually be a practical difference to be made in society. Both of those coagulants are pretty thin these days – thinner than I remember them being even in the dark days of the early eighties, even if, like in the referendum last year, we do seem to be re-running my youth in ways that are disturbingly exact.
In my defence, lots of parallels are being drawn in the “progressive” papers between the situation after the post 1979 party struggles and now. And the coincidence of a Scottish referendum followed by a Tory victory and a leadership/identity crisis in the party is obviously compelling. But the differences in the situations are at least as important as the similarities. The leadership that Michael Foot won was of a Party and a Movement that was incomparably stronger than the one that Jeremy Corbyn is seeking to inherit. And the fact that Scotland is written out of the calculations entirely is heavily symbolic. What is really different, and really unthinkable from the perspective of the cultural memory of 1979, is that soon there might not be a single political party in these islands that is capable of, on it’s own, taking power off the Tories for the occasional interregnum of comparative sanity. Then, in 1979, or 2009 the idea that the SNP might win all but three seats in Scotland in a General Election in 2015 having just lost a referendum vote was every bit as unthinkable.
Of course, if the underwhelming Andy Burnham emerges as the people’s choice, at least the Party might hang together in a grumpy and depressed kind of a way. And spend the next five years waiting for the Tories to fuck up so that they can replace them as the only very slightly less offensive face of monopoly capital. They are already hell-bent on displaying the same mean reluctance when it comes to considering the Common Good. But the Labour Party, even in the depths of Harold Wilson’s or even Gordon Brown’s instrumentalist cynicism…stood for something other than power, I seem to remember. It stood for hope. It derived energy and meaning from being, as Wilson put it it, “a moral crusade or nothing.”
All the papers say that a vote for Jeremy Corbyn is a deluded hope…but even that may well be better than the “nothing” they seem to be heading for otherwise. We broke the Labour party in Scotland, after all, and they show every sign of breaking themselves in Britain.
There are deep historical forces at work here which i might attempt to explore another time, but for now, with an eye to that “future” we all used to hope for, it may well be better that some new focus needs to be found for the radical, angry energy I feel in every part of the UK to find some kind of expression than to simply allow all belief in something like a better future to fade into cultural memory. A new, smaller party might become the focus of that energy and radicalism. But I simply can’t see that being remotely possible if anyone other that Corbyn wins. It may be that the labour party in the UK now has to choose between the slow, atrophied death that pretending there could ever be a “return to normal” that they’ve suffered in Scotland over (at least) the last ten years or so…and a radical surgical intervention right now. Explosion or atrophy. Either way, in the word of the Stranglers, “Something Better Change.”
(I somehow didn’t think a Sam Cooke analogy was tenable there!)
Yes, in this parliament, before 2020, we’re talking about creating in opposition to the Tories exactly the same expedient alliance that was being proposed before the election in support of the Labour Government that all of those of us who have been obsessively whipping the poor decrepit cuddy were hoping for. Once again, the challenge is to overcome the paradox of two parties dedicated to the non-existence of the other actually having to cooperate in the face of the “real enemy” who is currently sitting across the chamber of the Commons rather with an air of quite unbearable public school smugness written all over his pasty chops.
But this coalition would now be made of Fifty odd “real” Labour MPs, 56 SNP MPs…and whatever liberal not quite Tories the remnant of Labour make of themselves to contest the election in 2020
(Osborne had a telling line in an exchange with Dennis Skinner….that they had both now got the Labour party they’d been wishing for).
The tragedy of all this seat shuffling on might well be the deck of the Titanic as well as the Union, is that in the meantime the working people of Scotland and England and N Ireland and Wales are going to find themselves being fucked over by quite the nastiest shallowest set of swine I’ve ever seen on the Government benches, Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding.
It might be that for however long the Union lasts, or in whatever shape a constitutional settlement is hammered out over the next ten years, whether we call it A Federation or a Fare Thee Well, that what remains of practical progressive politics across the Kingdom (or Kingdoms…or Republics!) will need to be FUNCTIONALLY federal well in advance of the sovereignty negotiations. Even a new Labour Party with fifty seats. Fifty actual socialists sitting alongside, voting with, and maybe even forming coalition governments of 200 novo-liberals and 56 self-righteous Jocks, might be better than taking yet more limping steps into an oblivion of “unity”
It’s also the only way that other Union holds together that I can see. But that’s a story for another time.