The Corbyn Paradox
In a massive political body-swerve the media are clinging desperately to Alex Massie’s wheeze ignoring a huge outreach to a new constituency, an impassioned plea to openess and a listening agenda. Here was a Labour leader quoting Maya Angelou and Ben Okri striking out against cyber-bullying and misogyny and arguing for a values-driven politics.
No wonder the media had a collective spasm of angry bemusement quickly filling the studios with a cadre of discredited New Labour hacks and spin-doctors who now seem to be permanently embedded with the state broadcasters. In a new twist they seem to have been elevated to the status of Public Truth Interpreters. We watch the speech and then those people who have just been routed in a democratic election get to dominate the airwaves and reinterpret what we’ve just consumed. It’s an extraordinary framing of political events. The Corbyn hatefest shows no sign of dissipating, nor will it. The new commentariat class mewed that he didn’t mention the election loss, as if he was in charge and not a failed Blairite re-tread. They moan that he ‘didn’t ‘speak to the country’, code for he didn’t trot out the same Blue Labour line that’s failed them for years. They whined and chuckled in self-satisfied incomprehension. Andrew Neil talked to Lance Price. Lance Price told him it was a terrible speech. Andrew laughed and agreed. They all agreed it was ‘old’ and ‘out of date’ – as if providing affordable housing was something that had gone out of style in the 1980s, like Duran Duran or something. This isn’t political journalism it’s a coterie of fools. John McTernan is considered a sort of Delphic Oracle, and all of these ‘former advisors’ are allowed, somehow, to dominate the debate as if they played no part in the unfolding meta-crisis of the Labour Party, as if they did not construct and nurture the awful edifice of spin and attack-politics that Corbyn is opposing and will palpably fail to defeat. Not because he’s not right, not because people aren’t sick of they style of politics he describes but because we have allowed it to dominate and structure how we discuss the world.
Watching Corbyn’s conference speech was a surreal experience after years of micro-managed and sterilised New Labour guff and spin. As the TV cameras panned round the Labour audience looked shocked at his language and appeal to populist ideas like renationalising railways and changing the tone and nature of political debate. But if the professional media class can’t comprehend what’s happening it’s also all touchingly naive, meek and lacking in real rigour and dynamism. Already its seems frayed at the edges and wobbly in the middle. As I was watching the conference I drifted to thinking what if Corbyn could speak properly, not in a Blairite way, or a JFK way, but just with a bit more fluidity, with a bit more actual passion?
A Divine Discontent
In truth it was a moving speech, poorly delivered. As forensically laid out here Corbyn’s comments on Scottish politics are, at best, ill-informed, at worst downright lies. The party’s inability to even discuss Trident completely undermines any credibility to be the ‘only genuine anti-austerity party’. Corbyn is right to say: “There is one thing I want to make my own position on absolutely clear, and I believe I have a mandate from my election on it. I don’t believe that £100bn spent on a new generation of nuclear weapons taking up a quarter of our defence budget is the right way forward.” But he doesn’t have control of his party and until he does it has all the political clout of a wishing tree. It will take his group at least a year to take control of his party, despite its massive mandate, in the context of a vicious media and an even more vicious internal party battle.
John Harris outlines here the mixture of idealism, euphoria and crisis that are flooding the party and Stephen Bush argues here that it’s a huge and “a very different Labour party to the one that was defeated in May.”
The point is that the fate of Corbyn will shape British politics, foreign policy and economics whether he ‘wins’ or ‘loses’. There’s a long way to go as he attempts to transform not just Labour but the form of political language. The problem is not just his constitutional ignorance or his being fed a dodgy line to attack the SNP. The deeper problem is that when he says: “Let us build a kinder politics, a more caring society together. Let us put our values, the people’s values, back into politics”, you have to worry that after three decades of Me First politics of greed, are those values really widely shared?