Jeremy Corbyn’s rise has been exponential and noteworthy. Supplemented and sustained by a vociferous band of hard-left campaigners, he will surely win the upcoming Labour leadership election in November. And why wouldn’t he? Luck has been spurring him on from the touchlines for some time now; Labour’s NEC ruled in his favour when they allowed him to stand for the leadership without the mandatory support of his MPs and the subsequent High Court challenge to this ruling was thrown out of the window, he seems to have won over any fragmenting union support and his opponent has barely any notable backers and about as much charisma as a pair of shorts.
Nevertheless, is this luck indicative of the vice-like grip Corbyn and his disciples now possess over the Party, or is it just that, pure luck? Despite my strong belief that it is the former, we should not forget the hugely successful role the Labour Party has played in British politics and, in some senses, I am saddened to witness the seemingly irrevocable, self-inflicted damage it has incurred in the past year. A once great Party has descended into near-peremptory oblivion.
However, this does not mean that Corbyn is not the ‘true face’ of Labour. If his ideals and supporters are anything to go by, he has re-introduced a Socialist mode of thinking that, he would argue, gave rise to the Labour Party in the first place. The re-nationalisation of energy companies and banks, introducing a ‘maximum pay’ for those top earners and a ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’, effectively allowing the Bank of England to print money for investment all stink of the post-war Socialistic programme instigated by Attlee. The striking difference here of course being that not only was Attlee an able man capable of delivering it but also that the political field was ripe for it, both of which cannot be said of Corbyn which I will come back to later.
But whether one really perceives Corbyn to be the ‘true face’ of Labour, in my view depends on how one views the Labour Party. Was its inception in order to provide a viable alternative to the then dominant Tory Party and thus be a realistic candidate for government, or was it merely a symptom of a wave of European socialism, an ideological movement driven by geopolitical change?
One could say that originally perhaps it was a combination of the two. The Tories did not represent the interests of the urban Proletariat thus creating a political vacuum to be filled but equally the original Independent Labour Party (ILP) could be seen as an amalgamation of various different left-wing groups whose ideology, rather than their desire for government, united them. However, with the formation of Labour Party policy, there is no doubt that the Party became more than a movement and a genuine candidate for government and this is vindicated by their post-war success up to and including Blair. The tradition they have thus set of pragmatic social democracy is being eroded quickly by their current leader. In this sense, Corbyn simply cannot be the ‘true face’ of Labour- he is a disparaging leader, a dogmatic ideologue, the anathema of pragmatism.
Perhaps by more luck than judgement, Labour governments of the past have been defined by their pragmatic ability to seize an opportunity. From Attlee’s post-war socialistic agenda, a symptom of the effects World War II had on British society, to Blair, the serial election winner who took advantage of splits over Europe in the Tory Party. From what we’ve seen of him, Comrade Corbyn cannot possibly match the calibre of his predecessors. He’s already missed a number of opportunities to take the initiative against the government, failed to make any sort of a point in the referendum campaign and performs consistently woefully at PMQs. Macmillan, Callaghan, Blair and Attlee were all exceptional public speakers. Blair was always concise and proficient at PMQs and while Corbyn could potentially be the arch-destroyer of his own party through his dogmatic incompetence, past Labour leaders such as Wilson were not only known for being transigent and pragmatic, but also for their ability to keep a ship from sinking. Wilson tactfully dealt with divisive issues for his party including the role of public ownership, British membership of the European Community and not least the Vietnam War.
Unlike Labour leaders of yesteryear, Corbyn possesses a striking ability to make everything look so much more difficult than it should be. He cannot be viewed as the ‘true face’ of a Labour Party that has, over decades, moulded itself into an election-winning machine. As I have touched on, however, his policies are Socialistic in design and intent and should Keir Hardie’s ILP still be around today, they’d be on his list of supporters. The inevitable conclusion of this latter interpretation suggests that he is symbolic of an ideological protest movement, the ‘true face’ of an old, dead and forgotten Labour movement.