Replacing Corbyn

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” [Gatsby] cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

Most of us are prey to Jay Gatsby’s mistake at one time or another, in politics as elsewhere. We think that if we can just go back to the point where things went wrong, where we (or someone else) made a bad decision, and this time do it right, then everything will be OK.

But it won’t. As Yanis Varoufakis put it a few years ago, “The path that you take to somewhere, once you get to that somewhere, doesn’t exist any more. We can’t just turn around upon the original path and find ourselves outside where we used to be.”

What’s true for individuals is also true for political parties. They too take wrong turns, sometimes disastrous ones. But recovery, even if possible, is never simple.

This has been an object of much discussion in the United States over the last four years, as the Republican Party has been transformed into a vehicle of Trumpism. Frank Rich, for example, last month contemplated the fate of Donald Trump’s defenders, comparing them not just to the diehard supporters of Richard Nixon but also to the collaborators and fellow-travellers of fascism in the 1930s.

Turning the Republican Party back into something like a normal political party will be a mammoth task. Certainly it will never be quite the same again. But we know change is possible; over the course of a couple of decades, the Democrats largely purged themselves of supporters of racial segregation (although at the cost of driving many of them into the Republican Party).

And it’s not just the US. Britain’s Labour Party for four and a half years has also been in the hands of a cult. The supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have not shown quite the same hostility to civilised values as the Trumpists, but they performed a similar job of taking their party in a new direction, marshalling the support of its grassroots against the old establishment.

But the Corbynite project came to grief with a crushing loss in last December’s election. Now the party has to somehow extricate itself.

Ballot papers for the election of a new leader will go out to all party members next week, to be returned by 2 April. At present there are four candidates, although one of them – shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry – has not yet qualified for the ballot by winning the support of the required 5% of party branches.

It’s not clear whether Thornberry will meet tonight’s deadline to reach the 5% mark, but the fact that she is having difficulty with it suggests that her support in the ballot will not amount to much in any event. Former shadow energy secretary Lisa Nandy is thought to have more support, but not by much.

All observers agree that the ballot will be fought out between Keir Starmer, former shadow Brexit secretary, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, shadow business secretary. Long-Bailey represents continuity with the Corbyn era; Starmer represents a break with it, although just how big a break is something that will become apparent only with time.

Corbyn won two overwhelming victories in leadership ballots, despite his lack of support from his parliamentary colleagues. But either the magic has worn off in the shadow of electoral defeat, or else it does not transfer easily: Long-Bailey has received only lukewarm endorsements, and Starmer will start a very strong favorite.

Starmer had a high profile in last year’s Brexit debates, where he was a tireless defender of Britain’s membership of the European Union – often in tension with Corbyn’s Euroscepticism. Now, barring something unexpected, it looks as if he will be the one left to pick up the pieces and try to reconstitute Labour as a viable fighting force.

In principle, the task should not be that hard. Prime minister Boris Johnson is not personally popular; his Brexit strategy has laid up problems for the future and created expectations that will be impossible to meet; and there is evidence that many voters were driven by hostility to Corbyn rather than to Labour’s message in general.

On the other hand, centre-left parties in much of the democratic world have been having a rough time. Many of them face the same problem that Labour does: an unresolved division as to whether they are to be a socialist party or a social democratic party.

The Corbynists are unlikely to let their vision of the party go without a fight. And Britain’s electoral system compounds the problem by forcing different ideological tendencies to coexist in a single party, rather than having separate vehicles that can then co-operate when the occasion arises.

Starmer knows that he has to tread carefully. He has already promised to retain most of the key planks of Labour’s last election platform, including the ruinous (but popular) boondoggle of free tertiary education. Once he’s in charge, however, things may look different.

But however far or fast he distances the party from Corbynism, it will never again be quite the same animal that it was before.

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