Charting a complex path

A reply to Duncan Bowie: Corbyn has played the cards he has been dealt with well and continued support for his leadership is vital, says Don Flynn

Duncan Bowie chooses completely the wrong moment to accuse Labour of being “the ‘nasty party’ with a complete lack of pluralism and tolerance of different views”.  This claim comes at a time when factionalism in the party has never been more intense, with grouplets forming around the many different stances that it is possible to take in response to the imminence of a no deal exit from the EU.  It has been the need to work with the reality of a deeply fragmented party, in danger of generating numerous challenges to the authority of the leadership, that has shaped the direction that Corbyn has chosen to take for Labour. 

He follows up his claim that Labour is a monolith with a further charge that supporters of Corbyn’s leadership constitute a ‘fan club’, presumably meaning that they are incapable of a critical assessment of his performance in that role. Yet the truth is that many months have passed since Corbyn was greeted with singing praise of his name at that far-off Glastonbury festival.  If it is heard today it is more in a tone of dogged defiance of the welter of feeble criticism which has come from newspaper columnists, New Statesman op eds and carping backbench (and sometimes frontbench) MPs. Get beyond the self-conscious irony of these displays and any Labour member finds that the ‘Love Corbyn’ badge is usually the opening gambit of a socialist grouping that has much to say about how the leader should be doing better.  Chartist itself continues to be a part of this bloc of critical Corbyn supporters.

The problem with arguments that limit themselves to the standard complaint about lost opportunities to do this or take a firmer stance on that at any point in the recent past is that they fail to take into account the real dilemmas that exist for anyone wanting to pursue a radical, leftist reformist strategy in the UK.  The starting point of understanding the real predicament of the revived socialist movement in the UK is the realisation of just how much any leftist leader will be ensnared by the traps which are built into mainstream ways of doing politics. 

In the case under discussion, Corbyn finds himself in the position of having been propelled to a position of prominence by the grassroots hostility to austerity which had been gathering momentum under the Con-Lib Dem coalition and the Tory governments.  But what was unique about this round of agitation was the way in which discontent was sustained during a fractious general election campaign and Corbyn found himself not just a leader of the opposition, but one who had a realistic chance of forming a left wing government in the foreseeable future.

The complex of factors which have washed across the scene over the two years since the 2017 election – marked not just by the predictable challenge of finding a way forward through Brexit, but also by a deep crisis of the UK’s version of parliamentary democracy, the spectacle of a Tory Party unpicking itself at the seams, and the continuance of pressure from a right wing populist insurgency. The fact that the Parliamentary Labour Party remained unreconciled to Corbyn’s leadership also has to be added to the mix, as well as the real threat of the defection of working class Labour voters to the populists in key constituencies because of the failure to come out unambiguously as a leave-at-any-price party. 

Corbyn could have stumbled badly on any one of the myriad issues which have come up over this time, leading to splits and defections from the Parliamentary Party, the trade unions denouncing his efforts, the loss of crucial by-elections, right down to the wholesale abandonment of support by the millennials who are making the defeat of Brexit their principal concern. 

It has been a bumpy ride.  There are few of us who would say that at each and every point of the journey the leadership made a decision that has been wholly in line with what we considered to be optimal. What can be said is that Corbyn has worked to keep alive an awareness of the challenges that will come from Brexit across the majority of the population, whether or not the individual voted for leave or remain back in 2016.  He has not received much thanks for this – most leavers and remainers would have liked him to come down unambiguously on their side. Very few people like to be told that the consequences of decisions they have made are fraught with danger, even if they are wise enough to acknowledge that is probably true. The most positive thing that can be said for the strategy of constructive ambiguity is that it has produced a solid bloc of people – probably a majority – who are concerned that the no deal now favoured by the Tories will be catastrophic for the country in the short-term, and with negative consequences that will stretch far into the future.

In my view this is pretty well the best we could have hoped for given the fact that the EU referendum from the moment it was triggered has been so divisive across the country.  As things now stand – at five minutes to midnight – it is not out the question that parliament will throw up an obstacle to no deal which will necessarily involve putting Corbyn into No 10 if only to accomplish the limited task of getting an extension beyond 31 October. If this by no means simple feat is accomplished Labour must then see what scope there is for improving on the leave deal in ways that satisfy the referendum result but remove the threat of a catastrophic severance from the single market.  Whether they accomplish anything in the way of an improved leave deal, or just have May’s shambolic effort pushed back at them, then the whole thing needs to be put to a public vote. The strategy of seeking to unite working class leavers and cosmopolitan remainers around a position that meets Labour’s six tests has kept Labour in contention as a party with a realistic chance of forming a government: the shame is that large sections of its so-called supporters have lacked the maturity of judgment to come on board and fight for the position. 

The theme of this defence of Corbyn is that he has played the poor hand he has been given as well as anyone could have over these last few years.  He should be given credit for this. The consequence of his guile (assuming it was that, and not just good luck) is that he is at the head of a highly factionalised party which is just about holding together.  That it is holding together has been down to the leaderships extraordinarily high tolerance of dissent, not its authoritarianism. Whatever else the party is, it is not an anti-pluralist fan club for the leader.

Will Corbyn and the Labour Party he leads get credit for this from the country at large?  I disagree with Bowie that we have to be pessimistic on this score and we should therefore begin the search for a new leader.  At a point another general election will have to take place and when it does Labour will have the opportunity to present itself on the basis of its record as the party which has striven to get beyond the divisions which Brexit has sown and to focus instead on the measures that need to be taken, whether in or out the EU, to protect employment levels and wages and make greater use of the public sector and public realm to build a more united and socially just Britain.  The grounds for pulling the plug on Corbyn and his leadership do not exist in all fairness. If that argument doesn’t persuade you then at least think about the bitterness and recrimination that will be unleashed if the starting pistol is fired once again on a third leadership election.  

Don Flynn

Don Flynn is Chartist managing editor and former director of Migrant Rights Network