As Jeremy Corbyn hails his second party leadership victory, Derek Bateman reflects on the slow decline and sudden fall of Labour’s fortunes in Scotland
A triumph for Jeremy. A disaster for Labour. We’ve had time to realise first, that he was likely to win again and second, to gauge the scale of victory. He lifted his levels of support across all groups, not just the £25 entryists.
For the one-time Corduroy Communist who exulted in remaining dogmatically pure when all around Labour MPs were lathering themselves in pragmatism, this is the ultimate vindication. Jez, at least in the minds of his Corbynistas, now takes his place alongside those other bearded Heroes of the People – Che and Fidel. He has proved that there is another way, a people’s highway, and it can be attained without massaging the ego of the bankers and corporatists, without schmoozing with the careerists and compromisers. Jeremy is walking the shining path. And like other insurgents he has done it by dividing the party base while talking the language of unity.
He has crushed the opposition through democratic process and scattered them as comprehensively as the electorate has squashed the Labour Party in Scotland. Any lingering sense of entitlement from the zombie New Labour detritus that they are inheritors of some Labour ‘tradition’, has been scoffed at by the membership and looks likely to be confirmed by the electorate.
Labour, as the force we have known it – in my case from the Wilsonian sixties, Callaghan’s seventies through Foot to Smith, Blair and Brown – is an empty Hallowe’en costume devoid of its capacity to scare. It is over. The generational political voice of the people has been choked off, the collective force of the working man curbed, the modernising driver of social progress stalled. Under Jeremy, the name will remain but it will be the political wing of a radical social movement rather than a disciplined, hierarchical organisation built for power. Scoring points will trump parliamentary votes.
The real toe-to-toe area of combat in the Corbyn v Smith contest wasn’t left v right but activist v payroll. MPs have come to represent not the voice of the party but the symbol of its conformity. They are the accommodators too ready to concede a Daily Mail agenda, too comfortable with all but the outer edges of Tory policy and the epitome of middle management men-in-suits who defer to the boss class however it hurts the shop-floor.
There can be no doubt now that those behind Jeremy’s campaign as are astute and honed as any activists. Indeed they sound similar to many of the Yes side’s own battalions who not only know what they are doing but why they’re doing it. They have the ingredient missing for so long from the paralysed Labour movement – belief. It is the great motivator and it is making a success of Jeremy’s alternative party, challenging the weary old school charade of Parliament and exposing, as happened in Scotland, the hopeless inability of the partisan, right wing British media.
So in his own terms, Corbyn has found redemption. But has Labour?
The answer is a resounding No. There is a sizeable opposition some of which will never be reconciled. To them the party has been taken over and turned into a student protest group. It isn’t just Jeremy. For them it’s also McDonnell who always rubbed them up the wrong way. It’s Diane Abbot who is flaky. It is an assortment of younger radicals that remind them of Militant and Socialist Worker. The background irony here is that those same traditionalists whose generation wrecked Labour accuse the Corbynistas of being wreckers. And probably both are right.
The Blairites, for want a better term, lost touch with and stopped talking to and for their constituents. It wasn’t really about delivery – Blair did deliver minimum wage, working tax credits, big rises in health and school spending (whatever legitimate qualifications can be laid against him) – but more about communication. Labour looked and sounded more and more like vaguely more competent Lib Dems. The party became the embodiment of the aspirational and avaricious Blair himself, loosened from its electoral moorings by belief in being untouchable. Like him, those who left became rich and opportunistic looking for ‘business’. They missed the growing public disillusion. The Labour generation of Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Darling left a residue of weed killer that has now reached down to the roots.
But that’s the past. Jeremy and his friends are wreckers too of the party previously known as Labour. They have limited appeal to an angry and disillusioned public. Britain will never see a lunge to the left as an answer for its complaints. The latest polling puts the Tories (who gave us a decade of austerity and Brexit) along with UKIP on a combined support of 55 per cent. His appeal just isn’t wide enough and the British voting public isn’t adaptable enough to reach out to a radical alternative. The conservative nature of the majority and their priority of ‘stability’ makes them suspicious of change, especially if it can be twisted to look like left-wing dogma. UKIP appeals to many in England because its radicalism is in reality a return to a Dad’s Army Britain – Church of England, white and Spam-eating.
Which is exactly why Scotland is so interesting. From views on monarchy to helping refugees, Scot speak a different language and that language is social democracy, the very thing Labour assumed was their trade mark. In pondering Scottish Labour members’ apparent preference for Owen Smith, it seems that many of the potential Corbyn backers here had already deserted, probably to the SNP, which offers an alternative home unavailable in England.
But the truly odd thing about Scotland is they way the leadership has miscalled the result. On the face of it, Kezia Dugdale understands her own support. She spoke against Corbyn and it seems most of her membership agree. Yet, without this opposition to the newly-endorsed leader being vocalised by either leading figures or the wider movement, she now finds herself isolated. Worse, instead of finding herself a principled stance and taking any consequences that follow (it’s called leadership) she instead tried to maintain that her criticism of Corbyn was simultaneously correct and, eh, wrong. In one paragraph she said he was both unelectable and unable to unite and electable and able to unite.
She is making a comedy routine out of her party at the very time it requires authority and direction.
Ineptitude gives way to haplessness; gives way to hopelessness. The result is embarrassment which can be lived with and derision which can’t. Derision means no credibility and in turn no capacity to lead. The lack of faith and credibility is crippling. I argued that, no matter how new in the job, no Labour leader could remain if they lost out to the Tories in Scotland. The more popular view was it wasn’t her fault and she should remain to rebuild the support. But Labour is today stuck in the mid teens a full five points behind the bloody Tories! Many are to blame for Labour’s never-ending travails but it is beyond contradiction that Calamity Kez is making things worse with no prospect of improvement. It would be an act of mercy to find an escape route for her – and no doubt would aid her own sanity.
To look at Labour today, it’s as if four decades of my adult life never happened. Did I really swap bar room tales with John Reid and Helen Liddell…spend countless hours in tiny studios speaking to Donald Dewar…get barked at by John Smith…have party media types stop interviews mid-flow because ‘the minister had to go’…share a street stall with a young unpretentious Alistair Darling…get pushed aside by Alistair Campbell to let Blair go past??? Labour was the dominant force in the political landscape, built-in, unassailable and part of national life, its spokesmen known and respected. Nothing moved without Labour’s knowledge. It had aye been and it aye would.
Well, this isn’t coming back. Not under Jeremy. Not under Kezia. Labour as we have known it is being laid to rest. Its future is behind it.
Something will soldier on – a popular movement with energy but with limited public appeal, a tattered flag on an empty battlement.
I wish Jeremy luck. Politics needs to change and the Westminster clique broken up. In Scotland, it makes the nationalist ascendancy more secure and yet at the same time the plaintive voice of Labour defeat should send a shudder through all those who believe they are untouchable. Politics is a people’s game and people are fickle. It seems so far from possible now but voters know they can make and break both political parties and even, via Brexit, the system itself.