Nick Cohen

Must Corbyn win?

Must Corbyn win?
Text settings

Thoughtful writing about the Corbyn phenomenon is not just impossible to find, it is impossible to imagine. Admirers live in a land of make believe as closed to the rest of the world as North Korea. They barely know how to explain themselves to outsiders because they cannot imagine any honourable reason for outsiders disagreeing with them. Disputes with 'Jeremy'  must be the result of ideological contamination – you have become or, perhaps secretly always have been, a 'Tory' or 'Blairite' – financial corruption  – you have sold out – or racial corruption – you are a 'Zionist'.

My colleague Janice Turner of the Times posted a copy of a leaflet Corbyn supporters are handing out in constituency meetings. They have an answer to every charge against him. The trouble is you can only believe the answers if you live in a hermetically sealed container which no argument or doubt can penetrate.

Outside the container, Corbyn has demonstrably lost the confidence of his MPs on a scale and with a finality no party leader, who has tried to cling to office, has matched before. Inside, his supporters reassure themselves, ‘almost three-times as many Labour MPs voted confidence in him last month as voted for him last September’.

Outside, everyone can see Labour reduced to a rump party of 150, maybe fewer MPs unless Corbyn goes soon. He had the worst English local election results of any opposition leader for decades. He came third in Scotland behind the Conservatives, a prospect that even two years ago would have been unimaginable. Where it has won, Corbyn’s Labour has not won with Corbynist candidates. Like First World War generals, the far left send others to do its fighting for them. Hence, Sadiq Khan won in London, but did it by explicitly renouncing Corbyn. The right wing Labour MP Jim McMahon won the Oldham West and Royton by-election.

Inside, Scotland is forgotten, the local election results and opinion polls are ignored or manipulated, and the few victories fought and won by moderate Labour politicians in London, Oldham and elsewhere, are claimed as triumphs for Corbyn’s generalship

The far left maintains its illusions  by denouncing all who try to wake them from their dreams, both as a punishment  and a warning to others. In a ‘God that failed’ piece of the type I expect to become all-too common, the left-wing writer Alex Andreou described what happened when he publicly broke with Corbyn because of the Labour leader’s failure to fight to keep Britain in the EU. Andreou is a journalist of modest means, who lives hand to mouth and has been homeless for a while. Overnight he became a sellout. He had to be. What other explanation could there be for dissing 'Jeremy'?

There was a pattern to it…. Facts dismissed as conspiracy. Experts vilified as establishment. Quotes half-invented for inflammatory memes. Sexism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, homophobia, antisemitism, violent language, abuse – all of it clear to anyone at the receiving end, all of it denied by anyone on the side generating it.

At the end of a process, with which I am wearily familiar, Andreou had discovered a truth everyone should  learn.

The far right is obsessed with purging the country from anyone who looks different. The far left obsessed with purging it from anyone who thinks different. They are two sides of the same philosophy [that] sees progress only in homogeneity and threat in mixing, in 'impurity', in dissent, in challenging the orthodoxy.

The one point on which Corbyn and his supporters have every right to be proud is that they have vastly increased the Labour Party’s membership. Hundreds of thousands have joined by one means or another, a majority of them to vote for Corbyn.

Outsiders, including myself, cannot write well about this because we cannot accept the far left’s achievement. The truth of the matter is that Jeremy Corbyn has helped nurture the largest left-wing mobilisation Britain has seen since the 1980s. People have joined it for good reasons – disgust at corporate greed, the bank failures, and an austerity that targets the poor. That said Corbyn is a typically post-socialist 'left' politician: he has no policies. He has no class analysis beyond the vacuous claim to be on the side of 99 per cent. Serious social democratic thinkers and economists , who were initially more than happy to work for Corbyn, have walked away in bewilderment and despair.

Yet in the far left’s success lies its failure. Labour has become a mass party without a mass movement behind it. The larger its membership becomes, the faster its share of the vote falls.  The dynamics of crowd psychology are destroying it. Group think damns not only dissenters but reasonable criticisms of the leadership, which might help it fight the government with a modicum of effectiveness if they were heeded.

If he is to win, Owen Smith will have to break the spell, and wake hundreds of thousands for their land of make believe. I wish he would do it by taking on Corbyn and his support for clerical fascism. But for reasons I have explained before, an honest confrontation is not a wise course. If Smith exposes Corbyn as a hypocrite, and an apologist for the oppressors of secularism and feminism, Smith exposes the Corbyn supporters Smith wants to convert as being fools at best and collaborators at worst.

It is less honourable but better politics to do what Smith did in the hustings and keep emphasising that the obvious truth that Corbyn is leading Labour to disaster. He must keep repeating that he want to take Labour back to being a competitive party; to put it back in the ring. If you listen carefully, you will notice that Corbyn hardly ever talks about what he will do when he is prime minister. There’s a good reason for his silence. If the far left can consolidate its control of Labour, it will not mind if the party only has 50 MPs. That is more, far more, than the British far left has enjoyed at any time in its history. They will be on the television. They will be taken seriously, even though, and in fact, their extremism and incompetence will guarantee the triumph of the right.

Smith needs to emphasise the poverty of Corbyn’s ambition. He needs to ask Labour members whether their hatred of the Tories is just an affectation; whether they want to change the government or shout on Twitter.

It may not work. The far left has so damned the last Labour government any compromise to win power is cursed in advance as Blairism. I am sure if the Labour election were held tomorrow, Corbyn would win. But Smith still has more than a month to state the obvious. I hear that there are signs that at least a few Corbyn  supporters are starting to waver. Maybe enough will move to give Smith victory. Maybe Smith does not even need to achieve victory outright. Corbynism, that cult of the passive-aggressive personality, needs perpetual success to justify it. A narrow victory will feel like a defeat. It will break the spell and prepare the ground for the next Labour politician brave enough to affirm the party’s founding truth: Labour is a party of government, or it is nothing.