Corbyn and Anger: Rage Against the Machine is understandable but never ever enough
Sunday Mail, September 20th 2015
Jeremy Corbyn has dominated the news headlines this week.
Let’s start with the obvious – the failure of mainstream politics. Conventional British politics are bust. The Labour right, the Blairites and soft left have nothing to offer their own party, let alone the country.
More seriously, the Cameron Conservatives after five years in office have yet to find a convincing governing mantra. ‘Big society’ and ‘compassionate Conservatism’ are long dead, leaving little that represents Cameron and Osborne beyond living within your means, cutting the deficit, and savagely pruning back the state.
Corbyn’s politics are fed by anger at austerity, the rightward drift of British politics and the incessant war drums, along with the militarisation of much of British life. Far easier it now seems to endlessly celebrate past military triumphs, than mark things much more relevant today, such as the founding of the NHS.
Add to this the dislocation felt at the rise of London and the South East, the dominance of the City of London, and widespread generational gridlock which is leaving a whole cohort of young people excluded from decent jobs, housing and getting on with their lives, and you have a potent brew of discontent.
This has fed into this summer’s populist insurrection – a ‘Faragism of the left’. There is an anger, fury and bewilderment at the state of Britain – the fourth largest economy in the world, but which many see as a land of miserliness and mean-mindedness.
Yet, anger only gets you so far. It may be ‘an energy’ as John Lydon, former Sex Pistol once sang, but to wiser heads such as Mick McGahey, formerly of the National Union of Mineworkers’, ‘anger is not enough’. This is because anger assumes a simple endpoint and answer, and then dissipates when this proves not to be the case, leaving only a vacuum.
The left in Britain has always been a tribe. This is one way of understanding Jeremy Corbyn stumbling into the light of the strange ways of British establishment life. First, he was unsure he would wear a red poppy in place of his usual peace white poppy. Next was the national anthem. And then there was the issue of whether to bow or not in the presence of the Queen in the Privy Council.
The British state and its elites are full of mumbo-jumbo and pretend traditions, but Corbyn comes from an oppositionalist left with its own myths and strange traditions which only make sense in understanding as a tribe.
The tribe is one that, for all the democratic impulse of the recent Labour leadership election and increase in membership, is mostly closed. It defines the world just as Thatcher did as about ‘us’ and ‘them’, has a sense of hatred towards Thatcher and Blair, and believes it is alright to denigrate a large part of Britain as ‘Tory scum’.
This is politics as emotional spasm. It feels understandable fury but then jumps to presenting a caricatured version of the past thirty years in Britain which says everything has gone wrong and that nothing went right.
Britain, pre-Thatcher and Blair, is romanticised as a land of compassion, care and milk and honey. The subsequent rightward revolution is viewed as part deception and manipulation, with Corbyn and John McDonnell presenting the New Labour era as a ‘coup d’etat’ in the party.
This isn’t healthy politics. Both Thatcher and Blair amplified and identified with existing economic and social patterns of change. They didn’t create these trends, but championed and progressed the direction society was already heading in.
This isn’t an apology for Thatcher and Blair, merely to note that political change is complex – as is the story of the last three decades. Jeremy Corbyn thinks this isn’t true and that a will to power leadership, conviction politics and standing up for your principles are enough. This is a complete misreading of recent times.
Labour are not in a good place. They have lost two elections in a row in both of which they won 30% of voters. Worse, in both May 2010 and 2015 the party won a mere 20% of the electorate – its lowest showings since it became a national party, 1983 apart.
None of this was faced up to in the recent Labour election because it is easier to pretend that political change is easy, that the recent past is entirely black and white, and everything then and now is about leadership.
Once upon a time the left were about the future. That was true in 1945, 1964 and 1997. It isn’t true today. That’s what the left has to return to. A generous vision of the future. Understanding economic and social change. Embracing democracy. And going beyond the limits of the labour movement and its appeal. Not harking back to a mythical past, whether 1945 or a world before Thatcher and Blair.
Who knows that what may eventually emerge from Jeremy Corbyn’s rage against the machine, is a new more creative and optimistic politics, but we can be certain that it is going to be a bumpy, unpredictable ride. That at least would befit the times we live in.