Today I was advised to visit a website which had a simple slogan about getting rid of a popular leader who, they suggest, did not have the ability to lead. Its strapline was”Save Labour – save democracy.” I found this glib, unexplained contention the sort of insincerity which can only do more harm to politics and progress.
Well, leadership is about more than popularity and large numbers of followers, that’s true. But the fear of Labour party members of parliament and long-standing constituency members and officials is that their current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, won’t get them back in power. He has a huge following among very new members, but is further to the left than the smug party nomenclatura, and heavily criticised by the partisan media in a latter-day red scare. The fear is that he will not win wider support with that heavy criticism and with his outsider’s viewpoint that sees through the emperors’ new clothes that adorn previous Labour Party policies and practices. He has engaged as supporters and as new party members, some of those who were previously politically inactive or lost on the margins of protest – the young and the scary.
It strikes me that the idea of a leader is itself outdated. The charismatic super person is too often a shallow charlatan and strong leadership is interpreted as firm inflexibility rather than moral courage. The biggest damage to the Labour Party in the past has been with dishonest, self-seeking, ultra-self-assured media confections, smoothing and oozing unctuously with well-planned media manipulations, careful and compromised alliances, bullying and smoozing, who looked like polished successful leaders. This was true of right, left and centrist leaders, both locally and nationally. They had polish, gloss, slickness and shine. As one friend said to Derek Hatton, a local power-grabber who went through left-wing ideologies and terminology on a tsunami of political destruction, “It looks like shine, but the public, once they realise what it is, will never trust someone with a sweaty upper lip.” Some on the right had hearts and souls are as deep as the gloss on their tooth-caps and the shine that evaporates when the spin falters. So, the Labour party has had a history of leaders with polish and drive who have been momentarily successful, but ultimately distrusted and discarded, like Tony Blair following Iraq and the unwinding of his triumphal tapestries back into the froth of his spin-doctors.
So I question what effective leadership should be about.
We are told that leadership is effective if it appeals to the broader electorate, which for some party faithful means mediocre, middle ground, muddle with the odd bread-and-circuses which induces voter indifference and leaves party and managers to compromise, collude, but to control with minimal public involvement. The world is different from last time those tactics worked, and more different each day.
For Labour to survive and succeed it needs to unite the popular divisions about membership of Europe into a common concern: there are common threads on both sides of leaving or remaining in Europe, mostly against austerity and challenging the dominant consensus on neoliberal economic policies. Labour also needs to think of and undo its unholy alliances it had when Blair chased after but was charmed into impotence by Murdoch’s mass media, with corrupt or mistaken policies with PFI, with the whole Iraq disaster, with loss of integrity, with cabals and conspiracies around every corner. The current campaign against Corbyn, which has sought to inculpate his followers in anti-Semitism and brick throwing, is inept and doesn’t sound convincing. There is a mutual fuelling up of hostility to him and to change in society between his opposition in his own party and the powerful media controllers who have their own agenda. I watch this with detachment and disbelief.
I’m on the outside of politics and I am not alone in finding the reasons for that hostility unconvincing. I hear hypocritical bewailings about factional misconduct. I had direct experience of bullying tactics from the hard left and the quiet connivance of party structures and supporters. I don’t think that current allegations against Corbyn’s supporters are as believable as I know those against Militant to have been – it’s a very different scenario. There is more spontaneity, less coordination, it doesn’t feel like a Trotskiyist plot. Corbyn’s teams’ denials of involvement in misconduct and repudiations of it are both fulsome and played down by opponents and under-reported in most media.
The attacks on Corbyn just add to our distrust of the Party as a whole, as does the removal of voting rights from 100,000 party members. These joined recently, mostly in support of Corbyn as party leader. These are all matters which drove me and many others away from Labour and sickened us with politics. After the EU and Scottish referendums, there is a new electorate, who are both disappointed with failed promises, dreading further declines in health and other public services, terrified of the further austerity that will result from Brexit, expecting change and lukewarm to the old guard protecting their privileges. They are also getting less gullible about accepting the promoted stories in which all the problems they see and are affected by are the fault of Europe, immigrants, jobless and benefit-recipients or Corbyn. Or at least, I hope they are getting less gullible about these new lies, as they can start to see that removal from Europe has a cost far beyond what they were told.
But in all the above and for all his hesitancy, Corbyn is a different sort of leader, with integrity, who won’t flirt with the media, knows the difference between supporting enterprise and protecting oligarchs, tax-dodgers and offshore commodity, banking and finance manipulators. This is unlike our previous Labour and Conservative governments who were so keen to show support for business that they undid the regulation and financial prudence to allow the less-productive but more acquisitive business mavericks to warp economies with impunity and with tax concessions. We have had a recurrent but misapplied mantra about needing to support money makers to increase national wealth, even if it means increasing poverty for most people to give the few the rewards, dividends, bonuses and increasing share of the wealth they managed on others’ behalf. Austerity has less impact on these money-makers and further increases social division. Yet those disadvantaged by this general impoverishment are the major portion of the electorate, so, as they wake to the reality of losing services, incomes, rights and opportunities, the consensus view between the right of the Labour Party and Conservatives about protecting business has a very limited life ahead of it.
Corbyn seems not to accept this consensus, so is abhorrent to those, with self-interests in political, media and economic power who oppose him. Theirs are the voices, so keen to decry his inability to lead a party of opposition, or even more, a party of government. Yet he can provide a new and forceful challenge to austerity and a concerted renewed commitment to public service. There are growing and coalescing sections of the public which are beyond the borders of any one faction or party and they would like to believe that challenge is possible and that commitent can be realised.
This actually makes him electable and Labour with him.