The second Labour Party leadership contest in a year has resulted in another Jeremy Corbyn landslide in advance of the party’s annual conference in Liverpool. It means now that the bubble within which thousands of Corbyn supporters have been cocooned from the reality of a country mired in the profound political uncertainty ushered in by Brexit is about to burst.
When the energy expended in campaigning for Corbyn throughout a leadership campaign that had allowed them to suspend disbelief and revel in the buzz of attending mass rallies and meetings at which everyone speaks the same language and shares the same worldview (and quite literally wears the same T-shirt), when all that energy is now diverted to the task of engaging with the general public, as it must, they will encounter a stone wall of indifference, perhaps even hostility, to the passion and idealism that has sustained them over the summer.
Many will inevitably become demoralised in response to the ineffable gulf that exists between life in the Corbynista bubble and the world outside. Others will stay the course, fuelled by an ever-decreasing well of optimism, knowing that giving up on Corbyn means giving up on their belief in a better and more just society.
And herein lies the problem – one for which, in parenthesis, Jeremy Corbyn cannot be held personally responsible. It is that the Corbyn phenomenon is a product of deep despair giving way to soaring hope with nothing in-between. It is thus a phenomenon which defies gravity and every other law of physics as it swaps reality for unreality, calling to mind Gramsci’s overused mantra, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
People who’ve been on the left for any amount of time live and die by Gramsci’s creed. They simply have to, otherwise it would be impossible to summon the strength and stamina to continually swim against the tide of apathy and anti-politics that is the default political position of millions up and down the country. These are people for whom politics belongs in the same category as a visit to the dentist — something that comes round once every so often and which they prefer to get out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible. Regardless, this is the core demographic and constituency that has to be won over for Labour or any other party to succeed.
The reputation of opinion polls as a reliable barometer of voting intentions and support for parties and leaders has justifiably taken a battering of late. However it would be foolish to ignore them altogether, given that they are the only measure we have, short of an election, when it comes to the viability of a given leadership. And according to the most recent polls, Corbyn’s prospects of being elected prime minister remain grim.
It is entirely true that the Labour leader has been battered by the right wing and liberal media throughout a second leadership election that, while triggered by Brexit, essentially came about because the majority of the PLP had refused to accept his leadership or mandate since the day he was elected in 2015, and in truth never will. Many, undoubtedly, would prefer Labour to be driven to destruction than succeed with Corbyn at the helm. It is a situation that has fed a hardening of Corbyn’s support, with his supporters understandably enraged at the arrogance of Labour MPs who refuse to accept the party’s own democratic structures and wishes of the overwhelming bulk of the membership when it comes to who the leader should be. Allegations of abuse and bullying and intimidation merely reflect the depth of acrimony between both sides in what had become a zero sum game.
But where Corbyn and his team must shoulder responsibility is over the failure to understand or appreciate the reactionary and racist nature of Brexit; and how if it came to pass it would entrench an unalterable shift to the right in British politics. This lack of understanding was reflected in one of the most dispassionate and lacklustre campaigns ever waged by a party leader, one that has led to credible accusations that he and his team purposely worked to sabotage the Remain campaign.
The wider point is that so much energy has been expended in fighting this leadership battle, in rallying round Corbyn’s leadership against the PLP, it has created a false political reality. This reality, as mentioned, exists not at mass rallies or mass meetings, but on the doorsteps of millions of voters across the country. In Scotland Corbyn’s leadership has completely failed to puncture the SNP’s political dominance, while down south, in large swathes of the country’s former industrial heartlands, it is the right wing of the Tory Party and UKIP that are making the running with their brand of regressive British nationalism.
Brexit confirms that we have entered an era of competing nationalisms north and south of the border, involving the opening up of a political scissors to confirm what many had chosen to deny up until the EU referendum— namely that there is a marked difference in political culture, underpinned by national identity, between Scotland and England. The result is an inclusive and civic nationalism in Scotland that exists in sharp contrast to its exclusive and xenophobic counterpart in England. In between both you have a Corbyn-led Labour Party whose support outside London is restricted by and large to urban centres such as Manchester and Liverpool, where Labour’s roots remain deepest.
This is not to claim that Owen Smith or any other leader would be better placed to improve Labour’s fortunes. The squeeze on Labour as the vehicle of working class political representation had already crashed before Jeremy Corbyn came along. The lack of any strong and effective ideological opposition to austerity post-economic crisis saw the Tories win the battle of ideas on public spending, welfare, and Labour mismanagement of the economy. Allied to UKIP’s narrative about the EU and unlimited mass immigration – a narrative based on a set of untruths, half-truths, and outright lies – and the damage was done.
The result is that rather than anti-austerity it is the politics of anti-immigration that are driving the voting intentions of working people across former Labour heartlands in England and South Wales.
Corbyn and his supporters and are in for a sharp shock.