Jeremy Corbyn and the Bonfire of the Cynics


While chaos unfolds in Westminster, on social media there has been merry carnival of mea culping, told-you-soing and book-eating in the wake of the sensational general election result last week. No, Labour did not win a majority or become largest party, but they did effectively bring down a government, leave an apparently unassailable Prime Minister utterly toothless and quite possibly revolutionised British politics for a generation to come.

Central to this there has been a lot of talk about who has been proven right or wrong. Someone kindly intervened in one of my own mini Twitter spats to describe me as “someone who was right all along.”

It’s never my style to wave away a compliment, so I let it ride, but it didn’t feel true. I’m not someone who was right all along, at least not in the most basic sense. Over recent months there were literally a few handfuls of furiously loyal Corbyn supporters who insisted that the polls were wrong, that Corbyn would storm an election campaign, and if the Tories called an election they would get stuffed. Those people were very few in number and I was not among them. Most of Corbyn’s people were not among them, truth be told. If I’m honest, when the election was called my best guess was that Labour would get trounced and the best foreseeable outcome would be if Jeremy Corbyn put up a good enough showing to survive and fight another day. So simply on cold hard numbers psephology, I was just as wrong as the most ardent Corbyn critic.

However, there is another reading of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on which I am proud to have landed jammy-side up, while Corbyn’s critics have faceplanted into the proverbial from a grand height. It is about the very rules of the game that I’m describing – the psephology, the electoral calculation, the punditry, the prediction, the polls-chasing.

Here is a grand truth which lies at the heart of Corbyn’s success, which the mainstream political media class entirely failed to understand and – based on the comment pieces and social media mutterings of the weekend – still entirely fails to understand.  It comes down to a dictum which in my view could reasonably be called the central premise of Corbynism:

We do not say what we say because it plays well in the polls and we do not cynically advocate policies for electoral advantage. We do what do because we believe it is the right thing to do.

I remember that during the Labour leadership election and failed coup attempts, I made a lot of jokes about the Labour centrist / Blairite rump candidates staring in bewilderment at Corbyn’s success and demanding someone tell them what they needed to say to convey some of that authenticity and sincerity stuff.

We are now seeing the same mistake being made as pundits try to crunch the numbers to work out just how Corbyn confounded them. Young voters seem to be taking most of the credit or the blame, with policies like scrapping tuition fees being described as ‘a bribe’ which won their enthusiasm and support. The purveyors of these takes are so immersed in cynicism they are utterly incapable of seeing it, like fish being oblivious to the water they swim in. Voters did not flock to Corbyn because they were cynical or selfish or responding to bribes. They flocked to Corbyn because they saw a politician who had sincere beliefs and stuck to them regardless of whether they looked popular, convenient and regardless of how much flak and abuse was thrown his way as a consequence – not over the weeks of an election campaign or the months of a leadership, but over the decades of a life and a career.

This is why I will now proudly say I was right about Corbyn. It’s not that we did the calculations and triangulations and brilliantly worked out a policy platform that could sway the day. It’s not even that we defied the critics and pulled off a sensational win in a major battle (if not yet the final war.) It is simply that we have proven that in politics it is still possible to believe, it is still possible to dream, it is still possible have ideals, to do something simply because you believe it is the right thing to do and be rewarded for that. Labour’s success last week was not built on a promise over tuition fees or the collapse of Theresa May’s social care policy. Labour’s success was built on what Barack Obama called the Audacity of Hope.

Those of us who backed Corbyn, at the beginning, through the rough times and then came out in our hundreds of thousands to canvass, campaign, fundraise and argue for Labour over the election campaign, we have been proved right. Not because we secured a concentrated percentage swing from incumbent to challenger in key marginal blah-de-blahs. Not because we increased vote shares and slashed majorities, not even because we damn near toppled a dangerously incompetent government.

We have been proven right because we dared to dream. It has been said that nobody won this election and nobody really lost. It is not true. There was one huge loser, and that was cynicism.

Comments

  1. EB says

    You were more right than I was. I thought he would do better than the predictions & squeak past Blair’s 2001 vote count, but to almost get as many as the 1997 ‘landslide’…he got 95% of the votes! (12.9m vs 13.5m). I did not ever think that was going to happen.

    I am now finding the calls for ‘unity’ nauseating though. They’ve spent months insulting us as ‘hard left’, when in reality we just don’t like them. They’ve spent months insulting us as the antonym of their ‘moderate’, when in reality there is nothing extreme or immoderate about almost all of us. They’ve spent months lying to us, when in reality most people value the truth.

    I’m all for ‘truth and reconciliation’, but part of that needs to be a genuine contrition & an apology to everyone they insulted or lied to. They just want to sneak back into the party & pretend nothing happened. True, there are a minority of voters who like them and the left isn’t >50% of the population on its own, but they still need to say sorry to everyone they insulted or lied to.

    Sure let Yvette Cooper types into the shadow cabinet, but only once they have said they are sorry for their behaviour. I won’t hold my breath.

  2. That Guy says

    This has easily been one of the funniest upsets in my political memory. It’s hard not to like Corbyn, since he seems so earnest and sincere about his beliefs, rather than mucking about with the focus groups and the typical question avoidance of usual politicians.

    That being said, I can’t help but feel a little sore about the result north of the border here. It was expected, though.

    There are two reasons the SNP did so well last time round, the first was the FPTP system, and the second was the element of surprise. In contrast to down south, where the battle was fought based on what people stood for, or what was in the manifesto, or even the person at the head of the party, every single leaflet I saw across Scotland was little more than an invitation to tactically vote to oust the SNP.

    FWIW; The conservative gains in Scotland are the result of

    a)The vote taking place on a unionist/nationalist axis

    b)Lukewarm campaigning by the SNP

    c)A Blairite Scottish Labour party that failed to capitalise on Corbyn’s success

    d)A Scottish Tory leader who despite advocating abhorrent policies for an abhorrent party, seems reasonably media-friendly

  3. Marduk says

    Indeed, Corbyn actually brought some politics into politics. It has certainly exposed the Mayites and the New Labourists as essentially hollow anti-politicians. What could be their pitch to regain control now. “Vote for me, I’m the third best regional sales manager for a fairly successful supermarket chain”. You look at Yvette and friends and you can almost smell a second-from-top-of-the-range Vauxhall Insignia on a hot day. Theres a Starbucks in the cupholder, a Novotel booked two hours up the road, theres a jacket hanging from the hook and Cher on the CD player. It doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing.

  4. WineEM says

    “Those of us who backed Corbyn, at the beginning [….] have been proved right.”

    Eh, but Ally, if you remember you didn’t back Corbyn from beginning. You actually explicitly said that you wouldn’t vote for him in the original leadership contest because:

    “A Corbyn government would be a bitter disappointment at best and an economic calamity at worst”

    and :-
    “That is why I cannot in good conscience make myself part of an internal, Labour party leadership election, it would help to dignify a process in which I have no faith.”

    This, apparently because in your view (back then anyway) his policies were too radical to be workable. So, at that point you actually had the very opposite of the position you’re boasting about: that you wouldn’t back his idealism on entirely pragmatic grounds, even though said idealism had an emotional appeal.

    Sorry, Ally – it’s not that I ever take any pleasure in picking holes in your arguments or anything – but just sayin,’ that’s all! 🙂

    (I mean, it’s surely not a minor point that if you’d got your way, there would be no Corbyn as leader there at all in the first place!)

    Whereas I, ironically, did vote for him to be leader, but have gone off him a small bit since due to the women only train carriage stuff, bullying Philip Davies simply for speaking the truth on gendered justice discrimination, etc, etc. Thankfully he did massively tone down the identity politics stuff this time round in the campaign, so maybe I would still consider Labour next time though if he can keep a similar course.)

  5. Marduk says

    4, You make a very good point actually. Further down the road people might want to consider the implications here for class politics vs. identity politics. There was an emerging view that divisive IP was what you could have within a neo-liberal framework as a substitute for unifying class politics (Hilary Clinton vs. Bernie essentially) but that logic seems defeated now. Interesting.

  6. Ally Fogg says

    WINE EM (4)

    Nice bit of selective quoting there.

    The original blogpost is here for anyone who wants to see for themselves

    https://freethoughtblogs.com/hetpat/2015/08/04/jeremy-and-me-some-thoughts-on-the-labour-leadership-election/

    I said I wasn’t going to sign up to vote in the Labour election (for anyone) because it would be dishonest to influence the leadership of a party of which I am not a member and did not intend to join.

    That remains true. I’m still not a member of Labour because I still don’t believe there is a parliamentary route to socialism under capitalism. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t vastly prefer a Corbyn govt to one led by any other option currently available.

    The other thing I said in that very same blog which you carefully avoided quoting was:

    So why, for all that, will I cheer and celebrate wildly if Corbyn wins? It will not be because I believe in Corbyn, but because I believe in Corbynmania. The sudden outpouring of radicalism, the wave of hope, the demands for a different kind of politics all add up to one of the most inspiring moments in recent political history. With hindsight, the near-total devastation of the Labour party in Scotland three months ago was not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a much wider existential crisis within a Labour party that is now almost entirely adrift from its origins, its natural grassroots and even its very raison d’etre.

    Being entirely honest, the Corbyn phenomenon has played out faster and more strongly than I could have dreamed of and is still going. I still entirely expect a Corbyn government to be devastatingly undermined by capitalist forces if it ever gets to that point, but I continue to hope I might be wrong and continue to dare to dream that I might be wrong, which is what it is all about.

  7. WineEM says

    @7 Ok, so there’s daring to dream, daring to believe and then ….
    daring to believe that you might be proved wrong?

    Are these not, arguably, slightly different things?

  8. redpesto says

    Fogg at #7:

    I said I wasn’t going to sign up to vote in the Labour election (for anyone) because it would be dishonest to influence the leadership of a party of which I am not a member and did not intend to join.

    …like all those Tory wannabe-entryists who boasted about joining Labour to vote for Corbyn as the ‘worst’ candidate. How that looking now?

  9. Ally Fogg says

    WineEM

    Not for the first time I have literally no idea what point you are trying to make, apart from playing that weird game you seem to enjoy of finding something Ally Fogg said several years ago that is very slightly different to what Ally Fogg says today, as if that is somehow meaningful.

  10. Ally Fogg says

    For what it is worth there are many, many things I’ve written in the past which I no longer entirely agree with. I do something along the lines of thinking about shit & occasionally even changing my mind.

    As it happens, this is one topic which I have been pretty much unchanged from day one.. If I’m expressing that slightly differently today than I did in 2015 it is probably because I’m in a better mood this week than I was then. No biggie.

  11. WineEM says

    @10 I think it’s true that where I’ve done you a bit of a disservice, Ally, is to have used the expression “got your way” at #4, which was a clumsy way of saying that if your piece had persuaded enough people to think as you did at that time there would have been no Jeremy Corbyn leadership (that you did say you would take a vicarious pleasure in his election is a good point, however, and well worth flagging up.)
    Certain things in this life are, however, open to interpretation and debate, as I’m sure you would agree, and while many people would take different positions on what constitutes belief or ‘true belief’ (ie. ‘in politics it is still possible to believe’) I suspect there are some Jeremy Corbyn ‘true believers’ who would surely reject the idea that saying “A Jeremy Corbyn government would be a disappointment at best and an economic calamity at worst” would represent what they saw as true belief. Certainly, if Owen Jones had written that in a Guardian column and then after that said he had backed Corbyn right through from the beginning he would perhaps be in some difficulty with readers. Of course he’s always said that he had belief and faith in Corbyn’s politics (as a vision, and in terms of faith in what would work), but he didn’t think Corbyn had the strength as a leader to pull it off.

    It’s really just a question of perspective; I can certainly understand why you think there’s no contradiction here and I respect that view.

  12. WineEM says

    Think this also has quite a strong bearing on the discussion at hand (i.e. conviction & idealism vs. pragmatism & cynicism).

    Would definitely be unfair to describe the position outlined @7 as cynicism, but I think calling it pragmatism would be absolutely fair enoughski.

    So, yes, here we go, the infamous Blaire/Campbell GQ Interview:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu-J16VQho8

    Now, this threw up some interesting things in this particular area.

    First of all, at one point , referring to Trump and his team, Campbell says:

    “Those guys lie all the time, we never lied all the time!”

    I mean, I hate to break it to you, Alastair (Campbell) but even Trump and Conway don’t lie all the time.

    And then towards the very end, when Campbell asks if they got too close to the big media barons, Murdoch and Dacre in particular, Blair says, in justifying this closeness:

    “Look, I’ll be frank with you, it’s partly because .. when you go and fight them… it’s a full on fight, ’cause these people will come after you with everything they’ve got. I mean, they’re like the mafia.”

    So this does perhaps explain in part the politics which came before Corbyn: not deliberately evil, necessarily, but an example of where convenience can easily merge into what was arguably a form of vested interests and political corruption.

  13. Marduk says

    13.
    I think there is no question that one thing Corbyn did in this campaign was to stand up to the media or at least accept they were going to attack him. I think this is a braver thing on a personal level than people give credit for and the thing that most people are really having a road to Damascus moment on. Because not doing the deal with the devil, was really the very thing people had against him. It read as not being serious, as naivety, as the lack of intention to win. It is now being read as integrity. And yet this had antecedents, Ed Milliband had a crack at the media in his campaign as well.

    In actual fact the Corbyn campaign have said since that their analysis is that the print media are basically over and they didn’t even try to engage with it. Internet and broadcasting was what they went with. Against his image, the Corbyn campaign are in this regard the radical modernisers working on the basis of innovative research and digital systems combining the strengths of both the Trump and Sanders campaigns while New Labour are left looking like people who still send faxes. They were themselves once the innovators will their Bill Clinton/West Wing approach but Blair’s old fashioned belief in the interview shows he is stuck in the past. Nobody has to speak to Dacre now or even fight him, he doesn’t matter enough.

  14. WineEM says

    Williams doesn’t say much, only that Labour should run on joint tickets with the WEP (ice lollies in a snow-storm, anybody?)

    But yeah, I think your point upthread about not allowing the old guard ‘New Labour’ types back in (Chukka ‘Em Upper, etc) is a difficult balance.

    If Labour wants to push its vote share up still higher towards a strong majority, it will need some strong communicators, and if we’re honest, they’re a bit lacking amongst the Richard Burgons, Angela Rayners, Rebecca Long-Baileys etc of this world.

    I mean, even someone like Barry Gardiner, who can put quite a good argument together often just doesn’t get it.

    For example he was trying to demonstrate how undesirable the Tory implementation of the Great Repeal Bill could be today, by talking about its effects on the ‘habitat directive’. Now, I’m sure this is very worthy and important, but it’s not the kind of thing which is going to hit home hard with the public (whereas if he had spoken about Reece-Moggs’s ambitions to drive down consumer rights and safety to those of India, people might well sit up and listen).

    And then there were some weird gaps in the Labour campaign, which needed to be made up for with some better presentation.

    When they got the ringing endorsement from Bernie Sanders, for instance, it was no-where to be seen or heard in the media apart from in the Guardian (and who reads the Guardian, for goodness sake?!) Labour weren’t really pressed or tested on the economy, and if they are in the future, they will surely need to start creating a stronger narrative to persuade the public it’s not just pie-in-the-sky (or, to use the Tory bean-stalk metaphor), the ‘magic money tree’.

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