Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the people the Labour Party once proudly stood for

In a way, I blame Tony Blair for leaving the party in such a state that the Corbynites were able to waste years on their futile utopianism

John Rentoul
Friday 13 December 2019 06:24
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Jeremy Corbyn announces he will resign as Labour leader before next election

Jeremy Corbyn never really wanted to be leader of the Labour Party. No one was more surprised than he was when he found himself four and a half years ago blinking into the TV camera lights and sent on stage to talk to large, enthusiastic crowds.

He took to politics when he did Voluntary Service Overseas in Jamaica after leaving school in the 1960s. Matthew d’Ancona describes the experience: “Notionally a teacher, Corbyn spent most of his time absorbing the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial politics that were spreading across the island – thanks, in no small measure, to the Guyanese radical Walter Rodney.”

Rodney saw himself as a socialist and an anti-capitalist, influenced by Marxism but not doctrinaire. From then on, Corbyn was the same. He became active in Labour politics in London, adopting the fashionable causes of the so-called hard left. That included a united Ireland. He never explicitly supported violence as a means to achieve it, but he supported Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and even after he became Labour leader he refused to condemn the IRA.

For 32 years as a Labour MP, his politics stayed the same. He regarded Tony Blair as an instrument of US imperialism and a Thatcherite capitalist with a vaguely human face. And his opposition to Blair led to his succeeding him as leader.

Because Blair always pressed harder to force the Labour Party to face electoral facts it found unpalatable, he never paused to consider the backlash he might be building up. When Gordon Brown took over, the Blairites knew that something wasn’t working, but they assumed it was that Blair had allowed the wrong person to succeed him. And when Brown went, the party was at sea, because the Blairites had nothing left.

They knew, at some level, that the next phase had to be something different, but they didn’t know what. David Miliband’s “Movement for Change” was perhaps the closest they came to that something – but then David was swept aside by the sectarians of the hard left in the trade unions.

Blairites thought that, because they had won the arguments, they had changed the party. That didn’t seem silly when party members (as opposed to union members and affiliates) voted by 54 per cent for David Miliband as leader in 2010. David was blamed for being an insufficiently ruthless candidate, and his brother was blamed for exploiting the machine politics of the trade unions.

But there was something else: the idealistic, utopian strain of radical yearning – the incoherent basis of Labour’s emotional appeal through the ages – hadn’t gone away. It had just been suppressed, reluctantly accepting argument after argument because Blair was more articulate and more persuasive than any alternative. It struggled to assert itself with Ed Miliband, an improbable tribune of the utopian spirit, but then it found a better vehicle.

There was nothing to Jeremy Corbyn intellectually, but that made him the perfect empty vessel into which the white heat of the socialist yearning could be poured. He was not a New Labour special adviser. He was the anti-Blair. He was the opposite of everything against which the radical impatience had chafed for so long.

His message, such as it was, was that the party did not have to make the compromises that everyone knew it did really have to make. To hell with all that, was the implicit message of the new messiah. To hell with being nice to Tories and trying to win over Daily Mail readers. We tried all that and all we ended up with was war in the Middle East and a crisis of capitalism. Time for the old-time religion. A simple message whose time had come, and whose accidental messenger stepped blinking on to the big stage.

But he wasn’t up to it. The clique around him, a little harder edged in ideology, was disciplined and united and ran an unexpectedly brilliant campaign in 2017 because they had nothing to lose. No one expected Corbyn to win, least of all himself and his clique, which meant that lots of well-meaning voters felt they could vote safely for him as a protest against the arrogant and austere Theresa May.

Now we can see that it was the 2017 result that was a freak. The Blairites were right about Corbyn after all.

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