‘There is a contradiction at the heart of the Corbynite appeal. Their politics is Bennism without Tony Benn’
enough for only the slenderest of majorities, and more likely a hung parliament (Chris McAndrew CC BY 3.0)
The forward march of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party appears to have halted. During February, the Conservatives once again took a lead in the opinion polls. If there were a general election now the polls point to a near-exact repeat of the June 2017 result. Considering what an appalling time Theresa May’s government has been having, this is astounding. Corbyn’s Labour critics like to point out that under current political circumstances their party should be enjoying a 10 to 15 percentage-point lead in the polls. Furthermore, the next election will be fought with a new Tory leader. No one in Westminster, with the possible exception of May herself, believes that she will lead the Conservatives into the next general election, and her successor will inevitably have a polling bounce on taking office.
What should be worrying Corbynistas is that there appears to be a ceiling on support for a Labour Party in their mould of just over 40 per cent. Although such a share of the vote has produced landslide victories in recent decades, with a return to two-party politics (the Tories and Labour took 82 per cent of the vote in 2017, something not seen since 1970) it is not enough to produce anything but, at most, the slenderest of majorities and more likely a hung parliament.
Beyond the polls there is a contradiction at the heart of the Corbynite appeal. The key people at the heart of the socialist project — Corbyn himself, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Labour’s director of strategy and communications Seumas Milne, head of Momentum Jon Lansman, and election strategist and very recent Communist Andrew Murray — are wedded to a politics which had its previous heyday 35 years ago. Their politics is Bennism without Tony Benn. None of them has anything like the stature of Benn — none has served in a Labour government, let alone as a leading cabinet minister; none is even a moderately capable orator, let alone of the quality of Benn; none has the romantic backstory of ardently fighting to join the people by renouncing their peerage — but the policies they wish to implement could have been taken straight out of Benn’s 1981 deputy leadership bid. This is perhaps not surprising since they were all — to a greater or lesser extent — involved in Benn’s campaigns.
Some of these policies, such as a full-throated opposition to nuclear weapons and an ardent embrace of minority rights, go down extremely well with Labour’s new Momentum-inspired supporters. Other policies, such as support for Irish republicanism and emphatic sympathy for the Soviet Union, both very much part of the Bennite package and still espoused by the Corbyn clique, might seem rather past their sell-by date to the new adherents, but are not dealbreakers. With Benn’s reinvention as a theatrical act and national treasure in his later years his extremely dubious, close-to-fellow-travelling stance on the Soviet Union has been downplayed. Reading the Benn diaries unambiguously shows that, on all issues that mattered, the old socialist, even though he had an American wife, denigrated the United States and empathised with the Soviet Union. For some weird reason the Corbyn clique have transferred their Soviet sympathies to Putin’s Russia. Before taking their current roles, Milne and Murray were perhaps the two leading British apologists for Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Where the views of the core Corbynistas and their new adherents simply cannot be squared is Brexit — and it is frankly surprising that they have managed to paper over the cracks as long as they have. Opposition to European integration was an unwavering article of the Bennite faith and was very much embraced by Corbyn. Until becoming Labour leader Corbyn was a vocal opponent of what he saw as the boss class’s project of European integration — and there is no reason to think that he or his inner coterie have now changed their minds.
It is the case that the sectarian far Left is uniformly Eurosceptic, Trotskyists and Stalinists alike. Indeed, the Morning Star is probably the longest-standing and most ardently Brexiteer newspaper in the UK today. These Marxist groupuscules are also huge fans of Corbyn and many of their supporters have joined Labour, but Corbyn’s new members are in their vast numbers not part of an entryist plot. The largest sectarian groups have a membership of a few thousand; many measure their membership in the hundreds and even the tens. They simply cannot account for the hundreds of thousands who have joined Labour under Corbyn. The vast bulk of the new membership are naive enthusiasts for European integration and — if we must leave the EU — favour the softest of soft Brexits.
Corbyn and McDonnell have set out a raft of policies which their new supporters keenly embrace without realising they are fundamentally incompatible with British membership of the EU or even the Single Market. From the renationalisation of rail to imposing exchange controls, from restrictions on foreign ownership of British assets to banning the live export of animals, these policies would be impossible if we remained in the EU or Single Market. This is perhaps why the Corbyn clique are pushing precisely these policies rather than others which would be equally dear to their fans. It gives them the opportunity to say at a later date that they would have loved to remain in the Single Market but it would prevent them from implementing their manifesto.
The Corbyn clique must be hoping that Brexit and its terms are settled well before the next general election, scheduled for 2022. However much they may publicly attack the Tories’ stance they are surely privately hoping that the Tory Brexiteers hold firm and deliver a Brexit which is compatible with implementing their vision of socialism. A no-deal Brexit which imposed no continuing obligations on the UK would be the ideal scenario for this. Tory Brexiteers are aware of the conundrum the Corbynistas are facing and privately tell each other that it is Corbyn who will deliver, by finding ways of avoiding doing deals with Tory Europhiles and the Liberal Democrats, a parliamentary majority for a hard Brexit. If Brexit is not settled by the time of the next election, it is difficult to see how the contradictions in the Corbynite stance will not become a dividing line between the Labour leadership and its new adherents.