The first poll of this summer’s Labour leadership election was an earthquake. Turns out Jeremy Corbyn, who never wanted to run for leader in the first place, is about to crush like bugs all three of his Blairite opponents when ballots are mailed out August 16 for leader of the British Labour Party. Shocked isn’t the word to describe the reaction. Tony Blair, Mr. Cool himself, popped a vein, telling anyone who supports Corbyn to “get a heart transplant.” That will of course backfire. Corbyn couldn’t dream of a better supporter giving him a better slogan.
Up and down the landed gentry of Labour’s last 20 years, panic has set in, leading to talk of party splits from fat cat donors, City grandees, lords, and ladies alike. If there’s a split after Corbyn is elected leader in September, it will be the toffs turned out on their own petards by membership, not the other way round, which is how the toffs did it 20 years ago.
The post Kinnock Labour “modernization” project, first via John Smith then Blair, seized the party from its socialist roots for the benefit of capital at the most basic grassroots level, rigging Labour party democracy in every election from constituency party levels all the way to conference every year. It was not pretty. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that neoliberal free market dogma turns out simply not to work, at all, except for the very richest on earth, well….This comeuppance has been a long time coming.
The death throes of New Labour will take some time. Blairism has kept Labour in neoliberal capitalism’s hostage situation so long, at many levels of the Labour Party the prisoner now treats the captor as a father figure. You hear Blairite dead enders talk of the party committing “suicide”, echoing decades old arguments from another epoch, pretending it’s still the Cold War, that somehow socialism will always appear to voters as a Brezhnev corpse draped in hammer and sickle red. Blairite attacks that Corbyn represents the past are always mouthed in the language of the past themselves. Comic.
The future is seizing Labour, not the opposite. There’s no talk of a Labour Party split among members, in particular the tens of thousands of new members, mostly young people, joining Labour specifically to vote for Corbyn. And none of it has to do with Corbyn himself, just as support for Bernie Sanders in America has nothing to do with Bernie. There is an ideological hunger in western democracies to reject neoliberal capitalism and the assumed holiness of the free market, seeking any vessel through which to do so, no matter how stereotypically bearded and grey haired the lefty.
People often ask me why Americans can’t bring themselves to accept that the New Deal compromise between labor and capital has been destroyed by their own hands. “Why do Americans vote against their own interests?” I tell them that Americans don’t like to think they’ve been fooled, certainly not for decades. Americans are very proud capitalists, we do believe this stuff, so it’s hard to accept that capital has used our optimism against us, on purpose, with our assent, like a carnival barker organ grinder winding up a hurdy gurdy monkey. Brits are similarly stubborn.
Labour should seize this moment. There is no political party on earth more prepared and capable of leading the charge against neoliberalism than Labour in Britain. Labour bears the scars of decades of front line hand to hand ideological combat with our free market straight jacket. Labour bought the bait and switch, made all the mistakes. Labour marches. Labour fights. Labour members are the most educated political actors in any western democracy, with broad shoulders, thick coal miner’s fingers, and a fist when clenched that is the strongest force for good in politics, let alone the pub. Corbyn’s election as leader will invigorate Labour with the energy of youth, the power of righteousness, and the freedom which can only come from a full accounting with the mistakes of the past.
Buck up, comrades. From this side of the pond, things look very hopeful indeed.
Tim Russo is one of the first American Democratic Party consultants to work for New Labour in 1997. Now filled with the zeal of the recently converted, he is pursuing a masters in international relations at Cleveland State University, studying Labour’s approach to the City of London this spring.