by Richard King
“The King is dead! Long live the King!” Thus did the English aristocracy mark the death of a monarch, with words that at once acknowledge change and insist on continuity – on the idea that divinely sanctioned kingship not only survives the King's demise but also alights immediately on the next in line, on the dead monarch's heir. It would be difficult to conceive of a more effective way of perpetuating and shoring up class power. One king carks it, another takes his place, or is deemed to have done so by God Himself …
Today's elites lack such brazenness, but they are no less convinced of their right to rule. For they too posses the uncanny ability to declare themselves existentially challenged and at the same time move to consolidate their position. Faced with pressure from without, or below, the old habits of mind reassert themselves: by some weird magic or historical instinct the establishment is able to transcend defeat even as it acknowledges it: “The establishment is dead! Long live the establishment!”
Take the case of post-referendum Britain. After the shock of the Brexit vote and David Cameron's resignation, everyone from the grandees of the major parties to the opinion writers in the mainstream press seemed to be noisily convinced of the following three things: one, that Brexit was yet more evidence of how disconnected the political establishment now is from that amorphous constituency “the people”; two, that this fissure in the political soil heralded some major ideological earthquake, and subsequent tectonic realignment, to which the major parties would have to respond if they didn't want to be cast into history's dustbin; and, three, that the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn – the man who, in transforming Labour into something like a mass social movement, had taken on, and is still taking on, the very establishment deemed to be in crisis – should resign his leadership immediately.
The technical name for this is “cognitive dissonance”. Other names include “establishment groupthink”, “rank opportunism”, and “utter bloody cheek”, and all of these descriptors could and should be applied to the subsequent, shameful campaign against Corbyn, which has come to focus, not on policy, but on the Labour leader's lack of élan in the lead up to the referendum. Labour had taken a Remain position, but had stressed the need for major reform of the European Union's institutions, which are technocratic, inefficient, and imbued with a deeply neoliberal ethos – a foundational neoliberal ethos. Corbyn himself, like many on the left, was known to be opposed to the EU for these reasons, but he adopted this “Remain and Reform” position as a workable and principled compromise with the Labour Party's pro-European wing. This was perhaps a more nuanced stance than electorates are assumed to be comfortable with, but not so nuanced that Corbyn couldn't deliver nearly two thirds of Labour's voters to the Remain cause. As for immigration – by general consent the issue that swung the referendum for the Leavers – well, no one was in any doubt at all as to Corbyn's position on that: he is as pro-immigration as it is possible to be without actually flying planes to Syria and handing out European passports.
To make Corbyn's lack of enthusiasm for the Remain cause the crux of the campaign to unseat him is thus a strange thing to do. To do it while also lauding the Conservative Party for parachuting Theresa May into the Prime Ministership is strangeness raised to the level of art: May, after all, was a Remainer herself and almost invisible in the referendum campaign. Yet that is what happened, and is happening now. The hard right of the party – its “Blairite” wing – wasted no time at all in moving against Corbyn – laying the blame for the Brexit vote, or a significant chunk of it, at his shiny red door. And such is the air of crisis they've created – a crisis stoked and amplified by their spruikers in the mainstream press – that the great majority of Labour MPs have now come out in favour of a change. Having instigated and fomented chaos, the Blairites now declare Corbyn's position untenable – the member for Islington North has to go.
But he hasn't, and he won't. And the reason he won't is that he believes that a party's leadership should be chosen by the party's members and not by the kind of centrist rent-seekers who lack the appetite for a real fight. Yes, folks, Jeremy Corbyn believes that a party espousing social democracy and/or democratic socialism should be, um, democratic.
It's this prospect of genuine grass-roots democracy that scares the bejesus out of the establishment. The Blairites like to talk about “credibility” and to lament or decry Corbyn's lack of it. But they know as well as anyone that the public's notions of what is credible are changing faster than Donald Trump's policy positions. Boris Johnson, a man who can't comb his own hair and describes African people as “piccaninnies”, has just been made British Foreign Secretary: how's that for “credibility”? No, the Blairites aren't anti-Corbyn because they think he can't beat May in a general election. They are anti-Corbyn because they're worried he will.
Here's the nightmare for the Blairites, and for the establishment more generally:
Stage 1: Corbyn survives the challenge mounted by the party's right and the majority of MPs fall in behind him. The hardline Blairites – maybe 30 souls in all – decide not to stand at the next election.
Stage 2: For all her determination and poise, Theresa May proves unable to unite the Conservatives, a party riven by ideological infighting and traumatised by the prospect that its previous leader may have inadvertently killed the UK, one of the entities it was set up to defend. The Tories fall in to open fratricide.
Stage 3: Corbyn wins the general election, probably in some kind of alliance with other broadly progressive parties.
Stage 4: Amidst huge hostility from the world markets, Labour manages to redefine Brexit as a cause for social democracy and anti-austerity. In so doing, it becomes a pole of attraction for other leftwing parties in Europe.
Now, the chances of all this occurring are slim – less than 5%, according to my instruments. But these are strange days – strange days indeed – and if there's one thing that keeps an establishment awake it's the prospect of a Podemos or a Syriza emerging at the heart of the neoliberal north. Better, perhaps, to be on the safe side …
At any rate, the contest is on, and the Labour Party's higher-ups have already moved against the left. Anyone wishing to (re)join the Labour Party and vote in the leadership election had until Wednesday 20 July to do so and had to pay £25 for the privilege, the party bigwigs having decided that anyone who became a member after January 2016 at the standard rate of about £3 per month would not be allowed a vote. This brazen attempt to exclude the members Corbyn has attracted in to the party may cost him 130,000 votes. It will also, of course, exclude the poor, the very people who have the most to gain from a redistributive, anti-austerity government.
Corbyn's opponent will be Owen Smith (brilliant Labour name, that) – not quite the quasi-Blairite stooge who had thrown herself forward originally but still a more acceptable figure to the party establishment than the current leader. With the great majority of Labour MPs and the abovementioned bigwigs at his back, not to mention the great majority of the press, I expect him to run Corbyn close. It will fall to the Corbyn-supporting members to hold their nerve and reject all the prophecies of catastrophe should they stick with their man. If the thousands of “Corbynistas” who turned up outside parliament to support Corbyn after the initial coup attempt are anything to go by, the outlook is encouraging.
The stakes are massive, not just for Britain, but for Europe, and for progressives everywhere. It took centuries to get from “The King is dead!” to the idea that it is the people who are sovereign. A win for Corbyn will be a win for a left that promises to pay that idea more than lip service.
Visit me at The Bloody Crossroads.