This weekend, something important happened. As a Labour Party member, I received an email from the party leader asking for my views on whether the UK should join in the bombing of ISIL in Syria. It was a leader, elected with a huge mandate, putting into practice what he promised during his election campaign – something that veteran Labour members of thirty years’ standing have confirmed to me is wholly unprecedented – no leader has approached Party members in this way before.
At the same time, many Labour MPs are furious, with some Labour sources apparently claiming that this was “undemocratic”.
This reaction – Orwellian in a precise sense – is deeply illustrative of the problem Labour faces, which is, in its turn, a comment on the conduct of politics in modern Britain. It’s not just that this shows that many in the mainstream of politics define “democracy” in a very partial way; but how ideological the language of everyday political discourse has come.
There is a view – expressed in the media and by many participants in mainstream politics, including many Labour MPs – that the politics of the Corbyn leadership is somehow ideological and even extreme in a way that distinguishes it from what is normal, or pragmatic, or constitutes “business as usual”. Actually, on examination, the very opposite is the case.
To take economic policy: there’s plenty of evidence that the Labour leadership’s p0licy, far from being extreme, is simply returning to the economic basics in the face of an austerity policy that is failing even in its own terms (as, for example, Chris Dillow has argued in blog posts here and here). In particular, Dillow argues – in my view wholly convincingly – that it is the austerity economics of George Osborne, distant from the real economy and failing even in its own terms, that is mired in extremism and ideology; one of the reasons why Corbyn won was that, alone of the Labour leadership candidates, he was willing to ask the big questions about an economy of falling wages, investment shortage and crisis levels of productivity – all three obviously linked and exacerbated by Osborne’s deficit mania and ideological loathing of the public sector. By contrast, Corbynomics looks like a simple return to economic basics relying on a sober and above all pragmatic assessment of Britain’s economic weaknesses.
The same is true on the biggest foreign policy issue of the day: Cameron’s drive to involve Britain in bombing ISIL in Syria. It’s not just that the case for war has not been made, with no clear explanation of how additional bombing will defeat a stubborn foe that draws on hatred of the West as a recruitment tool, or what the long-term plan for the region is; it’s also that the lessons of how a hubristic West got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, or left behind appalling chaos in Libya, have not been learned. The point about the case against war – as expressed by Jeremy Corbyn and others – is that it is essentially a rational one, as distinct from the combination of wishful thinking and post-imperial essentialism on which the case for war appears to depend.
Or democracy itself. The response of the Labour right to Corbyn carrying out his election manifesto to consult Party members – the members who provide his overwhelming mandate – is eloquent of an approach to democracy that is based overwhelmingly on their own entitlement and a belief that they, by virtue of who they are, know best. Ultimately their opposition to consulting members seems to be based on a definition of party democracy that sees members as followers, and no more than that; that is scared of opinions that are not filtered through a rigid set of ideological assumptions, or by advocacy or focus groups sharing their own mindset. But, economically and in terms of foreign policy, those assumptions have been proved wrong time and again; by the continuing failure to cut the deficit, or by the thousands sanctioned into dependence on food banks, by failed workfare programmes, or by the chaos of Iraq and Libya. Ultimately, when authenticity is elsewhere, reality has a habit of catching up with you.
Sometimes the cognitive bias can be astonishing. I have seen members of Progress, with its membership structure and millionaire funders – arguing on social media that Momentum is a party with a party. It’s perhaps this absence of self-awareness that explains why the Labour establishment didn’t see Corbyn coming and still can’t understand how the forces that carried Corbyn to the leadership reflect real changes in the way in which people perceive the need for change. And by asking members for their views on Syria, Corbyn is demonstrating his confidence in his new honest, collaborative approach to politics.
I think the Corbyn leadership has made some serious errors. In the face of unrelenting hostility from both the media and from within the Labour Party itself, Corbyn and those around him needed to be rather more circumspect. But it remains grounded in reality in a way that its critics – political and media – just aren’t. And as Labour’s traditional right prepares to line up to vote for yet another potentially disastrous war, it needs perhaps to reflect long and hard about who in this debate reflects empirical reality, and who are the ideologues. And they may want to ask – in terms of practical politics – whether they want to be seen as supporting yet another foreign policy disaster.