Friday, 14 August 2015

Why the anti-Jeremy Corbyn vitriol?

Jeremy Corbyn's unlikely emergence as the clear front-runner to succeed poor Ed seems to have got the Labour party all in a tizzy. At one level this is amusing: surely only the Labour party would become so terrified when one of its leadership contenders turned out to be popular. At another level though it is initially baffling that so many Labour stalwarts seem so keen to predict electoral meltdown, internal schisms, fire, pestilence and eternal damnation should a mild-mannered North London intellectual be elected to become their leader.

Some degree of antagonism during an election process is inevitable of course - how does one rescue a failing campaign except by attacking one's more successful rival? However what we have seen of recent days has been an order beyond that. There seems a real hatred of Jeremy Corbyn and all he stands for - odd, since the hatred seems one-way. He by contrast has refused to engage in mud-slinging and appears to be conducting a campaign remarkably free from vitriol. Even his supporter Ken Livingstone, usually the first to enter any slanging match, accused Tony Blair of no more than having failed to read Corbyn's manifesto.

So what is it all about, this hatred? Why did Blair accuse Corbyn of seeking to 'annihilate' labour and why did Alistair Campbell urge Labour voters to support 'anyone but Corbyn'?

The Corbynistas' view would be a simple one of course. Blair and Campbell are the spawn of the devil and all the other candidates have been brainwashed by their evil campaign to turn Labour into an offshoot of the Tory party. New Labour was a cynical betrayal of everything true believers like them held dear and so New Labour cannot forgive heroic mavericks like Jeremy Corbyn who speak truth to power and question its legacy.

There is some truth in this of course, but also some wilful fantasy. Many of Corbyn's supporters probably are champagne socialists plotting the downfall of the capitalist hegemony from the comfort of their Georgian townhouses, safe in the knowledge that whatever radical policies he pursues it won't touch their final-salary pensions or (horror of horrors) lead to house price deflation. Also, much as it soured towards the end, Blair's New Labour project certainly did do some good things. In the shadow of Iraq it is easy to forget the minimum wage, capital investment in schools, reductions in child poverty, Third World debt write-offs, peace in Northern Ireland... I could go on.

It is also pretty absurd to suggest that Blair and others hate Jeremy Corbyn because he stands for social justice and a protective State. For all their differences of opinion on methods, surely Labour supporters broadly agree on ideals. So why the hatred then?

Partly of course it is the simple fact that there is no conflict more vicious than an internecine conflict. The human species seems to reserve its bitterest hatred for those most like themselves: the Jews and the Arabs; the Northern Ireland Protestants and the Northern Ireland Catholics; Indian Kashmiris and Pakistani Kashmiris; New Labour and Old Labour. Where fundamental values and cultures are entirely different we seem to rub along pretty well: it is only when we are identical but for one small, but (to us) hugely important, difference that we start killing each other in significant numbers.

There is more to it than that though. Labour has had its fair share of internecine hatreds, even before Iraq, but Blair's outbursts recently, and those of other party stalwarts, feel different. For a start they have not come in the context of an unedifying cat-fight of the sort politicians seem particularly prone to. Jeremy Corbyn is not fighting back (he doesn't need to. He is sitting pretty on 53% in the polls). The hatred seems to be self-generating, and coupled with what appears a genuine fear of an existential crisis for the Labour party.

So why would that be then?

Well, oddly enough I have a theory. I think the explanation lies in a variant of the 'zealous convert' syndrome, by which converts to a religion are frequently more antagonistic to their old beliefs than those who have never converted. Blair, Campbell and the rest seem to me to have just the same uneasy, fearful hatred of Jeremy Corbyn as would a zealous convert of worshippers at their own old church.

You see, much as I never liked or trusted him that much I simply cannot believe that Tony Blair joined the Labour Party with the explicit desire to subvert its fundamental principles in a swivel-eyed pursuit of Thatcherite neo-Conservatism. I remember the honest idealism of his first term. As a country we were reeling from Thatcher's onslaught and Blair brought back some sense of social responsibility, of interest in and care for the under-privileged and of an ethical dimension to policy.

The thing is that, like all serious politicians, Blair was a realist. See things from his point of view and there was a logic to his drift to the Right (sort of). Free enterprise and the unfettered power of capital seemed (at the time) a hugely powerful force which could, if harnessed properly, lead to real social good. And for a time it worked. Brown let the bankers off the leash and Labour used the money that came rolling in for some fantastically valuable investment in schools, hospitals and the incomes of the less well-off. Win-win, surely.

Yet there are consequences to selling one's soul, even for the best of motives. Blair, Brown and the rest knew that financial deregulation and the opening of public services to private enterprise was making some people hugely and unfairly wealthy and eroding something central in the UK's view of itself. Yet they went along with it with the slightly manic zeal of recent converts to a charismatic cult. Peter Mandelson's use of the word 'intensely' to show just how relaxed he was at people becoming extremely wealthy shows the internal tensions they were all living with though. Surely even he could have spotted the absurdity of the oxymoron.

And now it is those zealous converts to New Labour that face the existential crisis. Like Faustus, having sold their souls they then discover not just the price, but the illusory nature of the prize too. It is not just that New Labour's reputation now seems (unfairly, in some ways) tarnished beyond recovery, it is also that the unsavoury weapon (neo-conservative economic policies) they gritted their teeth to grasp in pursuit of their aims turns out not to have been a very useful weapon at all. Bank deregulation didn't give us riches beyond the dreams of avarice, it bankrupted us for a generation.

And what Jeremy Corbyn does that is completely unforgivable is to remind them that the uncomfortable road they bravely chose to follow in pursuit of their noble aims really wasn't the only road at all. And didn't take them quite where they wanted to go either. But one thing a zealous convert will never do, however conflicted (s)he might feel and however uneasy deep down about their new religion, is to convert back again.

So don't expect a gracious acceptance of Jeremy Corbyn's victory form Tony Blair any time soon.

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