It’s a dramatic experience supporting Jeremy Corbyn. One day you’re a Stalinist thug, the next a near-fascist misogynist, the next a naive idealist, then you’re backing an ineffectual old man, or a sinister dictator, or a street fighting gangster – every day is a lucky dip of contradictory images. Sure, let this run long enough and there’ll be stories leaking out about Corbyn supporters being the secret descendants of an ancient alien race. Here to purge the Earth in advance of an invasion by our own species of giant Revolutionary Socialist ants – but I’m sure they won’t figure that one out for a while yet.
There is one consistent theme though, one axiomatic truth that those supporting the coup seem to cling to like a life boat on the Titanic they’ve created for themselves – even if their words contradict their belief. It’s that we don’t want to win. We don’t know how to win, we wouldn’t know what winning looked like if it kicked us up the arse whilst singing ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Granted, they acknowledge, we do want to terrify, brutalise, intimidate and text them into submission in our blind fervor to keep Corbyn as leader – but we don’t really want to win do we? Not properly, not really, not like they do. We don’t want to win over The Sun, or win over pro-austerity Conservatives, or win friends in the House of Commons bars and if you don’t want those sort of victories then you may as well just give up now.
As media lines go it’s a slightly confused one, as they try to make their opposition seem at once both ruthlessly opportunistic, Machiavellian and nearly nihilistically defeatist in the face of a challenge. It’s understandable though, I think. For a lot of those on the Labour Right (Progress, Maquis, Continuity, Provisional Labour, Blairites – whatever you want to call them) ‘winning’ is a very small thing. It’s the outcome of a closed door competition, where the only valid measures of victory are rarefied and defined by a sealed circle within the political class. ‘Winning’ is to wrestle power away from the honorable member opposite even if you do nothing more or less with it than they do. It makes sense, in a certain light, because it’s a system of victories which radiates from a monopolised source of power – everyone who participates knows the rules, knows the tactics and knows the firm limitations of the outcomes. If you’re a participant why would you ever contemplate bigger goals? It’s a world of competition more than big enough to consume your attentions after all and if you’re in it there’s nothing immoral about it, you can play the game with full certainty that you’re the good guy and as long as you stick with the players you’ll never hear otherwise.
The problem that way of thinking faces, at the moment, is that there’s been a huge influx of attention, energy and desire from a whole load of people who’ve never been part of that closed world and who never will be. It’s like a strangely inverted form of gentrification – those in parliament and around the political class are seeing their comfortable little dramas and conflicts being overwhelmed by a huge influx of outsiders who want to knock it all down and open up a string of Socialist coffee shops and artisan Workers’ cake shops. It’s a new population who have scaled up the entire notion of ‘winning’ from a parochial, insular affair into something far bigger and – as far as I’m concerned – far more important concept.
The established rules of recent decades don’t mean much to these new neighbours. They don’t want to compromise on NHS privatisation, they don’t want to compromise on attacks on social services or benefits – they don’t want to ‘get along’ with the pro-austerity lot next door. And you can see why that would be disconcerting if you’ve been sitting near to the source of power long enough to feel comfortably at home with those sort of compromises.
We’ve had their reaction now, after a false start or two. It’s a refusal to pay attention, more or less. It’s Owen Smith. Without a trace of awareness their Great Hope comes in the form of more of the same, albeit with added protestations of being ‘Left Wing’, lip service to a new presence in the political world which can’t be convincing even to those putting him forward. He can win though, that’s the line, maybe they even believe it, narrow as their definition of victory is. As I said though, it’s a small, mediocre notion of victory, one that challenges and gains nothing beyond a warm glow of satisfaction in a small quarter. But it is one which Smith is a perfect model for. A former Pfizer lobbyist, open to privatisation within the NHS, eager to maintain the rules of political movement within the status quo, open to reciting the mantras of a Socialist party without ever needing to act on or fight for them. He’s a reflection of the halcyon days the Labour Right long for, the days of Blair, the days of management where the community of power was small and all too often unnoticed by too many of us. He represents politics as they feel it should be, sensible and codified in a way they can understand and control.
Unfortunately he won’t win. He won’t win in the Party and he wouldn’t win with the general electorate. The times have changed, people have remembered that they should, in theory, have some say in the political landscape of this country. Brexit was just the tip of that particular iceberg and it’s not going to melt away any time soon. People no longer care about the Parliamentary traditions of closed door conflict, they want to know that winning actually means something, they want to know that things can actually get better for people, that they can actually bring about positive change and resist the negative – not just play through the motions of success as if it ended at the boundaries of Westminster. They even, shock of shocks, want to see politics take place outside of the halls of power – they want to see opposition, and government, manifested in the daily struggles of life, drawing power down and out to where they can see, feel and use it to protect and improve their own lives.
So they’re going to fight. They’re going to fight until they do win because within Labour, within the electorate and within the political world as a whole people are realising what victory should be – and they’re wondering why the politicians they have are so reluctant to try to attain it.