By Sequoyah De Souza Vigneswaren
Progressive change is about more than just one man; it requires the strength of a collective mass movement. But Jeremy Corbyn’s success could represent a victory for principle, democracy and humanity.
“The hope of change and bringing big ideas in is now back at the centre of politics: ending austerity, tackling inequality, working for peace and social justice at home and abroad.”
It is the 21st century, and although it seems impossible to believe, those are the words of the leader of the Official Opposition in Britain. A self-proclaimed democratic socialist, whose first act as leader was to attend a rally in support of refugees.
It has been an astonishing few months. Despite a frenetically hostile response from the establishment and corporate media, we have seen a relatively unknown activist M.P propelled into the position of Labour leader, on the back of a wave of popular support.
It is testament to both the campaign and people’s passion, that in the age of consumerist, celebrity-obsessed, money-orientated individualism, there were people who literally climbed through windows just to attend packed political rallies. This has once again shown that people care about human dignity, moral principle and political participation. Hundreds of thousands of people have been enthused and galvanized by Corbyn, and he has embodied a sense of hope that people can challenge the iniquities of the status-quo.
It is uncharted territory and the obstacles are manifold. Corbyn supporters must keep their critical faculties’ sharp. They must inoculate themselves against the twin dangers of being politically attacked from the corporate establishment, but also becoming blindly and uncritically supportive of Corbyn and Labour. It is refreshing though, and frankly rather nice, to be able to smile and have some sense of collective hope.
This does not mean surrendering to utopian expectation. But it does mean real and material possibility.
We are presented with a beautiful opportunity to change the political climate and create a major progressive mass movement. That is worth our efforts.
For millions of people – not least those who were slaughtered in Iraq and Afghanistan – New Labour has represented a vehicle for neo-imperial and neo-liberal policies, and an unprincipled power-hungry electoral machine. This was seen by many people as an unforgivable betrayal of Labour’s traditional values, and made the prospect of supporting Labour unthinkable. But in Jeremy Corbyn we are presented with someone who has consistently voted for and campaigned on issues of social justice, peace and equality. And although he does so as an elected representative within the system of a capitalist ‘liberal democracy’, his beliefs constitute a significant shift away from the dominant state-corporate-military-financial elite ideology.
A fundamental strength of Corbyn is that this shift is not just in substance, but also style and sincerity.
On substance, a perusal of Corbyn’s political past shows a long career of principled social justice campaigning. He has been on the right side of history on many of the defining issues of modern times; from opposing South African Apartheid; opposing the criminal wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; and supporting the Palestinian struggle, to fighting against austerity; privatisation; tuition fees and Trident.
On style, he is straight-talking and does not engage in personal insult or childish slurs. This gives him the advantage of making those who do indulge in ad-hominem attacks and basic abuse seem ungracious and immature. Corbyn can stick to his strength of arguing about policy and human impact in a direct and engaging way. It is a delight to watch a politician speak with genuine passion and not come across as a disingenuous “sloganeering salesman”.
Sincerity and authenticity are Corbyn’s naturally strong traits. He has held true to his views over many years and campaigned fervently for them both in and out of parliament. He is an experienced politician in his sixties who has served as an MP since 1983, yet has never held a cabinet post. No one can say he is a careerist doing it for power or personal enrichment. It is clear that he is motivated by a desire to help the whole of society, and particularly those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
When we think of Tony Blair it may conjure up any number of unsavoury things – mass murder and war criminality, careerism, spin and superficiality, Thatcherism, personal greed, self-delusion. To put it mildly, he is not associated with being a man of principle. Jeremy Corbyn stands in stark contrast to the malleable clones that have come to characterize the modern era of front bench parliamentary politics. His resounding success in the Labour leadership election marks the death of Blairism both ideologically and stylistically; and opens up a new political horizon of possibilities.
It has often seemed puzzling that a campaigning politician such as Jeremy Corbyn would remain within the Labour Party when he has rebelled over 500 times, and repudiated the New Labour project. But that demonstrates the strength of his conviction: that he is willing to stand for what he believes in. Even those that don’t agree with him, have to respect him for that. In her brilliant maiden speech to the commons 20 year old SNP MP Mhairi Black quoted the late Tony Benn in this regard: “In politics there are weathercocks and sign posts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them. And then there are signposts, signposts which stand true, and tall, and principled. And they point in the direction and they say this is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why. Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics were signposts.”
It would take little thought to conclude which category Jeremy Corbyn falls within.
A vote for Corbyn is a vote for democracy.
Firstly, there is the issue of internal party democracy. Corbyn got elected as Labour leader with the biggest mandate in the history of British politics. He received more than a quarter of a million votes; 60%, which was more than all three candidates combined, and more than Blair got in 1994. The Labour leadership is now representative of the party itself, instead of the moribund Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).
Corbyn proposes to strengthen and consolidate grassroots power by democratising the policy making process of the Labour party. This offers the opportunity for ‘ordinary’ people to have influence within the party and have increased agency over its policy direction. Thousands of people continue to join the party which will prove an interesting democratic exercise. And there is an understandable argument for joining the party. In part to ensure the policies are pushed in a progressive direction and debated from a radical perspective in the present. But also to maintain a leftward trajectory, irrespective of whether Corbyn is at the helm.
The election of Corbyn as leader was a fatal tear in the stale fabric of New Labour’s technocratic elite. Once opened, it let in the true democratic face of the Labour membership, and with it the prospect of democratic choice within the quasi-democratic First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system.
This represents another key democratic point: electoral plurality.
A fundamental problem has been the lack of democratic choice within the mainstream electoral system. The issue has not been whether people care about society and the world around them – they generally do. But many people have become disillusioned with the mainstream parliamentary political system. The main 3 parties have all represented the same elite interests, subscribed to the same ideological consensus, and had the same scripted robotic style. Whether Blue Tory, Red Tory or Orange Tory: the net result has been effectively the same. We can recall the words of New Labour high priest, Peter Mandelson, when he admitted “We are all Thatcherite now”.
Democracy was just a word, since there was no fundamental choice in the mainstream. The phenomenal surge for the SNP in Scotland is testament to the desire for an alternative. And so is the election of Corbyn as Labour’s leader.
Corbyn provides a service to national electoral politics by giving a genuine choice between the mainstream parties. But democracy is of course about much more than just voting. It is also about the range of views that are present within our society.
The acceptable boundaries of mainstream debate are an arbiter of a healthy democracy. Clearly, Britain has been in a democratic coma. As leader of the opposition, Corbyn now has a genuine opportunity to shift the parameters of mainstream debate away from elite orthodoxy, towards a more humane political discourse.
And in so doing, bring into the consciousness of millions the reality that alternatives exist to right-wing (“centre ground”) policies. Alternatives that are realistic, despite what the elite and their journalistic stenographers would have us believe. This will help democratise and expand the range of ideas that people are exposed to, and legitimise different views and new modes of thought.
This prospect is recognised with fear-stricken alarmism by the mainstream. Writing in the Telegraph, Oliver Cooper bemoans such democratic plurality thus:
Labour being Labour, they’ll still have the same platform. The only difference is Corbyn’s views will be more left-wing, so will shift the entire political debate to the left. Inevitably, this would skew the discourse, letting Corbyn’s ideas become the default alternative to the Conservatives. Corbyn’s brand of socialism would poison the groundwater of British politics for a generation: influencing people, particularly young people, across the political spectrum.
Reason enough to take Corbyn seriously.
We are told by the corporate media that Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are extreme. But it is in fact the government’s policies that represent inhumane extremism. As the British historian, Mark Curtis, points out:
In the mainstream media, anyone who does not back the extremists’ agenda – of supporting the US, Israel, military intervention, NATO, arms exports or transnational corporations – is regarded as outside the ‘centre ground’. So flogging arms to despots, sending young British kids to die in wars and retaining the ability to destroy the entire planet is perfectly OK – anything different is extreme. To a Martian, mainstream British political culture would surely be hilarious.
Jeremy Corbyn should not be perturbed by the inane and facile attempts to discredit or dismiss him. If peace, social justice and equality are labelled extreme, then any decent human being is an extremist. Corbyn should be bold and brave, and understand that what he stands for is both popular and electable.
From nationalisation of the railways, energy companies and Royal Mail, to his opposition to the illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and opposition to renewing Trident, Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are popular among voters.
On the economy too his ideas are reasoned and progressive. A letter to the Guardian from academics and economists makes this clear:
His opposition to austerity is actually mainstream economics, even backed by the conservative IMF. He aims to boost growth and prosperity. He voted against the shameful £12bn in cuts in the welfare bill. Despite the barrage of media coverage to the contrary, it is the current government’s policy and its objectives which are extreme. Increasing child poverty and cutting support for the most vulnerable is unjustifiable.
And we have to dispense with the idea that Labour lost the 2015 election because they were too left wing. A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has proven this to be erroneous. Equally, the spurious but widespread myth that Labour lost in the 1983 general election because they were too left wing is systematically de-constructed in this article.
As we have seen with Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the SNP in Scotland, being elected on an anti-austerity platform is perfectly achievable.
Being left-wing and being electable are not mutually-exclusive. It is realistic that we can elect someone who stands for humanity rather than corporate power.
In Jeremy Corbyn we have someone who is not just a politician; he is also a social justice activist. It seems unimaginable, but there is the genuine possibility that the next Prime Minister of Britain sincerely believes in the ideas of peace, equality and democracy.
Inevitably, in the event of a Corbyn government, he would not be able to offer everything the left would immediately desire. But he would be sympathetic to the causes and willing to engage. So the progressive movement would be able to talk from a position of fraternity, not antagonism, which would represent a strength. In this sense, it is better to have the ear of an ally, than the back of an enemy.
Of course it is not just about the parliamentary mainstream; fundamental change does not come from the top down. But it would provide a foundation to lay and consolidate societal roots to go further. To create a new way of thinking and doing that is not predicated on the distorted values, undemocratic practices and superficial style of the neo-liberal present. Yes, there are many obstacles, and it could easily end like the Syriza-esque false dawn. But the left should not embark on a strategy of pre-emptive self-defeat just because there are many challenges. Take the opportunity and shape it. We would be fools not to. It is, however, much more important than our own potential foolishness.
This ‘Corbyn moment’ is about creating and sustaining a wider movement that offers new vistas of progressive possibilities, and opens up fresh territory for just and humane ideas to flourish. It is a realisation of these ideas – that run counter to, and create cracks within, the elite consensus – that will literally save people’s lives; both at home and abroad.
Corbyn is just one person, and as he said himself “I’ve been clear from the start that this campaign hasn’t just been about the result, but about building a movement”. The future rests on all our shoulders, and it is our responsibility to challenge oppressive elites. We have no excuses. As Alice Walker reminds us: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. We have the collective power to resist; so we cannot simply remain passive in an age of injustice
The strength of a successful contemporary movement has to be in the intersectional nature of its form and demands. It is time to realise our power and step up to the challenges. Poverty, war, inequality, racism and structural violence are political, economic and social choices. If we care about that which is beyond our individual selves then the choice is simple. We have to fight.
Above all, for people of every humanitarian and insurrectionary hue, let Corbyn represent the opportunity to join the movement that demands a better future.
Arundhati Roy evocatively once wrote ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.’
The creation of such a world is indeed not only possible. It is necessary. And it is up to all of us to make it happen.
Sequoyah De Souza Vigneswaren is an independent writer and social justice campaigner based in Leeds, England. He takes daily inspiration from Paolo Friere’s words: “Washing ones hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless is to side with the powerful; not to be neutral”. Contact: [email protected]. Twitter/Instagram: @sequoyahdv
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