Jeremy Corbyn could be best thing to happen to English democracy in generations
The National, by Cat Boyd
On Friday evening about 1,000 people packed the rooms of Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel to hear Labour leadership hopeful Jeremy Corbyn speak.
I wasn’t at the event, but from the response I’ve seen it’s clear that Corbyn is generating something magical, similar to Scotland’s movement in the past two years but emerging in even more unforgiving circumstances.
Liverpool has seen radical movements before, from the Militant Tendency councillors to the Hillsborough justice and dockworkers’ campaigns. But this is something different, because it applies on a “national” level. Corbyn could be the best thing to happen to English democracy in generations.
Corbyn’s rivals Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, three mannequins for a New Labour closing-down sale, have been reduced to stunned silence, apparently close to tears. From being an eccentric outlier – and a repeated whip-breaker – with close to no support in Labour’s parliamentary party, Corbyn is now the favourite to become their next leader.
Seeing a movement very like our own emerge in working-class cities like Liverpool, how should radical Scotland react? What Corbyn could represent is the beginning of an "English Spring", the moment where millions of English people rise up against the stupefying dictatorship of “Middle England politics”. This is very refreshing.
What’s even more refreshing, in my view, is that most of the pro-independence movement in Scotland has instinctively embraced the anti-war, anti-austerity Corbyn as an ally, an English parallel to our own cause. This has surprised more than a few unionist pundits. Why on earth would “Scottish nationalists” find common ground with an English Labour leftist who doesn’t even support Scottish independence? Is this simply an attempt to sabotage Labour, a case of schadenfreude for the hated, unelectable Red Tories?
Anyone asking this question clearly just hasn’t grasped what our movement is really about. I’ve explained a thousand times that our campaign in Scotland has more in common with Syriza and Podemos than recreating Bannockburn. Literate nationalists like George Kerevan, and savvier English journalists like Paul Mason, make the same point.
Corbyn clearly is drawing on the same Europe-wide, radical democratic – and working-class – political awakening that we are. And the sociology of his supporters bears this out. Obviously he gets a lot of backing from the unions – and, more particularly, grassroots union-Labour affiliates.
Corbyn also enjoys huge support from new members who joined after the election, seeing Labour in England as the only conceivable opposition to the Tory austerity. Lastly, there are ordinary people radicalised by the sheer madness of Osborne’s economics who are registering as Labour Party supporters specifically to back Corbyn.
These groups have a strong overlap with the social base of the independence movement here. They are our natural allies, and thus our optimism about Corbyn is hardly surprising at all.
Having said this, even Corbyn’s most optimistic supporters recognise that there are many challenges ahead of him. Winning the Labour leadership is difficult enough, but then he has to charm voters, take on a media that would rather see Darth Vader as Prime Minister, and even after all that, actually implement a progressive programme via the inherently corrupted British state. And then there’s his own party…
Scotland actually illustrates this problem very neatly. Corbyn will find natural allies and a warm atmosphere for debate in the independence movement and its associated parties. Academic evidence has shown a strong correlation between strong identification with Scottish independence and strong left-wing views. I can’t imagine our movement disowning Corbyn for sharing a different view on the constitutional future, far less for “being English”.
But the contenders for Scottish Labour leader? They are another matter; they are instinctively hostile to his anti-Trident, anti-cuts programme. Kezia Dugdale, seen as the more left-wing and pro-trade union candidate, told The Guardian that a Corbyn win could leave Labour “carping on the sidelines for generations”. Ken MacIntosh has at least had the dignity to tell senior Labour figures to stop impeding the debate. But his previous political record and his choice in allies (Jim Murphy being one) puts him on the right of the party, making it highly unlikely that MacIntosh would be a loyal Corbynite. The point is, would many serving Labour MSPs actually back Corbyn’s leadership, even if he was elected by a landslide? Apart from the obvious one or two, I have my doubts.
Corbyn could choose to reform Scottish Labour from top to bottom, and make it a natural home for debate among radical working-class democrats, including independence supporters. But would the Dugdales and MacIntoshes, or even the left-wing British unionists, approve such a plan? At this stage it seems very, very unlikely.
That Scottish dilemma is a microcosm of some of the problems Corbyn would face. The popular will for a Corbyn-style politics is there, in all nations in Britain, but a certain bureaucratic Blairism of staffers and careerists is a real barrier that might stop him before he even gets going.
Almost nobody denies the possibility of a Corbyn victory, and what a victory that would be. Although the old guard of New Labour are already planning to shut him down, and although "Project Fear 2" will launch immediately if he is elected, this will itself throw up interesting questions. How will thousands of Labour members respond if their elections are rigged and hijacked by the bureaucracy? Will the English Spring produce a English Syriza-like coalition of the Radical Left – combining the Greens, socialists, Corbyn supporters and trade unions in a movement against austerity?
That prospect is no longer a flight of fancy. In a new era of multi-party politics, the English left, including Corbyn and his supporters, will have to face challenges of democracy and constitutional reform, as well as fighting cuts. But that debate can only be a good thing, and they will find a welcoming home in the new radical Scotland.