Why I take issue with the Observer’s stance on Jeremy Corbyn
The Guardian, by Ed Vulliamy
The veteran writer offers a personal response to last week’s editorial on the new Labour leader
For many of our readers and potential readers, the Labour leadership result was a singular moment of hope, even euphoria. It was the first time many of our young readers felt anything like relevance to, let alone empowerment within, a political system that has alienated them utterly.
The Observer – a broad church, to which I’m doggedly loyal – responded to Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide with an editorial foreseeing inevitable failure at a general election of the mandate on which he won. For what it’s worth, I felt we let down many readers and others by not embracing at least the spirit of the result, propelled as it was by moral principles of equality, peace and justice. These are no longer tap-room dreams but belong to a mass movement in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe.
It came as a disappointment – as I suspect it did to others who supported Corbyn, or were interested – to find such a consensus ready to pour cold water on the parade. To behold so little curiosity towards, let alone sympathy with, why this happened.
Of course the rest of the media were in on the offensive. Our sister paper the Guardian had endorsed a candidate who lost, humiliated; the Tory press barons performed to script. Here was a chance for the Observer to stand out from the crowd. But instead, we conjoined the chorus with our own – admittedly more progressive – version of this obsession with electoral strategy with little regard to what Corbyn says about the principles of justice, peace and equality (or less inequality). It came across as churlish, I’m sure, to many readers on a rare day of something different.
I accept that we are a reformist paper, and within those parameters one has to get elected. But that should not mean a digging-in by, and with, the parliamentary inside-baseball Labour party whose days and ways of presenting politics like corporate management selling a product (or explaining a product fault) have just been soundly rejected by its membership. Why embed with MPs in a parliament no one trusts against the democratic vote outside it?
And anyway, what if? Who, five years ago, would have predicted Syriza’s victory in Greece or bet on Podemos taking Madrid and Barcelona, now preparing for a role in government? It’s not as though the Observer’s accumulated editorials disagree that much with Corbyn.
During Ed Miliband’s Labour, the Observer robustly questioned the health of capitalism – our columnist Will Hutton calls it “turbo-capitalism”. We urged support for a living wage and the working poor, and the likes of Robert Reich and David Simon have filled our pages with more radical critiques of capitalism than Corbyn’s.
Anyway, how much of what Corbyn argues do most voters disagree with, if they stop to think? Do people approve of bewildering, high tariffs set by the cartel of energy companies, while thousands of elderly people die each winter of cold-related diseases? Do students and parents from middle- and low-income families want tuition fees?
Do people like paying ludicrous fares for signal-failure, delays and overcrowding on inept railways? Do people urge tax evasion by multinationals and billionaires, which they then subsidise with cuts to the NHS? Post-cold war, who exactly are we supposed to kill en masse with these expensive nuclear missiles? What’s so good about the things Corbyn wants to drastically change?
Even more fundamental is the appeal to principle and morality – peace, justice and internationalism – which drove the Labour grassroots vote, and was spoken at the rally for refugees which Corbyn made his first engagement and for which this newspaper stands absolutely. Why not embrace those principles, or at least show an interest in the fact that hundreds of thousands of people just did? Which better reflects the Britain we want: Corbyn’s “open your hearts” or Cameron’s “swarm”?
The parliamentary bubble – and our editorial – calculate that we cannot fundamentally change Britain on the basis of these aspirations, even if many people yearn to. In the acceptance speech, Corbyn should have appealed beyond the party in which he is steeped; perhaps he too inhabits a different echo-chamber.
But this isn’t about Corbyn, it’s about why he’s suddenly there. And what an appalling lesson to draw: someone is overwhelmingly elected to falteringly but seriously challenge that stasis and order of things – by urging peace, justice, republic and equality – only to be evicted by the deep system into a lethal ice-storm the moment he leaves the tent, like Captain Oates, though not of his own volition.
And even if middle England is more adverse to radical politics than middle Spain or Greece, does that mean we have to align with this mainstream stasis, just because it is so? What’s the point of principles if their trade-off for power is a principle in itself? Why have principles at all?
The legal philosopher Costas Douzinas argues for a separation of words: using “politics” to describe horse-trading between parties, which feign differences but actually agree, and “the political” to describe antagonisms that really exist in society. On that basis, why start with the stasis of “politics” to approach “the political”, rather than the reverse: invoke “the political” to challenge the stasis of “politics”? Especially alongside Greece, Spain and elsewhere.
Instead of a stirring leader, which did not have to endorse Corbyn but could celebrate the spirit of the vote along with those who delivered it, we’ve left a lot of good, loyal and decent people who read our newspaper feeling betrayed.
“There’s something happening in here / What it is ain’t exactly clear”, wrote Stephen Stills in 1967. It’s a good description of where we are with all this – we don’t as yet have the map whence this came, where it’s going or even what it is.
Dave Crosby sang: “Don’t try to get yourself elected” (from a mighty number called “Long Time Gone”). Along with almost half this country, I was inclined to agree, but Corbyn’s election throws Crosby’s dictum into question, just as to cut Corbyn down would prove Crosby right. “We can change the world” sang Graham Nash. But are we only allowed to try if middle England, the media and parliament try too?