The fate of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership bid should mark a turning point for the Labour left writes Lindsey German
The candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn MP as leader of the Labour Party sums up a major contradiction on the left today: his announcement has galvanised a wide range of people in and outside the Labour Party in his support. The response to the news of his standing has been to hearten many on the left who have felt despairing after last month’s election result and the prospect of five years of outright Tory rule. But this excitement and inspiration has barely penetrated the parliamentary Labour Party, where so far only a handful of MPs have given Jeremy their nomination.
If he fails to make the ballot paper for the leadership contest, which at present looks likely, then the one clear left voice in the contest will be excluded. That will mean that the contest will return to a dreary battle between out-and-out Blairites and those like Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper who either don’t have the courage of their convictions or don’t have any convictions. It will be a depressing spectacle as they vie to support the benefits cut or to urge greater control on immigration, every opportunist word stored up to be used by the Tories and their media fan club in future years.
It is incredible enough that the election results have been interpreted by all the other candidates as meaning that Labour was too left wing and that it now needs to appeal to Tory and Ukip voters. After all, Scotland’s wholesale rejection of Labour came from a left, anti austerity perspective; Labour did well in London and other big cities; and its vote rose by nearly a million compared with 2010. Insofar as Ukip took votes from Labour, as it did in northern and south Wales strongholds, those working class voters still tend to be committed to issues such as full NHS provision and nationalisation of the railways.
It is equally incredible and insupportable that Labour is now happy to enter a contest where the most left wing voice – recognised as representing a sizeable chunk of grassroots Labour opinion – is likely to be absent. The Labour system itself is a disgrace, requiring the nomination of any candidate by 15% of the parliamentary party, and denying individual members, CLPs or unions any say in the nominations. Compare it with the Tory requirement for a proposer and seconder only. Its purpose is, of course, precisely what it is now achieving – to exclude voices which may be a minority in parliament but which have much greater support outside from having a voice.
I know from personal experience the many strengths of Jeremy Corbyn through my work with him in the anti war and anti austerity movements, and in many other campaigns. He is an ideal of an MP – hardworking, committed, principled without any of the remoteness or privilege which mark so many MPs. The enthusiasm which has greeted his candidature reflects those individual qualities, but it also speaks of the desperate need to hear voices against austerity, defending the poor against the rich, opposing racism and attacks on immigration.
There is now a movement inside and outside Labour in his support. If he gets on the ballot paper – and we still have several days to pressure MPs to give him their nomination – then that can herald a mass campaign against austerity across the summer and will give a real boost to the movement which is holding its first mass post election demo next weekend on June 20. It will change the atmosphere of politics in Britain. If he doesn’t succeed in this first step then that will require some honest accounting on the Labour left and in the unions.
The unions should be pressurising their sponsored MPs to nominate Jeremy in the interests of democratic debate, even if they don’t agree with him or don’t vote for him in the final election. The unions have given a great deal to Labour and have seen little in return from recent Labour governments. They really should not remain in Labour’s tight embrace as it rushes towards Blairism Mark 2. If they do, they will suffer what Labour suffers, and it will be harder for them to relate to the anti austerity mood around today. If on the other hand they and the Labour left see this a turning point and one which requires a break from Labourism, then that in turn would bring real change and open up a new politics for the whole left.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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