Now that the Labour right has a new champion, Corbyn needs our support more than ever, writes Alastair Stephens
The gauntlet was well and truly thrown down last night. Hilary Benn has now stepped forward as, what the dominant right of the Labour Party has lacked, an alternative leader to Jeremy Corbyn.
Benn need not have openly opposed the leader of his party, and still yet seen the policy he supports, air strikes against Isis, pass.
He need not have made that speech. Such an oration does not happen by accident. He decided to let rip. It was a deliberate attack on his leader.
And an attack from a more difficult quarter can hardly be imagined.
Benn has taken the policy of Western military intervention in the Middle East - a policy that should be in the dustbin of history after its multiple failures - and given it a progressive make over.
And he dressed it in the in the garb of internationalism and anti-Fascism.
Old rhetoric, worthless analogies
The IS are Fascists he proclaimed. They brutally and publicly execute gay men, minorities, those that oppose their regime. They consider all others to be either infidels or apostates. All are to be treated with contempt as beneath them.
But in what way is Isis different from their larger neighbour Saudi Arabia? It does all these things and is the source of the supporting sectarian and obscurantist ideology. It is also the heart of the current sectarian war-drive in the region against, what they see as, Shia ‘heretics’.
And is any state that is brutal and undemocratic ‘Fascist’? That would take in most of the current Middle East governments, many of which are Britain’s allies.
This ersatz anti-Fascism is an abuse of history, the comparison to Nazi Germany bogus. The Isis state is a scattering of cities, with fewer than 10 million inhabitants, across a great desert. Their fighters, raiders in Toyotas who traverse the badlands of two failed states, a place where modern society has broken down during decades of war. Germany was the dominant state in Europe and the world’s second industrial power. Unpleasant and brutal they may be, but the Isis men are more Mad Max than Third Reich.
But we’ve been here before: Nasser was the new Hitler, Noriega was the new Hitler, Milosevic was the new Hitler, finally Saddam Hussien was the new Hitler. All tin-pot dictators not potential global hegemons.
There is a purpose in this inflated rhetoric. The Labour right has, ever since the US turned towards military intervention in Syria, purportedly to fight Isis, adopted this language of anti-Fascism, giving a policy of gun-boat diplomacy a left gloss.
A new Prince over the Water?
But there was more to it than that in Hilary’s speech. The battle against Fascism fought eight decades ago, starting in Spain and then spreading across Europe, and the way it became a harbinger for a better society in the post-war period, was a favourite theme of his father, Tony's speeches.
All are agreed that Hilary has his manner and rhetorical skill. What he has lacked is a great moral crusade in which to employ them, the Third Way and the triangulations of Blair and Brown, never set any hearts a-beating.
But now there is a such a cause, the struggle against ‘Fascism’ abroad, and at home the salvation of the Labour party from the Corbynista hordes, now being portrayed as isolationists, bullies and even misogynists. The return of the party to its true path, and they say electability, is that noble cause.
And who could claim Hilary Benn to be just a cat’s-paw of the right? He could unite behind him all those who oppose the Corbynista surge. And they are, it must be remembered, most of the parliamentary party and the bulk of the party’s elected representatives across the country.
The right, as was shown by their abysmal leadership candidates have no credible champion. They may now have found their Prince over the Water.
The phoney war is over
The phoney war in the Labour party is over and it has been foreign policy and imperialist intervention which has caused the outbreak of real hostilities, as was always going to be the case. Austerity is a mass of different policies; it can be hedged and fudged. War is a zero sum game: you either drop bombs or you don’t.
Only a handful on the Labour benches have ever really considered the party breaking the loyal alliance with Washington. In fact Labour has usually shown more enthusiasm for the USA than the Tories, some of whom remember that it was once our colony.
Elections are not everything in politics. Their effects do not last forever. The further you travel in time from a vote the weaker a mandate becomes. Corbyn would not be the first leader to become a lame-duck just months after election. And as Harold MacMillan observed the thing to fear is always “Events dear boy, events.” Circumstances change, and they just did.
Corbyn’s mandate from the membership can only be meaningful if it is renewed, and that can only be done on the streets, in every home and in every workplace, in every pub and in every place of worship. We have to defeat the arguments for war all over again. They have the media, but we have the evidence of a failed decade and a half of war. We also have the anti-war movement, built through the same bloody years.
The Labour right have a new champion, as we have ours. But this will not be a duel fought out between two individuals. This will be the battle for the hearts and minds of millions. And we are millions, and they are, in fact, just few.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.