Saturday, September 24, 2016
I fought the hard left in the 1980s. Now I’m backing Corbyn
Neil Kinnock should understand Corbyn’s plight – he once endured the same hostility from within his own party and the media
Guardian Saturday 24 September 2016 0
The impending Labour conference in Liverpool evokes a sense of deja vu all over again. Once more we will have a Labour leader confronting a clique that is seeking to seize the party machinery.
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Three decades ago, it was Neil Kinnock at the Bournemouth conference, making his famous speech about Militant, while I was in Liverpool fighting an attempt by a dedicated, well-organised group of entryists to seize the party structure and use it for its own political agenda. This time it is Jeremy Corbyn being denounced by Labour MPs and confronting the self-described party “moderates”.
Like many of the old left I frankly wondered about Corbyn when he stood – but in the end mostly found that the complete absence of personal ambition that had deprived him of experience for leadership was one of his foremost qualities, especially when faced with the blandly insincere, uninspiring, but patently ambitious New Labour clones who were competing with him.
Even now, I cannot truly understand the depth of the Labour establishment’s revulsion for Corbyn, because I have yet to hear or read a lucid case against his politics, except that he is deemed to be “unelectable”, which would be more convincing if it did not come from those who are working overtime to make it true.
The inarticulate anger about his candidacy reminds me of what George Orwell wrote about totalitarian literary language, that it has “a curious mouthing sort of quality, as of someone who is choking with rage & and can never quite hit on the words he wanted”. With Owen Smith having stolen Corbyn’s policies, it makes the rage even more perplexing.
‘Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands of formerly disillusioned members and newly motivated activists, joining what they consider to be the reborn Labour party.’ Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Kinnock, now canonised by the pundits as the man who paved the way for Labour’s electoral turnaround in the 1990s, should recognise the media’s treatment of Corbyn. When Kinnock was leader, reporters used to meet in the pub to sort out the “line” for events, even before they happened, and in one form or another I remember it was always “a slap in the face for Kinnock”. However, not even in the backstabbing tradition of the parliamentary Labour party were so many members so actively complicit in his attempted death by a thousand hacks.
Militant was eventually beaten, by a combination of administrative action and membership revulsion at its eminently parodiable oratorical style, pseudo-scouse accents and rigid self-righteousness. It was what we would now call the soft left, and the so-called Tribune group, that did much of the heavy lifting. We brought in John Prescott, Robin Cook and others to speak in the Militant Merseyside heartland and offer an alternative left vision to exorcise the ghosts of the Fourth Internationals.
If you want some flavour of that alternative vision it is worth looking at Kinnock’s famous speech, and even beyond his call “to strip ourselves of the illusions of nuclear grandeur”, to his stirring yet pragmatic invocation of Labour values. “There is no need to compromise values, there is no need in this task to surrender our socialism, there is no need to abandon or even try to hide any of our principles, but there is an implacable need to win, and there is an equal need for us to understand that we address an electorate which is sceptical, an electorate which needs convincing, a British public who want to know that our idealism is not lunacy, our realism is not timidity, our eagerness is not extremism.” That was the Kinnock on whose team I worked for the 1987 election.
Sadly the softness of the left was its primary characteristic. After Kinnock, Tony Blair’s people managed to swamp and dissolve the Tribune group and, in keeping with New Labour’s attempts to emulate Bill Clinton in the US, turned the party into a PO box for corporate donations. They squeezed out “special interest groups” like the unions, and took the core electorate of the party for granted – while filtering out potential parliamentary candidates who might put Labour values above their career, thereby disenfranchising the membership.
But as Kinnock went on to say: “We have voluntarily, every one of us, joined a political party. We wish a lot more people would come and join us, help us, give us their counsel, their energies, their advice, broaden our participation. But in making the choice to join a political party we took a decision, and it was that by persuasion we hoped that we could bring more people with us. So that is the basis on which we have got to act, want to act.”
Corbyn’s sincerity and vision is reminiscent of Kinnock in that speech and of the party pre-Blair and Peter Mandelson: the soft democratic left of that era,with its concern for human rights and socialism, the heirs to Nye Bevan. Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands of formerly disillusioned members and newly motivated activists, who are joining what they consider to be the reborn Labour party because they think that their views will now make a difference, not be ignored or pre-empted by controlling cliques from revolutionaries of the left or careerists of the right. Entryists hate such swelling membership rolls because they are inherently uncontrollable. They prefer a hollowed-out organisation they can control.
So instead of engaging in McCarthyite smears against the new and renewed members, calumniating them as entryists and disenfranchising them, those currently sitting on the benches of Westminster should be welcoming them and joining them on the streets to turn the tide for Labour.
Corbyn confronted by reporters at a poster launch: ‘Kinnock should recognise the media’s treatment of Corbyn.’ Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters