Corbyn versus the Consensus

September 10, 2016 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In any political movement there is a tension between what is desirable and what is possible. Idealism tempered by practical constraint is the necessary condition of a party seeking governance. A party must offer more than it can deliver. Hopes will be disappointed by the treachery of circumstance. That is a truth every practical thinker knows. It is a truth every cynic knows how to exploit. The unenviable task of a party leader is to reconcile ideals to reality and reality to ideals.

The cynic conveniently forgets the latter phrase. For the cynic reality never changes. The cynic looks to the left and the right without understanding either side of the argument. The centre ground is not the vantage point it may seem.

Among opinion-makers there is a consensus in favour of the centre ground. This ignores the observable reality that the balancing of forces changes with the nature of events. Truth does not dwell necessarily in the balanced middle between extremes. The ideal solution to a problem is not necessarily a fusion of two opposing viewpoints. The ideal solution may be in decisive action far from a compromise. We are not about to enter a new age of perfect reason, a world so good that nothing happens. There always shall be room for doubt, always the need for change.

There is an unacknowledged consensus that believes we have got it right, just about, give or take the odd tweak. Potentially, according to this way of feeling, we are capable now of a more or less ideal world if only those irritating idealists were to vanish. Why can’t they go live far away so that the rest of us could live as one large, prosperous and contented family?

Yes, stated out loud it sounds silly, which is why it is understated. But it is present in so much political commentary. It is implied in the word modernisation. History has no future, so to speak. According to this perception, we are free of history. We are free of ideology. We can act as we like, subject to conscience. And conscience is determined by what is in the best interests of everyone.

The appeal is to selfishness, although it is articulated in the elevated language of liberal concern for families and communities. We hear much of wealth creation, although we may see little of that wealth ourselves.

To question the moral basis of the consensual ethic is either absurdly utopian or dangerously subversive. The latter position is adopted now that the mood of the Labour movement’s pendulum swing to the left cannot be dismissed as an aberration. Where there might be reasoned argument and intelligent debate, we have emotive and pejorative outbursts from intemperate moderates and similar oxymorons.

The question needs to be asked, not once but persistently until an answer is given: why isn’t there a moderate candidate for the Labour leadership? It is a question that cannot be answered, and so it is never asked. There surely must be a lesson to be learned from the undeniable certainty that a moderate candidate would be humiliatingly defeated. How can the parliamentary party be so out of step with the party at large? ‘Everybody’s wrong except us,’ is hardly a dignified position, but it is the one an increasingly vacuous consensus adopts.

The justification is that Labour under a radical leader cannot form a government. History suggests otherwise, and the track record of moderate leadership is electorally weak. The record of Labour’s electoral success, often under-reported, over the past year has been strong, far stronger than anyone thought possible. Predictions, or fears, of electoral defeat have not materialised. Labour’s vote has held up or increased. To say that this is despite the current leadership is unworthy and curmudgeonly. Jeremy Corbyn deserves some credit, surely? He clearly has wide support beyond his core admirers. This is despite dubious ‘opinion’ polls and despite unacceptable onslaughts from the trash media.

Media mendacity is to be expected. There are those who fear their positions and consequent privileges may be questioned. There are those who fear change of any kind at any time. More disturbing are those within the Labour movement still fighting a battle with Stalinist militants, a battle so far back in the past it is scarcely more relevant to Labour values now than the Relief of Mafeking is to current foreign policy.

The point remains, however, that Corbyn may be more of a catalyst than a leader. As a catalyst he has revived Labour’s radical heart, given it direction and played a significant role in its continuing and unexpected electoral success. It is not merely premature but perverse to write Corbyn off as a failure. His success deserves the most sympathetic appraisal. Of course, in an ideal world a charismatic young leader capable of capitalising on all those initiatives could take over in due course and see victory in 2020 on a truly radical agenda.

What we have instead is a failed consensus. The lack of nerve, the deluded claims and the erosion of self-respect are symptoms of an evident decline. New Labour sought a fresh start free of outmoded doctrine. Concentrating on immediate practicalities, it soon became directionless. What we saw was an exercise in power for its own sake. And its reaction to idealism has been both heartless and shameless.

Even where there remains a social conscience there is a preternatural fear of Socialist consciousness. Liberal reformers must adhere to other traditions. Today the unprecedented disdain for the elected leadership is a guarantor of self-fulfilling prophecies of disaster. Consider how many in the Labour movement continued to vote loyally for years on end even when the party was under weak or authoritarian leadership. They did so even when a sense of moral betrayal threatened to destroy the progressive impetus of Labour traditions.

No-one of democratic sympathies seriously wants to see uncritical obedience. That has never been the democratic way. Bevan and Wilson were among those who questioned policy. But even in dissent they were true to the democratic principles of Labour. They expressed every confidence in those principles. Those principles and their practical application are based on a vision of structural change in society, a fundamental change of direction. Moderation in pursuit of change is not always appropriate, although moderation is an essential component in the armoury. Without vision, however, all that remains is sentimentality and rhetoric that lacks substance even as it claims the pragmatic vantage.

Moderation does not mean doing nothing. It means moving with care. Even those who tread warily must move away from our present morass of selfishness. It is the duty now of Labour moderates to argue their case while remaining loyal to the movement they claim to love.

Some hope. Well, perhaps there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere.


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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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