We need to talk about Jeremy.
Is Jeremy Corbyn the Messiah or a very naughty boy? A Moses delivering his people unto the Promised Land or a false prophet offering forty years of sand? Lots of people seem to be very confused. New or old, they ask? Future or past? Twenty-first century post-capitalist icon or 1980s mothballed socialist? By the looks of it, Jezza himself isn’t entirely sure.
More questions abound? Why doesn’t he wear a tie? What’s he been doing all these years? And does he really think a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can get away with that beard?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. Some of them are irrelevant, though I suspect we’d disagree as to which. But it’s always fascinating (and heartbreaking, of course - always heartbreaking) to witness the internecine conflicts of the left. The virus of Blairism? Hardly. It’s Corbynitis which has caused the party to flush bright red in public, unleash a crazed dragoon of white blood cells to assault its left hand with its right, and attempt to purge itself in a last ditch attempt to regain health.
To quote Taylor Swift, this is the “sad, beautiful, tragic” thing about the left. No one puzzled aloud in 2005 whether David Cameron was the true inheritor of modern Conservatism or its ultimate death harbinger. No, the Tories just got on with the job of arguing who would be most likely to win power.*
Meanwhile the quasi-religious DNA of socialism means lefties can always imagine a better version of themselves, can always castigate their mundane policies for impurities and compromise. Blair is reviled not simply for what he did (you know, PFI, academies, the odd illegal war) but for what he is perceived to have betrayed.
Tories out of power are essentially meaningless, a cryogenically-frozen impulse towards greed. Socialists out of power are far more dangerous to the fortunes of their cause. They are pure. As political advisor Oliver says to defeated Labour leader George Smith in David Hare’s The Absence of War, “please think…as you stand on those steps, as you look at all those party workers who love you, with tears in their eyes, please remember… you’ll be doing the one thing Labour Leaders are best at. Oh yes, George. You’ll be conceding defeat.”
You can hear those who would rather be right than elected lurking in the background of this leadership debate. Yes, they say, we know Jezza is an unlikely, indeed ill-suited candidate, but damn it, can’t we just have this one time? This one leader who tells us what we want to hear? That let’s us believe, if only for a short time, that Britain is the country we want it to be, not the one we know it is. Yes, we know we’ll lose in 2020, but even in the pain of defeat, wouldn’t there be something so sweet? The forbidden nectar of bitter righteousness. “We gave you the chance, Britain! We gave you Corbyn. We held out our hand in solidarity. In hope. In fraternity. But you rejected us. You chose to fear those you do not know, those that do not have, and those that do not want. And when you lose all that you have, to those whose tricks have enthralled you, you will find no welcome here. Among we who were right all along. We who saw it coming. We who told you so.”
If Jeremy Corbyn becomes the next leader of the Labour party, one of two things will happen.
Jeremy will turn from a joke into a threat. Press coverage will make what the Daily Mail did to “Red” Ed Miliband look like a rather harsh school report. All those aspects of Jeremy’s past (you know, the things you say because no one apart from the voter in question is paying attention) will make even centre-lefties get nervous. Unable to command his party or get a fair hearing, Jezza’s command (never strong) will weaken, allowing him to be degraded back to “joke”. All those who signed up to the Corbyn myth under the banner of hope/change will feel the cruel sting of disillusionment. Jeremy will become Nicholas “Clegg mania” Circa 2017. Variously scared, incredulous, disgusted and uncertain (but mostly scared) Britain will vote for…well, who knows, but not a Corbyn landslide. And in the absence of a nationalist alternative á la the SNP (UKIP, perhaps?), Britain will find itself with another, but this time anticipated, Conservative majority government.
Somehow Corbyn manages to ride the crest of a movement that completely turns the political rules of the last two decades upside down. To do this he will need above all to start a new economic story in which Government debt doesn’t creep into your house at night and murder your children. Rather, it is the foundation of sustainable and equitably distributed growth. He will also have to communicate an idea of fairness that transcends the left’s traditional commitment to social justice and embraces the new sources of popular anger. Stuff like corporate power, banksters, “imaginative” tax arrangements, late-running high-priced trains, the assault on the NHS. He would then have to weave all these into an easily understood narrative of Us (working and middle-class) against Them (the rapacious and uncaring financio-corporate elite). Such a story might just then penetrate the deafening roar of Daily Mail/Sun counter-narrative in order to reach a lot (and I mean, a lot) of people who suddenly get very interested in all sorts of things they hadn’t been particularly interested in before. We’re talking Scottish referendum levels of untapped political engagement here. (Oh, it would also help a great deal if these people were favourably distributed in marginal constituencies up and down the country.) Britain as a hive mind might then just possibly decide that, actually, it’s had a change of heart. We do believe in each other after all. In sharing. In giving up a few perceived freedoms for a bit more equality. And that we might just fancy giving this Corbyn chap - never mind that he doesn’t look like a PM, or that he’s said some very ambiguous things about people we’ve always been taught to be very afraid of, or that he sports a beard - a go in No. 10.
No, I don’t believe that will happen either.
So, what’s the alternative? Cooper, Burnham or Kendall? Sorry, that should be “ABC”, shouldn’t it? Does anyone really believe that under these leaderships the Labour party would be anything other than a limp-soundbite producing, uninspiring abstention monster? But then it really doesn’t follow that just because the others are crap, Corbyn is any good. On the contrary, there are plenty of reasons to think that when it came to the day to day messy business of leading, he would actually be a very poor choice.
Perhaps those who really want a Corbyn victory can’t bring themselves to face the fact that the party is dying, one way or another. Corbyn mania is that phenomena you read about in near death experiences. The one where your whole life flashes before your eyes, where you float, comforted by a great sense of peace of tranquillity, surrounded by the feeling that all the struggle, all the compromise, all that messy business of living is over now. You’re home. Such experiences (presumably) end in one of two ways: dead or falling back to earth with a bump. For Labour and Corbyn, it could be both.
*In fairness to the Tories, the Conservative election was made a lot easier when David Davis turned up with two young ladies on his arm, each of whom had “DD” emblazoned on their t-shirts. Classy.