The narrative of last week’s British election result – one of Corbyn and Labour confounding expectations to a degree no one expected – has already been well documented. But it is worth restating briefly the scale of the achievement: Labour faced what was estimated as a 20% deficit in the polls, prompting fears of a catastrophic performance that would leave the opposition party incapacitated for the duration of the resulting parliament.
In truth, Corbyn never had a fair shot at preparing the party for an election. From the moment his leadership campaign gained momentum, he was condemned by his colleagues as “unelectable”. There has not been a day since he was elected leader that he has enjoyed the loyalty and support normally demanded of the parliamentary party. The past year and a half has been a campaign of sustained sabotage against his campaign. Section of the media, united in their revulsion at the return of old-school social democratic politics – a ghost they thought long dead and buried – attempted to construct a narrative of a hopelessly incompetent leader destined to drag his party to electoral oblivion.
This narrative, they hoped, would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even to his supporters, it was hard to conceive how, amid the sheer viciousness of the media coverage, Corbyn would ever have a fair chance at winning over the public. Yet, just as during his leadership campaign, the media smearing has backfired in the most spectacular fashion. If Corbyn’s leadership is significant for anything, it is the way in which the declining authority and credibility of the media has been exposed.
What all of the mainstream pundits seem to agree on, however, is that this is a shocking and entirely unpredictable result. It is true, of course, that few ever expected that within a year and a half of assuming the leadership, Corbyn could so radically change the course of his party and win 40% of the vote against a barrage of attacks from both the media and most of his own MPs. But there is a key difference between the scepticism of those who supported Corbyn and desperately wanted him to succeed, and those who did everything to ensure he didn’t.
The path from euphoric optimism to demoralisation is a well-trodden one on the left. For those who were politicised at the time of the SYRIZA surge in Greece, that experience was fresh in the memory. From the insurgent hope of the Syriza campaign to the capitulation to the bankers and EU neoliberal establishment. Capitalism has a way of forcing such defeats from the parliamentary left. Those who own society and the elites who govern on their behalf will stop at virtually nothing to crush any dissident pangs of hope or belief in a society that looks any different to this one. It looked as if the resources of the British establishment and their representatives in the media were being mobilised to ensure the Corbyn project was dead on arrival.
In such circumstances, a realistic assessment of the uphill battle facing the left seemed necessary for self-preservation. And yet this election marked one of those rare occasions on the left where reality oustripped all of our wildest expectations – barring, perhaps, any latent dreams of a Labour government. But considering the odds against Corbyn from the very beginning, this was nothing short of an outstanding performance.To capture 40% of the vote, win safe Tory seats such as Kensington, and even make the beginnings of a comeback in Scotland was far beyond what we thought possible in the short-term.
Rise of Corbyn
How, then, did this happen? One thing is for certain – it was with no help from those in the press and the Labour Party who have spent the past year and a half trying to shape a consensus that Corbyn was “unelectable”. This excludes The Guardian, despite their post-election victory lap, from sharing in any of the plaudits.
Despite endorsing Corbyn at the final hour, they have been as guilty as anyone else in repeating the same, tired clichés about Corbyn’s supposed deficits in leadership and credibility to the wider electorate. They have been proved decisively wrong. For those sections of the media who still cannot countenance Corbyn – the likes of the Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph – the reaction has been more one of fury towards Theresa May, rather than acknowledgment of Corbyn’s extraordinary campaign.
The Telegraph’s Asa Bennett argued essentially that there was no one capable of explaining to the youth why Corbyn’s “socialist tosh” was unworkable, and the natural stupidity and naivety of the electorate won the day. It takes a special breed of self-deluded hack to claim that the one takeaway from this election is that the electorate did not pay conventional political wisdom enough heed. Only Jon Snow had the humility to acknowledge that “I know nothing”.
The truth is that this election has turned all of their preformulated schemas and models of how politics is supposed to work into dust. The official common sense says that to win an election, you must cleave to the centre and abandon out-dated notions of socialism or public ownership. The gospels according to Thatcher and Blair said that there was no viable alternative to neoliberalism; not just in practice, but in the minds of a fundamentally centrist electorate.
To speak of class, nationalisation, an end to austerity or challenging imperialist foreign policy would immediately disqualify you – as if simply warning that Corbyn would take Britain “back to the 1970s” would hypnotise the public into voting Tory. All of that conventional political logic is now defunct. It was hinted at with the relative success of Bernie Sanders last year, but it seems that the ruling class has suffered a significant blow to its ideological authority.
Some have even tried to claim that all this result shows is that if Labour had a different leader than Corbyn, the Tories would be out of power. But this is so weak a case it barely merits reply. It is clear to the masses who turned out to support Corbyn at his rallies and at the ballot box, that no one else in the party could have delivered this result. Labour did not perform above expectations in spite of Corbyn’s left-wing programme. Rather their success would have been unthinkable without it. Those MPs who crowed about their leader being “unelectable” and pleaded with the electorate to vote for them despite their supposed misgivings about the leadership have been embarrassed by this result. If not for Corbyn they may well be out of a job.
So where do we go from here? This election has ripped up the rulebook for fighting ideological consensus in the age of neoliberalism. It is likely that the next elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be Jeremy Corbyn. All those Labour MPs who gave him a standing ovation in gratitude for their continued employment have not been won over to the left overnight.
It remains to be seen who among them will back up their platitudes about “uniting the party” when it comes down to voting on Corbyn’s key left-wing policies; or who, like Blairite ‘Prince of Darkness’ Peter Mandelson, will continue to agitate from the shadows to reclaim control over the party from the left and the membership. It will be crucial to have a realistic appraisal of the difficulties that a Corbyn government would face.
Its policies would be bitterly resisted by the political and economic establishment at every turn. The closer Corbyn comes to power, the more ruthless and calculated the struggle against him will become. This was a trap that Syriza could not negotiate successfully. The only way out of it is an independent movement of the working class that has a sense of its own social power and interests that does not simply collapse into any one electoral project..
Corbyn’s success certainly opens up a space in which we can begin, even here in Ireland, to build towards that. Left-wing ideas have more credibility and legitimacy than they did several weeks ago. The hopes and ambitions of the masses of the youth and working people are now invested in Labour under Corbyn’s leadership. But there will be many obstacles ahead.
A Corbyn government now looks distinctly plausible in the near future. Should it fail to deliver, however, the left must be capable of picking up the baton and continuing the struggle, rather than simply collapsing into demoralisation and defeat.