With the news that Peter Capaldi is stepping down as the Doctor, I think of another grey-haired hero of social justice whose time at the helm may be limited, and how we make sure the legacy continues.
There is a question that I think needs to be addressed by the Left within the Labour Party, and by the broader membership who supported Jeremy Corbyn over the past two years, to the chagrin of the Blairite orthodoxy who think they (and not the members) own the Party.
It’s a simple question, and one that I was pondering discussing before May’s election announcement, but I suspect that, to a lot on the Left, such as the Momentum mob, it will feel like anathema, perhaps even a deep betrayal of the movement (especially now we’re engaged in an election campaign). But we need to be ready:
“Who next after Corbyn?”
We have a curious situation where Corbyn’s policies are popular but the man himself seems to be not so. I’ve had discussions with people in my circle of acquaintances for the last year or so. The leftwing in the Labour Party has the right direction on many points both to win votes and to revitalise progressive politics in the UK.
Without a doubt, we needed Corbyn to get these ideas on the agenda once again, and to bring about the engagement and mass membership that the Labour Party needs to start developing these thoughts. Corbyn had the presentation to catch the imagination and sell the ideas so that people believed they were possible again. It’s hard, just two years on, to recall the sheer excitement for anti-austerity, social investment and social justice that Corbyn’s leadership campaign inspired. The nastiness of the Blairite response to his election, and of Brexit, and of the internal coup attempt against Corbyn last summer, have swamped those emotions since, and left them as faint memories only. But we should not forget that we could not have got the ideas out there in the first place for the public to say they agreed with them (even as they say they disagree with Corbyn).
But Corbyn has been the target for two years of incessant hatred and misrepresentation by the rightwing media (including ITV and the BBC). Win or lose in the 2017 General Election, he is not a long-term option and at some point someone else will have to take up the mantle of the Left and to carry forward the policies we believe in.
As things stand, the rightwing of the Labour Party (and indeed, the wider Right in this country) can feel legitimately that if they just get rid of Corbyn then the resurgence of the Left will fall apart and the previous orthodoxy will regain supremacy and the party membership can be sidelined again.
Therefore, we need to find the people who can step up and take his place, whether this year or in ten years’ time. We need to show that there is a potent movement here that will outlive its cult figure leader, and that has the capacity to sustain itself.
Should The Next Labour Leader Be A Woman?
I saw recently an article (I forget where, but I think it was on the website of one of the big political magazines on the liberal Right) that suggested that Yvette Cooper has a good chance of being given a coronation as next Labour leader if Corbyn is ousted, because here is a feeling that the next leader should be a woman. It is a significant question for the Left to address as well, because on the Left there is a lot of talk about countering sexism, misogyny, the Patriarchal structures of society and so on. (Equally, on LGBTQI rights, race, etc). But it’s the Tories who have had two female leaders (of the Big Three, the only party to have done so) and that feels like an embarrassment – a failure to live up to the egalitarian ideals.
But Tories elect women as their leaders because those women have stood for hardline Free Market and monetarist economics, at the expense of workers’ rights, the Welfare State and so on. Tory policies under Thatcher, and now under May, disproportionately harm women’s prospects. Theresa May has consistently voted against LGBTQI rights and protections, and appeals directly to racist anti-immigration sentiments to a degree that feels unmatched since before I was born. Women become leaders of the Tory Party by being very willing to shit on the rights of women not like them.
On the liberal left and particularly the liberal left media, there is a lot of image politics, of the type typified by the campaign to put more women on banknotes as notable figures. That’s all very well, but the response from the activist left is, “We don’t care so much about who’s ON the banknotes, as about who’s GOT them in their pockets.” Equally, while there is a slight image problem of not having had a female leader, if the women who put themselves up for the leadership don’t have the conviction and passion for egalitarian and social justice politics that we hope for, then we prefer to look at the effects our leaders have on the wider population of women, LGBTQI, BAME etc people.
(Of course, there is also the point worth noting that in the 2010 leadership contest, the leftwing candidate happened to be both Black and a woman. Diane Abbott back then was much less luvvy, and presented much better than she has since she started working on the BBC’s politics coverage alongside one Michael Portillo. I don’t intend to get into any kind of analysis of why she didn’t win back then, but it’s also worth noting that it’s the rightwing of the party complaining about gender now, and who would have voted against her back then.)
That said, as the 2016 Labour Leadership contest reached its head I considered the question and went looking for Labour Party MPs who were women and who hadn’t been part of the Blairite coup’s mass Shadow Cabinet resignation. It was depressing to see how few there were. Anyone who was a part of that exodus has to be considered as at best a fair-weather friend of the leftwing movement.
So, while it would be nice for the visuals to have a BAME or female leader (or for that matter, an openly gay, lesbian, bi or trans leader), the policies and passion for them, have to come first. It’s no good having a leader of a particular group if they are not willing to take on the forces of oppression in wider society.
What Are We Looking For?
Perhaps the biggest, and hardest, question to answer. But there are some very broad-sweep statements that can be made about the general mood, and what the membership of the Labour Party have voted for in their leader in recent times.
- Anti-austerity and investment in the country
- Protecting the NHS against creeping privatisation, and making sure the NHS is properly funded
- A commitment to the Welfare State, particularly for those most in need such as disabled people
- Ready to protect the poorest against low wages, uncertainty and instability in income (such as zero-hour contracts)
- Willing to re-nationalise those industries where privatisation has failed, most notably the rail network
- Social justice causes, both at home and overseas – on race, gender, LGBTQI, and general human rights
- Courage of their convictions in these and other issues
The “vocal Left” have other criteria as well, but I am not sure that they are borne by the majority of the Corbyn supporters in the Labour Party’s wider membership. Momentum wanted to be the means of organisation for the Left in the party but frankly, it’s alienated a lot of the people who support Corbyn generally. So I think that there should be more flexibility on things like Britain’s nuclear deterrent (and what form that should take). This is something I’ve found reflected among other Labour Pary members I’ve spoken with about Corbyn – generally we support him, but on this issue and one or two others, we disagreed.
For me, personally, I am an advocate for wider sexual politics, both in the field of censorship (get rid of as much as possible), kink, and sex workers rights. I would like to see my Labour Party commit to full decriminalisation of sex work, moving it from the criminal to the civil sphere of law and generally strengthening sex workers’ rights and ability to operate safely (as the Green party has done, though given the amazing flexibility of their candidates such that their Cambridge candidate in 2015 made transphobic comments, and Caroline Lucas is known to be an advocate of the Swedish model, that doesn’t enourage me much).
But these are issues I will campaign on whoever is in power; I can hope to influence Labour Party policy by actively engaging with the NEC Elections, and other avenues for discussion within the party, petition and writing to representatives.
As far as choosing someone to continue Jeremy Corbyn’s resurrection of the Labour Party as a party of the left, though, the key criteria seem to be outlined in my bullet points above.
Who Are The Options?
This is the catch. Who is there that can fill these criteria, who won’t become a complete media-style politician but equally won’t alienate the media as much? The person who will be able to inspire Corbyn’s followers and carry to torch onwards, while showing it to the people we need to reach in future as well?
I don’t honestly know. The names most closely linked to Corbyn’s ideas seem to be Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell and while both seem to be eloquent speakers recently, I have found neither to be inspiring, and both have already been heavily targeted by mainstream (especially rightwing) media. I could probably go along with Thornberry as leader, given her performances during this 2017 campaign, though, which is a lot better than I remember her being in 2015.
I’m not so deeply involved or following the intricacies of the party’s internal politics or the cabinet members to be able to point to a candidate and say, “let’s make this person Corbyn’s successor.” In some ways, I feel like to do that with one person would be to miss the point of this piece anyway. After all, if it’s just one person then, just as with Corbyn, the rightwing of the Party can feel that just removing that head will give them the chance to regain control over the Party, away from the membership.
But I do think that those of us who support strongly the principles bullet-pointed above, owe it to ourselves to research possible candidates and think about the question, “Who replaces Corbyn?”