When one Westminster pundit said the Parliamentary Labour Party’s choice between Smith and Eagle was like choosing whether to bring a fork or a spoon to a gunfight, they had it slightly wrong. It’s more accurate to say the PLP are debating whether to bring a sabre or a broadsword to a family get-together.
The PLP have tried various confrontational methods of bringing Corbyn down from his post. First Angela Eagle attempted a public duel, attacking his abilities and demanding he forfeit power. Next, Tom Watson held private negotiations to strong-arm him to a lowlier position, while Owen Smith extended a hand as if to wrench him down from where he’d climbed too high. Then Watson led the effort to coax the NEC into stopping Corbyn being automatically on the ballot for the next leadership contest.Fortunately for Corbyn, the plotters were ‘fucking useless’.
The PLP’s next moves will be a series of even more violent efforts to topple, by force or fraud, a party leader whose reputation rests on moral commitment and disdain for the ‘old politics’ of secretive manoeuvres and sly back-stabbing. These hapless foes will continue to miss their mark, because Corbyn will continue refusing to engage in the fight or the game. The politicking undertaken by the PLP is despised by those who favour Corbyn’s soft sincerity. Jeremy ‘doesn’t do personal’. His strange immunity comes from what his enemies call ‘dogmatism’ and what his followers applaud as idealism, morality, and total refusal to take part in political connivery and confrontations. His enemies feign admiration for his principles, then reject them as impediments to political leadership. Eagle insisted that although ‘not a bad man’, he was certainly ‘not a leader’, while Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said:
He’s deeply driven by his principles and wanting to do the right thing. He won’t compromise them in order to be in government and he doesn’t think that he needs to. I don’t seek actively to speak ill of him… You can achieve some things from opposition, but nothing like the possibility of power.
From the outset, the secret of Jeremy Corbyn’s success was his earnest, compelling commitment to stand for what is good, in solidarity with all those downtrodden or despised. This morality defined his initial appeal to the membership last summer when night after night he delivered speeches founded on moral imperatives: we as a society must provide for the hungry and the homeless, cherish our children, learn to protect the planet, and save our services from irreversible ruin. He carried this into PMQs, where he sought a more ‘adult’ approach, shorn of rhetorical and personal berating in favour of quotidian perspectives and letter-to-the-editor pleas from the public. His appeal to the conscience of pundits, parliament and prime minister was meant to bypass the jibing that makes Westminster politically famous, or infamous.
Corbyn won’t join the melee, and the people gathered round him will raise him above the maelstrom. In one of his most effective speeches during the height of the coup, at the Durham Miners’ Gala, Corbyn said that he had been asked over and over about the political pressure he was under but that an understanding of the pressure of poverty put the whole situation into perspective. For his most fervent followers this is what makes Corbyn so special. A fortnight ago I stood outside SOAS watching a tired Corbyn give a speech that was a list of social wrongs that must be righted: poor mental health, crumbling communities, crime, poverty. It was a young crowd that couldn’t fail to be carried with him – but when one heckler demanded he explain what is to be done about Brexit, the leader had no words. Then last week I was at a meeting in Lambeth of about a hundred Corbynistas – mostly over-50, part of a generation that is intent on saving the public services which younger generations have stopped expecting will be available to them. Every other floor-speech praised Corbyn’s integrity and commitment to making a better world. They bore badges proclaiming ‘JC – Our Saviour’ with pride. And the comparison with Jesus is only part-irony: they seem convinced a better world can be attained through the strength of their common spiritual endeavour. They believe in JC.
Given Corbyn’s camaraderie with Cameron on the day of his resignation it is difficult not to wonder whether sometimes his good-heartedness gets the better of him. Which brings me to the point: good politics and good morals are not one and the same. The good politician is not the good person, but one who can enact, by generating and using power, those ideals to which they are committed. This is something like what Eagle was getting at when she called herself a ‘practical socialist’ – her practice of being a socialist is the effort to implement her kind of socially just conception of the world. She offers a kind of realism which adjusts ideals to what is seen to be the scope of possibility, and seeks to attain them as far as possible using the practices of politics.
Now, this kind of politics – which is attacked by a moralist left – is not foreign to the radical socialist tradition. William Morris, an artist who founded the influential Socialist League, which would later merge into the Labour party, became a convert to socialism because he believed it was the only way to bring about the violent revolution that would overthrow the rule of the rich and oppression of the poor. Morris, like Eagle, called himself a ‘practical socialist’, and looked to fit his ideals into the frame of politics. He explained:
I might never have been drawn into the practical side of the question [of how to bring about socialism] if an ideal had not forced me to seek towards it. For politics as politics, i.e., not regarded as a necessary if cumbersome and disgustful means to an end, would never have attracted me…
Yet Morris had come to believe that ‘socialism was a necessary change, and that it was possible to bring it about in our own days’. However ugly, political methods were essential.
This idea of politics as a necessary evil was described by Machiavelli in The Prince, where he demonstrated that the ruler who is too morally upstanding – whether honest, liberal, peaceful or clement – will tend not to achieve the good ends they seek, while those who achieve the most for their state or people will treat politics as a craft and only maintain the appearance of morality. Unfortunately Corbyn and his team seem disinclined to the Machiavellian approach, and have staked much of Corbyn’s reputation on a very public rejection of this kind of political chicanery.
So it turns out Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ is a kind of anti-politics. Corbyn may think this is good and right, and that it aligns him with the popular disillusionment with politicians. It might even shelter him from the internal politicking of the PLP. But it is at the core of Corbyn’s growing problem. Some of Corbyn’s own backers are starting to doubt whether he has a competent strategy to attain the policies he describes: taking more tax from the banks for public services, injecting cash from the bottom up through people’s quantitative easing, or retrieving schools and hospitals from the clutches of petty capitalists; these will never be attained simply by describing the harms they would relieve. Corbyn’s stated objective is to be prime minister and lead a government, but even in government his aims will come up against untold resistance from opposition within the Labour party, across the Commons floor, and above all from boardrooms. Left or right, politics is the craft of gaining and using power.
George Buchanan, an adviser to politicians in sixteenth-century Scotland who resented the power of the rich but harboured doubts about the worth of prophet-types, wrote a play about the life of John the Baptist. At the beginning, two Pharisees discuss how their power and interests are undermined by John the Baptist who by his delusions
draws the lookes of all men towards him, the common sort being possest with ignorant beliefe, that a new Prophet to the world is sent; And now unto himselfe he hath reduced an Army of the vulgar following him.
They debate whether the prophet presents any genuine threat to their interests, and the sager of the two concludes it best to hold back from attacking him with reason or with arms, for he represents little threat to their own power, since he does not engage in power-play himself. Just as the Tories and the CEOs are content to let Corbyn promulgate his morals in peace, the Pharisees realised that they would be safe as long as they stayed clear of the moral fray.
Speaking the truth about misery will not confound the powerful interests that maintain that misery. A good player of politics can provoke that power to show itself and its tyranny; and in this case it may allow for power of another popular kind to be deployed. Those who maintain that morals trump politics tend to leave the question of action for later. In much the same way, those who obsess about constitutional legitimacy are in the business of constant delay and political procrastination. They are less inclined to think politics entails conflict or confrontation, let alone class struggle, both against the Tory government and capital itself.
The conflation of politics with morality is, as we argue in Roch Winds, one of the flaws that has kept the Left from power and success in recent years.
There is a moral drive which stifles radical action and reacts against the impulse to come into conflict with the powers that be. This impulse is one of the most compelling motives in soft-left politics… But it is not politically effective. The basic lesson of political realism is that right is not mighty. A moral politics is impotent; amoral politics has immense potential for good.
Corbyn, for all he has done for the left, risks further embedding morality into the political practice of socialists. At its high-points, socialism and the left has used the rhetoric of toppling tyrants and fighting for freedom, rather than the softer language of entreating the rich to change their ways and yearning for social justice. The moral turn is a pacifist plea, a process of self-disarmament. There have always been radicals who argue for moral consistency, turning the other cheek, and holding to the principles no matter what is the way forward. For centuries they had in mind an image of Jesus urging the people to live a better life so that we may all have a better world. It never came to pass.
The poor were sick with hunger
And the rich were clothed in splendour
And the rebels, whipped and crucified
Hung rotting as a warning
And Jesus knew the answer –
“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”
Said, “Love your enemies”
But Judas was a Zealot
And he wanted to be free
Resist, he said, the Romans’ tyranny