This is a contribution to Soft Left Politics by Cllr Sam Stopp – @CllrStopp
Laughter greeted Jeremy Corbyn as he mounted the stage. Not because he’d said or done anything funny (obviously), but because nobody was taking him remotely seriously. Corbyn was half an hour late for the first debate of last year’s leadership election, following the announcement that he had been ‘persuaded’ to stand, as it was his ‘turn’ to be the ‘Left’ candidate.
The scene was the 2015 Fabians’ summer conference and I, like many in the room, clapped and cheered patronisingly and ironically as the old maverick stooped towards his microphone. Isn’t it great that we’re having a broad debate, I thought to myself – moronically – as the man who three months later would win a heart-stopping victory began to speak in the platitudinous rhythms that now haunt my dreams.
An hour or so earlier a loquacious Welshman, of whom I’d never before heard, gave a speech that made me sit up and listen. He spoke fluently and convincingly about how he, as a man on the traditional Left of Labour, had seen in our crushing election defeat the need to reconnect with – and not merely dismiss – huge swathes of working class people whose support for the Labour Party had for decades been taken for granted.
His name was Owen Smith.
I am no longer a member of the Fabians and Jeremy Corbyn is no longer an amusing distraction. He is, technically, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and if he wins again this September, I worry gravely for the future of the Labour Party and the country that needs it so badly.
I never supported Corbyn’s leadership campaign because I knew it would create the reckoning we now face. If one of Labour’s wings attempts to take total control of the Party apparatus, without providing the oxygen of electoral success that New Labour – for all its faults – provided, then civil war is inevitable.
In the initial weeks and months that followed Corbyn’s victory, I tried – foolishly, I now realise – to reconcile my disdain for the man and his project with my love of the Labour Party and the urgent need for it to unite. I tried not to publicly criticise the endless and glaring policy and media own goals, and I tried to take it on the chin while scores of former and current Greens, SWP members and general Labour detractors told me that I didn’t belong in the Party which I love more deeply than they could ever understand.
I was proud to sign Open Labour’s letter to The Guardian calling for Labour’s democratic Left to reunite, and I attempted, ever-so-gently and oh-so-patiently, to persuade those who told me I was wrong about Corbyn that he was, in fact, leading Labour off a cliff and into a never-ending abyss below.
But the time for subtle remedies is past. The Labour Party is in cardiac arrest. The alternative medicines promoted by those who seek to haggle with the grim reaper of the Hard Left must be tossed contemptuously aside. Right now, the question is not about what kind of Labour Party you want – it’s about whether or not you want the Labour Party to survive.
The last time a man from the Bevanite valleys led the Labour Party, he saved it. Shortly after the leadership election last year, one fellow Labour councillor told me that, although he had voted for Corbyn, he had identified Owen Smith as the next leader. So I began to track him – his policy positions and his performances in the Commons – and I liked what I saw as much as that first speech I’d seen him give.
There is a case for saying that Labour needed a re-boot after the failed realignment under Miliband. Perhaps time will tell that Corbyn, by accident more than design, afforded the opportunity to re-found Labour in the shape of a leader steeped in the truest traditions of democratic Socialism – except that that person can’t be him; it must be another.
Labour is, and always has been, a reformist party. It is not the place for revolutionary socialists, but it need not succumb to the tranquilising drug of gradualism either. The choice is not between power or principles – it is between power or impotence. Indeed, democratic Socialism means something deeply personal to me. In my role chairing The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness, I see every day what those two words, when put into practice, could do if the party led by Corbyn echoed our pledge to end homelessness.
We are socialists because we believe not in equality of opportunity, but equality of outcome. We do not seek to offer the many thousands of homeless people in Britain the opportunity of a home of their own – we seek to offer them the reality of a home of their own. But we are democratic because we know that true power lies not just in our activism, but in Parliament. We are neither the Fabian Society nor the Occupy Movement. We are the Labour Party. Truly, we believe in the parliamentary road to Socialism.
The tragedy of Corbyn is that he offers only half of the democratic Socialist equation. To many, his ‘movement’ offers protests, economic seminars and change.org petitions. But he offers neither the chance, the reality, nor even the interest in winning power in Parliament. Yet without that power, our movement – however big it is – is, quite logically, powerless to help the people we are here for.
I do not know whether Owen Smith can beat Jeremy. But I know that, even if he loses, many thousands of Labour women and men will continue to fight for the decent, united and democratic Labour Party that the real people with the real needs so badly and urgently require. Even if we lose this battle, we will win the war. Of that I am sure.
We are not going anywhere.
Owen Smith has said what I, and many others, have been thinking and saying for some time – being anti-austerity in word isn’t enough – we have to be pro-prosperity. Only an alternative, credible narrative will beat the Tories. We must offer this urgently and confidently or we will be driven back further at the next election.
The time has come to save the Party, and the country, that we love.