Corbyn is no ideologue: He is leading a movement with conviction, not with dogma
The whole point of the movement was to make concrete changes to the Labour Party and its policy platform and then to sweep the Labour Party to power on a platform fit to deal with the crisis of austerity Britain. In under two years, Labour has gone a long way toward achieving those goals.
My hope in early 2015 was that under a government led by Ed Miliband the left could pressure the government to ease off austerity, embark on a mass council house building programme and introduce a living wage for all. Jeremy Corbyn and the left’s rise within Labour was unexpected and by the time he had ascended to the leadership of the party it was abundantly clear that the left had two choices. Either choose to relentlessly fight every fight with the risk of near certain failure or build a platform that could balance realism with radicalism.
Jeremy Corbyn was swept to the leadership with views and ideals which in their totality were so different from the contemporary party that without any compromise the movement would inevitably be crushed under the weight of its own aspirations.
There was a need for a party fighting austerity tooth and nail, not half-heartedly after the huge social damage wrought by the austerity project. There was need for a party prepared to stand up for social housing in a period in which Britain is facing the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression. In the face of these needs the leadership ultimately opted to sacrifice some of those stances which had primarily been based on virtue rather than need. Trident may be a white elephant but scrapping it will neither bring about world peace or fix the crises of sliding living standards, stagnant wages and insecure work.
Corbyn’s long-standing opposition to NATO, the monarchy and his commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament were all cases in which the leadership has chosen to pick the right fights rather than play the role of ideologue. Labour has never stood on an anti-NATO platform, even in 1983, and I doubt more than a dozen Labour MPs would be willing to push for such a platform. Less than one in five UK voters view NATO unfavourably. To turn Corbyn’s leadership into a battle over NATO would have been a gross error and a waste of the biggest opportunity for socialists in recent history.
For some people, especially young metropolitan liberals and sections of the centre and centre-left, Corbyn’s alleged lack of leadership on Europe has been his most egregious mistake. A narrative has been spun that Corbyn either deliberately sabotaged the Remain campaign or let it down by a lack of enthusiasm. After all, during the campaign Corbyn had emphasised the need for reforming an imperfect EU and in the aftermath has consistently eschewed calls for a second referendum. But this pragmatism over Europe isn’t symptomatic of cynical politics, but instead of a thoughtful yet practical left. The single market was Margaret Thatcher’s project, a keystone of a globalised free-market Europe and deference to that project is transparently problematic for democratic socialists.
To pretend that the EU is a progressive, cosmopolitan dream is to ignore the intricacies of the EU’s institutions. Yet if Corbyn had come out on the other side of the debate, as allied MPs Dennis Skinner and Kelvin Hopkins ultimately did, Corbyn would’ve only added to the worst risks of a Tory Brexit. Watch ‘Brexit: The Movie’ or spend half an hour speaking to a UKIP activist or a fan of Dan Hannan and you will realise there is little that is progressive or pro-Brexit about euroscepticism on the right.
In fact the nuanced nature of the leadership’s approach to Brexit is a key piece of evidence that Corbyn isn’t an ideologue but instead a left-winger with tangible, practical goals. Both the pre-referendum approach of pursuing a better European Union and the post-referendum strategy of a pro-migrant exit negotiated for the many, are evidence of a growing clarity on the left. Corbyn and his allies have chosen to build radically upon the opening up of the party to reforming ideas in the 2010-2015 period.
The revolt against Blairite centrism began several years ago but it has reached a crescendo and brought Labour inches from power. This is politics with conviction and purpose, escaping the trappings of both outmoded dogma and cynical opportunism. It is a politics which knows that transformative change is achievable but that one wrong turn could condemn the chances of our quest to build a fair society.