Jeremy Corbyn’s Moment of Reckoning and the Fears of the British Establishment

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, August 25th 2019

Next week another critical Brexit moment happens when Jeremy Corbyn calls together all the opposition parties at Westminster, to plan to win a vote of no confidence against Boris Johnson’s government to stop a No Deal Brexit.

Jeremy Corby has offered to lead a temporary minority government that would aim to extend the Article 50 notice period, hold an election and referendum. This is high stake politics, with the nature of Brexit, the future of political parties and leaders, as well as the continuation of the UK, all in doubt.

A vote of no confidence in Johnson is on a knife-edge. Leave aside that Johnson has not yet dared to subject his new administration to winning a parliamentary mandate. This is because he has a fragile majority of one seat when he adds the ten DUP MPs to the Tory tally. This expands to a ‘notional’ three seats on a vote of confidence as one independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon, has said she will never vote to facilitate a Corbyn government.

If Johnson wins a vote he gains significant room in advance of the October 31st Exit date. But if he loses all bets are off. Under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011, there then follow fourteen days where alternative governments are explored, and attempt to win a vote of confidence. If they lose and the previous government cannot form a majority, an election ensues.

In all this confusion, there is no unity in the opposition. The SNP have indicated that they will work with Corbyn in the coming weeks. Deidre Brock said at the weekend that ‘We will work with anyone to stop a No Deal Brexit.’

Similarly, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, have made similar statements. But there the united front ends. Jo Swinson, Lib Dem leader, stated she will not support Corbyn as: ‘There is no way he can unite rebel Conservatives and Independents to stop Boris Johnson’, let alone ‘all the votes of Labour MPs.’

There are doubts about Tory rebel MPs voting with Labour, and even of Corbyn being able to carry his entire parliamentary party. Such arch-Brexiteer MPs as Kate Hoey could easily vote with the Tories or abstain, as could a couple of independent former Labour MPs such as Frank Field.

Underneath all of this is the animosity parts of British political opinion hold about Corbyn. Why is this the critical issue for Jo Swinson and others – rather than stopping the train wreck of a No Deal Brexit?

Is it because, as Swinson says, Corbyn doesn’t have the Commons numbers to be able to form a government? This isn’t the main reason, as this is a Parliament of minorities, with the Tories relying on the DUP, and no Brexit offer, as of yet, carrying a majority.

Is it because of his ineffective leadership of Labour and the fact his party is divided and he doesn’t carry the confidence of his parliamentary colleagues? But that hasn’t stopped a host of previous leaders gaining the top post, most famously, Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, who became PM in May 1940, mistrusted by a majority of Tory MPs.

Is it because of his famed inflexibility, which has seen Corbyn hold the same core views since the mid-1970s? Neal Lawson, head of the centre-left pressure group Compass, comments that ‘Corbyn is hoist on his own petard, of always being morally right and never compromising – a position that can’t withstand political reality’ and ‘is rooted in the politics of the vanguard.’ But Theresa May wasn’t exactly known for her political dexterity and she was PM for three years.

Or is it because he is known to be, like John McDonnell, a lifelong Brexiteer, who has his entire adult political life campaigned against the EU, pre-leadership? Do some people really believe that Corbyn, once in office, might renege on his party’s Remain stance, and usher in Brexit? If they do, this would be the ultimate betrayal, from which Corbyn’s leadership and wider Corbynista project, would never recover.

Fear of Red Labour

The biggest factor in considerations is how the British establishment view Corbyn and their fear of ‘Red Labour’ – something they thought they had permanently killed off with the era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Remember that ‘Conservative Home’ survey which showed that Tory members would put up with all sorts of political chaos to deliver Brexit. Scottish independence (63%), Irish reunification (59%), the economy tanking (61%) – were all ‘a price worth paying’ to deliver Brexit. The only price which wasn’t worth paying was a Corbyn Labour Government (39%). That said an awful lot about Tory fears.

‘Red Labour’ has long been a fear of Tories and the right-wing from the first ever Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 which was humiliated by the publication of the alleged Zinoviev letter in the ‘Daily Mail’ in the midst of a general election. It purported to be from the head of the Comintern, the then Communist International, showing Soviet meddling in the UK. Now widely seen as a forgery, it contributed to Labour’s heavy defeat at the polls.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, before he was recast as the nation’s favourite grandfather, Tony Benn was seen by Fleet Street as a threat to our very way of life and freedom. All sorts of smears and allegations were made at Benn, from calling him ‘mad’ and ‘obsessive’, to stating that he would bring in the dictatorial ways of Chairman Mao and his own ‘cultural revolution’.

The British establishment’s anger at Corbyn is that he dares to oppose them on all the big questions they thought they had won: redistribution, trade union rights, public ownership, nuclear disarmament. And they have one big fear. They know that the Thatcherite settlement of the past forty years has broken down and voters are looking round for an alternative.

Jeremy Corbyn is not very popular as leader of Labour at the moment. But many elements of the establishment know that Corbyn entering No. 10 could be a gamechanger. It would transform how Corbyn was seen and normalise him and his ideas. Mark Perryman, author of two books on Corbynism, says that’ Corbyn at Number Ten, McDonnell at Number 11 would detonate the neoliberal consensus.’

Many of the policies Corbyn stands for such as nationalisation of public utilities, standing up to fat cats and against City excess, are hugely popular. A minority Labour Government would be limited in what it could do, but could remake the political weather ahead of going to the polls. Those who fear Corbyn remember the shock that Labour’s 2017 manifesto was widely popular with voters.

There is also an anxiety in Corbynism that political office will change them. As Lawson puts it: ‘Corbynism was fashioned in the political exile over 30 years and could only survive through an inner core of resilient believers.’ Would such an attitude survive contact with the pressures of political office?

None of this is an argument for Corbyn. He has been a spectacularly ineffective leader of the Official Opposition. Despite this he is the leader of by far the largest opposition party and next week, and the week after, he will get the ultimate chance to prove his many doubters, in the Tories, Lib Dems and SNP, as well as in Labour, wrong. A lot now is riding on Jeremy Corbyn finally getting it right.