Given the left’s history of being schooled in oppositional politics without experience of leadership and, therefore, being unprepared for victory, there was danger Corbyn’s victory would quickly descend into chaos, farce or both. That it has not is a testimony to his personality, political style and awareness of the thin ice he skates upon.
His first 100 days was marked the Guardian reporting 30% of Labour members don’t think he’ll be leader come 2020 and an interview with a Blairite advisor suggesting Labour might have to split. Nothing surprising: the 30% who didn’t vote for him still are not convinced, Blairites hate him and the Guardian continues to promote his inevitable downfall.
Yet Corbyn has been largely successful in mobilising his support and extending the positive radicalism that inspired his campaign and won him the greatest membership mandate of any Labour leader. That this has not led to a huge surge in the polls at either British or Scottish levels is not surprising. Labour has a mountain to climb in the polls and that won’t be turned around quickly.
His leadership must be about establishing a base within the party and wider movement for his anti-austerity, anti-Trident, pro-public ownership manifesto and, therefore, giving confidence to thousands of party, community and union activists wishing to advocate them. Anyone who is active in unions will know whilst there has been support for them, most workers were persuaded austerity was necessary, nuclear weapons needed and the public sector had to shrink.
His election has created a situation where the alternative is not only seen as possible but possibly realisable. If all Corbyn had to do was to keep advocating these alternatives until 2020, the course would be set. Unfortunately, Corbyn has to deal with party and parliamentary politics, the media and next year’s elections.
In each, Corbyn has the difficult task of putting forward his policies through the actions of others (e.g., Shadow Cabinet members, election candidates). Inevitably, this doesn’t always work out. Labour UK’s refusal to discuss Trident, threatened revolt if there was not a ‘free vote’ on Syria and ‘embarrassment’ at John McDonnell’s frontbench experience were setbacks. However, Corbyn came out well in each of these by being seen to be true to his values.
His successes have been his own. Using PMQs to highlight issues, success of anti-Trident vote at the Scottish conference, extremely successful speeches at rallies and demonstrations and his confident TV appearances have all been positive, helping continue building upon his election movement.
But successfully extending that movement to take Labour closer to winning office requires other people to play their part – to demonstrate in words and deeds the party has actually shifted towards Corbyn, enabling him to confidently take the ideas to the electorate and win votes back for Labour. Signs are not encouraging.
The Syrian bombing vote affirmed that the parliamentary party is not won over and is not yet under sufficient pressure to back Corbyn. In Scotland, there are other considerations. Party members that recently overwhelmingly elected Jim Murphy cannot be expected to suddenly re-discover their socialist soul. Cook and Kane’s claim of ‘a genuine sense of grassroots members regaining control of their party’ (SLR 90) might actually not be quite as progressive as it sounds if the party members remain committed to supporting candidates whose allegiance to Corbyn is doubtful.
Huge increases in party members in England have not occurred in Scotland for large numbers of citizens switched off Labour before the referendum and since. It will take more than Corbyn to win Scotland back for Labour. Keneally (SLR 90) made the reasonable suggestion Labour should attack the SNP as ‘being all style and no substance’. But this needs Labour positions that have themselves some substance.
The opportunity to demonstrate Labour anti-austerity substance presents itself now with John Swinney’s Scottish budget. Scottish Labour’s anti-austerity stance must be more than ‘spin and deception in order to gain one over your opponent’ to quote John McDonnell (SLR 90).
The SNP has correctly been denounced as simply passing on Tory Westminster austerity by proposing the biggest cuts in council funding ever. Refusing to raise income tax and continue freezing the Council Tax means services to the most vulnerable children in schools and older and disabled people being cared for in the community will be slashed.
However, Labour needs to do more than denounce this tartan-Tory government. It must demonstrate what it would do differently. On the Scottish shadow front bench, there was resolute refusal to put forward an anti-austerity alternative. Was Labour prepared to raise income tax? Are Labour councils to defy the Council Tax freeze so to save services?
Scottish workers watching decimation of local services and 15,000 council jobs will be asking ‘What would Corbyn do?’ However, it will be Dugdale and Labour councillors who will be doing the ‘do’.
Stephen Smellie is a Labour member and UNISON Scotland Depute Convenor. He re-joined Labour after the 2010 general election recognising stopping the Tories was a priority. ‘Disappointed socialist’, therefore, is his position.