Why you should vote Corbyn even if you think he’s a bit of a cacker

Response to a friend who is troubled by Corbyn’s difficulties in acting as an effective leader of the opposition, is considering voting against him, and would like to hear arguments to the contrary:

The argument I would make is that I think it’s important that the pro-Corbyn forces within and without the Labour party prevail against the anti-Corbyn ones. Victory for Corbyn in this leadership election leaves the pro-Corbyn forces in a stronger position; defeat leaves them in a much weaker one (and probably facing a serious purge, further down the line). Whatever one thinks of Owen Smith personally, there’s no doubt that he will act for the PLP establishment against any further attempt to move the party towards popular democracy – that is what he is standing for, regardless of what he, personally, stands for.

On the question of competence, I find it difficult to believe that Ed Miliband was a significantly more effective organiser than Corbyn has been; remember that Blair once managed to sack Angela Eagle from a cabinet position by accident. For decades the PLP has maintained its power on the premise that managerial competence is what’s needed to win the electorate, and to govern well for the country. It has accordingly eliminated all traces of a social democratic programme, sacrificing them one by one in the name of sensible, rational, well-adjusted, realistic governance. Well, I also prefer rational governance to irrational governance – although in practice what Blairism’s wilful subordination to the news cycle gave us was more often than not that notorious “omnishambles”. But politics is about more than just keeping the machine ticking along smoothly: it is about making arguments, capturing the public imagination and desire for change, and parlaying that into real influence over the direction taken by society. Thatcher certainly understood that; I think May does, too. The best the Labour Right have managed in recent years is the Edstone. It doesn’t bode well.

I think the Brexit vote indicates very strongly that “There Is No Alternative” will no longer wash with the electorate: it’s Labour’s task now to articulate alternatives that people will passionately support, and Corbyn – whatever his flaws as an administrator – has been astonishingly successful in doing that. If Labour try to put that particular genie back in its box, then they are definitely finished. Even a split would be preferable to publicly rejecting one of the biggest surges in support any political party has ever seen in this country.

I believe that Corbyn’s role in all of this is to act as a focal point for the forces that support him, to hold his position for as long and as well as he can while the battle is raging, to groom a successor and a supporting team within the party that can take over and campaign effectively, and then to step down. I doubt he will ever be PM, although a snap election just might produce a very surprising result; even if so, I don’t think he will wish to hold the position for longer than he has to. The truth is that anyone holding Corbyn’s political line will constantly be attacked, misrepresented, undermined and betrayed; it’s no good looking for a “unity” candidate who will stand for more or less the same things but somehow be accepted by the press and right-wingers. If you want the Labour party to stand for the things Corbyn stands for, vote for him; if you want the Labour party to continue slaloming into irrelevance as the Very-Slightly-Less-Nasty-Party, vote for the other guy.

Corbyn as Orator

There is this notion among the political class that Corbyn’s not much cop as an orator; that he emits streams of well-meaning platitudes, but connects only with the already-convinced. Behind this is a set of assumptions about what political rhetoric is supposed to sound like, what its characteristic gestures and appeals should be, which is very much shaped by the culture and education of that group of people.

For those outside of the political class, their supposedly top-notch orators (Hilary Benn, say) sound equally if not more platitudinous, equally as much as if they’re speaking only to a narrow audience of others just like themselves. But of course you’re less likely to notice that if you’ve always and only been part of that audience, if everything that’s been said in public political discourse over the past decade has been addressed to people like you, by people like you.

Part of the joy of Corbyn is that he represents a tradition and a manner of address which is completely alien to that crowd – one which you get the feeling they’d hoped to have heard the last of. The vehemence of their disgust is symptomatic of something ugly about themselves that they’ve long since forgotten to hide, and it may yet be their undoing.

Of course there are better speakers than Corbyn. If you remember that clip of Michael Sheen doing his best Nye Bevan (for example), you probably wish as much as I do that the present leader of the Labour Party had that sort of poetic fury, that sort of charisma, to go with Corbyn’s unshakeable decency and conviction. But, for what it’s worth, this is a way of talking to people that doesn’t sound – to borrow a phrase of Dennis Potter’s – like a “croak-voiced Dalek” delivering the new ordinances; that constantly refers them back to their own power, instead of reassuring them that the mountebank on the stage is comfortably in charge. It has its own pattern, its own way of moving from one moral touchstone to another, in such a way that the concerns of everybody present are steadily woven together into a single shared picture. It’s not dazzling, but it makes you feel that you and your neighbour should start talking, exchanging perspectives, because you’re involved in something together, side by side.