JEREMY CORBYN has often been accused of wanting to lead a party of protest, rather than a party of power.
The vast influx of new members of Labour, with their bewildering enthusiasm for a political project Westminster found incomprehensible, were clearly more interested in feeling good about themselves than in winning elections.
Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s willingness to march in the streets to promote causes they supported, or stand on picket lines next to workers on strike, was most improper. Clearly they had no idea what being a serious politician was about.
These attacks were always nonsensical — the Establishment’s hostility to protest is not because it can’t change the world, but because they don’t want it to.
All the great social and political advances in history have been made by campaigning from below, from votes for women to the civil rights movement in the United States and from the abolition of slavery to the repeal of Section 28.
Corbyn’s recognition of this fact does not make him a “protest” politician, but one who understands that the rules of the political game are stacked in favour of those already ruling — and it takes pressure from outside that gilded circle, from ordinary working people, to win anything worth winning.
There is a world of difference between embracing people power and the whinging we have seen from too many liberal politicians as Britain enters negotiations on leaving the European Union.
Corbyn has attracted opprobrium even from parts of the left for whipping MPs to vote for invoking Article 50, although doing so was right democratically (having backed a referendum on membership, the party was compelled to accept the result), right politically (with two-thirds of Labour MPs representing constituencies that voted to Leave, seeking to block Brexit would be electoral suicide) and right pragmatically (with the government holding an easy majority in Parliament on the question, trying to stop its Bill passing would have been futile, while proposing amendments on protecting immigrants and workers’ rights puts pressure on the government over its negotiating approach).
Unlike his critics, Corbyn does not see a vote in Parliament as the end of the matter and has thrown down the gauntlet to Theresa May on protecting the rights of EU citizens in Britain to remain here.
May — whose distaste for foreigners has extended to making up stories about criminals being immune from deportation if they own a cat, and whose government is now shamefully seeking to shut out thousands of refugee children it had previously agreed to accept — is quite willing to use EU citizens resident here and British citizens resident in the EU as bargaining chips as she haggles with Brussels. She can be stopped from doing so — but only if the left can stop carping among itself and unite to demand that everyone resident here has the right to stay.
Pressure from the left directed at achieving a settlement with the EU which benefits working people — one that means collectively bargained terms and conditions can be applied to all workers, immigrants included; one that allows the state to invest in industry and intervene in the economy; and one that allows us to extend the reach of public ownership in sectors of national or social importance — can make a real difference, especially if we come together with left forces across Europe to push the negotiators from both sides.
It certainly beats sulking at the referendum result, howling with outrage at Parliament for passing a Bill it had no option but to pass and accusing the Labour leader of being a sell-out simply for respecting democracy. That’s just protest politics.
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