If the Labour party were seeing a relationship counsellor, it would be told it’s all over

August 8, 2015 8:43 AM
By Suzanne Moore in The Guardian - Comment is Free

The party is now so divided over whether Jeremy Corbyn should be leader that it is tearing itself apart. The truth is it needs to die to allow a new movement to be born

When warring couples go to Relate, or Reject as I used to fondly call it, sometimes the counsellor just has to say the unsayable - that things cannot be patched up or made better. They may ask each partner what they want out of the relationship, listen patiently and tell the couple that their needs are incompatible. It's a hard thing to say, and certainly a hard thing to hear, but ultimately it can be liberating. Rather than clinging to the wreckage of a bad relationship, separation - however painful - means everyone can get on with their lives.

The thought of how to split up and remain civil, or least appear to in front of the children, has been on my mind because the pro- and anti-Jeremy Corbyn rhetoric has become so inflammatory and ill-tempered that I can't see how the Labour party can carry on. The needs of those who want Corbyn to lead them are completely incompatible with those who think it would be a disaster. There is no triangulation here, no compromise. As we witness the delightful reality of grown men/columnists screaming "moron" and "Tory" at each other in public, it's hard not to see this split as overdue. Somehow it's not my vision of socialism.

For everyone who says Corbyn's campaign is enthusing those who are not normally interested in politics (the majority), I will wager there are those who remain deeply indifferent, or just irritated, by everyone tearing into each other. It's not my party but I'll cry if I want to.

So many of the arguments about Corbyn are played out in simplistic binaries. The head versus heart thing is one such nonsense. I find having both a head and a heart kind of necessary. Then there are the two fantasy electorates: the shy Marxists waiting for a beardy man to activate them or the other one comprising those who can't understand any economic arguments at all and love austerity. There is Corbyn as the past, pure and unreconstructed, versus Corbyn as the future, representing the disenfranchised youth who dare to dream. Emotion versus electability, passion versus pragmatism. Ad nauseam.

What if all these things are a bit true? After an election when a lot of people got a lot wrong, when the game-changing nature of what happened in Scotland has yet to be absorbed, why can't we just admit that it's more complicated? That people, all of us, live in between these political certainties of good socialists and evil Tories, individual and collective desires? We embody all kinds of contradictions.

The left's most restrictive idea remains that of false consciousness because it is so shallow. If you only give the masses the correct information it says, they will see the truth about capitalism, the Murdoch press, immigration or whatever, and agree with you! They will see the truth that you, of course, already know. Give them the stats and revolution will ensue. Yet somehow in the age of information, that is still not how it works. Political belief systems, and what makes them change, are a combination of emotion, experience, faith and hope.

A conviction politician such as Corbyn is appealing when politicians now specifically make actual "offers" to the electorate: little brown envelopes of promise that assume voting is only ever an act of self-interest. Sure we can blame the Blairites for all that is wrong with our politics, but the self-soothing comfort blanket of supporting Corbyn is a strange denial not only of what just happened but of actually what a political party is for.

I have nothing against gesture politics, but we must at least grasp what the gesture entails. Corbyn's popularity may unsettle the Westminster village and its embedded hacks, and it may signal a rather vague but heartfelt movement against austerity. Good. But the comparisons with Syriza and Podemos just don't work because they are new parties with new charismatic leaders. Pasok had to die for Syriza to be born.

The actual job that Corbyn is applying for is leader of an old party. Winning would mean him doing really boring things, such as rallying his entire party, uniting his MPs, securing funding from his donors, having policies on international affairs that were not simply scary. There is nothing in his record to suggest he would be good at any of these things, which would be fine if these things didn't matter. But they do. If Corbyn wins, the Labour party will become little more than a pressure group.

There are many who are talking about building a movement. But a movement is an entirely different thing from party politics, and it seems the Labour party has to die for this movement to be properly born.

If a Corbyn-led party could embrace political polyamory instead of the straitjacket of self-righteousness I would be more persuaded. There is nothing to suggest it would. The energy flowing towards Corbyn is disparate, it is an explicit rejection of neo-liberalism, but one that is openly prepared to sacrifice trivial details such as electability for now. That suggests a movement that is playing the long game not a party.

Breaking up is hard to do, but Labour is now so hollow that it has no centre. Or not one that can hold. It's time to move on.