Much has been written about the role played by Oxbridge students as strike-breakers during the 1926 General Strike. Mythology has it that class interests led them to flock to the rescue of a capitalist system under threat from workers determined to overthrow it. In truth most were moved by something far less ideological; a childhood fascination with buses, and the unexpected opportunity to ‘play’ at driving one.
Of course, these were students who expected to rule the world – or at least run the country. Being in charge of the bus was merely symbolic of the rights life had assigned to them. Political ideology was an entirely secondary matter.
Little has changed.
For all the press sniping about how Jeremy Corbyn ties his tie, bows his head, kneels (or doesn’t), the real sense of forment within Labour’s ranks revolves around an (enraged) Oxbridge glitterati; those whose ambitions have been thwarted by an upstart boy on a bicycle.
Today’s ‘Establishment-istas’ may have no more ideological convictions than their peers of a century earlier but they are just New Labour’s upper crust; those who were born to rule, God dammit! The bus was supposed to have been theirs. And if Corbyn hadn’t (stupidly) been allowed to join the race, it would have been.
You can understand the anger and frustration. New Labour’s ‘leadership in waiting’ had all the academic pedigree, knew how to hold a fork, stride the corridors of power, and had even done their turn as researchers/advisors to the parliamentary elite. What wider life experience could you ask for?
How quickly the British press have forgotten their enthusiasm of when Corbyn climbed into the Labour Leadership contest. I can’t count the number of journalists who told me Corbyn had turned the process from a contest between the ‘unbelievably boring’ into a genuinely ‘political’ event.
The press weren’t the only ones to notice. The tens of thousands who joined Labour, in order to campaign and vote for Corbyn, recognised that ‘politics’ was at last coming back into politics.
This was not a message the glitterati ever wanted to hear; hence the disgruntlement and outright hatred Corbyn has been subjected to from his own benches. So it is that a man without vanity or venom has to run the gauntlet of other people’s frustrated ambitions. The worst part, however, is neither the vanity nor the frustration, but the emptiness it conceals. The incessant attacks on Corbyn mask a complete absence of fresh political thinking.
Those whose ambitions have been thwarted are joined by ‘whinge-ista’ MPs, who just don’t get out enough. To them, Corbyn’s invitation to fresh thinking comes more as an insult than an invitation. A large chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party behaves more like the Polish army-in-exile than an alternative political vision; a marooned rump waiting for the call to govern a world that no longer exists.
The antiques roadshow
Corbyn gets attacked for his connections with ‘Stop the War’ when Labour’s real problems come from those more enthusiastically willing to start one. The uncritical support for bombing Syria skips past the fact that David Cameron’s foreign policy has been an unparalleled, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, disaster. Oil wells could have been ‘taken out’ by US planes over 2 years ago. On its own, Britain could have ‘bombed’ the bank accounts, Western assets and travel rights of ISIS’ Saudi and Qatari funders, but it hasn’t. And Labour’s ‘Let’s bomb’ brigade has yet to produce any shred of an alternative ‘peace building’ strategy for the Middle East or North Africa.
Those most stridently opposed to ISIS tyrannies have also largely remained silent about the arms sales that underpin conflicts; especially within a region where allies can be little different from enemies.
Europe itself now risks being torn apart between the forces of internal austerity and external disintegration. Against the trend of right-wing election victories, France ‘held the line’ by uniting Left and Right in an alliance against the Ultra Right. But what was it in favour of?…Lord knows.
The EU lacks both the financial resources to accommodate flood tides of migration and the intellectual/political resources to tackle its root causes. Politicians hide behind calls for a tighter grip on benefit entitlements and border controls, but say nothing about the tidal flows of capital which lie at the roots of conflict, resource depletion and migration. Where, at least, is the call for a European ‘financial transactions tax’ through which speculative capital would pay its share of reparation costs?
Instead, Corbyn’s critics embrace the proposed transfer of rights from Europe’s citizens to global corporations (via TTIP), pretending this is internationalism. In truth, it is little more than driving the 1926 bus. TTIP will deliver neither security nor stability.
Domestically, the totemic importance Corbyn’s critics attach to the Trident missile system carries the same lack of analytical depth. In the USA there is at least a discussion about the vulnerability of Trident to cyber-sabotage. Beyond this, however, the whole sphere of drone development and deployment makes tomorrow’s security and defence landscapes look far more agile and adaptable than the world Trident was designed for. So where is Labour’s fresh thinking about security and defence in a world more threatened by religious and resource conflicts?
A different planet
New Labour’s nuclear delusions also stand in the way of the Party engaging with the energy revolution taking place beyond our shores.
Uruguay has already turned its economy into one that draws on 95% renewable electricity and 55% renewable power. Other countries are rapidly following suit. In Europe alone some 6,500 towns, cities and regions are committed to localised, ‘sustainable’ energy systems. These will become tomorrow’s ‘virtual’ power stations; creating, storing, saving and sharing energy in ways that are so much smarter than today’s energy markets.
Corbyn’s critics can’t bring themselves to admit that ‘smart’ will sound the death-knell of both nuclear and Fracking. Instead they trail around nuclear fictions about ‘baseload’, and Fracking’s illusions of ‘security’. They live in denial of the extent to which technology, accountability and ‘clean’ are already re-defining the shape of tomorrow’s secure energy systems.
When Corbyn went to Paris, speaking alongside Naomi Klein, it was to take the debate about ‘saving our place on the planet’ into more imaginative, practical space. To live within a 1.5 degree temperature increase the world will have to reduce carbon emissions, not just limit their increase. We have to move from taxing ‘goods’ to taxing ‘bads’. At some point, this will mean a global tax on carbon.
I have yet to hear any of Labour’s disgruntled glitterati open with a statement that ‘leaving the carbon in the ground’ means exactly what it says; that carbon-reduction means having to embrace carbon budgets, and that we can’t just pretend some of today’s biggest carbon emissions simply don’t exist.
Labour’s ‘airport expansion’ debate struggles to reach beyond whether Gatwick offers a better quality of ‘air-pollution deaths’ than Heathrow. Britain tops the league of carbon emissions per person in aviation. Yet Corbyn’s critics barely consider a freeze on expansion, giving airports (reducing) carbon budgets to work within, or of localising the carbon footprints of trade and food. When Corbyn invites engagement with such issues the very idea gets vilified by his ‘All Our Yesterdays’ brigadistas.
Critics fare no better on the fundamentals of a long-term economic policy. The awkward truth is that, in office, Labour never really had one.
Sheltering behind the deregulation of financial markets, New Labour pretended that you could build prosperity on an explosion of personal credit/debt. Everything – from the collapse of public sector house building, to the obsession with ‘off balance sheet’ accounting, and PFI funding for education and the NHS – concealed the retreat from an economy that made things into one that just made money.
The severity of today’s and tomorrow’s crises need a better plan. Corbyn may not yet have one, but he knows that without it, we are stuffed. So let me offer an olive branch to both his detractors and supporters – begin with a reading of Jorgen Randers’ ‘2052’.*
Long before the current floods or the Paris Summit, those involved in the Club of Rome’s 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ report took a fresh look at the economic and ecological landscape ahead. ‘2052’ gave voice to an economics that would live more lightly (and equitably) on the planet… and which recognised the need to put back more than we take out.
On the most parochial level, it would dictate that you can’t strip uplands of their water-retention resources without exacerbating downstream flood risks; that you can’t build on flood plains without doing the same; you can’t strip Africa of its soil fertility and clean water just to put beans and flowers on Western tables, without expecting the refugees who will follow; and you cannot construct new energy systems that consume less, through the pockets of corporations that always ask for more.
These are the spaces that political debate must be pushed into. I have yet to discover whether those in the Momentum movement (which supports Corbyn) are engaged in such deliberations, but they ought to be. His critics, though, are light years away.
The glitterati may still be queuing up to drive the bus of state but it would only be along the routes neo-liberalism demands; routes that have led the world into the mess we are in. So, to friend or foe the message is the same: a driving license is not enough. The world needs vision far more than vanity, and we need it quickly.
Those offering anything less are barely fit to be on the bus, let alone in charge of it.
(Former MP for Nottingham South, 1992-2010. Now a freelance advisor and campaigner on energy and climate policies).
* ‘2052’ – Jorgen Randers (et al), Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012