Lessons for ALP in UK Labour fightback



Teresa May totters while Jeremy Corbyn smiles on

The result of the British election should produce seismic change in Australian politics. But it almost certainly won’t.

The pundits are now shaking their heads and dolefully agreeing that Theresa May ran a terrible campaign. But, until recently, those same pundits were awed by May's strategic nous, agreeing that, by going to the polls early, the Conservatives had cunningly exploited Labor's disarray.

The National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty declared the Tory party 'an electoral juggernaut with revolutionary potential', marvelling at how its leader was 'outfoxing her opponents on all sides and gaining in popularity', while the Guardian's Matthew D'Ancona lauded May's manifesto as reflecting 'an intelligence, ambition and opposition to populist simplicity'.

May's campaign wasn't terrible. It became terrible because of Corbyn. By canvassing at the grassroots, where he attracted bigger crowds than any prime minister since Churchill, Corbyn made May's deliberate presidential aloofness look arrogant and then cowardly and, eventually (when she sent home secretary Amber Rudd to debate in her place), downright bizarre.

More importantly, Labour's old-fashioned social democratic manifesto wrongfooted both the Tories and the media. Suddenly, the paucity of May's program became evident. What did the Conservatives stand for? They were for fox hunting, they were for defeating the IRA, they were for pre-emptive nuclear strikes — and that was about it.

According to the conventional wisdom, the terrorist attacks in the final weeks of the campaign should have derailed Corbyn as comprehensively as 9/11 and the Tampa crisis shattered Kim Beazley in 2001. Again, though, Corbyn flipped the script.

By raising the hitherto unthinkable suggestion that the War on Terror might be failing, he reframed the national security debate until the Conservatives were on the defensive about their unswerving support for the Saudi autocrats. Corbyn managed all of this despite an unrelentingly hostile media.


"Corbyn appealed to the young and the disengaged not by being sincere or frugal but through his program: breaking with the austerity consensus, targeting the rich, and promising to transform the lives of ordinary people. Politics, in other words, not values."


A study by academics at the London School of Economics showed that an astonishing 75 per cent of news articles in the first months after Corbyn became leader misrepresented him. On election eve, the Daily Mail devoted no less than 13 pages to denouncing Corbyn as an apologist for terror, the culmination of a relentless smear campaign that saw him almost perennially in the redtops as a communist, an Islamist and a Fenian.

Meanwhile, the 'quality press', and most of the left pundits, savaged Corbyn as an embarrassing throwback, a scruffy ideologue who'd keep Labour from office for a generation. Guardian columnist Nick Cohen's advice to Corbyn supporters conveys the general tenor of liberal commentary. 'In my respectful opinion,' he wrote, 'your only honourable response will be to stop being a fucking fool by changing your fucking mind.'

The hostility from so-called progressives reflected the unremitting opposition emanating from within Corbyn's own party. 'If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader,' explained Tony Blair in a 2015 column, 'it won't be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.'

The Labour rank-and-file voted for Corbyn anyway — and Blair's acolytes redoubled their efforts to destroy him through public resignations, leadership challenges and constant sledging. Chanel Four News compiled a supercut of party leaders explaining to journalists their disdain for Corbyn, a relentless stream of men in suits repeating the same Blairite talking points about chaos, electability and a return to the chaos of the 70s.

Insofar as Laborites in Australia took notice of Corbyn, they drew similar conclusions. In the 2015 piece in Fairfax from Nicholas Reece, the one-time secretary of the Victorian ALP and policy adviser to Julia Gillard, Steve Bracks and John Brumby expressed the conventional wisdom. 'Make no mistake,' Reece opined, 'Corbyn's win is a disaster for Labour in Britain. Former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have declared him unelectable. The unanimous view of political professionals and everyday Britons I spoke to this week is that Labour will now spend a very long time in opposition.' Longtime Labor powerbroker Stephen Loosley offered a similar progrnosis, decreeing Corbyn 'as close to unelectable as it is possible to be' and endorsing Blair's suggestion that Labour might be finished as a party.

Long before the Blairite era, the Hawke/Keating years had pushed Labor in a very New Labour direction. Shorten's strategy against Turnbull rests on the wisdom now etched in Labor's DNA: make yourself a small target, repeat simple, centrist messages honed in focus groups, court the conservative press, don't let yourself get wedged on national security and immigration, and you'll slide into office as a more palatable, more efficient version of the Liberals.

So what happens now that Corbyn's offered a different approach? Will it change everything?

In a piece for the Monthly, Sam Dastyari — who campaigned for Labour in Britain — suggests that Corbyn proves that values matter. 'You can't be about "nothing",' he concludes. 'Theresa stood for nothing. Jeremy stood by his values. In the battle between nothing and something, something will always do well.'

No doubt values played some part. In the wake of the 2009 revelations about the huge expenses claims from MPs used to pay second mortgages and renovate homes, voters discovered that Corbyn had claimed only nine pounds: reimbursement for an ink cartridge.

But, at the end of the day, Corbyn appealed to the young and the disengaged not by being sincere or frugal but through his program: breaking with the austerity consensus, targeting the rich, and promising to transform the lives of ordinary people. Politics, in other words, not values.

Dastyari claims that Corbyn embodied a rejection of the status quo and the establishment. Again, that's true. But what does it mean? Corbyn's been an activist all his life. He campaigned against the British occupation of Northern Ireland; he marched against apartheid; he sat on the steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition and organised demonstrations against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. His much-vaunted 'authenticity' wasn't a matter of making a funny video about halal snack packs or playing some bangers during a DJ gig.

If Corbyn seemed like an outsider, it was because he was one, a man who nearly went to jail for his activism against the Poll Tax and was placed under surveillance for decades by both MI5 and the Special Demonstration Squad. There's simply no-one within the ALP with a comparable record. On the contrary, the conflict with the Greens means that the leaders of the Labor Left distinguish themselves as much by attacking radicalism as espousing it, as per of Anthony Albanese winning the Daily Telegraph's endorsement after warning that a vote for his Green rival Jim Casey constituted 'a vote to abolish capitalism'.


"Labor's long been protected from a rank-and-file revolt by a very sturdy Corbyn-proof fence."


Could a Corbyn emerge from the Labor rank and file instead? As it happens, Nicholas Reece already addressed that question, declaring that Corbyn's elevation to the Labour leadership illustrated the dangers of embracing participatory structures. '[T]he efforts to democratise Australian parties in the direction of British Labour are likely to hit a new roadblock,' he explained. '[N]obody who is interested in electoral success will agree to reform that could elect a Corbyn.' To put it another way, Labor's long been protected from a rank-and-file revolt by a very sturdy Corbyn-proof fence.

In the coming weeks, we might expect to hear much musing about that mysterious quality known as 'authenticity' from the Labor hierarcy as well as, perhaps, faint echoes of Corbynite rhetoric. Already, Bill Shorten cited the phrase 'for the many, not the few' in a press conference, warning Turnbull about the unpopularity of tax cuts to millionaires. But that example in itself highlights the limits of the election's influence on Australian Labor. For, while Corbyn embraced 'the many, not the few' slogan, the catchcry actually originated with Tony Blair, with the words still adorning the webpage of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

The fight for the soul of the British party might have seemed like an argument about tactics, about the best way to achieve shared goals. In reality, though, the clash between the Blairites and the Corbynistas related to ends as much as means, with Blair striving for a neoliberal politics predicated on the destruction of the Labourite socialism that Corbyn espoused.

When Corbyn invoked the many against the few, he did so while advocating free education, the renationalisation of utilities and a break from the US alliance. By contrast, Blair coined the phrase in a speech where he urged listeners to put behind them 'the bitter political struggles of left and right that have torn our country apart for too many decades. Many of these conflicts have no relevance whatsoever to the modern world — public versus private, bosses versus workers, middle class versus working class.' We all know which version sits closer to Shorten's heart.

That's why, in Australia, Corbynism won't change anything much in mainstream politics. Rather, Labour's electoral fightback will resonate most outside the Labor Party, inspiring those activists seeking something more than the replacement of one career politician with another. Writing for Vice, Sam Kriss captures the sentiment nicely:

'The bloodless, hopeless, senseless centrists tried to perform a kind of magic of their own — for two long years, they insisted that Corbyn was unelectable, and they thought that saying it as frequently and bitterly as possible would turn it into fact. But they missed something. What they repeated were just nostrums, the weary recitation of how things are. What we've all learned from the election last night is that how things are is not the same as how they will always be. People can overturn every certainty imposed on us. The world is ours to change.'


Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, UK election



submit a comment

Existing comments

Corbyn's Labor Party didn't win the election by a long chalk. Agree that the result will not cause a 'seismic change' in Australian politics considering it didn't in England. The problem with the politicians in both countries is that they are simply playing silly-bugger, children's standard combat games with all their contrived strategies and have forgotten that they are supposed to govern the country. Thank God the public can see that and given the chance at the polls delivers the best messages of all, few of which the game-playing pollies seem to understand. They continue playing for the team and themselves and don't give a fig about the job they are elected to perform.
john frawley | 12 June 2017

It's interesting that a majority of young people voted for Corbyn. To some old guard politicians, such as Blair, abandoning nuclear weapons may be unthinkable, as would be rethinking the US alliance. Blair being the man who took Britain into Iraq as an ally of the much mislead George W Bush, I don't think he has much street cred with young people. If I were a Scot I'd be terrified that all the UK's Trident missiles are based in a Scottish loch not that far from Glasgow. Interestingly again, Labour did extremely well in Scotland, dealing a heavy blow to the SNP. Scottish independence, a bit like some of the policies favoured by our Greens, seems marginal to the main game, which is achieving a better and more equitable life for most people. I have little doubt, if the rules for electing the party leader in Australia were similar to those in the UK, we would have a very different Labor leadership, not necessarily composed of GPS Old Boys. Interestingly, Corbyn is not a university graduate, but he is extremely intelligent. He gets the people's pulse. How many of our politicians do?
Edward Fido | 12 June 2017

Great work Jeff, well said.
Brendan O'Reilly | 12 June 2017

Thanks Jeff for insightful view. Sadly I think that you are right- ALP unlikely to rise to the Corbynista challenge. Instead our ALP centrist scared clinging to conservative barnacle for dear life. Their problem is "us- the people". We see what they have promised and what we actually get is no clear direction on environment, support for inhumane brutal treatment of refugees, meaningless tokenism on aboriginal rights, kowtowing to business and closed door to the people. Many of our children face insecure employment, unaffordable housing, rising power prices and education costs which will hang around their necks as a burden.
Pamela | 13 June 2017

This is the kind of crystal-clear thinking which is all-too rare in mainstream commentary. I remember that in the wake of the 2015 UK election the very right-wing (oh, sorry, 'centrist') Leigh Sales asked a dubious (Australian) pollster what lessons there might be for the ALP in the UK result. (Hint, hint: the ALP is far too left.) Never mind that the 2015 UK election result represented a total collapse of the centre. This time around the Brits were given a choice, and had Corbyn not started from such a long way back, John Frawley, the result would have given the English-speaking world such a shake that even you would have noticed it. Well done, Jeff!
Tim Battin | 13 June 2017

'But, at the end of the day, Corbyn appealed to the young and the disengaged not by being sincere or frugal but through his program: breaking with the austerity consensus, targeting the rich, and promising to transform the lives of ordinary people. Politics, in other words, not values.' Firstly, I would question Jeff's argument that Corbyn is politically adept, rather than a values person. Corbyn's unwavering support for the Republican cause in Northern Ireland, against the deep-seated prejudices of his compatriots, illustrates the values-based guts, if not the foolhardiness of the person, which appears to have paid off, particularly amongst the young, disenfranchised and better educated. Secondly, I simply don't understand Jeff's comparison, or is it contrast, between Corbyn and Shorten. Jeff assumes too much of his readers in saying this. Thirdly, Blair, despite his conversion to Catholicism, is an utterly discredited politician, whose mistruths about the UK's involvement in the Iraq War now ensure that he (Blair) has very little credibility.
Michael Furtado | 13 June 2017

Jeremy Corbin was being very sincere. His politics are a stand for fairness and social justice. May's politics, in contrast, are about maintaining the status quo - taking from the poor to give to the very wealthy and privileged. It is true that Corbin did not win, but his campaign has given the British class a great scare. May and the British Tories now has to rely on the extreme right wing of the extreme right wing and intolerant Democratic Unionist Party to stay in government. Maybe the lesson for the ALP out of all of this is that instead of behaving like an alternative conservative party like Tony Blair did as British PM and a number of ALP leaders have in Australia, they should show clearly that they are going to stand for peace, fairness at home and abroad, social justice, human rights and effective care of the environment. Amongst other things, this will mean building a free, independent and non-aligned Australia.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 13 June 2017

Great article. Thanks. Like most of my friends, I have long given up on the ALP in Australia. The relentless attacks on Corbyn in the Guardian have made me lose my respect for that paper. If only commentators and journalists would get off the neo liberal train and realise there are other options. Jeremy Corbyn has emodied this and that's why the media hate him.
Vivienne | 13 June 2017

I believe that there is a difference between Britain and the other English-speaking democracies (including Australia) in this regard. In Britain, there is still a significant body of white, Anglo, working-class people who identify with the political "left". In the other English-speaking democracies (Australia, the USA, Canada, NZ, and Ireland), white, Anglo working-class people are rapidly moving rightwards. Progressive political values in these nations tend to be the province of educated, middle-class professionals, for whom issues of racial and cultural inclusion are far more important than issues of economic equality.
Bob Faser | 13 June 2017

Corbin lost. Labour has 50 plus less seats than the Conservatives. A better Labour leader may have won given May's 'dementia tax' which should have cost the Conservatives the 60 plus vote.
Angela | 13 June 2017

It is becoming increasingly clear that everything evolves. Usually from simple starts, which contain some essential ingredient which needed to be passed on, not necessarily in its exact form, but in an elevated way, so as to enable it to function on a higher level, as with the properties of the Porphyrian tree. One obstacle to such progress is Conservatism, which tries to preserve the status quo, so as to maintain the privileges enjoyed by those favoured by the traditional structures, when most people were less well educated and means of communication were undeveloped. This is particularly true in the fields of commerce, politics and Religion. Updating is urgently needed. in all these areas, and needs to be done wisely, and gradually, so as to avoid catastrophic seismic shifts.
Robert Liddy | 13 June 2017

Not enough attention has been given to the UK electoral system. Voting is not compulsory. Winner is decided on First past the post. There is no razza ma tazz at the polling booths. These factors have a big influence on the way campaigns are run. And won or lost. Corbyn's party lost. So did the anti-Corbynites within it.
Uncle Pat | 13 June 2017

Great article Jeff Sparrow. I've been in fits of despair over last few years with mainstream media - if you'd relied on them you be hard pressed to know B. Sanders and Mr Corbyn existed, as even RN wasted hours of time, whenever the time for chatting about US elections and English partys' leadership came up, tittering over some twerp's idiot tweets.
Jaq Spratt | 13 June 2017

As a number of correspondents point out, UK and Australia are different in much of recent history and social development. We did not have a major recession and huge public bailout debt caused by criminally negligent banks (though no bank oligarchs more went to jail or even suffered financially
Eugene | 13 June 2017

As number of correspondents have pointed out , UK and Australia are different in politics and recent economic and social events. We have now had our banks go bust resulting in a huge public bailout, enormous consequential debt and enforced austerity and recession to claw it back. Needless to say no criminally negligent bank oligarch went to jail nor lost their own formidable wealth; they are all mates of the establishment. So the impoverished 50% are very angry; thus huge Brexit and current anti-Tory protest votes, which have now created a hell of mess; but at least Brexit will now have to be a lot softer than May was touting in an inane election campaign that added insult to injury.But Australia should also learn some lessons: young people are rather frustrated at house prices (a massive shift of wealth from the relatively poor to the rich from low interest rates settings) but are not yet angry at the massive (half-trillion dollar) debt that the hubristic pollies of all parties and none have engineered for them to pay off in the not too distant future. But they, as well as those who have not benefitted from economic growth and are now going backwards due to lower growth and appalling energy policy (or lack there), will get very angry when the bill for all this mis-management does arrive. We will then see the same type of generational and class-driven mayhem at the ballot box.
Eugene | 13 June 2017

An essential prerequisite for Corbyn's elevation to leadership was the extension of the vote to all members. That will never happen here so long as the barons who run the ALP are still in place. They will never enfranchise the ordinary ALP member because that would threaten their hegemony of the top positions. What we need is a member-based truly democratic socialist party where the leaders are answerable to the members.
Ginger Meggs | 14 June 2017

Great article. It helps us lay ignoramI(!) to see the big picture global connections to our own scant understandings of our own nations politics.
sue | 15 June 2017


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up