Corbyn, Shearer, and Campaigning Against Austerity

The left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn was catapulted to leadership of the British Labour Party over the weekend, winning 59.9% of the vote after starting the race as a 100/1 outsider.  Corbyn’s anti-austerity campaign has challenged the Blairite establishment founded on copying and extending the pro-business, neoliberal policies of Thatcher and the Tories.  The waves have been felt far afield, even here.

Corybn’s win has sent shock waves through the British establishment. This isn’t how politics is supposed to work. He’s appealing to working people’s opposition to austerity; he is a known extra-parliamentary activist and campaigner and drew on social movements and the exciting sense that an alternative to pro-business politics exists; and he’s connecting. He wiped out the Blairites in Labour’s race. No wonder the knives are out for him in the newspapers – from the Guardian to the Times – as well as, no doubt, in the corridors of power, the bureaucracy and the Labour machine. Corbyn faces the fight of his life.

Commenting on social media ahead of the vote last Friday, former NZ Labour leader David Shearer castigated Corbyn for abandoning the political centre and steering the party to the left.  According to Shearer, Corbyn’s principled positions are no more than “academic discussion”.  “Too often we forget that being in government is the objective” comments Shearer “… the Conservatives are gleeful”.  Echoing the frenzied ravings of the conservative right, Shearer presents Corbyn as doing a disservice to “hard-working, decent Brits” – standing against business and corporate elites for the rights and interests of ordinary people – which in Shearer’s book makes one unelectable.

Perhaps it’s a sentiment that we should expect from Shearer.  He does after all hail from the same Labour Party as Helen Clark, who in a televised debate with John Key in 2008 declared that National and Labour “basically agree” on most issues.  David Shearer and Helen Clark, like Tony Blair and his followers in Britain are part of a generation of politicians that share a set of narrow assumptions about what is possible in politics.  Like the political right, they are contemptuous of ordinary people.  For them, politics is what happens in Wellington – ordinary citizens can wield no political power.  Hence the enthusiasm generated amongst hundreds of thousands people for Corbyn’s campaign is incomprehensible, or appears at best as a kind of Tory plot.

Of course, ordinary people can wield power.  Organised in our unions, or through demonstrations on the streets we’re able to challenge the vast accumulation of wealth by the rich and fight for a more just and equal world.  Unlike the Shearers of this world, it goes to show that when a Labour party politician poses a genuine opposition to the status quo people are willing to support them, and in their thousands. Several thousand people have joined Labour in the lead up to Corbyn’s victory, and tens of thousands since.

The space for the Corbyn campaign was created in 2010 and 2011, when hundreds of thousands of people went out on strike and demonstrated against austerity. It’s this sort of movement we need to create Aotearoa, to birth an alternative to staid politics of the centre and break the neoliberal consensus of Labour and National.