The Blog

Tribalism, Blair and Corbyn

If a week is a long time in politics, six weeks can be an eternity; but if Corbyn can stay the course, he may well be the outsider who leads his tribe and his country to a better future.

A lot of my thoughts have been about tribalism lately. It's an impetus that is deeply human, to surround ourselves with those who, in some ways, act in loco familias; and indeed, the adage that 'blood is thicker than water' is possibly at the heart of this in some way. I've been thinking about the tribes I attach myself to personally: the tribe of the artist, the yogi, the writer. I've been watching the series 'Sons of Anarchy' which is deeply steeped in the fierce tribalism of the biker communities in California. Whether it's our actual families, or the families we create, personal and/or professional, the idea of an interlocutor coming in and upturning all that we hold dear, whether it is for our highest good or not, goes to something at the core of ourselves that is so visceral that, against all logic and evidence to the contrary, our primal impulse is to defend our tribe.

There is something like the stench of that going on in the Labour Party currently. Blairism is an ideology that has had its day, and yet its entrenched disciples are clinging on. It's been incredible to witness them: Cooper, Kendall and Burnham toeing the Party line on austerity, with Burnham trying to simultaneously justify it; frontbenchers openly declaring that they would not serve under Corbyn, effectively attempting to undermine his leadership bid. In truth, these declarations are shameful and bullying, but seem to be wholly endorsed by the party and its former leader, King Tony. So much so has witnessing this blatant and partisan behaviour shocked and amused me that I've coined a new term for it: Blairmongering.

The lack of any clarity of thought on the actual legacy of Blairism within the party and where that has left the PLP is something that deeply troubles me, and I'm sure, many others. There is no doubting the political talent that Blair had - and wilfully squandered. The ability to win three elections and lead as Britain's longest serving Prime Minister is evidence of this. The ability to take the successes of his predecessors and colleagues (Northern Ireland is a prime example) and appropriate them as his own showed a canny politician with political savvy and one eye on the history books. However, the last time he won an election was 2005, ten years ago, and we are living in a very different era politically and socially in the age of austerity. The fact that he resigned in 2007 may be down more to political survivalist instincts and the writing on the wall internally within the party. It certainly seemed timely. Somehow I doubt if Blair would be capable of winning an election in the current climate; and certainly, his financial assistance and keen inclination to still be seen as a player did not lead them to victory in 2015. The evidence is stark in that regard.

One of the most curious statements about Corbyn came from Blair himself, and to me, it is indicative of the tribalistic hurdle that the PLP needs to overcome in order to be a truly effective Opposition and potential party of government. He said, and I quote "So let me make my position clear: I wouldn't want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn't take it." Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn't take it. It is clear from this statement that the neoliberal, Tory-lite agenda is what matters most to Blair and the Labour Party, and it is this agenda that is simultaneously sounding the death-knell of the party. That a grandee of the Party openly admits that he would rather lose the seat of government rather than be proven wrong is a very revealing statement, both on a personal and political level, and that sabotage must not be underestimated.

Let me be clear: I'm not in total agreement with Corbyn on everything. Being Irish, I think he is wrong on a united Ireland at the present time, for the purely financial reasons of security and the Loyalist question. I'm also slightly sceptical about the virtues of re-nationalising energy companies, purely on the basis of potential monopolies that could ensue which would drive down competition. However, these are small quibbles, and there is much to agree on with him: fair taxation, closing corporate loopholes, access to free education, a focus on investment in manufacturing, the end to austerity which has been proven to be ideologically vacuous. These are not radical, hard-left policies; these are policies which are necessary to economic resuscitation. Effectively, now is the time for the needs of the many to be placed above the needs of the few, if only because capitalism requires consumption. If people do not have money, they will not consume, and the economic wheels will grind to a halt, which in hugely simplified terms has been the trend and outcome of the last 5 years.

There is also sufficient evidence to indicate that he has been ahead of the game on a number of issues in his career: opposing apartheid, support for Saddam Hussein; advocating for gay rights and talks with Sinn Féin. One of my favourite sayings is from 'Le Petit Prince' by Saint-Éxupery which is 'That which is essential is invisible to the eye'. It is a very unique quality in a person, never mind a politician, to have this sort of sight - to see that which is not immediately apparent or popular. That, aligned with his personal integrity in living his values - he is currently the MP with the lowest expense claims in the UK - no mean feat as MP in affluent Islington! And voted against the recent Welfare bill, along with a minority of Labour MPs - should make him the ideal Labour candidate. It says more about the current state of the Labour party and how far right it has travelled under New Labour that his popularity is so violently opposed.

And it is here we get to the truth of the destructive nature of tribalism, and how people will abandon all principles and rational thought to protect their tribe. As a plan for the Westminster elite, it has backfired dramatically. By its attempts at isolation and bullying, the majority of Labour MPs have shown that their loyalty is more to the spectre of Blair and his legacy than their constituents. By remaining sanguine about the attacks on him personally and professionally, both by the party and certain sections of the media, Corbyn is emerging increasingly not just as a choice for leader, but as the only real choice for leader of his party.

While certain elements grumble about him not being able to win the election in 2020, they miss the point that the party itself will not survive another five years of indifferent, unfocused leadership and Miliblandness in the next election, and without strong and clear leadership the party is on course to go the way of the Liberal Democrats. If a week is a long time in politics, six weeks can be an eternity; but if Corbyn can stay the course, he may well be the outsider who leads his tribe and his country to a better future.