The Greasy Pole column from the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
As we were asked again and again, while one Westminster aspirant after another withered from their unnourished ambitions until Labour had only Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith left in contention for their party members’ votes – while the Tories were compelled to accept Theresa May and her deliberate technique of fostering or stifling the careers of her party underlings.
For Labour the conflict was particularly distressful; when Ed Miliband gave up the leadership there was a brood of competing successors – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Tristram Hunt … remember them? And those others, hoping that some rival’s spectacular failure would give them an opening. And the rest? One by one they were ground away until they were conclusively despatched by the simple, predictable process of the overwhelming votes of their party supporters for the hitherto obscure Jeremy Corbyn. Remember him? The locally popular MP who persistently voted against party instructions while stolidly grappling with the problems his constituency voters passed on to him? Who thereby amassed a formidable, unforeseen growth of simple popularity among the local people which infected the Party membership at large.
That was when David Cameron, deluded by expected success in the EU Referendum, revelled in stirring up his Back Benchers’ hysterical rapture with his corny jibes from the Despatch Box. Take your pick from a library of his feeble sallies. But somewhere among your choice will be the jibe about Ma Corbyn giving advice to Her Majesty’s Loyal Leader of the Opposition to pay more attention to adjusting the hang of his trousers, to smoothing his shirt front and to keeping his hair placidly combed. The Tories hungrily adored it. But it was actually ineffective.
Consider, to begin with, the matter of the Honourable Jacob William Rees-Mogg, son of a now-deceased life peer and editor of the Times. An offspring of a family who grew rich from the labour of Somerset people in their coalmines and who at school wallowed in the absorptions of Eton College before enriching himself in his City of London company by the name of Somerset Capital Management - the function of which needs little imagination. At the age of 38 Rees-Mogg failed to persuade the voters of the (at that time) obdurately Labour constituency of Central Fife to welcome him as their representative in Westminster by touring the poorer districts in what was said to be a Bentley car, accompanied by a woman who had been his ‘nanny’ during the luxury of his childhood in the family stately home. But there were other, less demanding constituencies and in the 2010 election he won the new North East Somerset constituency with a majority of almost 5000.
The point is that Jacob Rees –Mogg is also noted for being the very opposite of Jeremy Corbyn for his appearance, with his double breasted suit immaculately smooth and controlled, an appropriate tie and shirt and hair. How significant is this in relation to his performance? One of his campaigns as an MP was to legislate so that the county of Somerset should have its own time zone, 15 minutes behind London. He supports zero hours contracts for their ‘flexibility’, disregarding those desperate unemployed workers who have no choice but to conform to this additionally exploitative device. He is against same-sex marriage and in favour of state-financed repatriation of immigrants to return them to their ‘natural homelands’. And, in case it is not by now obvious, he describes himself as ‘a monarchist’. All of which emphasises that it is most urgently obvious that all leaders must be judged on matters other than their appearance.
And on that basis where does Jeremy Corbyn stand? There is no shortage of promises from him on every relevant problem. But then both of the big parties, as well as the smaller, equally squirreling, groups compete for votes with programmes which at first sight may offer straightforward strategies and foresight to adjust capitalist society into being problem free. This grim fact exists and flourishes despite the evidence conclusively against it. For example on the currently dominating matter of public disorder in reaction to the stress of urban life, Tim Newburn, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, who has a dominant reputation in the subject, spoke recently on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 riots: ‘The underlying conditions for those riots still persist… There’s no real sign that things have improved for the lives of the kinds of people who were involved and caught up in the riots. Certainly it’s not implausible that there could be more riots’. (Guardian 6 August). And amid this morbid chaos all those previous, short-lived hopefuls for the Labour Party leadership have been replaced by Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd.
Smith was first elected in 2010 and was allocated to a succession of Shadow Ministerships including as Secretary of State for Wales. Previously he had a career which included a spell as Head of Policy and Government Relations for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer – who, he ominously said, were ‘extremely supportive’ of his ambitions for political advancement. With this encouragement, during his first effort to get into Parliament at a by-election in 2006, he came out in support of the Private Financial Initiative in the NHS, with its promise of rich profits for private companies such as Pfizer. He was once a member of the CND, with typical reservations about the Trident programme but he later reversed this into support for that devastating weapon. During his campaign for the Party leadership he called for the constitution to refer specifically to tackling inequality ‘… right at the heart of everything that we do’ and he later announced this as ‘… a British New Deal for every part of Britain’. In terms of promises to reform the agonies of capitalism there is nothing novel or stimulating about Owen Smith. He is simply the latest in a history of futile, hopeless imposters
So how do we like our leaders? And how do they like us? We endure this social system – pervading, dominant and repressive – where one group possesses all that is essential to human lives. In this our function is to keep relationships operating in that way and, when we are allowed to express our response, to confirm that we support it all at whatever cost to human interests. In this the politicians’ role is to operate a machinery to persuade us that it would be impossible to have it any other way. But in truth we can change it so that the likes of Rees-Mogg, Corbyn, and Owen Smith are part of a bitter history.