Where is Australia's Jeremy Corbyn?

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Jeremy Corbyn Glastonbury speech (screen shot via independent.co.uk).

As Britain comes to terms with its biggest political crisis since the miners’ strikes of the 1970s the world is waking up to Jeremy Corbyn. He is being hailed as a socialist messiah. Political editor Dr Martin Hirst wants to know where’s our Jeremy?

BRITISH LABOUR LEADER Jeremy Corbyn has achieved rock star status in the UK, where he gave a radical speech to a crowd of 120,000 cheering music fans and the British ruling class is worried.

One of my Facebook friends described Corbyn’s speech at Glastonbury as the reawakening of English socialism, not seen since the days of Marx and Engels.

That might be a slight exaggeration, but Corbyn has certainly ignited a welcome spark of resistance to austerity, the Tories and capitalism. Now the search has begun to find our local saviour.

I’ve been quite bemused by speculation on the Australian Left about who might be “our” Jeremy Corbyn. A number of names have been put forward, but none of them is a viable contender in my view.

The most obvious nominee to the role is Anthony Albanese of the NSW Labor Left faction. But Albo does not aspire to be our Jeremy. He has publicly said he doesn’t want the job and that he thinks Corbyn is too left wing. Albo is actually totally unsuited to being the Aussie Jeremy. Corbyn has been an activist all his life, even while in Parliament. Albo is a grey suit in a lobby of grey suits who poses as a cool DJ on weekends. Albo is a dud.

This week, another likely candidate popped up but one with even less left credentials than Albanese. Queensland MP Wayne Swan has made vaguely pro-worker statements to the ACTU conference this week, but his rhetoric falls far short of Corbyn’s. Swan has also attempted to boost his standing with the Labor Left by meeting with Bernie Sanders, but he also met International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials on the same trip. Swan’s “revolution” is really just a fig leaf for more business as usual politics.

If not Albanese or Swan, then who else from the ALP Left is a possibility to lead Labor out of the wilderness into the promised land of parliamentary socialism? It’s not an overly long, or impressive list. Senator Doug Cameron would be at the head of the queue, but he’s shown no inclination to “do a Jeremy” and take on the centre-right leadership of Bill Shorten. Other senior members of the Left faction have, similarly, not been inclined to adopt Corbyn’s left-wing rhetoric.

The absence of a suitable Corbynite candidate within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labor Caucus is one reason why lefties shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for Albanese, Cameron, or one of the Left women (Louise Pratt, for example), to lead any kind of leftward charge, march, or even stroll in the park towards a more robust and combative social democracy.

No, the consensus among ALP Parliamentarians is to keep their heads down, hug to the centre line of Australian politics, not upset the Hansonite racists over refugees or Islam and just wait for Turnbull to fall over. This is not much of a strategy — unless you consider Steven Bradbury’s come-from-behind Olympics ice-skating win to be a strategy.

Sadly, the current crop of potential Corbyns in the Labor Caucus is undernourished, anaemic and weak. So, those hoping for a saviour to reignite the “light on the hill” and return a left(ish) Labor Government, will have to adjust their timeline of hope and look outside of Parliament to find their leader.

The obvious choice here is current ACTU secretary Sally McManus. She is clearly to the left of Bill Shorten and she’s not afraid to use a more militant form of reformist language to get her point across. McManus has become the popular public face of resistance to penalty rate cuts imposed on hospitality and retail workers by the COALition. This is obviously welcomed by progressives and trade unionists inside and outside the ALP and it does give McManus some credibility in the “be our Jeremy” hunt.

The hurdle for McManus is that she’s not yet in Parliament. No problem really just delays things a little. McManus could well be in Canberra after the next election. She could be parachuted into a safe Labor seat between now and then. However, once there, McManus would be expected to serve her time on the backbench and so on. I wouldn’t think McManus is slated to be Labor leader for another decade yet. By then, she may well have mellowed into someone much more acceptable to the centrists and factional leaders.

The charming and exciting thing about Corbyn is that despite decades inside the British Labour Party he has not abandoned his Parliamentary socialist principles. Few in the Australian Labor Party hold to or even seem to believe in these ideals any more.

Given the seemingly terminal lack of effective left opposition and movement for change inside the ALP, can a Corbyn figure come from somewhere else?

Perhaps, Bernie Sanders is nominally independent of the Democratic Party in the USA, but he works with them and was close to being endorsed as the party’s presidential candidate. However, it is telling that in the American context, the most leftwing candidate did not do very well because she stands outside the two-party mainstream. The Green candidate in 2016, Dr Jill Stein, was not able to mobilise discontent to the same extent that Sanders, and Corbyn seem to act as lightning rods for anger and resentment among youth and disaffected groups — which we should note are getting larger and now number most women among their ranks.

The Australian equivalent of a Jill Stein may well be the NSW Greens Senator, Lee Rhiannon. She is outspoken, has the right political pedigree and some semblance of Marxist politics. However, Rhiannon is under fire within her own party for being too leftwing and her support is isolated to the NSW branch of the Greens Party.

If, as seems possible, the Greens split over the left-right divide between Rhiannon and some of her colleagues, the task of building a new political formation (perhaps a merger between the Rhiannon faction and Socialist Alliance) will need to be prioritised. This may well include campaigning on a more leftwing agenda (maybe even toying with re-nationalising some major assets).

However, any realistic assessment would have to conclude that the task of building a new, independent leftwing force (a progressive One Nation?) may well be beyond the resources of Rhiannon’s supporters.

If, as looks likely, Rhiannon is expelled from the Greens, or resigns, a more left-leaning green party may emerge, but it will be tiny, likely confined to Sydney and with few resources to help it grow beyond that base.

The internal fight within the Greens also means we can rule out Richard Di Natale, or any of the other Greens (including Adam Bandt) rushing to claim the Jeremy mantle.

Beyond the Greens, I’ve heard mention that one or two senior members of the grouping Socialist Alliance could be our potential Jeremy. I must admit I laughed and shook my head at this suggestion. Socialist Alliance regularly stands candidates for State and Federal elections — they always lose their deposit.

Socialist Alliance does have one local councillor in Melbourne — hardly a platform to launch a rejuvenation of the Australian Left, let alone capture the Labor Party. For a start, the ALP doesn’t let members of Socialist Alliance or other left groups have dual membership. It’s hard to take over a party from the outside.

The non-ALP left in Australia is far too small and marginalised to produce a Jeremy Corbyn right now and the Labor Party’s own Left have been rejecting Corbyn-style politics for months. If the Labor Party Left doesn’t even want to put forward its own Jeremy, what hope is there that such a figure could somehow spontaneously emerge from the rank-and-file?

No chance.

No chance at all.

The Labor Party has been deradicalised. The Left has not been strong inside the ALP for decades, the membership is in decline and it is ageing. The Labor "Left" is a faction tied together by two things: the first is ambition (lefties want that safe seat and pension too), the second is that they would be in the Right faction if the Right faction wasn’t quite so horrible to women and gays.

In other words, the leftism of the Labor Left is "left" because it’s not "right". The ALP Left is about as left as your left arm when compared to your right. It is essentially the same thing.

This is the real reason we don’t have a Jeremy Corbyn to cheer for.

Structurally, the ALP has become a party of neoliberalism and wedded to the same Blairite principles as the British Labour factions who have been undermining Corbyn for the past year and who said he was “unelectable”. Even the most left of Labor apparatchiks are in a bind over Corbyn.

Two years ago, they were cheering him, but in the lead up to the UK election, they damned him.

The ALP left doesn’t know how to react to, learn from or even be pale imitations of Corbyn. At the moment, the Labor Left couldn’t produce a Jeremy even if it wanted to. They don’t.

You see, Jeremy Corbyn did not spring fully-formed into the public spotlight from a few specks of dust in the primordial political swamp. Corbyn is the product of years, if not decades, of work by various left groupings inside British Labour. He stands in a tradition going back to the early 1980s when Tony Benn led the last left revival in UK Labour.

Corbyn has a movement behind him. He has organisers and activists within the Momentum grouping which have been working for two years on building his profile and campaign. Thousands of young people have joined UK Labour and the party is going through something of a resurgence.

This has upset the Blairite faction, which for now has been forced to STFU, but which hates Corbyn more than the Tories.

A Blairite (rightwing) ethos permeates the ALP — there are no forces inside Labor that are agitating to build a leftwing movement like Momentum.

This, rather than the lack of suitable candidates (at least in terms of personal characteristics, if not profile), is the reason why we are still searching for our Jeremy because the Labor left is incapable of building anything like Momentum.

So, what to do?

Well, I’m not sitting on my arse waiting for socialism to be delivered by a Corbynesque figure in a white Comcar, even if it chucks wheelies in the carpark.

Corbyn’s rise is the result of work from the ground up both inside and outside the Labour Party. I’m not about to join the ALP, nor do I suggest you do; but I am going to continue being a socialist agitator and activist, building a movement for change.

If an Aussie Corbyn comes along and gives the movement some new energy I will be an enthusiastic though still very critical supporter, even if it’s Albo.

You can follow political editor Doc Martin on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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