“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This perceptive quote from the final scene of The Dark Knight aptly describes the challenge currently facing the Labour leadership. Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory on September 12 afforded him hero status in the eyes of his many disciples and an aura of infallibility that has so far proved impervious to reason.
Yet it comes at a cost. Corbyn’s esteem demands constant renewal through ever greater acts of heroism. He has promised the faithful entry to a socialist utopia, and their belief is contingent on repeated evidence of his ideological purity. Hence why, when the ugliness of our reality bared itself on November 13 in Paris, his initial response was tailored towards them – the true believers – rather than towards the country he seeks to govern.
Corbyn knows he has to stay spotless in the eyes of the 251,000 who voted for him, as it is their zealotry alone that stands in the way of his would-be usurpers. Without them, Labour MPs would have few qualms about dispatching a leader who has gifted the Conservatives their greatest poll lead since January 2010. Each time he indulges in this obsequious form of virtue signalling, however, he raises the stakes for himself and makes it more likely that the next time reality strikes his leadership will crumble.
Take the Syria question. Corbyn has made it plain that he is opposed to military intervention in the region to defeat Islamic State. So far, so in line with his reputation as an unapologetic pacifist. However, events have conspired to complicate matters. Last Friday’s passage of UNSCR 2249, urging UN member states “to take all necessary measures…to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL,” fulfils Labour’s long-held demand that it would support air strikes in Syria in the event of international consensus. Corbyn’s response was equivocal. He spoke at Labour south-west conference of the need for an “urgent international effort” to end “the Syrian civil war- and end the threat from ISIS,” while keeping support for military action firmly off the table. He did not elaborate how ending the threat posed by ISIS could be achieved by jaw-jaw alone.
Public opinion is increasingly coming round to the idea of at least some form of intervention in Syria. When the inevitable Commons vote comes, what will Corbyn do?
Naturally, he will choose the course of action that prolongs his political survival – which means playing to his loyalist base. Corbyn will reiterate his opposition to any form of military intervention. The alternative would be for Corbyn to admit the world has changed, that the international community is united in tackling ISIS both militarily and diplomatically, and reverse his pacifist position. This is an impossible ask, however, as in doing so he would “become the villain” and fracture the precarious coalition of far-left sympathisers that make up his power base. One by one, they would cry “betrayal” and return to the splinter groups from whence they came. Much safer, then, for him to stay the course.
Eventually, though, he will have to yield in the face of events. ISIS will continue to terrorise the
civilised peoples of the world until they are stopped. It is naïve in the extreme, even for the far left, to believe there is a diplomatic solution to their abhorrent brand of war. To borrow another quote from The Dark Knight, “some people just want to watch the world burn.” So Corbyn will have to change his position and when that happens, the cries of “betrayal” will be all the louder for the fact he worked so hard to hold the pacifist line.
This is the problem with pursuing a political strategy based on your own infallibility. Sooner or later, the illusion fails. And when the happens, there is no protection from the wrath of the faithful - nor from those who were never true believers, and are all too happy to rub your nose in your hypocrisy.
Louie Woodall is a Young Fabian member