The Wizard of Oz was – before its salvation via Judy Garland – a popular but cranky extended allegory for a niche conspiracy theory. L. Frank Baum – the creator of Oz and of Dorothy and of all those flying monkeys – is widely believed to have written his modern fairytale as a warning about the perils of abandoning the Gold Standard. In this interpretation -repeated here mostly because it is useful to this note’s purpose – the famous Wizard represented politicians, seeking to convince naive Americans of the power of the ‘greenback’ when, in the author’s view of things, without a gold backstop the dollar was worthless. Tricks and bluster and myth-making and theatre are used to make the Wizard seem big and strong and mighty; he is in reality none of these things.
Tortuously, then, we come to Jeremy Corbyn. The man who cruel critics dub ‘Magic Grandpa’ enters his 2018 Conference apparently untouchable. Who, now, would dare to declare that he will ‘never be Prime Minister’? Whose hubris will lead them once more to underestimate JC? And it is true that the threats he once faced have been vanquished for the foreseeable. There is no new Owen Smith waiting in the wings. Kinnockite fantasies no longer delude the PLP into moments of bravado and drama. And yet… and yet…
Last week at a meeting of the Labour Party’s ultimate decision-making committee, Jeremy Corbyn was defeated in a series of votes. One after the other, on issues related to the governance of Labour and the relative roles of various arcane but important posts and bodies, the supreme leader was told ‘no’. This comes just weeks after Corbyn – supposedly – had achieved full supremacy on the NEC. Momentum swept the board. Each and every of their candidates – even the demonstrable antisemite – was elected. Still Jeremy could not have his way.
Why? Well for a start because the trade unions have grown out of him, a bit. Now that there is no real ‘Blairite threat’ – except in the feverish nightmares of Chris Williamson MP and the equally fetid dreams of his enemy Chuka Umunna MP – the unions have begun to flex. Yes, they are with Corbyn and McDonnell’s economic strategy. No, they are not on the whole prepared to throw away any chance of government in ‘solidarity’ with Black September. The extinguishing of the Labour Right is real. It has created the space for a return to habitual, familial viciousness on the Left.
At conference, this same game was played out before the delegates even arrived. Both Jeremy Corbyn and his deputy (in name and rank, not in affiliation) gave interviews signalling their openness to a referendum on Mrs. May’s Brexit Deal. Watson is from Labour’s old, non-Blairite Right. On the whole that group wishes to respect, with sadness, the original referendum result – not least because their members, mates and siblings voted for it en mass. Corbyn, an old Bennite who hopes that Brexit will lead to fully automated luxury communism, isn’t super keen on a re-run either. Yet they both nodded at the possibility. Why? Because they both know that it is what the members want. Labour members – new and old – really want a referendum on Europe. And neither Watson nor Corbyn could overrule the emboldened, internal victory-drunk membership in open battle if they wanted to. For the record, allegiances aside, Watson would not want to. Corbyn, however, would.
So, there we are. Corbyn reigns supreme. His emerald city cowers before him. But when it comes to the crunch it often looks like the puff of smoke and mirrors. Keep an eye on that ‘People’s Vote’ debate. If there is more to Corbyn’s grip on the party than there was on the Wizard’s mayoralty of Oz, then he will find a way of wriggling out of it. If there isn’t, if he ends up bound by a vote to support a referendum then that is huge news for the U.K. and for the likely end- game of Brexit. But it is also a peak behind the curtain. If he ends up with a plebiscite as his policy… well, he ain’t the Wizard he says he is.
Either way, one thinks of the Scarecrow, making his way to Oz with a wisdom that he didn’t know he had. “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?” he asked. It’s hard to know how one might answer, politely.