Speaking to friends outside of the UK it is hard to convey the sheer weirdness of what looks likely to be Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the race to become the leader of the British Labour Party on September 12. Comparisons are often made between Corbyn’s campaign and Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic nomination. However, Corbyn is significantly to the left of Sanders and is the firm favourite, whereas Sanders is highly unlikely to be able to prevent the eventual nomination of Hilary Clinton. So spooked is the Labour Party by the prospect of a Corbyn victory that leading figures have floated preparations for a legal challenge and a post-election coup. And the party has sought to prevent thousands of (mostly mythical) “trotskyist entryists” and other non-Labour supporters from voting.
Corbyn’s views on many political questions are well to the left of the ideological parameters of mainstream debate in the UK. He favours nationalisation of parts of Britain’s transport network and public utilities (policies that are supported by a majority of even Conservative voters, but that are anathema to the media and the political class in Britain’s post-democracy). He is against the renewal of Trident – the UK’s submarine-based nuclear weapon system, has consistently opposed Anglo-American military intervention abroad and favours Labour abandoning its acceptance of the necessity of deep spending cuts. Causing consternation in the City of London Corbyn proposes what he calls ‘People’s Quantitive Easing’: the use of QE to directly fund infrastructure rather than solely as a crisis measure for rescuing the financial sector following a crash.
The success of Corbyn’s campaign is even more confounding when one considers the situation of just four months ago. Labour lost the May 7 general election in large part due to failing to energise its working class base with a firm anti-austerity line (the possibilities for which the SNP demonstrated with their crushing victory in Scotland). Yet the mass media and most of Labour’s leadership quickly fixed on Ed Miliband’s imaginary left-wing extremism as an explanation for Labour’s defeat. That narrative was buttressed by the success of the xenophobic UK Independence Party which, coupled with the Conservative victory, supposedly revealed the English electorate as incorrigibly right-wing thereby necessitating that the next Labour leader double down on Blairite triangulation. After May 7 the mood on the British left was apocalyptically bleak.
Corbyn’s nomination for Labour leader hardly seemed to portend a revolt on the part of the Labour party’s marginalised and demoralised left. He only received the required 35 parliamentary nominations thanks to being ‘lent’ nominations from Labour MPs who had no desire actually to see him win.
Like virtually everyone on the UK far left I had assumed that any popular movement opposing the neoliberal consensus would develop outside of the Labour Party. Instead it seems that, however improbably, Britain’s Podemos moment is occurring within one of Europe’s historic social democratic parties. This is most likely a reflection of the forbidding difficulties of building a viable third party in a first-past-the-post electoral system. Corbyn has nonetheless been helped greatly by the ideological bankruptcy of his opponents: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. While their predictable line of attack has been to paint Corbyn as the avatar of an outmoded politics (a charge not without some merit) they themselves are trapped in the politics of the mid-90s. With some variations the strategy of Corbyn’s three opponents is to cleave closer to the Tories, offer neoliberalism with a marginally more human face and hope that an economic downturn plays into their hands in 2020.
It is worth thinking about why Tony Blair’s strategy of triangulation worked in 1997 and why, absent a fresh financial crash, it is unlikely to do so in 2020. In 1997, the Conservatives had been in power for 18 years, they were immensely unpopular, riven by internal disputes over Europe and mired in sleaze and corruption. Importantly they were also strongly identified with a social conservatism that to some extent they have since abandoned. This was the Tory party of Section 28, the Tory party of a kind of open racism it no longer indulges in to quite the same degree (at least at the rhetorical level) and a party extremely hostile to popular youth culture. Moreover following Black Wednesday the party had lost its ill-deserved reputation for economic competence. To some extent by the early 90s, the neoliberal strategy of the Tory Party of the 1980s had simply run its course. That strategy consisted of promising a return to the social conservatism of the 1950s while simultaneously promoting economic reforms that atomised British society. Those reforms laid the basis for a type of capitalism that was comfortable with a plethora of fresh socio-cultural identities and would use the proliferation of those new identities as the basis for a more advanced consumer capitalism. By 1997 the stage was set for a new regime that would combine free market dogma with greater social liberalism. In this context, it was relatively easy for Tony Blair and New Labour to present themselves as apostles of modernity (the only position from which the Labour party has ever actually won elections). Plainly the basis for such a strategy no longer exists yet the undead of New Labour have shown themselves to be singularly unable to face the new political reality.
If the Labour establishment is unready for the future, the worry is that the same, for different reasons, might be said of Corbyn. As Jeremy Gilbert notes, there is a great deal to like about Corbyn’s program but much of it reads as a plan to restore the British social contract as it was circa 1975. Of course in the context of neoliberal assault on the remnants of the welfare state Corbyn’s agenda is undeniably radical but it has two problems. Firstly, it ignores the very real defects of the welfare state and the publicly owned industries of the 1970s and secondly it threatens to cede the ground of modernity to Corbyn’s opponents.
British public institutions in the 1950s were in many respects preferable to the fragmented, money-starved and partially marketized institutions of today. However, they were nonetheless bureaucratic, paternalistic institutions with minimal democratic participation that existed in a context of extreme social conservatism and deference. This was well understood by the New Left of the 60s that sought not merely to maintain the beneficial aspects of the welfare state. They aimed to go further and democratise public institutions so that ordinary people would become active democratic participants in those systems rather than simply passive recipients of state aid.
In part, the conservative neoliberal project succeeded because it was able to use real dissatisfaction with the post-war settlement to build neoliberal society. Pivoting off the public’s desire for greater freedom neoliberalism offered ‘consumer choice’ as an alternative to participatory democracy thereby extending market relations throughout the public sector in the name of liberty and consumer sovereignty. If Corbyn wants to succeed, he must not be seen to be offering merely a return to the social democratic past but rather he should be offering the prospect of real public empowerment and popular control.
A second concern regarding Corbyn is his attachment not just to the programmatics of Old Labour but to its strategy too. Britain’s constitutional arrangement has long seemed seductive to the less democratic tendencies of the Labour Party. With a feeble second chamber and with little danger of losing control of the House of Commons a majority government commands an elective dictatorship that it can wield to implement its programme with few restraints. The dream of much of the old Labour left was to use the democratic weakness of the British state to pursue its agenda while maintaining its hegemony on the left. This explains the Labour Party’s historical aversion to proportional representation.
However, if this strategy was ever likely to succeed it no longer is. Britain faces a crisis of party politics – neither Labour nor the Tories are the mass membership parties of old. British politics has become fragmented and much of the electorate has become politically promiscuous – shifting allegiances or seeing their loyalties as lying with more than one party. Tribalism is not returning and the sooner the Labour left realises this, the better. As Dan Hind has suggested Corbyn should foreground a proposal for a constitutional convention to reshape Britain’s democratic institutions that have not evolved in their essentials since the early twentieth century. Corbyn should also accept the Green Party’s offer of an electoral pact and pursue the building of a genuinely pluralistic British left both inside and outside parliament.
Returning to Jeremy Gilbert, in his book Common Ground he notes that in a way parliamentary democracy with mass-membership parties was in some sense the appropriate democratic form for the technological level of the twentieth century and the fairly homogenous social blocs represented by Labour and the Tories. However, the development of information technology has radically expanded the potentialities for popular participation and control of Britain’s economic and democratic institutions. A movement embracing participatory democracy and prepared to utilise high technology in the pursuit of that goal has the chance to radically transform Britain’s ossified society. It is time to step forward into the future that is currently blocked by the cross-party neoliberal consensus. If Corbyn and the movement coalescing around him cannot help to usher in that future, then they may, unfortunately, reveal themselves to be just another morbid symptom of late neoliberal capitalism. Let’s hope they are up to the task.
Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7