Unfinished notes on the Corbyn phenomenon. Not sure if I can finish this (or what it’s for), but thought I’d publish now on my blog.
All the evidence indicates that left-winger Jeremy Corbyn is on course to win the Labour leadership contest. The conventional wisdom on the political centre-left – both within the party itself and among the majority of Labour-leaning media pundits – is that a victory for Corbyn would represent an utter disaster for the party. The general thrust of their argument is that Corbyn supporters are unserious, unwilling to think responsibly about the necessary compromises of power and are engaging in a form of narcissistic, self-indulgent ‘purity leftism’ that, if Corbyn is successful in his leadership bid, is likely to condemn Labour to years of opposition in a tragic re-run of the party’s post-1983 wilderness years.
None of this feels particularly convincing, however. For one thing, for all the warnings and finger-wagging in relation to the unrealistic, irresponsible, utopian dreaming of Corbynism what Corbyn actually proposes in terms of policy seem eminently sensible and in fact rather modest. His proposals amount, effectively, to a return to something like the form of Keynesian social democracy that was absolutely mainstream – widely shared political and economic common sense – before the onslaught of neoliberalism. It’s hardly a utopian or ‘hard left’ set of proposals and, in fact, all of this simply demonstrates how far to the right received opinion among the liberal-left has shifted over the past 30 to 40 years that they are (mis)represented as such. For another thing, their protestations that their opposition to Corbyn pivots on a hard-nosed, pragmatic assessment of what it takes to be ‘electable’ – that their priority is to defeat the Tories and get Labour back in power (in fact this ‘pragmatic’ sort of argument is underpinned by a sort of moralizing or emotional blackmail – Corbynites are scolded for their ‘beautiful soul’ idealism when in fact they should be focused on Labour winning power for the sake of the poor and those bearing the brunt of austerity which depends on electing a ‘moderate’ leader for the party etc. etc.) – just don’t ring true. If their position really did rest purely on electoral concerns you would think that they might be slightly less hostile and dismissive in relation to the candidate who is currently drawing thousands to political meetings around the country and slightly less confident in relation to the electoral prospects of the other three candidates who, let’s say, haven’t yet demonstrated any talent for electrifying the political landscape in quite the same way.
It’s notable that much of the political right seems to have grasped what’s happening in relation to Corbyn’s leadership campaign with much greater clarity and far-sightedness than most of the centre-left punditocracy. Few serious figures on the right see Corbyn as a gift to the Conservatives in the next election. Indeed Tory big-hitter, Ken Clarke recently warned his party that Corbyn’s ‘brand of left populism would be hard to campaign against’ and was clear, moreover, that Corbyn could win the next general election. One of the key lines of argument that you see cropping up with regularity among centre-right commentators is that Corbyn’s momentum could herald a fundamental transformation of the political terrain. Writing in the Guardian for example, Tory-supporting journalist Matthew D’Ancona, suggests that ‘the sort of Conservatives who think intelligently and strategically’ (‘and there are more of them than you think’ he points out) worry that the way Corbyn seems to have ‘stormed through the crash barriers of contemporary politics’ suggests that the conventional rules of politics are shifting. The ‘centre-ground’ of British politics, in other words, appears to be moving to the left and, further, a Corbyn leadership election victory threatens to drag it even further in that direction. This, indeed, is the fear articulated by the ultra-neoliberal Telegraph journalist Allister Heath for whom, a Corbyn victory ‘would be a disaster for the pro-capitalist cause’ because it would transform the basic coordinates of mainstream political debate, ‘shifting the centre-ground of British politics back towards a more interventionist position’ in which (to Heath’s horror) it would become ‘acceptable again to call for nationalising vast swathes of industry’ for example.
Much of the political right, then, certainly take Corbyn very seriously and indeed seem to operate on the basis of a much more sophisticated understanding of what the remarkable momentum his campaign has generated seems to signify. It is an understanding that is sensitive to the dynamic nature of political ‘common sense’ – it can shift and change – and to the way in which the basic coordinates of this ‘common sense’ are currently, in the context of years of austerity and popular disillusionment with ‘Westminster politics’ as usual, particularly volatile and in flux. In comparison, much of the centre-left seems trapped in a sort of Fukuyama-Blair moment that looks increasingly absurd. Perhaps the superior grasp of the political stakes on the part of the right is rooted in necessity. The fundamental raison d’etre of this political tradition, after all, is to defend existing social inequalities of wealth and power and this requires sensitive political antennae able to detect the emergence of potential serious challenges to these inequalities. The basic rationale of the centre-left, we might say, is to translate the politics of social justice into terms and forms broadly acceptable to the right and established authority – which is to say that the politics of the centre-left boils down to the perpetual postponement of egalitarian social change in a strategy of permanent placation in which the over-riding imperative is to demonstrate one’s ‘moderation’ and ‘responsibility’ to those in whose hands social and economic power is concentrated. Since Blairism represented the apotheosis of this sort of world-view it must be very traumatic to have to admit that the world has moved on and to have to break from its certainties and perhaps this at least partially explains some of the extraordinary vitriol directed at Corbyn.
Although it has taken nearly all observers by surprise, the Corbyn surge has not simply materialised out of thin air of course. It is important to see it in the context of wider developments internationally. One could say that Corbynism is the specific expression in Britain/England of a wider phenomenon across Europe: a shift in the political balance of forces toward the left and the rapid rise of radical anti-austerity parties and movements – most notably Podemos in Spain and of course Syriza in Greece – and it’s from this wider process that the Corbyn campaign has derived its startling momentum.
This shift has been driven in great part by the intersection of two major factors – the impact of austerity on working people and the long-term crisis of social democracy. These two factors have converged in that social democratic parties have almost uniformly failed to present any sort of coherent opposition to austerity and in many cases, of course, have administered it as parties of government, accelerating a longer-term process of ‘hollowing out’ in terms of party membership and voter turnout as social democratic parties have gradually transformed themselves into vehicles for neoliberal politics. It’s worth noting in this regard that despite a slight rally under Miliband, the Labour’s Party’s membership and share of the vote has declined precipitously since 1997 – and indeed it was the failure of Labour’s core vote to turnout at the last general election which explains the gap between what the opinion polls suggested Labour’s support would be and its actual vote. This erosion of the traditional base of support for the established social democratic parties has created a volatile situation in which electoral formations challenging those established parties from the left can very rapidly pick up support.
But of course this process is not unfolding in a uniform or generic way across the continent. The radical mood sweeping much of Europe crystallises within nationally specific social conditions and finds concrete expression in nationally specific political and organisational forms. In Spain the need for an alternative was given political expression by a new party, Podemos, which emerged from the 2011 ‘movement of the squares’ while in Greece anti-austerity forces cohered around a pre-existing coalition of radical left organisations, Syriza, (later to transform itself into a unitary party). In Britain something quite distinct appears to be emerging. Whereas Podemos and Syriza, for all their differences, emerged to challenge established social democratic parties (the PSOE and PASOK respectively) from without, the British challenge is manifesting within the structures of the traditional party of social democracy (or at least in close relation to these structures inasmuch as Corbyn’s leadership bid has galvanized forces of support that go beyond the Labour Party). Further the specific British form of this challenge has emerged rather late in the day after a series of what, in retrospect, now seem to have been false starts – remember the ‘Green surge’ of a few months ago – as if this new radical mood was searching in a sort of trial and error process for an appropriate vehicle before finally settling (for now at least) on the movement currently coalescing around Corbyn.
To some extent it’s rather misleading to talk of the Corbyn surge as the form in which the radical mood across Europe has crystallised in Britain – perhaps it’s more precise to say that the movement around Corbyn is the specific form in which this wider political-ideological shift has become concretised in England and Wales, because, of course, the first serious mass political movement against austerity in the British Isles coalesced around the extraordinary ‘Yes’ campaign for Scottish independence. Indeed in some ways we could regard the Corbyn campaign as a sort of contagion from Scotland – a radical and confident anti-austerity movement first incubated north of the border, travelling south, transmitted by means of inspirational example, to take root in a different form elsewhere in the UK.