An extract from ‘Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics’.
When Corbyn first took the Labour leadership, his critics surmised that it was a return to the discredited, squalid, and angry past: the 1980s. To them, this meant that Corbynism was a project for a permanent opposition, an eternally subaltern protest party rather than a realistic attempt at political and social change. And they began preparing their lines of attack as if this were true. They were wrong. Corbyn’s Labour has demonstrated its ability not just to critique existing failures, not just to protest the limitations of the old governing centre, but to catch the forward motion of technological, cultural, and social change. It has proven to be a modernising project, giving a collective and radical expression to popular ambitions.
When the Right and centre can no longer seriously claim to offer ‘opportunity’ to underemployed and precarious workers, Labour offered workers’ rights, a cradle-to-grave free education service, and investment to create jobs. When ‘aspiration’ is no longer plausibly championed by the Tories; when home ownership is increasingly out of the question even for professionals like teachers, nurses, and junior doctors; when landlords drive up rents for ever dingier properties with impunity and oligarchs drive gentrification, Labour offered to build council homes, control rents, bring back housing benefits for the young, and impose new minimum habitation standards. In this, Labour was addressing the problems of twenty-first-century Britain, something that was already clear in Corbyn’s 2015 leadership bid, but was largely ignored by his oblocutors.
In the 1980s, modernising meant moving to the right, accepting ‘free markets’, marginalising the left-wing ‘dinosaurs’ (such as Corbyn), and imposing an obsessive, managerial, focus-grouped control in messaging in order to win support across classes. Today, modernisation is a left-wing goal, the Blairites are the dinosaurs, and obsessive message control has been abandoned, with the result of rebuilding Labour’s support faster than anyone expected. The boisterous celebrations among Corbyn’s social media prize-fighters are entirely justified. They woke up on 9 June in a country they didn’t know existed: that, arguably, wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Labour’s breakthrough campaign. So, to an extent, are the outbursts of angry triumphalism from those who have been belittled, patronised, and vilified for so long. Many an erring pundit has been christened a ‘melt’ and invited to ‘eat your tweet’ or, better still, ‘delete your account’. At some point, however, this has to give way to a more sober appraisal of the dilemmas facing Labour.
The problem is not just that Labour must now find a way to turn its advantage into electoral victory, which raises a question about where to find the necessary voters in a first-past-the-post system, and how. Even if a fresh election is called soon and Labour does win, it will be in the position of having to try to implement a radical programme in an economy where there is very little investment. It will have to persuade corporations to invest, in spite of the higher taxes, regulations, and workers’ rights they will face. It will have to convince the City and businesses that paying toward an upgraded infrastructure is better for them than hoarding capital in the form of low-risk securities or in offshore tax havens.
Most difficult of all, it will now have to manage the giant task of Brexit, an economic and political mine field. The issue of whether to leave the European Union was settled by the referendum, but the issues of single-market membership and free movement were not. And while pundits may have overestimated just how much people care about Europe per se, the issue of migration cuts to the heart of a cultural and generational divide in Britain today. Not only that, but if the EU isn’t forthcoming with a viable deal, if it decides to punish the UK for Brexit, then Labour would need to immediately win support for an emergency economic programme, far more radical than anything that is currently being contemplated.
Moreover, the divisions within the Labour Party are far from over. The Labour Right is divided, defanged, and demoralised, but there are fresh lines of attack opening up already. Nor is its power completely gone. Most Labour MPs are still well to the right of the leadership and the membership, as indeed are most trade union leaders. Their influence is demonstrated in Labour’s manifesto commitments on NATO, Trident, and policing, as well as, arguably, Labour’s ambiguous position on migration. Nor are the strategic and organisational problems for the Left resolved. Labour has had a rocky two years under Corbyn, in no small part thanks to open sabotage, and the Left has had to think on its feet. If the overall effect of this turbulence has been to weaken and discredit the Labour Right even further, it has also exposed weaknesses on the Left. Momentum, the left-wing Labour activist group, has experienced crises. More broadly, there is evidence that most of Corbyn’s membership base, while it will rally to defend the leadership, abstains from local party activism. This raises the question whether they’re abstaining because there are other forms of activism they would prefer to be engaged in, because they just haven’t been approached properly, or because they’re waiting for the leader to act on their behalf.
Above all, this raises a fundamental strategic question. What is the ultimate goal? In the traditional Labourist view, the goal is a Labour government, plain and simple. It is to elect ‘our’ government and defend it as it, hopefully, achieves some incremental gains. There was never any reason to reflect too much on the structural limitations imposed on any government’s ability to act as long as Labour wasn’t trying to do anything too radical. But Labour’s leadership is, perhaps for the first time, systematically trying to pull British politics to the left, something it will no doubt also try to do in once. And it will be that much harder if it confronts a situation in which the balance of power in British society still overwhelmingly favours the owners of the country, and in which workers and communities are so poorly organised. Corbyn’s own experience and perspective foreground the necessity of extra-parliamentary, grass-roots organisation: ‘people-powered politics’, as his campaign put it. Corbyn won the leadership in part because the idea that change simply, or adequately, follows from winning elections is no longer persuasive. It is no use being in office without power, as Tony Benn once put it. But Corbyn can’t build movements by decree, even if it was in his style to lead in that way, so finding the right way to organise is a crucial problem for his supporters.
These are difficult enough problems, but they happen to be the problems of success. And it would be a fool who would bet the farm on failure at this point. Corbyn began, we can hardly forget, as a 200–1 outsider to win the Labour leadership. At the outset of the snap general election, he cheerfully reminded critics of this fact before confounding their expectations yet again. Everything Corbyn, his allies, and his supporters have achieved has been against the odds – against all odds.