Jeremy Corbyn applauds his recent re-election, in Liverpool ©Leon Neal/Getty Images

Corbyn 2.0: Left, in pieces

After a lifetime of trying to find a nationwide answer to the progressive dilemma, I've given up
October 10, 2016
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Scroll down to see contributions on this topic from Andy Beckett, Ben Jackson, Rachel Shabi and Gregg McClymont

Labour MPs forced a great showdown with their unloved leader this summer, less than a year after he first took the helm. But they left their Liverpool conference with nothing resolved, at least not in any way that they would have wished. Jeremy Corbyn was even more firmly entrenched than before, having been re-elected with a higher share of the vote, and on a bigger ballot.

Understandably enough, the party’s current travails are being debated using the familiar terms of ideology and class. The Jeremy Corbyn surge that transformed the contours of Labour politics a year ago was undoubtedly powered by revulsion against the ideological vacuity of the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown New Labour regime of 1997-2010. Blair’s insistence that Labour now stood for a preposterous “Third Way” designed to turn Britain into a “young country”; the contempt for civil liberties that pervaded a series of “anti-terror” laws; and, above all, the unlawful folly of the Iraq War stank in the nostrils, not just of the so-called “hard left,” but of idealistic progressives of all ages. Brown’s assiduous courtship of the City and insistence that financial regulation would be “limited touch” and not just “light touch” were less obvious, but another affront to traditional social democracy. Meanwhile, the Gini coefficient, which had measured a sharp climb in inequality under Margaret Thatcher, stubbornly refused to fall. Against that background, Corbyn’s election and now re-election are not just understandable; they were predictable. The shock and horror with which the Westminster village greeted them only shows that its denizens have lost the plot.

Unfortunately, the Corbyn remedy has proved to be poison. The civil war between extra-parliamentary Corbynites and the New Labour retreads in the parliamentary party has made Labour unelectable. If a general election were held tomorrow, Theresa May would sail to victory. Almost certainly, Labour would suffer a crushing defeat—perhaps as crushing as 1983, conceivably as crushing as 1935 or 1931. All the signs are that the party I joined at 20 is in terminal decline.

A vicious blame-game compounds the party’s plight. The best hope of transcending it is to understand that this is merely the local, British case of a much wider malaise. From Copenhagen to Berlin and from Athens to Jerusalem, social democracy is in retreat. In the last Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud crushed the essentially social-democratic Zionist Union. Pasok, the Greek social-democratic party, imploded long ago; “Pasokify” has become a term of art on a despairing left. The Danish Social Democrats went down to defeat last time, and in France, François Hollande’s socialist party has no discernible governing philosophy and seems set to lose the Élysée next year. Marine Le Pen’s Front National—boosted by the narrow majority for Brexit vote in the European Union referendum—looms menacingly in the wings. The once mighty German SPD is now the junior partner in a coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and polling miserably. The German europhobic party—Alternative für Deutschland—is weaker than the French Front National, but the fact that it exists at all betokens an astonishing mutation in German assumptions about the European project.

To a political class accustomed to taking class and ideology for granted this new landscape is both incomprehensible and alarming. Some are in denial. Labour politicians as varied as Lisa Nandy and David Miliband have suggested that the old show can be kept on the road if Labour adopts a revamped ideology, more appropriate to the new world order which has emerged since its last winning streak, and appeals more energetically to the insecure, “left-behind’ working class which flirts with Ukip and voted “Leave” in the EU referendum. Labour, in short, can flourish again if it makes modest changes in order to stay the same—a tactic sometimes known as “dynamic conservatism.”

Activists of the left, including Momentum may convince themselves that traditional politics of ideology and class is in rude health, because they have recruited many hundreds of thousands of members. That, however, is deluded, because the numbers they will need to prevail in a general election run into millions, rather than hundreds of thousands, and there is no sign in local elections or opinion polls of them making any progress at all. Other progressives recognise that the emerging landscape is indeed new, but find it so distasteful that they can’t bring themselves to grasp its inner meaning or grapple with the emotional dynamics which brought it into being. A good example is Vince Cable, the most perceptive front-rank politician of recent times. He has realised that the old politics of class and ideology are under threat from a new politics of identity and ethnicity, but he assumes as a given that these new politics are inherently irreconcilable with the historic values of social liberalism and social democracy.

If his assumption were valid, the outlook for progressives like me—who have spent a lifetime trying to figure out how best to marry and promote these two progressive traditions—would be dire indeed. Fortunately, the assumption is awry. True, some movements which fly the flag of identity are patently hostile to liberal and social democratic values: Ukip and the motley crew of Tory Brexiteers who did the heavy lifting in the “Leave” campaign rank among them, as do Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Austria’s Freedom Party and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. But some movements which have abandoned the old politics of class-based ideology in favour of the new politics of place and identity are as committed to liberal and social democratic values as parties of the traditional left.

This is true of the Catalan separatists who are steadily gaining ground in what is still north-eastern Spain, less certainly of the Basque nationalists in the north-west and of the 30-odd regionalist and/or separatist parties in the European Free Alliance. Some are distinctly exotic, if not eccentric—Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall, the Occitan party in France and the Schleswig party in Denmark. But in the two non-English nations of Great Britain—Scotland and Wales—the story is more auspicious.

The Scots (overwhelmingly) and Welsh (narrowly) both voted for devolution at the end of the last century. From 1999 a Scottish Parliament was sitting in Edinburgh for the first time since 1707, while a Welsh Assembly (or Senedd) was sitting in Cardiff for the first time ever. At first the Labour Party won the elections to both devolved legislatures. Donald Dewar—a staunch unionist, but a passionate and longstanding devolver—became Scotland’s First Minister. After some complicated manoeuvring, Rhodri Morgan became the Labour First Minister of Wales, and declared that “clear red water” would separate the Welsh government from New Labour in London.

Today’s picture could not be more different. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2007, the Scottish National Party (SNP) edged ahead of Labour. Alex Salmond formed a minority administration. This turned out to be a decisive breakthrough for the politics of identity—the most decisive in Great Britain’s history. In 2011, the SNP won an absolute majority at Holyrood, and almost twice as many seats as Labour. In 2014, it staged a referendum on independence, and although an electrifying “Yes” campaign was defeated, its membership nearly tripled. In the 2015 Westminster election, the SNP won all but three of the Scottish seats; Labour, Scotland’s dominant party for decades, held only one. And, as Nicola Sturgeon showed in the 2015 television debates, the SNP is at least as committed as Labour to social liberal and social democratic values.

The Welsh story echoes the Scottish, albeit in a gentler fashion. Plaid Cymru, “the party of Wales,” is the SNP’s cousin, but certainly not its clone. It was founded in 1925, principally by the charismatic, driven Saunders Lewis, who was president until 1939. Marked by his service in the First World War, Lewis was a monarchist and an authoritarian, as well as a poet, a playwright, a Catholic convert, an unapologetic elitist. “Civilisation,” he wrote, “is more than an abstraction. It must have a local habitation and name. Here its name is Wales.” In the cause of removing “the mark and shame of conquest,” he was a prime mover in setting on fire RAF facilities on the Llyn peninsula. He ended up in Wormwood Scrubs.

Plaid Cymru has come a long way since then. Gone are Lewis’s elitism, apocalyptic rhetoric and willingness to engage in violence. Gone too are the authoritarianism that accompanied them. Few, if any, now talk of the “shame of conquest.” Today, Plaid is the second party in a pluralist four-party political system. Leanne Wood, the leader, is as charismatic as Lewis or indeed Sturgeon, and gained almost as much kudos as her in those 2015 television debates. In the Welsh Assembly, Plaid is the chief opposition party. Wood is a self-proclaimed social democrat, and with more fire in her belly than Carwyn Jones, the Labour First Minister.

Where all this leaves progressives in England is far from obvious. If solidarity could somehow be engendered by new movements at the regional level, then one can imagine an analogue with the inclusive nationalism that has developed in Scotland and Wales. Unfortunately, with arbitrary and ahistoric borders, the big regions—such as the north-west, or the East Midlands—scarcely touch identity at all. Indeed, John Prescott was humiliated in a 2004 referendum in which he tried and failed to persuade the citizens of the north east to back a new assembly.

Conceivably, though, big cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham and—most of all—London may offer a more hopeful prospect. The London mayoralty has facilitated specific reforms such as the congestion charge; but after the office was filled in that same year by Ken Livingstone, the man Blair was desperate to stop, it did something else too. It encouraged Londoners—who increasingly identify as such—to believe that the capital could go its own way. As indeed London did in both the EU referendum, in which it broke heavily for “Remain,” and the last general election, when it swung to the left despite the nationwide Conservative victory. With new metro-mayors for Manchester and other conurbations in prospect, it may be that Labour parties (or radical independents, like the first-term Livingstone) in other great cities will be able to develop agendas that go with the grain of their citizens’ identities, just as Sadiq Khan is now doing at City Hall.

Make no mistake, though, the political mechanics of allying the metropolitan social liberalism that might thrive in the cities, with the more conservative Labourism that might still stand the best chance in small-town England, where very different identities are salient, will be fraught indeed. Who knows what sort of pacts or institutional innovations may be required? What is certain is that it will take a politician of rare creativity to find answers.

But for progressives who are lucky enough to live in Scotland or Wales, the reconciliation of the politics of identity with social democracy need not be so fraught. Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru practices the politics of ethnic identity, but in a distinctively Welsh and less abrasive fashion. Both parties offer more hopeful paths for their respective nations than does the played out Labourism of yesteryear. I shall vote accordingly in the next Westminster and Assembly elections.

Andy Beckett: Corbyn in No. 10? The unthinkable has happened before

British pundits love to say that elections are won from the centre. They’re right often enough for this dour conventional wisdom to become self-fulfilling. But occasionally it’s a poor guide to what is possible in a volatile electoral system: Labour’s landslide on a near-utopian manifesto in 1945; Margaret Thatcher’s outflanking of the post-war consensus; the SNP’s obliteration of Labour from the left.

For radicals to win, they need some of the following: discredited mainstream politicians; turbulence in the economy and society; a sense of national crisis—or opportunity; and a leader who can persuasively argue that profound change is needed. Since Jeremy Corbyn launched his idiosyncratic insurgency a year ago, the main argument made by him and his supporters—in lieu of many worked-out policies—has been that the time is again ripe for political rule-breaking.

They are right. Since the financial crisis, British capitalism and the British state have become dysfunctional. Look at the housing market, working conditions or disposable income—the political status quo, whether the ameliorative New Labour or the astringent Conservative version, has provided a good life for too few people. Perceptive MPs like Labour’s Jon Cruddas and Tory Robert Halfon, have realised this.

Nowadays, it ought to be easier than before for an iconoclast to win power. In 1979, Thatcher needed 13.7m votes. Thanks to political disengagement, fragmentation and slipping turn-outs since, around 11m is usually enough now to end up as the governing party—especially if you form a coalition (the Conservatives only got 10.7m in 2010). Radical would-be prime ministers, assuming they can mobilise their core supporters, no longer need to win over huge numbers of centrist voters.

But if circumstances look promising for those Corbynistas who do dream of Downing Street, Corbynism itself looks less so. He lacks the fresh language of a credible national saviour. His speeches can be woolly, and packed with generalities about “ending injustices.” In opposition, Thatcher was more concrete and more compelling, urging “a revolt against big government.”

Though vibrant, the Corbyn movement remains too inward-looking and cut off from the rest of British politics. Unlike Ken Livingstone’s left-wing, influential Greater London Council of the 1980s, so far Corbynistas seem to lack the will or ability to amplify their power by building coalitions. But if Corbyn can stay leader for a few years, and either grow in the role, or appoint a less shambling soulmate as his successor; if his smarter supporters start working more inside the Labour hierarchy, rather than mainly cheering at rallies, then our brittle economy and the realities of Brexit just might provide a radicalised Labour party with an opening. And if these radicals do make it to office, they may discover, like other successful rebels before them, that their problems have only just begun.

Andy Beckett is the author of “Promised You a Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain” (Penguin)

Ben Jackson: Labour has split many times. But never like this

Labour has a long and colourful tradition of splits, in-fighting and retrospective revulsion towards its time in office, after it loses power. Are Labour’s current divisions any different?

Arguments about its governing record, and rows about the way to recapture power have followed every Labour government. The 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s were all marked by electorally damaging internal debates. In retrospect, what is surprising is that anyone expected the New Labour years to end differently. The failure of the Conservatives to win a majority in 2010, coupled with Ed Miliband’s ability to hold together the combustible Labour coalition, deferred a reckoning that was inevitable. For there are structural reasons why the exercise of state power will always raise problems for Labour.

Unlike the Tories, it is committed to the pursuit of utopian goals through gradualist reforms. While a Labour government might make progress towards these goals, for example by reducing the number of children in poverty, it appears disappointing when measured against the idealism that fires the imagination of the party’s members. Even the 1945-51 government left a problematic legacy: it had achieved so much but Britain was still not the socialist society Labour had traditionally envisaged. Labour then faced an unpalatable choice between revising its conception of socialism or advocating more radical economic change.

But there are important differences between earlier Labour divisions and the party’s current problems. Most obviously, the radical dissidents have for the first time won a decisive victory that will set the party on a new course. Why were they able to do so?

New Labour’s rhetoric and policies left it more vulnerable than past Labour governments to the charge of deviating from the historic mission. Of course, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan faced that attack too, but Labour’s leaders in the 1960s and 1970s had not sought to define themselves against the party, in the way New Labour did. It was hoist by its own petard when many on the left accepted Tony Blair’s claim that he sought a third way between traditional social democracy and Thatcherism—and therefore felt at liberty to reject his approach.

Organisational changes have compounded the vulnerability. In the past, dissent was diffused by party structures, which enabled bargaining between parliamentary leaders and the trade unions to settle party affairs. The new method of electing the leader starts with pure one member one vote, and then opens it up by enfranchising party supporters, making a critical part of Labour’s constitution more unpredictable. Finally, the authority commanded by Labour MPs and party managers has collapsed. The gulf between the membership and most representatives is unprecedented, as is the lack of influence of Labour’s establishment over the members. We live in a time of populist revolt against the political class. Labour’s elite have felt the full force of the wrath.

Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and the Co-Editor of “Political Quarterly.”

Rachel Shabi: The Left has all the momentum

At the Black-E Community Centre in Liverpool, an animated queue snakes around the corner, as crowds from the last event spill out onto the streets. This is the hub for “The World Transformed,” running alongside Labour’s conference and organised by Momentum, Jeremy Corbyn’s much maligned campaign group. Yes, people really were queuing to talk politics—with workshops covering housing, Brexit, precarious jobs and more. But this queue was for a discussion on parliamentary socialism, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Abuzz with ideas, you couldn’t enter this building and miss the sense of possibility, the moment of change.

This change is precisely what propelled Corbyn to the top—twice. The shock emergence of a leadership candidate from the unabashedly anti-austerity left galvanised supporters around him —young and old, hyper-educated and left behind—up and down the country. A mix of inspired first-timers and re-energised old hands, this surge has driven Labour’s membership over the half million mark, making it the largest party in Europe. For the first time in recent memory, the parliamentary party has a leader with politics that are in line with a movement on the streets: it’s the promise in this duality of forces that is so inspiring for so many.

Which is not to say that everyone is getting carried away. The Corbyn supporters I speak with seem under no illusions as to the challenges ahead; there is little resting on laurels after the second leadership win. The task now is to take Corbyn’s revived left politics to the wider population—and win over new voters, all those who fell away in the New Labour years, or others who have internalised the fallacy that Labour can’t be trusted with the economy. It’s slow work, but the change within Labour harnesses a change in the wider population: a rejection of the politics that brought us the crash and austerity cuts; a feeling that the slick-suited, soundbite-generating political class just don’t have the solutions.

But there’s no point having a swelled party membership if it is not put to use. This is what Corbyn’s freshly announced Labour organising academies are about: training activists in canvassing and campaigning. It’s also why much of the focus at Momentum’s Liverpool event is on skills-sharing: how to do phone banks and how to build community resistance. All of which, even prior to an election campaign, could create a formidable parliamentary opposition. If, for example, the Labour Party in parliament wants to fight the Tories over education, or the NHS, it has a co-ordinated nationwide movement ready to sustain that campaign in the country. Could the Tories, divided and governing with a slim majority, withstand this and drive through unpopular policies? They’re laughing about the Labour Party now—but they might not be for much longer.

Rachel Shabi is a writer and author

Gregg McClymont: Yes, Labour could vanish. Just ask Scotland—or me

The Scottish Labour Party retains a residual if ageing core vote and the enthusiasm of a small but dynamic group of younger activists. Nonetheless the collapse in its support is eye-watering. In the 2010 general election, Scottish Labour took 42 per cent of the vote and 41 seats, one of which was mine. In 2015, it got 23 per cent and one seat. This year’s Holyrood elections confirmed that Labour’s core vote sits at around 20 per cent—Ruth Davidson’s Tories won more seats and now sit as the official opposition, accruing profile and credibility in the process. Polls have consistently given Davidson a far higher approval rating than Labour’s Kezia Dugdale—and in one a higher rating than the dominant First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Even if the pendulum eventually swings, it is the Tories not Labour who stand to benefit.

When a party is in crisis, commentators reach for George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, a dramatic tale of a great party of state destroyed by forces beyond its control, told with great panache. The thing about tectonic plates is that they move slowly and out of sight, until all of a sudden, the deluge.

The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence was the culmination of a process of sociological change by which nationalism replaced social class as the fundamental category in Scottish politics. Just as the Liberal Democrats found itself irrelevant in the days when politics was being redefined by the rise of Labour (and its antithesis the Conservative Party) so Labour appears functionless in a Scottish politics defined by the rise of nationalism and its antithesis, the Conservative and Unionist party.

To the outside observer it might not be obvious why a referendum on independence in which Labour was comfortably on the winning side—55 per cent to 45 per cent—should be transformative. The answer is that Scottish Labour is, and has been for some time, a reluctant unionist. Until Gordon Brown’s late intervention there did not exist a forward-looking social-democratic case for the Union. Without rebuttal, the claim that Scotland is different—more egalitarian in spirit, compassionate and “left-wing”—had moved seamlessly from being an argument for devolution to an argument for independence. Scotland had become a “Tory-free zone” in 1997; there were “more pandas than Tory MPs” in Scotland from 2010; and now the final step, detachment from the Tories forever, was in Scotland’s grasp. Teleology as ideology.

Those who lived through the referendum will not quickly forget it. If every Scot is a nationalist of some kind, then the surge in separatism during the campaign becomes explicable. Why should politics be immune from the national sentiment which has always infused other aspects of Scottish life? For a while Scottish Labour could swim with the tide, as Scotland’s defenders against the Tories. But riding a nationalist tiger is always dangerous. Having failed to make a case for the union, nationalist arguments became conventional wisdom, even for much of Labour’s core vote.

Gregg McClymont is a historian, who was Labour MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East until 2015, when he lost to the SNP