Reassessing Corbynism: success, contradictions and a difficult path ahead

13 June 2017

Matt Bolton - Doctoral Researcher, University of Roehampton

Corbyn’s success in building an alliance that extends from Greens to UKIP voters only postpones the moment of Labour’s reckoning with Brexit

The trickle of mea culpas from the rapidly diminishing band of Corbyn-sceptics following the election result has now turned into a flood, and not without cause.  Once widely-held truisms – Corbynism is a ‘movement’ more clicktivist than canvasser, Corbyn himself is electorally toxic, Labour face a 1931-style demolition and the collapse of its Parliamentary presence – have been shown to be categorically wrong.  Corbyn ran an energetic, positive, smart campaign, founded on an unashamedly tax-and-spend manifesto.  The quick-witted air war was backed up online and through unprecedented numbers of volunteers taking to the streets to engage potential Labour voters and getting them to turn out on polling day.  Such mass activism had long been promised by Corbyn’s most vocal supporters, but aside from his own leadership campaigns, had been in sparse evidence on the ground.  But there is no doubt that when it came to the crunch, Corbynism cashed its activist cheques.  This level of enthusiastic political engagement would simply not have taken place with another leader – although the suspicion persists that a lot of the urgency was the product of retrospective regret on behalf of younger Remainers that they had not done the same (or perhaps even voted) during the EU referendum.

"Jeremy Corbyn" by garryknight is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The election result also clearly demonstrates that Corbynism has not destroyed the party’s parliamentary presence.  Labour has made some promising gains, particularly in England, and as Paul Mason notes, seem to have somehow picked up votes both from the liberal and green metropolitan left, and a decent sized portion of the former UKIP vote.  This was undoubtedly a remarkable and wholly unexpected achievement, one which few in the top echelons of either party thought possible up until the moment of the exit poll.  But while Labour are rightly still celebrating a welcome electoral step forward, not to mention capitalising on the total collapse of Theresa May’s authority as Prime Minister, unpicking the reasons why Corbyn was able to bring this unlikely electoral coalition together reveals that many of the criticisms levelled at the Corbyn project continue to hold.  Indeed, in some ways this election has merely postponed a true reckoning with the contradictions and regressive tendencies that run through the Corbynist worldview.  In particular, Corbyn’s success postpones once again the moment of reckoning at which the left finally recognises that the acceptance of Brexit and the end of free movement constitutes a fundamental, generational defeat, one for which gains in the House of Commons, however welcome, are scant recompense.  With this in mind, then, this article is not yet another mea culpa.  It is rather an attempt to take stock of what has changed and what has not, in the form of some first thoughts on how this election result – and in particular Corbyn’s Green-UKIP alliance – was possible.

This was the first post-deficit election

Direct comparisons with previous elections (whether on seats or vote share) are misleading.  Each election takes place in an entirely different context, which shapes what can and cannot be said within the campaign, and what is regarded (rightly or wrongly) as ‘credible’.  Much of the day to day grind of politics consists of the battle to shape that context (as can be seen with the struggle  over the ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ interpretation of the referendum result, a battle which until Thursday night at least, May seemed to have comprehensively won).  The 2015 election was dominated by discussion of the deficit and debt.  The endless repetitions of how the Tories were still ‘clearing up Labour’s mess’ trapped Ed Miliband in political-economic territory from which he could never win  –  every word from his mouth was framed by the context of how Labour’s supposed overspending had led to the crash and the ‘deficit’.  This frame has, incredibly, now virtually disappeared. Labour were careful to cost their manifesto nonetheless – demonstrating that the difference between their position and Miliband’s cannot be explained by mere hard left ‘will power’ – and the Tories failure to bother doing the same, lazily assuming the line from 2015 still held sway, left any attacks they made on Labour’s spending plans seem hollow and hypocritical.  But it was the combination of austerity finally starting to bite the lower middle classes in a way it hadn’t in 2015 (school cuts and the NHS winter crisis cut through in a huge way) and Brexit that really wiped the economic slate clean.  The Leave promises of an extra £350m a week for the NHS, regardless of their veracity, put public spending for services back on the ‘credible’ electoral playing field in a way that we have not seen since 2005.  Add in May’s own desire to boost infrastructure spending, and Corbyn and McDonnell had the space to make spending commitments that were just not available to Miliband.  They made the most of it.

The left’s instinctive trust in Corbyn allows him to successfully triangulate

The idea that Corbyn is a truly authentic man who has stuck to his principles through thick and thin is prevalent even amongst his fiercest critics.  It is also his greatest weapon when it comes to keeping the left (and the youth vote) onside while in reality triangulating as ably –  if not more so –  as any Blairite.  Labour’s policy on immigration in this election was well to the right of the 2015 manifesto.  Miliband was pilloried by the left for proposing ‘controls on immigration’, which slogans on mugs aside, amounted to a two year ban on EU migrants receiving benefits.  Corbyn’s manifesto went even further than May herself by pledging to end free movement of people from the EU come what may in the Brexit negotiations.  While the effect of this was to almost entirely drain the ‘immigration debate’ from the election in a way unimaginable even six months ago, this was only due to the total capitulation of both Corbyn and the broader left on the issue.  The immigration policy in Labour’s 2017 manifesto was more extreme in concrete terms than what most of the Leave side were proposing in the referendum -  in essence assuring full withdrawal from the single market, whatever the consequences -  and yet Corbyn’s supporters on the left accepted it because they refuse to believe that Corbyn himself, as a man of principle, can really mean it.  While every word Miliband (or indeed virtually anyone else who is not Corbyn) is treated with suspicion, despite the pro-single market arguments of the contemporary Blair being inherently far less punitive on immigration than Corbyn’s position, Corbyn is given the benefit of the doubt every time, even when the policy is written down in black and white.  This is triangulation of the highest order, enabling Labour to appeal to hardline anti-migrant UKIP voters while also keeping the trust of the ‘cosmopolitan’ urban left.  It is doubtful any other Labour leader would have been capable of achieving this.  Yet the faith in Corbyn’s supposedly unshakeable core beliefs is such that his party’s policies on immigration barely register amongst people who would be incandescent with rage if another Labour leader even vaguely gestured towards them.

The same applies to Labour’s policy on welfare.  Corbyn’s victory in the first leadership campaign in 2015 was secured by his voting against benefit cuts, while his rivals abstained on the second reading of the Welfare Reform bill (although they did vote against it in the final reading).  This was held up as proof that Corbyn was not only politically but morally superior to his opponents.  Yet in his manifesto, as Chaminda Jayanetti has admirably shown, Corbyn did not pledge to reverse benefit cuts, nor remove the benefit cap.  Once again, those who were most vocal in condemning the abstainers have not raised a word in criticism against Corbyn.  The same pattern appeared again and again in the campaign itself  –  once-vocal advocates for police abolition now enthusiastically cheered Corbyn on as he castigated May for police cuts, and similarly backed Corbyn as he celebrated May’s infamous ‘dementia tax’ U-turn even though the new proposal to cap contributions to elderly care places far more of the burden on the poorest demographics than the original manifesto proposal.  None of these policies could be classed as radical or left wing, and all would be fiercely criticised from the left if proposed or supported by any other Labour leader.  Yet Corbyn gets away with it time after time, on reputation alone.

The problem with this is not triangulation in-and-of itself – contrary to hard left mythology, it is an inherent necessity of political action in a parliamentary system which requires a broad majority in the country in order to govern.  Rather, it is that policies which cannot objectively be regarded as left-wing – and indeed in real terms would be catastrophic for the living conditions of the working class – are uncritically supported, even deemed ‘socialist’, merely by dint of coming from Corbyn’s mouth.  The opposite is true when it comes to how Corbyn’s supporters view the soft left, with policies proposed by them regarded as a priori ‘Blairite’ regardless of actual content.  This an emotional response, not a political one, and its only consequence hitherto has been the perpetuation of Tory rule.

But Brexit is the one issue where triangulation is impossible

However, in a political economy entirely overdetermined by the unprecedented circumstances of Brexit, this strategy of inverse Blairism – sounding left while (in many, though not all, ways) acting right – however skilfully managed, cannot hold.  While Corbyn’s much derided ‘0% strategy’ on Brexit proved to a be a short-term electoral masterstroke, assuring Red Kippers that he was committed to pulling out of the single market and clamping down on immigration, while allowing Remainers to project their hopes for a softer landing onto him, at some point a decision has to be made.  It cannot be continually pushed down the line, hedged and obfuscated by vague promises of ‘tariff-free access’.  Every one of Corbyn’s much-vaunted manifesto pledges relies on an increased tax-take and growth strategy which are predicated upon remaining in the single market, and thus entail retaining free movement.  Yet his manifesto promise to end free movement (reiterated by John McDonnell in the weekend after the election result) makes nationalist protectionism the axiomatic position of both major parties, one which for Labour cannot be overturned without shedding one half of the electoral coalition which has secured Corbyn’s position.

The struggle to win the support of the ex-UKIP Leave vote has led to Farage’s nativist agenda poisoning the well of the British polity as a whole, left and right – the real reason he is still never off the airwaves, despite UKIP’s ostensible collapse.  The risk on one side is of economic catastrophe, on the other the development of a ‘stab in the back’ myth of national betrayal.  No amount of energetic canvassing or witty memes can bridge such an abyss.  It requires the political courage to be truly honest with the electorate about the consequences of withdrawal from the single market, traits which for all Corbyn’s purported authenticity have, in this context at least, been in short supply.

‘Britain First’  –  a foreign policy to unite UKIP and the Greens

It was remarkable to see how few punches the Tories and their supportive media managed to land with regard to Corbyn’s supposed links with the IRA and Islamist groups.  Once again, Corbyn’s ‘principled’ persona and skilful ‘Monsieur Zen’ interview style enabled him to dodge even the worst allegations (laying a wreath for a man involved in the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes) by quietly explaining that all he has ever worked for is ‘peace’.  This is buttressed by the ever-growing mythology around his being on the ‘right side of history’   – particularly his opposition to apartheid (ignoring the fact that no Labour MP ever supported apartheid, and that ‘Blairite’ MPs like Peter Hain did far more to actually oppose it on the ground than Corbyn ever did) and his alleged role in the Northern Ireland peace process (a claim not merely denied but laughed at by anyone who actually was involved).  Leaving aside for now whether the real consequence of his eternal non-interventionist position, regardless of context, is actually ‘peace’  –  rather than the brutal crushing of popular democratic revolutions, vicious theocratic dictatorships and/or interminable civil war  –  the key point is that this position is one of the very few which can unite Labour left, Green and UKIP voters.  The spectre of Iraq and the rise of ISIS has led to the popularity of an isolationist foreign policy across the UK political spectrum, in much the same way as in the US where Trump and the Greens’ Jill Stein share many presuppositions when it comes to international relations.  While the left think of such foreign policy positions in naively ethical terms, the right portray them as ‘America [or Britain] First’.  Corbyn would not use such nationalist language himself, but that is undoubtedly what Red-UKIP voters hear in his statements on foreign policy, and this along with his rejection of free movement goes some way to explaining the return of UKIP voters to the Labour fold.

The ‘rigged economy’ conspiracy theory

In a previous critique of Corbynism, I examined the ‘personalised’ critique of capitalism which underlies the worldview of Corbyn and many of his supporters.  This perspective sees poverty, economic crashes, inequality and even war as being the result of the conscious behaviour of shadowy ‘global elites’, usually in the financial sector.  Such a viewpoint, common amongst right and left, fails to grasp capital as an abstract social relation, dominating both rich and poor alike, and at its most extreme can lead to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of Jewish plots to rule the world through control of the banks.  The prevalence of this kind of foreshortened critique of capitalism (or neoliberalism, as popularly understood) goes some way to explain the spread of conspiracy theories about the ‘Rothschilds’ and ‘Zionists’ through much of the ‘Canary’/‘Skwawkbox’ left, as well as the alt-right – they are not contingent or accidental, but the consequence of pushing an analysis of capitalism as conspiracy to its logical conclusion.

Since his ‘populist turn’ at the start of the year, Corbyn has severely ramped up this kind of talk.  Throughout the election campaign there were endless references to the ‘rigged economy’ set up by elites which had ‘ripped off’ the British people.  Like the isolationist foreign policy, this discourse has an appeal to both the ‘anti-vax’ wing of the Green left and the Trumpian-UKIP right, with the vagueness of the ‘rigged’ concept allowing people to point the finger of accusation at whatever scapegoat fits their particular prejudice.  While it can be effective, there is an inherent risk in this kind of approach to politics, in that it can rapidly spiral out of control and in unexpected directions if not strictly supervised.  There is no guarantee that once let out of the bottle this kind of personalised critique of capitalism will inevitably lead in a progressive direction.  If it is true that Corbyn has managed to patch up a right-left electoral alliance on these grounds  –  along with implied migration controls and an isolationist foreign policy  –  it will require extreme vigilance to ensure it does not veer onto a regressive track.

Once again, the spectre of Brexit on the horizon multiplies this risk many times over.  The rhetoric of a ‘rigged system’ lays the groundwork for the hard right press and politicians of all stripes to pin the blame for a botched, economically disastrous full withdrawal, or a humiliating ‘retreat’ to a ‘Norway model’ compromise that retains free movement, on nebulous, shadowy ‘others’.  It is not hard to see how such grievance-based politics based on images of conspiratorial elites plotting against the noble, honest ‘people’ could be utilised by a genuinely populist and charismatic hard right leader, either blaming economic disaster on the machinations of ‘those pulling the strings’ or ramping up anti-migrant rhetoric to force a de facto hard Brexit by means of expelling migrants through intimidation rather than legislation.

There is nothing inevitable about any of this, but until the Corbynite left recognise the danger of building their programme on such ambiguous rhetorical ground, in such an intensely volatile political conjuncture, it is a risk that lies coiled within the movement, regardless of how triumphant it may feel today.

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