Corbynism and its futures – a response


In a recent essay, Jeremy Gilbert has offered an insightful diagnosis of how Labour has come to find itself under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as well as a challenging prognosis of what the future direction of ‘Corbynist’ Labour should be.

Reflecting arguments made in another earlier and widely-circulated piece for Open Democracy, Gilbert points to a catalogue of failures within Labour over the past thirty-five years. This includes the failure of the ‘Bennite’ hard left in the early 1980s to develop a political strategy that was realistic about how unlikely a party offering a radical critique of capitalism is to achieve electoral success under the first past the post system. There was also, he argues, the failure of the New Labour Government to offer any meaningful challenge to the hegemony of finance capital and to achieve anything more than mild ameliorative social programmes in the face of deepening social inequalities. Most recently, there has been the failure of the ‘soft left’ to recognise that Ed Miliband’s strategy of attempting to make social critique palatable to a sufficiently large part of the electorate to win a Parliamentary majority is doomed to failure, just as it was under Neil Kinnock in 1987 and 1992.

Yet despite these failures across all wings of the Party, Gilbert sees grounds for hope in the future exemplified by the strength of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015. This is not a hope for electoral success in 2020 or even for a future majority Government under the first past the post system at some point beyond that. Instead, he sees grounds for optimism in the Party recovering a stronger anti-capitalist critique (in the spirit of the early 1980s), whilst at the same time adopting a more realistic strategy for achieving political power than the ‘Bennites’ ever did. This strategy, argues Gilbert, should arise organically from the ‘Corbynist’ ethos of radical democracy, which in turn should lead the Party to work with others to campaign for an electoral system based on proportional representation. Under such a system, the progressive and radical vote across the UK is far more likely to achieve effective political power, even if this necessarily takes the form of coalitions between progressive political parties.

Gilbert’s essay is essential reading for anyone concerned with Labour’s future because it sets out a strategy of political ‘purity’, whilst abandoning aspirations for a Parliamentary majority under the current electoral system, that appear to be shared by a number of people enthused by the Party’s ‘Corbynist’ turn. It is important, though, not just for understanding that vision for Labour’s future, but for its clear delineation of the fault-line along which the Party’s current membership may now have to split.

Whilst there will be those in Labour who welcome Gilbert’s position and see it as the only way in which political principle and realism can be held together, others, like me, will see it as a fundamentally problematic abandonment of political responsibility. If Ed Miliband’s ‘35%’ strategy for the 2015 General Election was fundamentally flawed, those who want to see an effective progressive government in Britain will see little appeal in Gilbert’s call to reduce this electoral calculus to a ’20-25%’ strategy.

Gilbert argues that building a stronger anti-capitalist stance within Labour with reduced electoral support is a sensible approach because a) trying to appeal to a wider body of the electorate than this will inevitably involve problematic forms of political compromise and b) the key swing voters of Middle England are devoid of a civil society that would enable them to resist neo-liberal propaganda and are, for now, essentially a lost cause. Writing off engagement with the majority of the electorate until their ‘false consciousness’ can eventually be eroded is, however, a counsel of despair. In pragmatic political terms it seems obviously damaging to embrace a strategy of self-imposed marginalisation. But if we understand a sense of emotional connection between political parties, Government and the wider electorate as an essential part of a functioning democracy, then it seems deeply unhealthy philosophically to pursue a strategy that claims there is no possible basis for connecting progressive policies with the majority of voters’ values and concerns.

In this respect, an important counter-argument to Gilbert’s position is made in the introduction of Philip Gould’s book, The Unfinished Revolution, in which Gould traces his experience of growing up with his lower middle-class and working-class peers in Woking. Rather than seeing his friends and colleagues as hapless, atomised, self-interested individuals, deaf to the truths of socialism, Gould touchingly traces the values and cares that they had, recognising the integrity of their moral ecologies, and wondering why Labour had become so distant from them.

Gilbert’s position is a coherent expression of a Marxist and Gramscian ideological stance. What I see as problematic with this is its relative inattention to the ordinary loves and concerns that animate most of our daily lives. It is through such attention to the concerns of voters, who may for various reasons have been drawn to vote Conservative or UKIP in the recent past, that Labour can build a healthier bond with voters across the country. Amongst these, unacknowledged in Gilbert’s account, is the on-going need to find ways of building a stronger, progressive sense of national identity in which people from a wide range of communities can feel a part of the project of building a better nation for all. Without this, voters who have a sense of a loss of cultural identity may continue to be attracted to the clear nationalist message of UKIP whilst turning a blind eye to its shambolic party management and policy agenda.

These two approaches – of an ideologically ‘pure’ minority party and a progressive party that, with humility, genuinely seeks to build bonds with a broad range of voters – are entirely incompatible. Part of the deep dis-comfort of the Labour Party at the moment is that both find strong support within it, deeply compromising its political coherence and holding back the ability of either approach to move forward with its respective programme. The time may now be approaching for an amicable divorce in which these two approaches can find alternative party structures – whether through the establishment of a new Socialist-Green alliance beyond the Labour Party or the painful emergence of something like the SDP, mark II.

At the moment, the Labour Party (particularly the PLP) seems to resemble a couple who know that their relationship is over but remain in denial about this because the process of divorce seems so daunting. In this sense, Jeremy Gilbert’s essay provides an important challenge to that denial and reminds us that the task of restructuring the left and centre-left in British politics is becoming increasingly pressing, for the good of all of us.


Is the party over?

I cannot remember a time in my adult life when a political party won as slender a majority as the Conservatives in 2015 and yet their success in the next general election, five years away, was so widely assumed.

This is obviously not simply due to internal problems within Labour. The predicted effects of constituency boundary changes and the rise of the SNP in Scotland would still pose serious challenges even if Labour were in rude health. In reality, though, there are serious difficulties within Labour which, if unaddressed, will create electoral problems for the Party far beyond 2020.

A common misconception appears to be that these problems would be largely resolved through a change of leadership. Obsessing over the leadership, however, has become a form of displacement activity that distracts from more fundamental and difficult questions. Indeed the fact that a rumoured ‘coup’ against Jeremy Corbyn this summer would involve contriving to have him excluded from the leadership ballot paper, despite his apparent popularity with the majority of Party members, merely points to the Party’s deeper troubles.

A central difficulty for Labour is that its membership appears to be becoming increasingly detached from the views of the wider electorate.

One way of making sense of how this has happened is through understanding the evolving nature of the trade union movement from which Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election campaign received so much support.

Trade union membership has declined significantly over the past thirty five years. By the end of the 1970s, around 13 million UK workers were union members. By 2014, despite a growing population, union membership had more than halved to 6.4 million workers with nearly 20 million workers not attached to a union. Membership is now heavily skewed towards workers in the public sector (54.3% of whom are union members) compared to the private sector (in which only 14.2% of workers are part of a union).

Whilst, historically, Labour’s symbiotic relationship with the trade union movement made it possible for it to claim to be the party of British workers, this is no longer the case. The vast majority of people working in manual, semi-skilled or service industry jobs are not union members. Instead, trade union members are now disproportionately drawn from sections of the work-force that are educated to degree level, employed in a professional occupation, earning a middle-income and aged over 50. Far from connecting the Labour Party to a broad range of the British workers, the trends in trade union membership are accelerating the process by which Labour is becoming the political wing of The Guardian.

This exemplifies a wider trend described by Jon Cruddas, following his study into the causes of the 2015 general election defeat. As Cruddas puts it, ‘Labour is now overwhelmingly a party of the socially liberal and progressively minded… The party is losing connection with two thirds of the electorate who are either pragmatic in their voting habits or who are social conservatives and who value work, family and their country… Labour stands on the brink of becoming irrelevant to the majority of working people in the country.’

Two other factors threaten to exacerbate this trend. One is the perception that Labour is tainted by members who hold extremist views, including some who currently have leading roles in the party. In recent weeks, there has been a succession of stories about statements made by individual party members that are anti-Semitic or sympathetic to terrorist organisations. This is likely to continue to be a problem given the emphasis, under Jeremy Corbyn, of accepting people into Labour who have previously been members of fringe political organisations. If UKIP has, to some extent, syphoned off people with more extreme views from the Conservatives, the more inclusive approach to membership of the Corbyn-led Labour Party means that no comparable buffer now exists on the Left. Having for many years derided the Tories as the toxic, nasty party, Labour may now have to face recurrent stories that call into question its own moral reputation.

Arguably, though, a more profound source of division between the Labour Party and a large section of the electorate will emerge out of the EU referendum. Although at present, the Remain campaign seems most likely to prevail, it also seems likely that the Brexit vote could reach 40% and possibly higher. In a discussion of the political landscape after the June 23rd vote, Matthew Goodwin has asked where the Brexit vote goes next. Whilst the post-referendum evolution of UKIP as a popular party of protest has yet to take shape, it seems hard to see those whose Euroscepticism has deepened through the referendum campaign quickly finding their way back to Labour. As Goodwin puts it, ‘after the referendum manual workers… are likely to feel even more disconnected from middle-class Labour politicians who will have spent the referendum campaign praising the exact things that make these struggling voters feel so under threat – European integration, a global market, free movement and rapid social change.’ The weakening ties between Labour and its traditional working-class base are therefore likely to be fractured even further.

There are, of course, ways in which these problems can be denied. People will come back to Labour when they realise that the Party is really standing up for their interests. People won’t be put off by criticisms of Labour that are just being whipped up by the Tory-sympathising press. Labour will bring a wave of voters on board who have been too disillusioned to vote in previous elections. As 2020 approaches, however, the cold realities of Labour’s lack of connection with the voters whose support they would need to form a Government are likely to become ever starker.

The party isn’t completely over just yet. There is still potential for Labour to think about how it can express values and a practical vision for society that can re-build its relationship with voters who have turned to the Conservatives or UKIP. The Party can still re-assert itself as a mainstream political force with no place for members with extremist views. If the Remain vote does prevail in the EU referendum, it can still develop a far more robust approach to campaigning for EU reform (including on the free movement of labour) with the threat of a further referendum if that reform does not take place within a set timetable. The Party can re-evaluate its relationship with the unions, recognising that whilst trade unions continue to play a vital social role, their privileged status within the Party may now be harming its ability to connect with a broader range of voters.

But here-in lies the catch. Such moves are likely to be anathema to the many members who are happy with the Party’s current direction. If, as opinion polls suggest, they make up a significant majority of the Party, it seems difficult to see how Labour really will be able to take the steps needed to regain wide support across the electorate. But if this doesn’t happen and the Party continues to turn inwards, reflecting comfort-zone of its increasingly middle-class, social progressive base, it will not win a Parliamentary majority again for the foreseeable future. The question then is whether we can wait that long.