It’s funny how one can get lost with the tide. For much of this election campaign I thought the results would be neck-and-neck with Labour prevailing in the popular vote, ready to confront a new and far more impregnable set of challenges. Instead, I woke up the morning after, dejected and incapable of pulling my thoughts together. This is an attempt to move beyond that and into the painful discussions that will consume the left in this next period. At the core of this conversation is how a radical, working-class agenda with a mass movement behind it lost to Boris Johnson’s Tories.
We do a disservice to ourselves on the Left when we don’t remember what Labour was like before Corbyn. Often forced to defend its own history out of tribal loyalty, we forget at our own peril just how bad this party had become. This election has shown that the long-term impact of Labour’s failures are deep, and the memories of the public less short than we imagined. Before Tony Blair continued Thatcher’s legacy, it was James Callaghan who gave the Iron Lady her first ounce of legitimacy when his Labour government utilised monetarist solutions to solve the long effects of the 1973 oil crisis in the face of workers’ militancy. It was the soft left in the Labour Party who acted as capital’s first line of defence when the municipal socialist projects of the Militant and the GLC were at their heyday. It was Neil Kinnock who opened Labour up to Blairism and distanced the traditional party of the working-class from supporting the Great Miners’ strike of 1984–5. Blairism didn’t just step away from radicalism nor was it another unsuccessful effort at managing capitalism in order to ameliorate its worst effects on workers. It was a wholesale embrace of Thatcherism repackaged tenuously in a fragmented language of progressive politics. Tuitions fees were first raised under Blair, uneven economic development was aggregated on a regional basis in London’s favour, and Private Finance Initiatives were introduced into public education and the NHS under-girding what Brown described as “reform in return for resources”. Riding the credit boom wave, New Labour both spent on and splintered Britain’s social infrastructure whilst its approach to local councils was, as Tom Crewe argues, to “leave almost all the new restrictions in place, to encourage more outsourcing and to place ever tighter controls on funding.” All of this in the context of going to the hilt for an illegal war, being heavily imbricated in the expenses and Leveson scandals and enthusiastically continuing the authoritarian, centralist impulses of Thatcherism, with its routine scapegoating of asylum seekers, British Muslims, travellers and the working-class “chav”.
Blairism was disastrous for workers and the poor, but it also fermented the warring caricatures of class, race and identity which became so central to the Brexit culture war. Old, white, Northern and working-class versus multicultural, middle-class, London and elite. Cameron’s austerity and Miliband’s fraught opposition accelerated this and the wider politico-economic factors driving the disaggregation of the working-class. Yet, the 2017 general election and Corbyn’s campaign challenged this trajectory creating a cross-class assemblage of students & graduates, the unemployed, sections of the middle-classes, particularly its increasingly proletarianising sections, and casualised, semi-skilled workers. On the one hand its social-democratic commitments to wealth redistribution, “creeping nationalisations” and combating uneven economic development skewered toward the City of London were capable of pushing back the Tories in what Tom Hazeldine calls the “revolt of the rustbelt”. On the other hand, Corbyn’s Labour was able to energetically relate to young voters on the basis that it understood, channelling Keir Milburn, that “age is currently one of the key modalities through which class is lived”.
One has to ponder then, what changed between 2017 and 2019?
Over four years, no single politician has been lambasted, ridiculed, and thrown to the wolves more than Jeremy Corbyn. He’s attracted the daily venom of the Tory and liberal press, one concocted and manipulated story after another. He’s faced routine attempts to depose him, either directly like the 2016 Chicken Coup, or in war-of-attrition form through resignations, splits, press briefings and public denunciation. A man whose spent his life in the political wilderness because he wouldn’t drop his socialist ethics has been made to look incapable of keeping his house in order. A man who could boast about having the lowest expenses of any MP has been made to look untrustworthy. A man who celebrated his election to Labour leadership by speaking at a pro-refugees rally has been labelled a threat to one of Britain’s historic minority communities. A man who has spent his life fighting the inequality and deprivation unleashed onto the people of this country has been transformed into an enemy of the nation. The ongoing process of turning Corbyn into both monster and mess, useless and sinister. Any analysis of why we lost must begin with the simple fact that Jeremy Corbyn was painted as a pariah from the outset.
And while it is undoubtedly true that the influence of the traditional press has waned with the rise of digital media, the circulatory networks of power and privilege that exist between media, politics and big business mutually reinforce one another. In the face of a socialist politician with a chance at office, instincts and interests set into motion a process of absolute strangulation and disorganisation that is difficult for any Left to face down.
In the battle over interpretation, for much of the centrist commentariat, it was the radicalism of Labour’s programme, not its pivot towards Remain which lost it the election. Setting aside the fact that the political centre has no credible success which it might gloat of, this characterisation needs dissecting.
On the trail in Battersea, one admittedly anecdotal conversation captured Labour’s Brexit problem. On a council estate, speaking to a previous Labour voter who’d supported Corbyn in 2017, he could no longer bring himself to do so again. He was a Leave voter, a postal worker and a trade unionist. Furious at the courts recent overturning of the CWU’s 97% strike ballot, he identified this exercise of class power as one and the same as attempts by parts of the British establishment to reject the Leave vote. He respected Corbyn, thought the problem was not him but the Parliamentary Labour Party, and was wholly sympathetic to Labour’s programme, particularly the parts of it which sought to transform the world of work. Even after a lengthy debate, we could only get this man to reconsider his intention to abstain. This is a trade unionist, a socialist by his own account and a resident of Remain-voting Battersea. This wasn’t the stereotype of the ‘Red Wall’ Leave-voter, but if we struggled to convince someone like this to vote, then it’s no wonder we lost seats in Leave-voting areas. As far as many of these people are concerned they’ve been ignored, dismissed and left to rot for decades. They had one tangible moment — in July 2016 — where they could really exercise some agency and ever since they’ve been scoffed at and been told that choice was illegitimate, often by the very same traditional Labour establishment which forced Corbyn to abandon his Euroscepticism.
It’s too easy to say these voters, the much discussed, rarely understood Labour Leavers, swung wholesale to the Conservatives. Data suggests in many of these Labour heartlands people just didn’t turn out to vote. Disillusionment, not simply enthusiasm for Boris is probably a fairer characterisation of why we lost in these areas. But if traditional Labour voters were disillusioned enough not to vote Labour, that was because something happened between now and 2017. In particular, something happened to Corbyn’s oppositional, anti-establishment status.
For a significant part of this year, Corbyn and the team around him have allowed themselves to get enthralled in the very process of Brexit. In the party’s messaging, its strategy and its tactics, the constitutional manoeuvring and parliamentary arithmetic of challenging Theresa May’s Brexit turned Jeremy Corbyn into a conventional politician in the eyes of many. To some extent this was unavoidable. Labour is an electoralist, Parliamentary and constitutionalist party. It also absolutely had to challenge May on her deal. But the failure to translate Labour’s soft Brexit position into a wider narrative about what has happened to Britain over the past four decades and how this might raise an opportunity for the Left never materialised. The reality is, given Corbyn’s weak position in the 2016 referendum, any effort like that was probably doomed from the start. So that by the time the Euro elections came around, the only thing left to a leadership weak and surrounded was to concede to the People’s Vote crowd.
Any attempt to develop a vision of Brexit, committed to both Freedom of Movement and challenging the pro-capital imperatives of the single market, was likely marginalised from the beginning. Stuck between the europhilia of the PLP and large parts of the membership, and the socialist nationalism of the trade-union bureaucracy; the divergent class instincts of both party constituencies and its broader electoral base, the scope for agency over Brexit and the marking out of an anti-racist euroscepticism was always caught between a rock and a hard place. This isn’t to then suggest that the leadership should have advocated a Full Lexit position which would certainly have seen Corbynism fracture long before this election, but it is to suggest that the Labour leadership shouldn’t have allowed itself to be browbeaten into submission over Brexit. Fundamentally, whilst the rational kernel of uniting working-class voters in Remain-voting Tottenham with Leave-voting Mansfield was absolutely correct as a strategy for coalescing a class bloc, it needed a far more substantive offer to Leave voters on what a Brexit under Labour might look like, and a far more rallying defence of Freedom of Movement for those Remain voters who saw Brexit as an attack on social and political rights.
The basic recognition that the Labour leadership might have had more agency to argue a position within the party and the public, was never seriously broached.
As convenient as it might be however, Labour’s wrangling over Brexit does not answer it all. It is consequence not cause. One of the overriding obstacles facing Corbynism in this election was what the late Mark Fisher coined ‘capitalist realism’. The notion that there is no alternative to capitalism, for Fisher was rooted in the materiality of class being, a “reflexive impotence” of acknowledged wrongs incapable of changing, first epitomised in the “doomed proletarian dance” of a miners strike defeated on the “grounds that keeping them open was not ‘economically realistic’”. One example he used was his Further Education students, the privatized misery and depression which embalmed them and the limited outlets for social and political expression that they could embark upon, reduced to a state of “depressive hedonia”. Yet, within two years of Capitalist Realism’s publication, these were the same constituents who would protest and riot over tuition fees and the police murder of Mark Duggan. Now apply this same notion to the ‘Red Wall’, the former mining communities, the areas where traditional class situations have been broken up and dislocated. Whole localities where the social fabric was violently torn apart by Thatcher. Shredded even more by Blair and Brown. And reduced to ashes by Cameron, Osborne and May. In that context, their street riot, their student revolt, was Brexit, and it expressed all the nationalist, post-imperial anxieties which Thatcher, Blair and Cameron had actively sought to frame and refract historic class grievances through.
Closing his Capitalist Realism book, Mark Fisher ended on a note of resilience, lamenting that “the tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction… From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” In this I have no doubt he was right. The edifice is fragile and from the anti-war movements to the Pink Tide, we’ve seen multiple flashes of possibility. But we have to be honest, particularly in Britain, and say that we’ve seen few if any victories which have broken through. The anti-war movement lost the battle but won the argument; so many industrial struggles have been lost or tapered in corporatist negotiation and compromise; and the students lost despite their best efforts. It is no wonder then that Brexit takes on a feasibility that any real rupture with ‘capitalist realism’ has failed to. It’s a concrete offer not to reverse years of defeat and decomposition, but to avenge them.
This has relevance to Labour’s manifesto too. First of all, there’s nothing about the radicalism of Labour’s manifesto that anyone seriously of the left should think about distancing themselves from. If the task is to be “as radical as reality itself”, with the huge exception of foreign policy, this manifesto achieved that in abundance. Within it was broached the creation of a new social-democratic paradigm aimed at transforming labour relations, creating new forms of democratic ownership and entrenching universalism in society. Even those elements of the manifesto lacking in radicalism — such as the ambiguities over Freedom of Movement, scrapping the hostile environment, and closing only two immigration detention centres — were concessions won by the membership and were far in advance of the party’s offer in 2017.
Yet this manifesto lost just like the ground campaign did. On the one hand, whilst much of it was incredibly popular, it is quite easy to see how it might read like a list of intangible promises made by politicians you’re not sure you should trust. On the other hand, there’s been little experience even on a local or sectional basis of people winning for themselves the sorts of things the manifesto contains. Additionally, the narrative the Labour leadership carried the manifesto on was confused, scattered and most importantly, guilty of a severe amount of dissonance. When a narrative did emerge it was little different from 2017 and didn’t go much beyond the reversing of austerity. There was too much of a reliance on the NHS as a defensive exemplar of universalism and barely any efforts at elaborating the kind of futurist, modernising narrative which McDonnelism had come to embody. This shaken confidence could be witnessed in the recourse to “it’s time for real change” as the election slogan. A formula far too reactive to Johnson’s crafted image as a political outsider, and incapable of identifying a political agent and antagonism in the way, say, “For the many, not the few” did.
This lack of antagonism is difficult to discern. Beyond challenging the horrible personal and political record of Boris Johnson, not much was made of the populist yearnings of Corbynism after the first week of the election. Unclear if it was because of Corbyn’s unwillingness to “go to the gutter” and the genuineness of his ‘kinder, gentler politics’; or whether a conscious strategy to appear statesmanlike and ready to govern, it felt like a missed opportunity. Showing up to the CBI and telling business you’re no threat to them. Constantly defending your economic programme by proclaiming it’s only as radical as the rest of Western Europe. These are tact not born from a desire for an insurgent campaign, but a failure to grasp just how bitter and angry large chunks of British society actually are. Public trust in politicians, corporations and journalists is low, and the popularity of higher corporate taxation, nationalisation and even more radical propositions such as a 4-day week is high.
It seemed that the dual problem in Labour’s campaign this time around was a nervousness about the strategic efficacy of its manifesto predicated on shrieking in the face of cynicism and not trying to figure out a way of overcoming it, both in this campaign and in the two years prior.
A great deal of speculation will prevail from now on. The Labour Party will be enthralled with a leadership contest dominated by a Corbyn continuity candidate such as Rebecca Long-Bailey (with Angela Rayner as her soft left Deputy Leader), up against the undefeated and bitter politics of old. Lisa Nandy will fly the flag for the communitarian nationalism of Blue Labour; Yvette Cooper will beat the horns of centrism; Emily Thornberry will seek to represent the ‘soft left’ soul of Labourism with as much ambiguity as possible; and Keir Starmer will spend the campaign telling everyone just how correct support for a second referendum was. The civil war will rage and whilst it’s certainly not a battle the left should abstain from, I’m unclear its one we should immediately absorb ourselves into.
For socialists, the propositions and demands that were in the 2019 manifesto should be a starting point. It is the direction of travel that this document represents that is what activists should use to a) hold any leadership candidates’ feet to the fire; and b) rebuild a working-class movement.
Many have characterised the past forty years as a continued class war from above. The next five years give us no reason to doubt that pattern will end. Boris Johnson’s One Nation Toryism and it’s vague and empty spending commitments seem unlikely to materialise in a context likely to be shaped by another economic recession and the politico-economic impact of Brexit. The social crisis will worsen and whose to say an employers’ offensive won’t be on the cards. Sajid Javid is likely to meet all these challenges with some stringently authoritarian solutions.
It is in these deeply unfavourable circumstances that the left has to rebuild it’s labour & social movement, media and knowledge-producing institutions. This isn’t a call to abandon the Labour Party en masse, but it is one to think more carefully about how activists conceptualise such a project. The priority should be rebuilding a class movement that can meet needs, develop consciousness and build cultures of solidarity and struggle. This notion of class politics should seek to grasp how the contemporary working-class of Britain is composed in its racial, sectoral, age and gendered complexity and how we can unify it. As opposed to returning to the politically timid, socially conservative imaginings of a white working-class which has plagued Labourist thought and practice for so long. The guiding principle of the Left should be, a la Bernie Sanders, “fight for someone you don’t know”.
Despite the critical support the Corbyn leadership gave to strikes, protests and campaigns, its strategic wager was fundamentally that the reforms it could win in government would create the conditions for a new proletarian subject to emerge. This wager was never allowed it’s moment, and we certainly cannot depend on it now. Any engagement with both the Labour leadership race, and its victor, should be done on the basis that it strengthens the ambition of class rebuilding in the here and now. For my part, I think that means supporting Rebecca Long-Bailey from a distance, whilst strengthening the Left’s position on the outside. The reciprocal relationship between Extinction Rebellion and the student strikes on the one hand, and Labour’s campaign for a Green New Deal on the other is one notable example of this inside-outside wager.
Whilst I know this sounds incredibly bleak, there is cause for some reserved hope. Mostly, the mass movement that became so pivotal to Corbynism. Thousands of people every night across the country took to the cold and rain to argue the case for a socialist future. This won’t vanish if the Left finds avenues and paths to stay connected with these people, translating the mass canvassing into unionisation campaigns, fighting closures to social services, taking on local councils and fighting for manifesto demands such as free childcare and a higher national wage. Corbynism was one approximation for a socialist movement that will likely take a generation to develop. It was our sharpest and most painful yet. It broke the uniform, uninterrupted narrative neoliberalism told about itself. It created a mass base and showed millions both what is possible and what we’re up against. None of this should be dismissed and Jeremy Corbyn should be celebrated for his immense and unrivalled contribution to our future struggles.
But for now, we embark upon, as the late Daniel Bensaïd remarked in his memoir, “a new struggle against the shame there would have been in doing nothing.”