Labour doesn’t need a spin doctor. We need answers
In every country of Europe, the social democratic centre-left is in terminal decline. The people it once spoke for no longer exist and its working-class base have abandoned it. In the one country where a far-left party has gained power, it failed miserably to achieve any of its aims and ended up implementing worse austerity than the centrist party that preceded it.
Corbyn isn’t the cause of the crisis for the left. He’s a symptom of it. That crisis will not go away if we replace him with a sleazy spin doctor like Owen Smith. It wouldn’t go away if we replaced him with a charismatic leftist like Clive Lewis either. As long as we see the problem as a crisis of leadership, rather than an existential crisis for the left itself, our ideas will be doomed to exile.
Owen Jones has written an anguished appeal to Corbynistas to answer how we will actually appeal to people, what our media strategy is and how we will win back votes to make Labour a real party of government that can implement socialist policies. Anybody who cares at all about the future of socialist politics in Britain can sympathise with him.
I won’t waste any time questioning his motives, as he feared people would. I have nothing but admiration for the way he has struggled on defending both the Labour Party and working-class organisation itself against the hipster anarchists who once derided party politics and have now decided that the Labour Party should be their plaything.
But the bulk of Corbynistas are not those pretentious Twitterati. The bulk of people voting for Corbyn are simply voters who are desperate for an alternative. People’s lives have been taken away from them and so they’ve chased after every movement that seemed like it might give them some control back.
We’ve seen the same surge of desperate hope so many times now: from the London riots to Scottish independence; from the Occupy movement to Cleggmania; from the Green Surge to Brexit. Every time the Tories take another job or shut down another service, people think anything must be better than this. And every time something comes along that offers hope people think maybe this is it. No wonder his critics seem like they have patchy political records when their only fidelity has been to trying to find hope in the face of despair.
And no wonder people despair either. The task of the Labour Party has never been to be “left-wing” or a “strong opposition” or even a “credible government”. The task of the Labour Party has always been to represent the interests of the working-class. In the 1970s, it was clear what that meant: resisting globalisation and stopping the decimation of British industry. In the 1990s it meant finding a way to make globalisation work by maximising people’s rights.
Today, the task has never been less clear. What do working-class people in Britain need today? We have no good jobs, no chance of getting homes and no answers to how we can achieve those things. Globalisation has gone too far and it seems completely irreversible. Policy wonks offer up solutions that might solve half the problem, but they never get to the core of the problem — that we seem completely powerless in the face of global capitalism.
Our powerlessness is evident. My dad and his friends in the telecoms industry know that they will all lose their jobs at some point. Their work is being replaced by machines. As skilled workers with union jobs that people stay in for life, their management sees them as anachronisms and wants to speed up their redundancy on that principle alone. To do that, they’re sending as many of their jobs to India as they can, where people have fewer rights and lower wages.
None of my friends in our twenties have any hope of owning a home, and many can’t even pay rent. Our work contracts last three years if we are incredibly lucky. Most of us are not that lucky. Most of us are working for wages that give us just enough to live but not enough to think that anything better is coming our way.
We know we need investment but how can we get it? Leftist claims that we’ll raise corporate taxes to pay for jobs and houses are laughable now that we know that Amazon, Starbucks and all the banks can get away without paying any taxes. That’s not just a failure of the Tory government — those companies will rob us of every job they have put here and every penny they put into the economy if we even try and get their fair share off them. We can’t say we’ll nationalise industry any more because there is no industry to nationalise. That is the reality of global capitalism today, and neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Owen Smith can stop it.
Is it any wonder, then, that people have turned to national movements instead of to us? The Scottish and the Catalans have both made very clear that they think that if only they could bring democracy closer to home and separate themselves from their distant governments, the sheer proximity to home would give them more control. I know many people who voted for Brexit and, contrary to the Guardian’s sneering parodies, not one did it because they thought they could stop immigration but because they thought it would give them some ownership over their lives.
The reality, which we on the left know, is that drawing another border won’t help at all. Every former British colony has found that, even when they take complete control of their country and its apparatus of government, the same rich people still control all their country’s land, minerals, wealth, resources and factories. You want to know what happens when national governments try to wrest their economies off of the rich? Look at Zimbabwe. Look at Greece.
What answers do we actually have to people’s questions when the issue is how our global economies are run? How can we make the British economy work for ordinary people when the global economy doesn’t?
The right are able to answer people’s fears about globalisation. “We’ll stop immigration,” they say. “We’ll pull out of all the international institutions,” they say. “We’ll cut everything in this country down to its bare bones so we can compete in this globalised economy.” Their answers make sense. Their answers are terrifying. Their answers will rip apart the lives of immigrants, poor people, middle-class people, disabled people, young people. Their answers make sense and that’s what makes them so dangerous. We can’t afford for them to be right.
But, as far as I know, we don’t really know how to answer the challenges of globalisation. And, until we do, we won’t be able to turn our answers into soundbites.