Whether Labour wins or loses tonight, Corbyn has already initiated a massive shift in public sentiment. After a decade of crisis and stagnation, feelings of hope and optimism have dared to be spoken again. It’s been a remarkable campaign, with the clarity and forcefulness of Corbyn’s social democratic offer breaking through the media’s hostility and the establishment’s smears. May’s campaign has been predictably poor, to be sure, but there is no doubt that only Corbyn could have Labour polling at 40% of the vote.
The entire campaign was notable both for what was discussed and what was conspicuously absent. The message that dominated the general election only 2 years ago — austerity — was completely missing this time. When Tories on television claimed that cuts and hard choices were necessary, not only were they routinely booed and laughed at, but you could tell that the arguments rang hollow in their own voices — their heart no longer believed cuts were necessary even if that was the party line. The Tories notably never went after Labour’s plan to hike up taxes on the rich; instead claiming (falsely) that taxes would go up on the middle class as well. Similarly, attacks on Labour’s supposedly open door policy to immigration repeatedly missed their target, and never featured as core themes. Even the terror attacks failed to disrupt the narrative, and Islamophobia failed to materialise as a significant force in the election (despite Nuttall’s sputtering efforts).
In place of austerity, xenophobia, and terrorism as the dominant common sense, we had debates over social care and the treatment of the elderly, health care, wages, childcare, free education, and nationalisation. This was a politics that offered a better future, instead of a decaying world of austerity. While centrist melts moaned about free hospital parking, free school meals, and free education, Corbyn’s Labour decisively rejected New Labour’s neoliberal approach to welfare. Rather than targeting programs at the poorest in an effort to bow down before the remorseless gods of efficient costing, Labour pushed the classic social democratic position of universalism. In the end, Labour has presented a vision of a better world and the massive rallies attest to the power such a vision can mobilise. After 7 years of austerity, the Tories have only been able to offer a greying, gloomy future of more “difficult decisions” and “necessary cuts” — newly extended to the last Tory stronghold as they threatened cuts to seniors. By contrast, Labour offered something different from Thatcherite neoliberalism, its Blairite accomplice, or its dreary austerity endgame. The technocratic leanings of the past 30 years of British politics are gone, and in its place, voters were given a real choice.
Where do we go from here then? Electoral politics has never been and will never be sufficient, even if it is capable of cracking open spaces of possibility. If Labour manages — against all odds — to keep the Tories from winning, the full force of capital will come weighing down on them in due time. While capitalists may welcome government investment as a way to jolt the British economy out of its productivity stagnation, or appreciate more support for lifelong education, other measures proposed by Labour are bound to lead to conflict. Maximum wage ratios, higher corporation taxes, higher income taxes on the top 5%, and a financial transaction tax are sure to be seen as threats by capital. The result will be that all the typical tools of capitalist power are wielded in an effort to bring us into submission: investment strikes, capital flight, tax evasion, attacks through the oligarchical media, and so on. None of this will be easy to solve — and indeed there are serious questions about whether it can be solved for any meaningful amount of time — but rethinking efforts to control global finance are a necessary step to make any headway. At a minimum, any social democracy fit for the 21st century must be rethinking capital controls, currency manipulations, and limits on tax evasion. Britain’s central position in the global financial system makes this more possible than most, as does its key role in the archipelago of tax havens around the world. Unlike Syriza or Mitterand, Britain crucially also has control over its own currency. But the political and technical must be welded together: class power and controls on the flow of capital, mass organisation and crackdowns on tax loopholes.
Win or lose, for all of Corbyn’s advances on Blairism, the campaign also revealed serious limits to the project — particularly the continuing odious influence of a conservative PLP. The left needs to push Labour further. On immigration, Corbyn’s personal unease with blaming immigrants is palpable, but he’s also surrounded by a Labour establishment who think immigration needs to be reduced (it has been reported that Keir Starmer inserted the anti-immigration rhetoric in the manifesto). Corbyn is on the left’s side in this fight, but Labour as a whole needs to be pushed in the right directions and to take on the xenophobia that remains throughout the country. Likewise, in the final weeks of the campaign, security issues have become central topics, and Labour has taken an electorally convenient but politically depressing stance on policing. With Theresa May having overseen major cuts to police forces across the country, it was a simple gesture for Labour to link up austerity with the recent terror attacks. Yet the call for more police and security forces overlooks that the function of the police is to control the population, not to keep us safe. The Metropolitan police, for example, remains a racist institution, and more cops will only exacerbate this situation (let’s not forget that over 1,600 people have died in police custody in the past couple of decades — and not a single officer has ever been charged). The left needs to vocally reject the call for more policing. That being said, Labour has initiated major shifts in the discourse around security. Corbyn has confidently — and popularly — argued that the war on terror has failed, that selling weapons and supporting Saudi Arabia is a mistake, that the Prevent program is a failure, and that foreign interventions have not made us any safer. Add on to that Corbyn’s principled stance for civil liberties and against mass surveillance, and there’s the beginnings of a left approach to security that rejects much of the common sense since 9/11. Yet more policing will not help, and any attempt to return police numbers to previous levels needs to be forcefully rejected.
In any case, it’s a cliche, but true: we need to build on the momentum achieved in the campaign. Many of the people involved in Corbyn’s campaign are veterans of earlier movements — anti-globalisation, anti-war, and Occupy — and they come bearing the knowledge of past struggles and the limits of those approaches. This awareness perhaps explains why many have found it surprisingly easy to shift into party politics. Frustrated after numerous struggles failed to make a dent, the rise of a decent Labour leader has unexpectedly offered the chance to continue battles now assisted by the apparatus of a powerful mainstream party. This group of people forms much of the key infrastructure of the Corbyn campaign — from door-knocking to app building to campaign rallying to strategic planning — and has been a significant (and often unacknowledged) reason why Labour’s campaign has run circles around the Tories.
But a whole new series of people — including a significant majority of young people—have joined as well and are now openly in favour of broadly socialist ideas. In the course of knocking on doors today, other activists constantly brought up the huge number of young people who were getting involved and active. The youth surge is unprecedented in recent history at the very least. The clash between age groups that clearly emerged in the Brexit vote looks set to be extended in this election, underpinned by a generational divide in the relationships to work, home ownership, and debt. And if this generational divide is driven by materialist matters, we should expect it to continue — well-paying, secure jobs are not coming back anytime soon, and owning your own home will remain a distant dream for most. We should not expect, in other words, that people will become more conservative as they grow older (a belief that is not borne out by any data). Rather what we are seeing is a major political change premised upon changing material conditions. This is a new , only vaguely articulated, political subject that is growing up in the wreckage of neoliberalism, with no real memory of the Third Way, and little faith in the platitudes of hard work and entrepreneurialism. And it is all the more remarkable since research recently demonstrated that right-wing attitudes were prevalent across Britain — a hangover from Thatcher’s social revolution and an indication of her hegemonic staying power. Today, that looks to be changing, and this emergent group has been given its first expression by Corbyn and his team pushing for a 21st century social democracy. Another future is possible.
The question is: how do we foster these newly emergent desires in ways that continue to expand the consciousness and power of this collective? Equally, how do we keep this incipient movement from ending up in the all too common dead-ends of leftist activism? A major reason why electoral politics has swept up large numbers of people on the radical left this year is simply because the extraparliamentary sector hasn’t been able to mobilise or organise vast sections of society. While various activist groups remain indispensable for survival under contemporary capitalism, they are nonetheless often defensive (e.g. blocking evictions) or forms of activist lobbying (e.g. aiming to use direct action to change political decisions). Despite their best intentions and immense efforts, the radical left has not built an alternative model that could channel political action in directions that don’t rely on party politics. But of course the divide between the two forms of action — party and extraparliamentary — was itself always a false distinction. The argument that energy channelled into one form must be at the cost of the other always presumed a peculiarly rigid metaphysics of political energy. Corbyn has shown that a vocal social democratic project can be popular, but the challenge now is to translate mobilisation into organisation. How do we build the political capacities of the people, rather than just relying on party leaders to act? How is the hope of the campaign sustained after the election? The seeds are there for radical change, but as with any moment of political optimism, a return to passive acceptance of the existing order is always looming.
Where do we find ourselves then? Corbyn has mobilised and given expression to an emergent, yet disorganised, collective that looks set to grow larger. The campaign has shown new ways forward for a popular social democracy in the 21st century, and has rejected the war on terror and proposed a broadly left approach to security. The campaign has given hope to people for the first time in many years, and shown that a better world is not only possible, but also something that can be actively built. For the many, but also by the many. Yet there are still open questions: how to overcome the nationalist reaction against the flows of migration? How to organise the new forces of the youth and extend this organisation beyond the party? And if a party like Corbyn’s Labour wins, how to deal with the ensuing attacks by capital? There are no easy answers to these questions, but the campaign has opened a pathway out of neoliberal malaise and given life to a revived UK left. Win or lose, the struggle continues, but we can carry on now with renewed confidence and broader support. The left has been marginal for too long; the time to take the mainstream back is now.