Corbyn's leadership and the democratic surge in the Labour Party


26 February 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015 must rank as one of the most singularly unexpected events of recent British history. Even now it remains tricky to explain, unclear in its implications and unpredictable in its outcomes. There may be electoral setbacks ahead, yet it is difficult to imagine the party membership, which endorsed him so enthusiastically just months ago now rejecting him so quickly. At the same time, the acrimony and bitterness between his critics and his beleaguered supporters within the Parliamentary Labour Party is like nothing seen in this country since the early 1980s. Nobody really knows where this is all going.

One of the causes of this unexpected eruption of democracy is the tremendous capacity social media has created for activists and supporters of a cause to organise themselves and communicate outside the traditional structures of party organisation and the mass media. Without it, Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership probably wouldn’t have got further than that of other recent left-wing candidates.

Critics point out, with some validity, that these forms of digital organising risk the reproduction of ‘echo chambers’, wherein those of similar views only talk to each other, without engaging with the fact that the majority don’t agree with them. While true to some extent, but as a criticism it simply ignores the other side of the coin – that allowing this sizeable minority to talk to each other has enabled the political left in England and Wales to come together as a meaningful political force for the first time since the 1980s.

At the same time support for Corbyn partly expresses a real desire among the public for a genuinely democratic politics both within and beyond political parties. Corbyn’s own tendency has been agitating for this since the early 1980s, and it arguably chimes with the participatory and egalitarian culture that a new generation now encounters every day in the best aspects of social media culture. Of course there are many negative aspects of that culture as well – but that’s another story.

Lack of left-wing representation

However, we shouldn’t overstate the novelty of the situation. One way to get some perspective is to reflect that, if we look at it in a larger historical or geographical context, it is not so extraordinary. Corbyn has a background on the radical left of the Labour Party, but the platform on which he stood in the leadership election was one that would be largely familiar to social democrats and moderate socialists across Western Europe at many points since the 1930s. Most opinion polls have shown for many years that about 25% of the British electorate pretty much share a left-wing perspective on most issues, and in most ‘democratic’ countries we would expect such a large body of opinion to be represented at the level of national party politics.

In Britain, since the end of the 1980s, this left-wing quarter of the country effectively had no political representation at a national level, as the Labour leadership remained wedded to a set of assumptions and priorities, which have historically been those of the centre-right (pursuing a relentlessly ‘pro-business’ agenda, supporting public spending and workers’ rights only to the extent that they pose no threat at all to the power of corporations). The rise of UKIP and the SNP could all be said to mirror this situation, as various constituencies have simply refused to accept a situation in which neither the Tory nor Labour leaderships any longer seemed to reflect their views.

This itself if not terribly surprising, given that the neoliberal programme – privatisations, tax breaks for the rich, deregulation of global finance and suppression of trade unions – has never enjoyed a great deal of support from the public in polls. Voters seem to have tolerated these policies to the extent that the governments who implemented them could also deliver high levels of private consumption. Since the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed, governments’ capacity to deliver this, especially to young people, has never really recovered and so support for the neoliberal consensus was further weakened and fragmented.

If this analysis is correct, it poses a considerable challenge for Corbyn and supporters. What we seem to be experiencing is not so much a genuine surge in support for the left as a break-up of the old party system, which may well see Labour lose much of its traditional support even as it is transformed into a an unambiguously left-wing party. This would seem to be the implication of a huge poll of UK voters published by YouGov, which shows only about 20-25% of the electorate agreeing with Corbyn on issues such as his opposition to the renewal of Trident and ceilings on how much welfare benefit a family can receive.

Not just a challenge for Labour

This may come as a relief to supporters of small progressive parties such as the Greens or Plaid Cymru, or to campaigners concerned about Corbyn’s Labour sucking in all the energy that might otherwise be channelled into a range of social and political campaigns in the years to come. But on the other hand, the challenge the situation presents is not just one for Labour leadership or members. Under these conditions of political fragmentation, there will be very little hope of any progressive goals being realised at all – from climate change objectives to poverty reduction to democratic reform to enhancement of women’s or workers’ rights – without broad-based coalitions being created between a range of diverse groups, struggles, campaigns and even political parties.

The difficulties of adapting to this new world of pluralist politics are ones nobody will be able to escape. In practice, Corbyn’s leadership will face a severe political test: in Brighton, for example, will a Labour Party led by this lifelong dissenter still run a candidate against Caroline Lucas, the most impressive English radical politician of her generation? Only if Labour members feel that those outside the party are not a threat, but potential allies, is there any chance of the answer to this question being ‘no’. If a real political and social movement against neoliberalism and Tory austerity is going to have any chance of success, then openness, compromise and creative negotiation will be required from all of us, not just the Labour leadership.

This article first appearedappears in the current issue of Ninety Nine magazine which is sent to Global Justice Now supporters. You can become a supporter of Global Justice Now here.

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