The UK’s Red Tide?

Jeremy Corbyn was recently elected leader of the UK Labour Party, winning 60% of first-preference votes, well ahead of the second-placed candidate’s 19% showing. Due to his firmly leftist politics, he was considered an outsider, both politically and in terms of his electoral chances. During the leadership campaign, he rapidly built a vast following and prompted new, younger members to join the party to vote for him.

Since many Labour MPs originally refused to serve in his shadow cabinet, Corbyn was expected, despite his mandate, to construct a broad-based team that drew from the ranks of the party’s more moderately inclined members.  But to them, given the British public’s fixation on the necessity of austerity—according to a Labour study, 58% of voters agree and only 16% disagree that cutting the government’s budget deficit is the top priority—Corbyn’s “Old Labour” welfare-state vision looked politically suicidal. Thus the gasps of horror from the parliamentary party (as distinct from the general membership), who voted overwhelmingly against him, may have come from fears of Corbyn’s alleged un-electability. According to their analyses, the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who led the party to a crushing defeat in the May general election, and whose resignation prompted this leadership crisis, had already been too left-wing for the tastes of the British electorate.

But why should Labour so denigrate what 40 years ago were core principles of the party?

There is, in all this behavior, a somewhat unconscious acceptance, if not celebration, of neoliberalism by the party. The “common sense” that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is so fond of appealing to goes unquestioned. And in this “common sense” conception, people, especially impressionable youth, are caught up in Corbyn’s ideological politics instead of “what governance should instead be”: a calculus of the best way to let “the market” do its work, with minimal state intervention. This concession to conservative ideology has been implicit in Labour’s platform since the years of Tony Blair’s leadership, during which concerns were never heard about “broad-based” cabinets needing to include the party’s left: its representatives were never actually included. In the Labour MPs’ rhetoric, there is the tacit assumption that Corbyn’s election is a misstep by the general membership: a failure on their part to recognize the rules of the market, and an electoral mistake which ought to be “corrected” as much as possible while still preserving the veneer of democracy.

The great neoliberal coup that made politics about sober acceptance of inevitable “tough choices,” within a narrow framework is ingrained in Labour MPs’ minds. Out of fear of losing “credibility,” few other than Corbyn voted against the welfare cuts of the Conservative government’s recent budget, even if the majority opposed it morally or economically. The general party line was to abstain, suggesting the same confused political message that Labour appears unable to clarify. The party is too afraid of public opinion to oppose austerity, but equally unable to back it.

But this is Labour’s problem. “Fiscal responsibility” is the touchstone for many voters, and the party continues to struggle with two of the public’s impressions about Labour. The first is that they “cannot be trusted on the economy.” This is a product of the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s myth that the Labour government overspent in the lead up to, and hence worsened or even caused, the 2008 recession. (Osborne backed the spending plans at the time, and the real cause of the large post-Labour deficit is the bail-out of the banks). The second impression is that the party does not actually believe focusing on the deficit is the correct policy orientation. We sense that Labour believes there is something wrong with the neoliberal consensus, this way of thinking goes, but it unconvincingly trumpets the importance of what we believe in, namely deficit reduction. This produces a muddled and confusing message which the Conservative mantras of “hard truths” and “competence over [Labour’s]  chaos”—yes, the best the Tories strive for is competence—cut through.

Corbyn’s ascent is thus the natural reaction of the Labour believers who have stayed true to the party’s founding principles, while its leadership has diverged from them, chasing the absolute truths of the market and obsessing over the deficit. Recent changes in how leaders are elected have given a greater say to the wider membership at the expense of the parliamentary party, resulting in the return of Old Labour ideas to the public consciousness. Indeed, MPs are separated from supporters by a vast gulf—the parliamentary party voted in favor of non-Corbyn candidates 210 to 20.

Corbyn’s anti-establishment background is clearly a reason for his popularity. He has never served in a shadow cabinet and is untainted by association with the party’s powerbrokers. But this is not just a classic case of inchoate anger at the “establishment” candidates and the commensurate, unthinking hatred of traditional politicians associated with it. Instead, it demonstrates the historical marginalization of Corbyn’s views in the upper echelons of mainstream politics, even in the party which is supposedly their natural home. Supporting longstanding Labour principles has never gotten figures like Corbyn anything but minor roles in the government.

This peculiar antagonism within Labour is only coming to the surface now because the cognitive dissonance required to maintain a leadership divorced from the party’s principles no longer has a means of suppression. The promise of being in power, as under Blair, no longer hold. The memories of past electoral failures of the Old Labour platform, as in the 1960s and 1970s have faded, and so has under the potential for compromise between the old-school hardliners and the more moderate members of party. The forces pulling apart Labour’s left (commitment to principles) and its right (promise of power) have been exposed, eliminating any potential for victory in May’s general election. The party’s muddled message satisfies neither its members nor the electorate.

As a result, the left has declared itself unsated by the mere prospect of power. The worst recession since the Great Depression radicalized young voters and lead to Corbyn’s election. They want something more. There has thus emerged a great tension within Labour, leaving there much to be pessimistic about before even considering the weight of public opinion.

However, there can be no triumphant renditions of the “Red Flag” for British leftists until the bizarre acceptance of the politics of neoliberalism, on the grounds of its supposed apolitical nature, is challenged. Labour, and conceivably any major left-wing party in the world, must respond to the electorate in order to win and prevent the party from tearing itself apart, as it is currently on the verge of doing with its MPs’ failures to support Corbyn’s leadership. While one can make allowances for the radical sympathies temporarily produced by extreme economic contraction, and hence explain the rise of leftist parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, in the majority of the developed world, the left waned for years as neoliberalism has waxed. The question thus becomes, “In what way should the left respond?”.

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn during a Labour Leadership and Deputy Leadership Hustings at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday June 28, 2015. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn during a Labour Leadership and Deputy Leadership Hustings at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday June 28, 2015. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The left has two choices: accept the public’s “indisputable” logic of “deficit reduction” and allow democracy to truly become technocracy, the direction which the non-Corbyn Labour leadership seems to be heading in. Or—just as neoliberalism emerged from academic treatises by Hayek and Friedman—make use of the economic research supportive of traditional and new left-wing policies coming out of universities, think-tanks and the like to construct a solid basis of credibility. “Common-sense,” the preferred label of the right for what one would call right-wing opinions, surely implies empirical experience. If that is so, one can marshal the numerous data extolling the virtues of the “Golden Age” of the post-war era, during which the ‘New Deal’-philosophy of fettered markets and welfare was widespread and popular among governments. It is possible to justify progressively oriented economic policies. But while this has been the case for decades, the left has yet to make much of it.

Relatedly, the depoliticization to which neoliberalism pretends must also be answered. In times of moral relativism like today, the discomfort with arguments based on humanitarianism is understandable. It is difficult to ground politics in beliefs when belief is an unfashionable concept. Neoliberalism makes assertions on the basis of “rationality” and claims certainty. In contrast, the left, with its semi-arguments for efficiency, modified (for example, in the case of Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices) by appeals to the interests of the working-class, looks to be making moral judgments about what society should look like. People may agree ethically, but the neoliberal mentality, which emphasizes that the most efficient outcome is that of the free market, leaves one thinking that the left is living in an unrealistic land where one can “waste” output for the sake of intervention based on a moral judgment. In this way, the trumpeted “amorality” of neoliberalism, with efficiency as its sole basis, becomes a strength, convincing the public where the left’s half-and-half mix of morality and efficiency fails.

Returning to the politics at hand, we can pose our earlier question to Corbyn: “In what way should the left respond?” Seemingly, he lacks something which would prevent him from coming across as a little too “old-school”—recent poll figures, show 36% (up 22% from April) of voters see the party as extreme, and 55% as out of date (up 19%). His “People’s Quantitative Easing” was not well-received by economists, and while some of his policies are popular, such as renationalizing the railways, he is in many ways too obviously moralistic. This is part of his popularity with the recent wave of Labour supporters. The demographic group who most supported Labour at the last election, according to Labour MP Jon Cruddas’ review of the party’s election result, were what sociologists call “Pioneers”—young, altruistic, metropolitan liberals.

But to win, the left must gain support of the pragmatists, too. Voters are not all ideologues—in a recent YouGov poll, 42% of Conservative voters favored renationalizing the railways, as many as those who opposed it—and will respond well to arguments about, for example, the ludicrousness of the right’s “treating the economy like a household.” The key is to just present these arguments to such an audience in a less esoteric fashion.

Currently, Labour is a weak and fragmented party that has a confused sense about what to do. It will not provide the singular platform necessary to articulate a coherent left-wing message, even if it had the leader to do it. Corbyn is a deserved product of Labour’s travails; but he is not the person the party, nor the left, needs right now.

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