Corbyn - what's a leader really for?

Critics of Corbyn and his followers are trapped within their own limited conceptions of what politics is about.

Jeremy Gilbert
1 December 2015


, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Labour loves Jeremy: but why? 

YouGov has just published some polling data which has excited understandable interest. It shows that despite, or perhaps because of, the media barrage against him, current Labour party members are overwhelmingly happy with the job Jeremy Corbyn is doing as party leader. To some extent these findings are to be expected, given reports elsewhere about the turnover of members since his election, as ‘moderates’ leave and leftists join, continuing to shift the political composition of the membership as a whole. Predictably, Labour centrists are in near-despair, especially given that the same polling shows Labour members significantly out of step with broader public opinion on many key contemporary issues. But what is truly remarkable about the poll findings is the extent to which that membership agree with both the Blairites and the wider public on a particular key issue: the electability of Jeremy Corbyn.

Astonishingly, perhaps, only 50% of the Labour membership currently see Corbyn as having a decent chance of becoming prime minister in 2020, while many more currently approve of his leadership. This means that a large section of the current membership simply do not see winning the next election as the most important thing for Corbyn to be trying to do.

I wrote in the summer about some of the reasons why people like myself – a Labour pragmatist since my teens – might have reached similar conclusions, might finally have decided that a certain model of politics had simply reached a dead end. What’s quite remarkable about the Blairite commentary – be it from journalists, MPs, or celebrities such as Robert Webb – is that they just don’t seem to be able to grasp what the arguments are which might motivate people to take that position. I don’t mean that they aren't able to grasp why those arguments are right (which of course, they might not be); it’s that they seem genuinely unable to get a handle on what the arguments even are.

The failures of New Labour (again…)

It hardly seems worth re-capping those arguments again here, but perhaps I can put it in a nutshell. New Labour’s achievements in office were not just disappointing in scale and scope, given that they had a working parliamentary majority for 13 years (more than twice the time it took the Attlee government to transform British society forever). New Labour's achievements were qualitatively different from those even of the Wilson and Callaghan governments, in that they simply didn’t leave most people in Britain any more able to influence their destinies by working with their fellow citizens than they had been in 1997, and they left social inequality at a higher level than it had been in 1997. They made no attempt to challenge the deepening individualism, inequality and commercialisation of our culture: instead they actively reinforced it by, for example, insisting that schools and hospitals accept neoliberal systems of management and quality control. I repeat, the latter criticism could not be fairly made even of the disastrous Labour administration of 1974-9.  This is why many of us have concluded that the entire political strategy associated with the project of Labour ‘modernisation’ since the 1980s was a failure, and that the strategy advocated by the Bennite Left at that time, which emphasised long-term movement building over short term electoral tactics, might at least be worth a try.

I’ll say this again: this might all be wrong. But if critics on the right actually understand it and still think it’s wrong, then they ought to be able to marshall some actual arguments against it. Which they haven’t done. Instead, they just repeatedly call us Corbyn-supporters mad, naive or nostalgic. Which for a group of people still in abject denial about the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, still repeating exactly the same political mantras they were chanting in 1999, is pretty rich.

Two models of politics: marketing vs movement-building

The reason I think the two sides of this argument find it so hard to talk to each other, or even understand each other’s logics, is that what is at stake here really is two quite different conceptions of politics; this implies, among other things, two quite different conceptions of what leadership is and what leaders are for. One perspective basically thinks that politics is about selling your party to consumers;  the other thinks that it’s mainly about building up a coalition of social groups with common interests. Spoiler alert: it’s the second one that’s right, mostly.

Politics as marketing 

On the one hand we have a view of politics which is that reproduced by the mainstream media (including the ‘centre-left’ press), by much of mainstream political science, and which is shared by the vast majority of the political class. According to this view, there is only ever a very narrow range of opinions which can really be considered sensible, because they are predicated on an understanding of how the world really works. Political parties compete to convince voters that they are able and willing to enact a governmental programme which fits within these parameters while delivering both competent administration of the existing political and economic system, and whatever minor modifications thereof are most popular with voters. Convincing voters of that means presenting politicians, and above all party leaders, as likeable and competent (so worthy of trust), while also clearly understanding the limits of what it is acceptable to think, say or do.

Likability and competence are defined according to very narrow criteria, largely borrowed from the cultures of contemporary business: so a party leader should come across like one of the less offensive candidates on The Apprentice, and if they stray too far from that mode of self-presentation, they will be assumed to be failing. The leader is, essentially, a salesperson, selling the party ‘brand’ to a target market. The target market is almost exclusively floating voters in marginal constituencies, which are overwhelmingly in small to medium sized English towns. So if you don’t look and sound like a marketing manager from one of those places, you are basically doing it wrong.

This is a model of politics which is essentially liberal in nature. I don’t mean ‘liberal’ in the casual sense in which it is normally used today (meaning something like: a bit progressive, a bit free thinking,  generous to the poor, etc). I mean ‘liberal’ in the classic philosophical sense: assuming that people are inherently rational, self-interested individuals before they are anything else, and that politics is a means of aggregating and deciding between their individual competing demands. From this perspective, the practice of politics is fundamentally a matter of making one’s particular political brand the most popular in the consumer marketplace. At the same time, if you think, as this perspective does, that the social world is ultimately just made up of competing individuals, then there is no particular reason to be skeptical about the the assumption that parliament and government are more-or-less neutral instruments which any political party can use in order to achieve its aims. This is a view which is quite difficult to believe if one pays any attention to the frequency with which corporate interests seem to influence political outcomes; but it is a very convenient one for journalists to believe in, because it means that they don’t have to report on anything more complicated than the personalities of politicians and the results of the latest polls.

The great weakness of this model of politics, incidentally, is that it simply cannot explain how great social change has ever happened. It insists that politics as it has been done since the 1980s is the only way it could ever be done. Which doesn’t explain why at other points in history politics has demonstrably been done differently. If you ask them why the NHS happened, adherents of this model will usually say that it was because Mr Beveridge and Mr Attlee thought it was a good idea. If you talk to them about the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, then you will usually find that they have never heard of it. If you point out that the NHS was not designed by focus groups and was opposed even by much of the Labour movement, only really being brought into being because the south Wales miners demanded it, then they will try very hard to change the subject.

Politics as movement-building 

On the other hand, we have a quite different view of politics. This is a view which some might call vaguely ‘Marxist’, but which might more accurately be called simply ‘sociological’, because it is perfectly possible to endorse this view while remaining very skeptical about many analytical and political assumptions of most of the Marxian tradition. This is a view which sees politics as essentially a matter of conflicts between competing sets of interests, those interests being shared by various groups of various shapes and sizes. From this perspective, what governments actually do when they get into office is not simply a question of what they said in their manifestos, or what the people who voted for them want them to do, or what their members want them to do. Ultimately, from this point of view, what governments actually do will tend to be shaped by the overall strength and weakness of the different interest groups which exist in a society  at a given time. Those groups might include: workers, investors, speculators, home-owners, women, immigrants, professionals, consumers, hunters, farmers, gardeners, etc. The strength and weakness of these groups is dependent upon a range  of factors: their wealth, how well organised they are, their access to bits of the state, their access to technology, how far other members of society care what they say or do, how willing the members of that group are to make personal sacrifices for the good of the group, etc. From this perspective, even if you win an election, if you don’t have  a powerful coalition of social forces to back you up, then you are going to end up effectively being told what to do by other powerful social forces.

It is very easy to see why someone might agree with this view if we consider the differences between the different Labour governments I referred to above. The ’45 Labour government was able to enact radical reforms because the unions were very powerful during the era of post-war reconstruction, a time of acute labour shortage. In 1997 they were weak, and nothing had happened in the wider social, economic or technological environment to make them any stronger by 2010, which meant that the New Labour government had far less scope to do anything which might annoy the City of London.  Of course, the Blair government did nothing much to try to make the unions any stronger – beyond enacting some progressive legislation early in its first parliament – while its aggressive support for European labour market deregulation contributed considerably to making them weaker. Which is one of the fundamental things that even the once-moderate left cannot forgive them for. And it is one of the things that the Labour right simply cannot get their heads around at all.

A different kind of leadership?

But the key point I want to make here is that this sociological conception of politics produces a quite different set of ideas as to what the role of the party leader should be. From this perspective, the first role of the leader is to rally their own side effectively. And this is precisely what Corbyn has  done. For the first time since the mid-1980, he has brought together and largely unified the disparate elements of the English and Welsh left, the 20-30% of the population who share a more or less Marxist outlook on most things, who voted for  Labour’s radical socialist programme in '83 and who I think most evidence suggests have not significantly grown or shrunk in number since then. Critics are quite right to point out that, then as now, enthusing less than 30% of the voting public gets you nowhere, no matter how enthusiastic they may be. But those critics would do well to reflect on the sheer achievement of rallying a force which has been dispersed, demoralised and defeated for three decades, even if Corbyn never achieves anything else.

The question which those critics would pose if they had a sufficient grasp of this model of politics (which they don’t) is simply this: what next? Having rallied your forces, what do you do with them? Most fundamentally, how do you extend them, bringing other social groups into the same coalition, without watering down your aims to the point where you demoralise your own side? Well, again, the radical tradition does have a classic answer to this question. What you do, simply, is to convince enough of those other social groups that their interests are best served by throwing in their lot with you than by supporting the other side. This is what it means to achieve ‘hegemony’ (leadership) within a wider ensemble of social forces. In a society in which it is pretty much self-evident that a tiny elite are creaming off almost all of the products of everyone else’s labour for their own benefit, this ought to be easy enough. Unfortunately, when that tiny elite owns the mass media, and uses it to insist that anyone who advocates anything resembling this sociological model of politics is simply mad, then the job becomes much more difficult. When your own professional politicians are mostly deeply committed to the truth of the liberal consumerist model of politics, and have been taught since their youth that anyone who isn’t committed to it is a mad Trot, and have mostly never been taught any basic sociology (the subject you don’t study if you read PPE), or even much serious history, then you really have a problem.

What you do under those circumstances is not clear, and this is what Corbyn and his sympathisers are still trying to work out. The most radical of them are looking for something quite different from old models of leadership, they are looking instead for a ‘leader’ whose role will be to facilitate a real democratisation of the Labour party and an empowerment of a new grassroots movement. Unfortunately even the most radically sociological thinker has to acknowledge that however democratic the party becomes, if it doesn’t have a leader who can rally not just their own side, but a majority of the public, behind a progressive cause, then the party will not be able to democratise wider society. What their critics fail to grasp is that simply appearing likeable to that wider public, while completely failing to inspire the party membership, is not something which an effective party leader can do either, and that a large section of the public is so disillusioned with that style of politics that they will not return to acquiescing to it for at least another generation.

There aren’t any easy answers to these dilemmas. Building a movement and making that movement successful are by nature complex tasks which take a long time to complete. There are elements of marketing technique which even the most democratic movement-building leader must deploy if they are to widen their coalition of interests successfully. Whether the current Labour leadership can figure out how to do that remains to be seen. On the other hand, looking at the Labour leadership’s critics, the fact that they cannot imagine a form of leadership which does not make marketing its first priority, and can only understand as failing a practice of leadership which is not exclusively focused on marketing, shows just how limited a conception of politics the British political class is committed to.

The great difference between the liberal and the sociological models, however, is that the latter can at least explain the former. It is easy to understand where the idea of politics as marketing comes from and why it has so much support if we think about the fact that it essentially serves the interests of exactly the same groups that other forms of commercial marketing serve: the wealthy capitalist  elite. From the other side however, the liberals of the political class are completely mystified by the  emergence of another model of politics, and can only denounce it in the most confused of terms. Calling someone mad is not an argument, but an admission that you cannot understand what they are doing. If anything demonstrates the redundancy of their models of both politics and leadership, it is this inability to grasp the motivations and the objectives of their opponents.


On December 16th I’ll be chairing a public seminar on the politics of leadership at Senate House in central London, with Archie Brown, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University and author of the classic The Myth of the Strong Leader, Alan Finlayson, Professor of Political and Social Theory at the University of East Anglia, Shirin M. Rai, Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Warwick and Marc Stears, former Professor of Political Theory at Oxford University and former chief speechwriter to Ed Miliband. It’s a free event and tickets can be booked at

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