openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Don’t blame Corbyn or Brexit: Labour failed to rage against the hated political system

Any leader challenging power will suffer character assassination, and Brexit is just the latest manifestation of a deeper problem – one that Labour didn’t address.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
13 December 2019
Jeremy Corbyn, announcing he will not lead Labour into another election.
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BBC, fair use.

The war in the Labour Party has begun. For one side, Jeremy Corbyn is to blame. For the other, “If it wasn’t for Brexit...”. Fortunately for them, both sides can agree that more tactical voting could have saved the day.

All of these responses to last night’s devastating result fail to interrogate the thing they criticise. All treat their preferred scapegoat as an ephemeral phenomenon, as though it can just be herded away, dismissed.

The idea that Corbyn’s personal popularity was the problem, just like the idea that Ed Miliband’s personal popularity was the problem, or that Gordon Brown’s was, fails to take account of how public opinion is formed.

Any Labour leader running against the powerful institutions of the country would be pilloried by the media. The outlets that mocked the Jewish Ed Milliband for looking weird (read ‘foreign’) when eating a bacon sandwich, and smeared his refugee father as hating the country, didn’t skip a beat when they smelt a whiff of an anti-Semitism scandal around his succesor.

This idea that the solutions to Labour’s problems lie in a new leader has been prevalent in Scotland for twenty years. Scottish Labour has been through nine in that time, but is yet to stumble upon its Moses.

Of course Corbyn has to resign. Of course, there are things wrong with him: he ended up as leader because he was the last person standing on the only wing of the party that had serious solutions to the problems of the world. Blairism had actively discouraged a younger generation of thinkers and leaders on the left from joining the parliamentary Labour Party, and so Corbyn – with his well-rehearsed flaws – stepped up when the moment emerged.

A Bernie Sanders would have been better: someone with more charisma and the ability to communicate a core message at every opportunity. But anyone who thinks Blairism would have allowed such a leader to emerge hasn’t paid attention to two decades of British politics.

Yes, many people raised Corbyn as the reason they wouldn’t vote Labour, just as many raised Miliband and Brown before him. But citing these objections is meaningless if we don’t think about the structures of power and culture which shaped them. After all, anyone who has seen David Miliband give a speech knows it is laughable to suggest that he would have been any better than his brother.

Too left?

Sometimes, ‘if it wasn’t for Corbyn’ really means ‘if Labour wasn’t so left wing’. This ignores the facts that polls show most Labour policies are outrageously popular and that the 2017 manifesto was widely seen as a hit. The success rate of the much-promoted centrist parties of the era – ChangeUK, the Lib Dems, Hillary Clinton’s Democrats – does nothing to back up that argument either.

A more serious way of putting the point would be: “If Labour hadn’t run against the institutions of power in the country, they might have allowed the party into government”. If Labour hadn’t pledged to go after the oligarchs who own our media, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so harried by them.

Perhaps. But at a time of climate emergency, drastic inequality and soaring poverty, failing to take on big oil, big money and billionaire power means failing. And in any case, this strategy has only worked in moments – like 1997 – when the Tories were no longer a viable vehicle for the aspirations of the mega-rich.

A demand for empowerment

Corbynism was the English expression of a phenomenon which swept the Western world after the financial crisis. His victory in Labour’s leadership election was a response to the blatant failures of the free market, post-imperial wars and the staid ideology that had infected the whole ruling class. It was a response to deep feelings of alienation and immiseration.

Brexit was also an English response to this multi-headed crisis. Specifically, it was a rage against the alienation produced by the Blair and Cameron years, by the ‘leave it to us’ politics of technocracy.

It was a demand for empowerment and it came from the region of Europe with the most centralised government and most privatised economies: that is, as Anthony Barnett has argued, England without London.

When my friends on the left of the Labour Party argue today that they would have won if it wasn’t for Brexit, they imply that Brexit is a one-off event, a unique set of circumstances that can be set aside and discounted for the future. That’s a bit like the comforting notions that Labour would have won in 1983 if it wasn’t for the Falklands war, or in 2015 if Cameron hadn’t whipped up fear of the Scottish National Party. These arguments may even be true, but what they amount to is “Labour would have won if it wasn’t for Anglo-British nationalism.” Which is essentially saying: “Labour would have won if it wasn’t for the main reason the Tories normally win.”

At the root of this nationalism is a deep yearning for collective agency. It is in part a toxic backlash of a nation bitter about losing its empire, in part the legitimate demands of people to have control over their lives.

This alienation was mobilised by the right, who drew firm borders around the national collective and promised Brexit would allow ‘us’ to ‘take back control’. The response from the left should have been to offer genuine collective agency, through a political revolution.

“I don’t trust any of them!”

I argued yesterday that Labour struggled because people didn’t believe that our political system would deliver the party’s manifesto. As I travelled around the north of England interviewing people about the election, I discovered something new had happened. Where people used to often say, “They’re all the same,” in a resigned way, the most common reply now is, “I don’t trust any of them!” usually snapped with fury.

In 2014 in Scotland and 2016 across the UK, the Yes campaign and the Leave campaign were able to mobilise sentiment against the political system behind them. In this election campaign, it became clear as I travelled the country that Labour had failed to do this – looking to too many like technocrats offering nice things in order to trick you into voting for them.

It’s no coincidence that, by my sums, 88% of Tory gains were in seats where turnout was down.

At the core of all of this is the debate about Labour’s Brexit position, which appears in hindsight to have been the worst of both worlds. By remaining essentially neutral on Brexit over the past three years, Labour allowed Lib Dems and Blairites and other technocrats from the previous era to shape what Remain meant, presenting it as the status-quo option, opposed to the change people are desperate for.

Had Labour consistently argued that a Tory Brexit would be part of ‘the system’, highlighting again and again the oligarchs who funded the campaign, the desire to drag the UK towards the US and the race to the bottom this implies; had they used the opportunity to fight for radical change to the British state, the debate now would be very different.

At core, the problem was not Corbyn. Without him and his ideas, Labour would be squabbling with the Lib Dems over a minuscule pool of voters trapped in 2005. Nor was the problem Brexit, because Brexit is just the latest expression of English alienation.

The problem was that Labour ran a campaign with a ‘retail’ offer when voters wanted empowerment. They asked people to trust the political system to transform their lives after the Tories had been waging war on trust in the political system. They failed to drive a debate about radical change to the British state, to rage against a system designed to ensure elite rule. And so huge numbers didn’t believe they’d deliver their otherwise popular policies. Because they have no faith in politics.

Rather than fighting to rip up the rules of our broken politics and hand power to the people, pro-Labour groups spent a huge amount of money reminding people of one broken part of our system, and then telling them to suck it up. I spent much of the election monitoring the various non-party campaign pages.

Leave pages – and Leave.EU in particular – focused on political messages, designed to convince, persuade, troll and inflame: to drive debate. Leave.EU has spent just £2,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads since October, and has had 822,000 interactions on posts from its page in the past seven days.

Remain pages focused on tactical voting. The pro-EU campaign Best for Britain has spent nearly £900,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads since October, mostly promoting tactical voting. But it had only 290,000 interactions with posts from its page in the past seven days (not counting 'dark' ads). And it’s not clear its adverts helped: the main message was that the voting system is broken, but voters just have to accept it. It changed politics from a deep debate about our futures together to an infomercial about arithmetic.

Labour’s proposals could be summarised as a core argument: we will use politics to make your life better. But if people don’t believe in the political system, they won’t trust you. Corbyn should have raged against elite rule, and promised a new democracy, by the people, for the people. He should have tapped into the anti-systemic energy. It should have been 'by the many'. He could have won.

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