Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives at an event on the Promenade in Colwyn Bay, Wales, while on the General Election campaign trail. Peter Byrne/PA Images. All rights reserved.For Robin Murray.
Did nobody see it coming?
Labour now has an asset which it has not enjoyed for generations: a mass membership, newly enthused by a radical change of direction for the party.
During the June 2017 General Election campaign, I was asked by many people – including several journalists – if I thought that Labour had a chance of winning. My answer was always the same. Statistically, it seemed almost impossible; but there were also good reasons to expect that Labour might do better than in 2015, and there was a plausible scenario in which the result for Labour would be far better than anybody was expecting.
Nobody needed to be an expert to see what that plausible scenario might be. Labour now has an asset which it has not enjoyed for generations: a mass membership, newly enthused by a radical change of direction for the party. It was always conceivable that this might be enough to enable vigorous doorstep campaigning to counter the power of Tory tabloid propaganda. Keep in mind that ever since the 1920s, such mass campaigning had only ever been able to match the power of the Conservative press monopoly on a handful of occasions, and arguably not once since the ‘70s (in 1997, 2001 and 2005 Blair won the backing of The Sun, but he did so by pursuing a policy agenda that Rupert Murdoch was happy with, and not because the paper’s editorial line had converted to democratic socialism). The level of enthusiasm from party members – especially those brought into the party, or back to it, by Corbyn – and the scale of mobilisation which Momentum was engaged in, looked from very early in the campaign like it might be enough to make a difference. But what has surprised everyone is just how much of a difference it has made.
Well, almost everyone. This is an anecdotal observation, but I think a significant one. The only people I knew who expected Labour to do well were Corbyn enthusiasts, many (but not all) of whom had thrown themselves into the campaign, but who paid no attention at all to the mainstream media. Normally such people are accused of living in ‘bubbles’. Now it seems that it was those of us who believed too implicitly in what the professional political class were telling us (including pollsters) who were living in a bubble; the folk out on the streets had a better feel for what was going on. And what was going on was something huge.
Explaining a historic result: volatility and reversibility
We can quibble about the numbers. It is technically true, that because the Tories also gained votes, this election result did not (as was widely misreported) see the biggest swing to Labour since 1945. For that to happen, the Conservatives would have had to lose votes to Labour. Instead what happened is that Labour won votes from UKIP (far more than anyone expected), the SNP and Greens, while the Tories gained far fewer than expected from UKIP and rather more than anyone foresaw from the SNP. But the overall result saw the biggest direct increase in Labour’s General Election Vote Share since 1945. In 1945, there had not been an election for 10 years, because of the war. In 2017, the last election had been just 2 years earlier. So this was, by any reasonable standard, a historic result. What it actually meant, and what produced it, is, of course, a matter for debate. At least two popular explanations have been widely circulated.
The first, preferred by most journalists and MPs – the professional political class, in other words – attributes the result, inevitably, to contingent decisions and the effects of personalities. Of course it does. It is part of the professional ideology of that group to ignore or deny any more fundamental historical forces than the individual decisions made by professionals like them, in offices like the ones that they work in, thinking on the kind of timescales that they normally think on (days normally, weeks at most). According to this story, it was all about the campaign, there was no problem with the polls, if the election had been held in April then Theresa May would have won a landslide. Corbyn is a very good campaigner and she is a very bad one, the Labour manifesto was popular whereas the Tory one was uninspiring: case closed, upset explained.
Political outcomes and events which looked like they could not be altered any time soon can now, it turns out, quickly be turned around.
There are some very right-wing historians who believe that that is how great historical events happen: the French revolution was just an enormous cock-up; slavery was all the outcome of some ghastly misunderstandings; there are no deeper forces or wider interests shaping political and social outcomes, and only socialists are deluded enough to believe that there are. But few other historians would take very seriously the proposition that, for example, the 1945 election was won by Labour just because they had really great poster designs, or because Churchill sounded a bit tired on the radio. There is no reason why we should assume that any such explanation for this result is adequate, and we should frankly mistrust the motives of anyone who tries to tell us that it is. Apart from anything else, such an account simply ignores two key issues. It ignores the existence of the mass mobilisation to which I’ve referred, and which existed as a matter of empirical fact, however hard some may find it to comprehend. It also ignores the crucial question of how it is, and what it means, that the most relentless media attack on Labour in its political history (and that is saying something), which is what could be seen in the pages of the Sun, the Express and the Mail during the last weeks of the campaign, proved incapable of reversing Labour’s rise.
There is a slightly different explanation on offer, which is far more credible, although it also can be accused of seeking to downplay the significance of what looks like a historic result. From this perspective we are, more than ever, in an era of extreme voter volatility, with non-voters mobilisable, and swing voters swinging, in greater numbers than ever before. Perhaps a better way to describe this situation would be to say that it is one of greatly increased reversibility. Political outcomes and events which looked like they could not be altered any time soon can now, it turns out, quickly be turned around. The return of the Tories in Scotland surely stands as some evidence for this idea – nobody saw it coming, and nobody really thought that it was even physically possible. But this leaves open the question of why this peculiar form of reversibility has emerged, and should draw our attention to the fact that ‘voter volatility’ is not a new political phenomenon. Commentators have been commenting on it since the early 70s.
Workmen put together a Ford Prefect on the final assembly line at the Ford Motor Works, November 1950. PA/PA Archive. All rights reserved.Explanations have often pointed to the emergence of a more fragmented, pluralistic and individualist society than the one which preceded it.
We can shed light on the current situation if we consider the explanations which have been offered for voter volatility since the beginning of the era of ‘class dealignment’ (as psephologists used to call it), several decades ago. These explanations have often pointed to the emergence of a more fragmented, pluralistic and individualist society than the one which preceded it, in which old class loyalties are weakening and a more consumerist attitude to politics prevails among voters. Long before British commentators recognised the existence of something called ‘neoliberalism’, these shifts were understood by some as consequences of the emergence of ‘post-Fordism.’
This was the name given to the new systems of production and distribution enabled by the spread of robotics, electronic communications and rapid global transport. It encouraged companies to break up into specialised units, outsourcing many aspects of their activity, servicing ever-more specialised consumer niches, breaking up supply-chains into a series of short-term contracts, promoting competition between firms seeking market share and between workers looking for employment. The break up of political blocs, the appearance of smaller parties, the rise in the number of swing voters, were all seen as expressions of these underlying economic tendencies to fragmentation, specialisation and individualisation.
In the 1980s, the influential magazine Marxism Today famously theorised the success of Thatcherism in terms of its capacity to capture this new terrain and turn it to its advantage. This was compared with Labour’s success in the 1940s, building a social democratic order on the ‘Fordist’ foundations of manufacturing industry, full employment and faith in the future; all infused by a conformist mass culture which discouraged excessive individualism. The two great epochal elections of the past century – in 1945 and 1983 (or '79, depending on whether you think it was Thatcher’s first election, or the subsequent collapse of the Labour vote after the SDP split, that was the bigger historical event) can therefore both be seen as having been, in part, responses to more fundamental shifts in the way in which capitalism was organised, shaped as much as anything by changes in the available technologies of production and communication. So can the 2017 election be understood in comparable terms?
I think it can. In recent years, post-Fordism has itself been increasingly displaced by a new form of capitalism relying on a new generation of technological innovations. The corporations which define our age – Facebook, Google, Apple, Uber, YouTube – do so not through their specialised fragmentation in pursuit of niche markets, but through the constitution of massive monopolistic platforms which enable them to profit directly from the creative activity and labour of their users. Andrew Goffey and I actually interviewed the great British economist, Robin Murray – the person responsible for Marxism Today adopting the term ‘post-Fordism’ – in 2015 , and he explained in that interview that post-Fordism was now being displaced by this new form of capitalism: what Nick Srnicek calls in his recent book ‘Platform Capitalism’ (see also Alex Williams in ‘Control Societies and Platform Logic’).
What kind of culture platform capitalism is producing, and what the consequences might be for politics, we are only slowly beginning to discern. But what seems clear now is that this new context enables certain forms of aggregations and collectivisation to take place on certain scales – for example facilitating hundreds of thousands of people joining a single political party – while also encouraging fluidity, mobility and dispersal on others. The ‘viral’ logic of social media culture displays both of these qualities at once, as ‘swarms’ of actors band together briefly before dispersing into other fields. We might once have thought that this only applies in the virtual world of Twitter. We’ve learned in recent years that it can also apply to the domain of electoral politics: just look at how rapidly Scottish voters swarmed behind the SNP in 2015, and how many of them have already taken their votes elsewhere.
Apple. Kevin Trotman/Flickr. Some rights reserved.But this new context is not only characterised by the changeability of the electorate and the power of Californian corporations. The same platform technologies which generate billions for Silicon Valley also proved decisive in the election. Online and mobile apps enabled hundreds of thousands of Labour activists to mobilise in a manner quite unfamiliar to those of us who remember the ‘control freak’ campaigns of the 1990s, when every canvasser worked to a script and disciplined ‘message control’ was exercised throughout the party. Often effectively self-organised, they travelled to marginals in their thousands, and, genuinely enthused by the manifesto, knocked on doors to persuade people to vote Labour. This, along with a fantastic campaign of viral media output, both ‘official’ Labour and Momentum content, and material from ‘alt-left’ media outlets such as The Canary, amounted to a totally new form of organised political force in British politics.
The result was staggering, but not, in retrospect, absolutely surprising. New media advocates and optimists have been predicting for decades that sooner or later, digital communications media would make new forms of radical democratic organisation possible. A decade ago Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri were widely derided by the orthodox British left for arguing that new communications technologies were facilitating the emergence of radical new forms of collective intelligence and democratic agency. My own line on this was resolutely agnostic, if always hopeful for the long term. As I liked to explain to students – it took 150 years for a fully mature labour movement to emerge from the industrial revolution, and get to the point where its organisational techniques could really start to reverse the damage done to ordinary people’s well-being by the onset of urban industrial capitalism. The computer-enabled technological revolution which had transformed the industrial world since the 1950s had rendered most of those organisational techniques – unions, strikes, parties, national state governments – ineffective at containing or challenging the power of finance capital. Although activists and thinkers had been trying since the 60s, I liked to say, we still really had no idea how long it would take to develop organisational techniques of our own which could compensate for their loss. It could happen very soon or it could take another 150 years. Well – now we know. It didn’t take 150 years.
Contingencies of the British conjuncture
kennardphillips, Profit, London, 2017. Matt Brown/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Does this mean that we have entered a new era of mass democracy, in which the triumph of a new wave of democratic socialism is all but guaranteed? Yes and no. In a certain sense it clearly does mean that we are in a new era for mass democracy, which is doubtless what has so terrified the professional political class – from Progress to the BBC – who have trained exclusively for a world in which genuine mass democracy was supposed to be a thing of the past. But it also means that no outcome can be taken for granted. And this means that we can’t dismiss the significance of some of the localised and contingent factors which helped Labour to achieve the result that it did, and the possibility that they may alter soon too.
Our socialism must look like it belongs to the twenty-first century, or voters will abandon us for something that does.
One thing that is now evident from the election result is that May’s strategy of appealing to socially conservative, pro-leave Labour voters proved catastrophically unsuccessful, even in Birmingham (a traditional redoubt of working class conservatism, since the days of Joseph Chamberlain). Labour achieved its result by inspiring a new social coalition which included working class voters from all but the most traditionally conservative of the Labour heartlands, young voters of almost all class backgrounds, across every region , and many affluent voters in the South, frightened for their children’s future at a time when even the offspring of the professional classes have seen their historic privileges eroded out of existence by neoliberalism and austerity.
In this context, May’s implicit rejection of cosmopolitan culture proved to have a far narrower appeal than expected, confined pretty much to the over 55s and the small towns. It actively turned off swathes of well-heeled voters who had voted Remain, and for Cameron only two years previously. This fact has not been lost on the Tories. The advisers credited with authoring that strategy have been dispatched, while George Osborne has been openly crowing about the failure of May’s rejection of neoliberal, cosmopolitan globalism.
Under these circumstances there is a very obvious danger for Labour. If a new Tory leader – Johnson or whoever else – explicitly opts for a different direction, committing to soft Brexit and a return to Cameron’s social liberalism as well as a public end to austerity, then there is a serious danger that large numbers of those affluent voters could return to the Tory fold. Labour needs to keep them onside by continuing to push an agenda that looks modern, optimistic, in tune with the times. The ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ paper published shortly before the election, arguing for new forms of employee-owned company as a progressive way forward in the age of platform capitalism, represents an excellent start. We need much more of that. Our socialism must look like it belongs to the twenty-first century, or those voters will abandon us for something that does.
The left behind
At the same time, there is no getting away from that fact that, in the small towns, and coastal areas above all, the Tories did take voters from UKIP who had been Labour up until very recently. Must we abandon them as relics of an old world that we can leave behind, now that we can win votes in Kensington and Canterbury? Not only can we not afford to do that, if we actually want to win an election; to do so would be a abdication of Labour’s historic moral mission, to defend the vulnerable and offer security to those who lack it.
Both Blue Labour and Theresa May’s key advisers made a profound analytic mistake in projecting their own political fantasies onto the English White Working Class.
I’ve spilled more ink than most in criticising the ‘Blue Labour’ thesis that these constituencies, and their socially conservative desires, should become the basis for Labour’s political programme and strategy. The election result has surely put paid to any such idea now. That result has decisively proven that both Blue Labour and Theresa May’s key advisers made a profound analytic mistake in allowing themselves to project their own political fantasies onto the English White Working Class. They came to conceive of this group purely as a cultural category, as a sort of moral agent, defined solely by its prejudices, by its rejection of metropolitan, cosmopolitan liberalism. In doing so they lost sight of the fact that this class fraction, like any other, is always primarily an economic unit, defined by its material interests. The genius of the Labour manifesto was that it implicitly recognised that, offering a hopeful narrative of industrial and social democratic renewal, quite distinct from the miserable, punitive xenophobia which infused both the UKIP and Tory stories.
But having said all this, let’s give the advocates of Blue Labour their due. Their position has been motivated as much as anything by the intuition that this conservative working class constituency, ‘left behind’ by globalisation and neoliberalism, must not be left behind by Labour. In this they are surely right. And it is not only strategically crucial that large numbers of these older working class voters be brought back into the Labour fold. It is also an ethical duty for the movement and the party not to let them drift further into alienation and resentment of a world in which they feel they have no stake.
Democracy, pluralism, cosmopolitanism
How to do this will remain a key question for some years to come. What is crystal clear, however, is that pandering to right-wing xenophobia would now be strategically disastrous for Labour. This is because such sentiments are entirely alien not just to some, or half, but to a clear majority of its emergent social coalition: the young of almost all socio-economic groups, the urban working class and the metropolitan professional classes are arguably united more explicitly in their rejection of retrogressive xenophobia than in anything else they may share.
People felt aggrieved that their communities and their lifeworlds were being transformed because of political decisions that had been taken by someone, somewhere, but not by them.
At the same time, ignoring or patronising the ‘left behind’ is not an option. So what to do? I have made suggestions elsewhere which I will elaborate a little in a following piece for openDemocracy. But the key point I would reiterate here is this. The grievances which the Brexit vote expressed were many. Some were cultural, as Blue Labour and Nick Timothy realised. Some were economic, and this has been the basis all along of the Labour leadership’s response, promising industrial renewal and enhanced migration adjustment funds as responses. But some of those grievances fit into neither of these categories, and are better understood as democratic in nature. People felt aggrieved that their communities and their lifeworlds were being transformed because of political decisions that had been taken by someone, somewhere, but not by them; decisions over which they had not been consulted and for which nobody seemed to be accountable to them. Unless Labour can really grasp the nettle of our democratic crisis, proposing new processes and new experiments which could build, at local, regional and national levels, democratic institutions worthy of the twenty-first century, then ultimately such grievances are only going to fester. For every enthusiast who attends a leadership rally, feeling that Jeremy Corbyn speaks for them, there are still many who feel that nobody does, and who perhaps want to be enabled to speak for themselves.
Of course people like me have been making arguments like this for a long time. We want radical democratic initiatives, pluralistic politics and progressive alliances because we think they are good things in themselves and because they seem to be the natural expression of the most positive tendencies of our time (see here, or here). There are plenty in the party and the movement who think otherwise. They don’t think people really want more democracy – they think they want jobs and and an NHS that works and they want someone to deliver it for them, and they believe that Labour can. They think that the Progressive Alliance idea is a distraction, given that Labour winning 45% of the vote and a clear parliamentary majority at the next election now looks thoroughly plausible.
Labour: a platform party?
Momentum in Thanet. Funk Dooby/Flickr. Some rights reserved.To an extent they are quite right. There is no doubt that I and others like me adopted the progressive alliance idea partly as a response to the conditions of the post-Fordist moment. In the epoch of perpetual fragmentation, it seemed that the era of the mass party was over, and unthinkable that Labour could ever win 40% of the vote again, without pursuing the banal centrism of the New Labour project. By contrast, in this new era, the aggregatory logic of platforms evidently makes it possible for single parties to absorb large numbers of voters and supporters, under certain circumstances in ways that they couldn’t in the previous moment (the sudden emergence of Macron’s La République En Marche is arguably another recent example). In fact I would suggest that some factors about Labour’s specific situation entering the 2017 election made it particularly easy for it to behave as a new kind of platform party.
Momentum’s own trajectory over the past year bears out the thesis that we have entered an era of platform politics.
One of these is simply Labour’s historic federal structure. The party’s status as a loose and complex assemblage of elements (local constituency parties, trade unions, individual members, affiliated organisations, etc. listen to episode one of this podcast for a useful guide), and its historic self-image as a political ‘broad church’ containing many ideological traditions, arguably lend themselves quite easily to its effectively behaving as itself a kind of ‘platform’, within which a vast range of activities are engaged in by different actors, with relatively little central control but a shared reliance on the unique Labour ‘brand.’ Of course nobody who remembers the New Labour years, when 3 or 4 people in the Leader’s office seemed able to micro-manage almost every single aspect of party activity at every scale, would easily recognise that description. In effect, it only makes sense because of the weird situation of political stalemate between leadership, membership, MPs and party bureaucracy which obtained at the beginning of the campaign. With no one agency fully in control, nobody was able to prevent members from campaigning and organising as they saw fit – and in particularly nobody was able to prevent Momentum from taking on a key strategic role in enabling them to do so.
Momentum’s own trajectory over the past year bears out the thesis that we have entered an era of platform politics. The organisation was riven by fierce and very public debates about its internal structure late last year. In fact these debates turned on the question of whether Momentum would be structured like a traditional membership organisation – a federation of local groups administered by their delegates, with local face-to-face meetings as its central organisational unit – or whether it would become, in effect, an organising platform, committed to enabling members to campaign inside and outside the party through the use of online and mobile technologies, but unconcerned with issues of local democratic procedure. The decision went decisively the latter way; the rest, as they say, is history.
Does all of this mean that the idea of a ‘Progressive Alliance’ is dead, because Labour as a platform party can now contain within it the full range of forces and tendencies to be mobilised in the pursuit of a 21st-century socialism? Possibly. But I don’t think so. I don’t think so partly because the idea of a pluralist coalition is clearly more in tune with the spirit of these times than is the idea of a monolithic party, however ‘broad’ a church it may be. This is borne out by the fact that a clear majority of voters and Labour members and supporters now, for the first time, support the progressive alliance idea, as indicated by several recent polls. It is also borne out by the fact that mobilisation and organisation for the progressive alliance took place on an unprecedented scale for this election, largely coordinated by Compass. This clearly had a significant impact in a number of constituencies, contributing to the overall loss of the Tory majority. It is churlish and unhelpful of the Labour leadership not to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the Green Party, in particular, who stood down candidates and campaigned for Labour in 30 seats. Opponents of the progressive alliance on the Labour left seems to take the very patronising view that this is the least they could have expected of the Greens, who really ought to all just grow up and join Labour. They really should ask themselves whether, in this era of political reversibility, it is wise to be so dismissive and condescending towards allies who have already proven their willingness to make sacrifices for the cause.
The most fundamental law of democratic politics is not going to change: all politics is coalition politics, and whoever has the biggest coalition wins.
They would also do well to bear in mind that the obstacles to achieving the goals that we all share remain formidable, on local, regional, national, international and global scales. Labour still needs all the allies it can get: in civil society, in the business community, in the media and institutions, and yes in others parties. Labour didn't win the election, and if the leadership had been prepared for its candidates to stand down in 30 seats where it couldn’t win, as the Green Party did, then Corbyn would be Prime Minister now.
The greatest lesson of the election campaign and the extraordinary mobilisation which took place is surely this: that democracy can work, in the age of platform capitalism. What we glimpsed in the campaign, and in the Alternative Models of Ownership document, was something far more novel, and far more potent, than simply the 2017 reboot of Fordist social democracy which the official manifesto offered. But if the potential of this new form of democratic socialism is to be realised, it will have to follow the logic of network mobilisation at least part of the way to its logical conclusion. The radical democratisation of the party will be one necessary implication. But the democratisation of relationships beyond the party – with other parties, communities, movements and their members – will clearly be another. Beyond all this, the most fundamental law of democratic politics is not going to change: all politics is coalition politics, and whoever has the biggest coalition wins. To insist that our entire coalition must be confined to Labour Party members would simply be to limit our capacities; and for no good reason at all.
But let's be clear. It can no longer reasonably be claimed that Labour cannot come from opposition to win a parliamentary majority on a radical platform. It has never done this before, as I have often remarked. But it has never before been in the position of having gone from a 30% vote share to 40% within the space of two years, either. The need to build coalitions is now a matter of long-term strategy or democratic principle: it is no longer a tactical necessity, and this is a testament to the success of the Corbynite strategy, and Momentum in particular.
The end of neoliberal hegemony?
A first challenge to neoliberal hegemony came in the form of Latin America's 'Pink Tide'. Street Demonstration in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2005. Credit: IROWS. Some rights reserved.The June 2017 UK General Election was a historic turning point not just because it marked the fully emergence of the Platform Era. It also marked the final end of neoliberal hegemony in Britain. That is not to say that neoliberalism is finished; indeed, it is so successfully embedded in so many of our institutions that its effects will be with us for decades to come. But neoliberalism no longer presents itself as an unchallengeable common sense, defining a political terrain from which nobody can depart for any distance. This still wasn’t the case in 2015, then Ed Miliband was accused of being ‘Red Ed’ for suggesting that the domestic retail energy market might need a bit of a regulation.
Neoliberalism no longer presents itself as an un-challengeable common sense, defining a political terrain from which nobody can depart for any distance.
In fact if you want to understand all of the significant political events of the past two years, almost all you have to understand is this: neoliberal hegemony has broken in Britain. That is what caused the SNP surge in Scotland. It is clear that the Scots – outside Glasgow and Dundee – have never really wanted independence. But the SNP successfully presented itself (rightly or wrongly) as the social-democratic opposition to Westminster neoliberalism. We can see now that as soon as both Labour and the Tories began to signal their own breaks with neoliberal orthodoxy, SNP parliamentary dominance in Scotland started to crumble. It has been clear to many commentators, on left and right, that the Brexit vote was as much as anything, for many voters, a howl of protest against the intertwined effects of neoliberalism, globalisation and de-industrialisation. By June 2017, even the Tories knew that they had to produce a narrative which proclaimed, from a poorly-defined position of pro-worker social conservatism, some sort of break with the Clinton-Blair-Cameron-Osborne orthodoxy of cosmopolitan neoliberalism.
And let’s be clear as well that the Labour manifesto in itself didn’t produce the election result. If that had been the cause of the result, then the 1987 and even the 1992 manifestos – neither of which it was that different from – would have produced equivalent results for Labour. What has changed is not so much the content of the programme as the political conditions under which it is being put forward. Of course, it was a brilliant strategic insight on the part of the leadership to realise that the potential to put forward such programme was now much greater than it had been even two years previously. But what made it possible then, when it had been impossible two years earlier, was the collapse of neoliberal hegemony.
Neoliberalism was never very popular.
Of course this leaves open the question of why neoliberal hegemony has collapsed. I’ve been writing about this for a long time, but here it is in a nutshell. Neoliberalism was never very popular. From the 1970s to the 2000s, it secured hegemony by winning over corporate, political and managerial elites, while the material conditions of post-Fordism and globalisation undermined the power of the main agency that could have opposed it (organised labour). Neoliberalism secured passive consent from the population of countries like the UK mainly by offering ever-expanding opportunities for private consumption: cheap holidays, big TVs. It achieved this largely through the expansion of consumer debt and by the outsourcing of manufacturing to very low-cost regions such as China. In addition, neoliberal governments had been funding tax cuts and perks for homeowners (such as ridiculously low interest rates or the deliberate inflation of house prices) partly by withdrawing privileges (wages, benefits, opportunities) from younger workers ever since the mid 1970s.
After the financial crisis of 2008, not enough people could be offered the ever-expanding, debt-fuelled levels of private consumption that had made neoliberalism tolerable to them; and in particular, the persistent withdrawal of privileges from the young had reached the point where even the children of the upper middle classes were feeling the squeeze. As I suggested in a book published in 2008, the organised and radical left at that time were in no position to take advantage of the crisis, leaving the populist right and the persisting neoliberal technocracy largely in charge for the subsequent decade. But sooner or later, the resulting grievances, and the inevitable inability of the right to offer real solutions, were going to lead to a revival of the left which could really challenge the ongoing hegemony of neoliberalism. In the British context that challenge first took the form of the total rejection of Blairism by the Scottish electorate, and then of the rise of Corbynism in England and Wales. And that is what produced a context in which the June 2017 Labour manifesto could become not just another impotent set of social democratic promises, but the final nail in the coffin of neoliberal hegemony.
The challenges ahead
George Osborne. altogetherfool/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Neoliberal hegemony may have broken in the UK, but this is not the story everywhere else (partly because few Western European countries ever implemented domestic neoliberalism with anything like the same ferocity as Britain). France, the major EU country that might have been thought most likely to reject it outright sooner or later, has just elected the most explicitly Clintonesque government in its history. Syriza’s humiliation has shown what can happen to open enemies of neoliberalism within the Eurozone. Even in the U.S., the Democratic machine has not forgotten that Hilary won the popular vote, and sees Trump as an embarrassing aberration, more likely to secure their future the more utterly awful he becomes (they’re wrong of course – apart from anything else, this analysis ignores the collapse of Democrat power at a state level, as well as the fact that Bernie would have won both popular vote and the electoral college if he had received the nomination).
George Osborne has used his editorship of the Evening Standard to launch a relentless defence of Clintonite cosmopolitan neoliberalism, and a furious series of attacks on May for having abandoned it. Given how electorally disastrous this move turned out to be, there can be very little doubt that her successor as Tory leader will seek to reverse it, repositioning the Conservative Party back on Cameroonian ground, outflanking Labour in their advocacy of soft Brexit, in an effort to win back the prosperous, socially-liberal middle classes. Labour will need a broad coalition of allies, an exciting, future-oriented policy agenda, and a strategy to win back sections of the Tory working-class vote if it is to be able to meet this challenge.
What the next Conservative leader will not do is to call an early election. May’s calamitous miscalculation will surely form a part of Tory folklore for decades to come now, at least. Many Labour activists currently seem to assume that if May resigns or is defeated (both of which are very likely to happen quite soon), then an automatic election will ensue. It won’t. They also seem to think it likely that the DUP, sooner or later, will provoke a political crisis which endangers the government. I’m afraid this is also wishful thinking. As long as Jeremy Corbyn remains leader of the Labour Party, the DUP will never pursue any course of action likely to seriously endanger the government; they would as soon see him in No 10 as have the Queen turn Catholic.
One thing that any project trying to turn a political campaign into a social movement must have is an ambitious project for political education.
This is not to say that there might not be an election soon. The intuitive sense that the current situation is febrile and unstable, that history is flowing in our direction, and that the current government cannot last, is understandable, and one that many of us probably share. But we should remember that historical shifts on the order of that which is currently taking place do not necessarily produce obvious changes of government. We are just as likely to see Prime Minister Boris Johnson (surely one of the most opportunistic, least ideologically-convinced politicians ever to hold high office) abandon hard Brexit while offering a series of concessions to the progressive middle classes on issues such as university fees and NHS privatisation, as we are to see a rapid change of government.
Under such circumstances, we would all do well to reflect on what it might mean to get from where we are now to a 2022 election, without having lost any of the energy and enthusiasm which the recent campaign has generated. Labour and Momentum have put themselves into permanent campaign mode. This is good and necessary. But they have also explicitly predicated this move on the assumption of an early election. What if there isn’t one? How do we avoid a sense of burnout, disappointment and futile malaise setting in? Be absolutely sure that the Tories, and their allies in the press and the ruling class, are quite determined to ensure that this is exactly what happens.
If this outcome is really to be avoided, then Labour and its allies will have to keep developing and building on the progress that has already been made. One thing that will be needed, that any project to turn a political campaign into a social movement must have, is an ambitious project for political education: training and equipping its army of activists with the most sophisticated possible understanding of the times they are living through, the history which led us here, and the forces which we oppose.
Only a real culture of debate is going to keep the battalions of Corbyn enthusiasts interested, engaged and connected.
Only a real culture of debate, informed discussion and mutual education is going to keep the battalions of Corbyn enthusiasts interested, engaged and connected for as long as this campaign is probably going to take. Only an ambitious attempt to rebuild and revitalise the rich popular intellectual culture of the British left, which was utterly decimated by the triumph of New Labour neoliberalism in the 1990s (except in Scotland, which explains a great deal...), is going to enable Labour’s activist base to become as effective, and as interesting to those outside activist circles, as they are going to need to be to prove effective.
It’s already happening – the popularity of openDemocracy, of projects like Novara and The World Transformed, has shown that there is already massive potential for platform technologies and more traditional forms of community organising to facilitate the development of a new culture of learning, discussion and knowledge-production. Let’s hope that the Labour and trade-union leaderships will finally devote some real resources to making this happen on the scale that we actually need, and soon. If they do, then it really is possible that twenty-first century socialism could be built on the terrain of platform politics, just as Thatcherism captured the post-Fordist moment before it. If they won’t, then this year could be another missed historic opportunity.
There is something else that Labour will need if we are to take advantage of this new moment, and that is a properly international perspective on our situation. My analysis here has been totally UK-centric, with a few, inevitable token nods to the US and our nearest European neighbours. Arguably many of the developments to which I am referring here have no real precedent in those contexts, beyond the mobilisation for Bernie during the Democratic primary campaign. But they do have precedents elsewhere.
There is one overriding question: what is our strategy for defeating neoliberalism in Europe?
The uprisings of the Arab Spring were an important example of a new kind of technologically-enabled, swarm-driven democratic politics. To really understand our situation, and the potential for failure that resides in it, we would have to study those developments and their contexts in order to see what lessons we can learn. At the same time, the Latin American ‘Pink Tide’, now so clearly receding, was equally clearly the first real democratic challenge to neoliberal hegemony, considered on a global scale; studying the lessons of its defeat and its achievements must be an urgent task for us all.
Finally, closer to home, and far more urgent: does anyone really believe that Brexit would immunise a radical Corbyn-led government from the fury of the neoliberal European Union, and from its determination to make an example of us, as it did with Greece? Do we really believe that socialism in one country can be achieved in the 21st century, or that a Labour government could implement its programme without allies across the continent? Debates around Brexit, single-market membership, and all the rest are ultimately a pointless distraction if they are not framed in terms of this one overriding question: what is our strategy for defeating neoliberalism in Europe? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know that it is the one we should all be asking. Because without an answer to it, democratic progress in the United Kingdom is doomed.
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