Forever blowing bubbles: why Corbyn won Labour and how he can change Britain

The radical left in the UK has grown from a few tiny bubbles into a network capable of winning the Labour leadership. To win the country, it must keep expanding.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
18 September 2015

There's an article I've written about four times since the general election. It's changed again and again as the future has showed up, looking as surprised as me. Each time, the examples I've given have been a little different. But each time, the core point has been the same. It goes something like this.

Considering May's SNP surge and Labour dirge; examining the detail of Corbyn mania versus Kendall's failure; think back through elections throughout British history, and one thing seems to explain them all better than any other: it's ultimately institutions and the cultures they create that matter.

Much of the debate in politics over the summer – and for the last wee while – has been about positioning on a left-right spectrum. Put the term “Overton Window” into Twitter's search box, and you'll see an idea once only discussed in university politics departments is the latest craze of the left Twitterati. There's endless discussion of triangulation, out-flanking and positioning.

Of course, all of these things are important. Those who say the terms “left” and “right” are meaningless are wrong. Corbyn's election has opened that Overton Window, expanding the acceptable terrain of political debate. Twenty years of triangulating into the ever receding middle ground was responsible for the sense that people didn't know what Labour stood for anymore.

But this discussion all seems very one dimensional. It talks about politicians taking positions as though they're football or rugby players lining up on a flat pitch. In reality, we live in a mountain range of institutions, networks and groups, each with their own priorities, languages, cultural cues, ways of working and common senses.

Why, despite pretty similar manifestos, did the SNP win while Labour lost? It's not because the underlying values of voters are different: they aren't much – certainly not enough to explain the vast difference in their electoral behaviour. It's because the social institutions in Scotland are different.

From the Church of Scotland to the Parliament; from NGOs to the STUC; from folk culture to the media; from conceptions of historical identity to in-jokes: Scotland has its own institutions which shape debate differently. Since the referendum, the influx of members to political parties and the rise of a crowdfunded think-tank/media ecosystem has ensured this divergence continues.

Some of this difference is the chance of history. Other bits of it are by design, the consequence of a sixty year strategy imported to Scotland through its connection with Italy by the likes of Hamish Henderson and Tom Nairn. Scotland's Gramscian left spent decades building culture and institutions while England's Fabian left got lost in the corridors of power. But the detail of all that is for another day.

The immediate question is whether Corbyn could have won if he hadn't had almost immediate access to a network of trade union offices and staffers able to organise public meetings across the country? Without UK Uncut, Occupy, the 2010 student movement and the People's Assembly? Without the radical networks quietly being built by small NGOs like Global Justice Now, the Jubilee Debt Campaign, People & Planet, and War on Want, connected more than ever before by the New Economic Organisers' Network? Without the ideas of Tax Research UK and the New Economics Foundation? Without 38 Degrees and Avaaz?

For me, there should have been a simple sign that there are many more people looking for ideas outside the mainstream than there were in 2010: OurKingdom's readership has more than quadrupled in two years. How many of the 251,000 who voted for Corbyn were among the 3.7 million who have read an article here in the last 12 months? Like most of the organisations listed, of course, we didn't officially back Corbyn – we didn't back any candidate. But along with the rest, we hope that we provide a space in which radical ideas are debated rather than sneered at, where we see the opportunities as well as the risks of far-reaching change.

The point more broadly is that since the last Labour leadership election, the institutional infrastructure of the left has transformed. The soil had been churned up, waiting for seeds to blow in with the wind.

The people who sat in circles on Vodafone floors in 2010 are still friends – on Facebook if not also in real life. The students who occupied their universities that year are now in their mid-twenties and haven't lost the politics they learnt then. The activists who camped on the steps of St Paul's – and the friends they inspired, and the friends' friends whose reality they warped a little – are still around. They still debate politics on Facebook threads late into the night, still know how to organise public meetings at the drop of a hat, and can use new technology to do it faster than anyone could in the past. Like a clumsy teenager at the end of their growth spurt, they're only just finding their strength.

Ten years ago, such movements had little impact on party politics because those involved mostly refused to join anything for fear it would compromise their principles. But the anti-establishment left had already demonstrated that it was taking a party turn: the huge numbers joining the SNP and Greens over the last year foreshadowed what happened with Corbyn. Ten months ago I wrote a chapter in a book about this phenomenon, which I called “breaking the first rule of generation Y”. Yet I still failed to understand that ultimately, there was another crack through which the lava would eventually burst. Labour's Mohorovičić discontinuity too would be breached as the churning energy of social movement magma rushed into the cool, calm surface of official politics.

The breach, of course, was in part made by Ed Miliband. His decision to change the voting process and allow for registered supporters was key. As Anthony Barnett put it, “like one of the windows between parallel universes in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, this opened a passageway between the world of formless but highly charged democratic energy and the stultified phantom zone of Labourist lethargy”. I can't help but conclude that Ed knew what he was doing: his father famously argued that the left needed a party tied to social movements, and that Labour wasn't it. Was he trying to prove the second half of that argument wrong? In retrospect, all of this shouldn't have been such a shock.

I failed to put two and two together, but I did at least know all of the above. What I didn't realise was that the institutions of the centre-left must have been atrophying. Despite getting £1.3 million from Lord Sainsbury over the last five years, the once dominant Labour-right grouping Progress were only able to muster 4.5% for their candidate.

There had, though, been a sign of this earlier in the year: for the first time since 2004, the left won almost everything at NUS conference in April. You might imagine that this was a million miles from the grown up politics of the Labour leadership. In reality, all of the campaigns were littered with people who recently emerged from the student movement, rounded off on BBC News on Monday, when the respective representatives of the Kendall and Corbyn camps were a recent and a current NUS Vice President. Student politics has become the main feeder school for the party's establishment. Their inability to keep control of it was, in retrospect, a foreshock heralding the slipping of a vast tectonic plate.

The institutional power of the anti-establishment left is, for now, clearly greater than that of the centre left. This doesn't mean, though, that it is bigger or tougher than the forces of conservatism.

Huge numbers of people seem to divide the world into the bubble they live in, and “the real world”, where humans roam free, unencumbered by social networks. But really everyone lives in a bubble, or, rather, a messy raft of interlocking bubbles, forever blowing in the swirling winds of history. The question is how you can grow yours, and merge or ally it with others. And for Corbyn now, this is the mountain he has to climb.

It's a challenge we're already starting to see. The attacks on the new Leader of the Opposition so far – the fact that he didn't sing “God Save the Queen”; questions around the colour of the poppy he will wear – probably seem to most of his supporters like they do to me: so utterly alien that the tabloids may as well be mocking him in Klingon. But for those in the significant bubble of people for whom the iconography of British Empire kitsch dominates the altar of their moral code, he's committing blasphemy.

All of which, by the way, is a good example of why Corbyn's challenge is greater than Sturgeon's was: in 2013 there were around 10,000 street parties for the Queen's Jubilee across the UK, only 60 of which were in Scotland. Where Royalism exists, it often has a different cultural association. 20 of those gatherings were organised by the Orange Order, and the most prominent Royal Wedding Party in the country ended with 21 arrests. Whether because of the conscious strategy of the Scottish left which Hamish Henderson and Tom Nairn brought back from their Italian adventures or because of the broad forces of history, the grip of at least some of the traditional institutions of British power seems weaker in Scotland.

It is in this context that we should ask questions about whether Jeremy Corbyn is electable. Because when the establishment says that he can't win in 2020, we should be clear what they mean: they aren't commenting on the relative popularity of his various policies. They are saying that they won't permit him to become Prime Minister.

And it's a serious threat. When Labour governments were elected in 1945, 1950, 1964, 1966 and 1974, Labour won in a context in which the institutions of the left were much more powerful than today: a large manufacturing base allowed for an organised working class (and none is more organised than a returning army). In 1997, 2001 and 2005, New Labour won another way. With its “prawn cocktail offensive”, it persuaded the City and the corporate press to back it. This route, clearly, isn't open to the Corbyn and McDonnell.

The Jacorbyns (as Aaron Bastani has christened them) therefore have a challenge. How can they build the institutional architecture they need to win in 2020, networks and groups which can not just secure enough support in the calm seas of the inter-election years, but a flotilla gnarly and flexible enough to ride the rough waves into an election with the full thunder of the City and the press raining down on them? Clearly the social movement into which they have already tapped will be a part of that. Clearly they'll need to find the networks and the groups and the languages to mobilise new people. Clearly, though, they don't have that level of support yet.

This isn't just a threat. It's also a rare opportunity. As Anthony Barnett puts it, “Corbyn and his supporters have a golden moment to adopt an open political strategy, collaborating with as many other parties and movements as possible, over as wide a range of issues as they can stomach, to build and strengthen the democratic energy for economic, social and political justice his candidacy has so brilliantly unleashed.”

In the year before the Scottish referendum, the Yes movement unleashed a storm almost as great as that which the British state whipped up. In doing so, they changed the political weather in Scotland forever. Can the Jacorbyns reshape British civil society enough that they can win in 2020? I don't know. But I do know that, win or lose, as in Scotland's referendum, if they open their sails to the wind, they can change British politics forever.

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