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Like any institution anywhere, the British Labour Party has a narrative of its own history that could be called the “official story,” or at least the orthodox view. The party lost power in 1979 due to poor economic management and overmighty unions; it reached a nadir because it turned to hard-left politics under Michael Foot, its leader from 1980 to 1983; and then endured a long march to the centre under the three leaders who followed him until, having ascended from the Slough of Despond to the Electable City, they returned to power in 1997.
So it is unsurprising that many people in Labour are concerned about the sudden popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, a left-winger of the old school, who was found to be leading in a July 21st poll by YouGov. It would be hard for any person with a sense of history to avoid comparisons between Foot and Corbyn, or to notice that many of his young supporters would have no memory of the long, dark tunnel Labour passed through in the 1980s. And many figures on the left have taken to condemning Corbyn’s supporters as unserious, uninterested in power or mere poseurs. Helen Lewis, writing in The New Statesman, equates their support with “virtue signalling” on social media – “showing off to your friends about how right on you are” – an egotistical form of “purity leftism” concerned with individual progressive cred and not with social change. Jonathan Freedland, in The Guardian, also analyzes the Corbyn phenomenon as one of individual self-expression, of voters “being true to yourself” rather than caring about electability like supporters of the more centrist Liz Kendall. “They are [supporting Corbyn] not because they believe the 66-year-old can win in 2020, but for the same reason people retweet images of same-sex wedding ceremonies”. Tony Blair, more pungently, put it thus: “If your heart’s with Jeremy Corbyn, get a heart transplant.”
It is true that this sort of expressive, identity politics has become more common on the left since the late 1960s. Tony Judt cited it in Ill Fares the Land as a major reason that collective identities started to break down, which played into the hands of the neoliberal/Thatcherite project. But Judt was talking about the identity politics of gender, sexual orientation and single-issue causes. These are what political scientists began referring to as ‘post-materialist’ concerns in the 1970s and 1980s, because such concerns were not directly related to material well-being. And some young people do report, as Rhiannon Coslett notes in this New Statesman piece, that they like Corbyn because he doesn’t sound like a dull, centrist candidate and they admire his willingness to espouse principles unfashionable among the Westminster elite.
But to equate Corbynism (if I may coin a word) with this sort of identity politics – with re-tweeting photos of same-sex marriages and oppressed cetaceans at Sea World – is wrong, and potentially very damaging to the Labour Party. Young people didn’t suddenly develop an interest in redistribution or progressive taxation because they stumbled upon a Thomas Piketty Facebook page. They have rallied to it because the young are materially disadvantaged by the present economic system, and more especially by the policies of the incumbent Conservative government. This government and its Coalition predecessor have abolished the education maintenance allowance, tripled tuition fees, and sharply limited access to benefits for young people. The most recent budget denies young workers the new “national living wage” until they turn 25, bars them from housing benefit until they’re 21, and converts their maintenance grants into loans.
So “Corbynism” isn’t about identity politics in the way that political scientists and commentators often discuss these politics. That term refers more to non-materialist concerns. Corbyn’s supporters are excluded because there is no political force that represents their material concerns in public life, nor their views about the proper management of the political economy. They are excluded from the neoliberal consensus identified by so many writers (Peter Mair, Tariq Ali, Wolfgang Streeck). It is this consensus that Freedland and Lewis identify with “realism,” and which Labour’s analysis of its own history has concluded is indefeasible.
Labour’s analysis of what counts as “serious” extends to its view of the electorate – only those who have a stake in the current system already are deemed important. Labour’s entire approach to defining “electability” is predicated not on embracing young voters, but on the supposition that they will not turn out. The party has a point – Labour actually won voters aged 18 to 34, and especially voters aged 18 to 24, but these turned out at lower-than-average levels. But is that their fault, or Labour’s for not mobilizing them? And when these young voters have mobilized behind Corbyn, columnists call them, essentially, puerile and unrealistic. Labour’s mainstream candidates are promising to address Conservative injustices, but their plans for victory rest on those most affected by those injustices neither participating in the Labour Party nor voting at general elections. In the meantime, the “serious” wing of the Labour Party begs it to seek Tory voters, even though it lost more of its 2010 voters to the SNP and Greens combined (10 percent) than to the Tories (8 percent), and even though these voters have no material or tactical reason to embrace a Labour Party in neoliberal clothes, when they already have a Conservative Party that is Thatcherite to its marrow.
It’s little wonder this leaves the young with little interest in being realistic, even at the cost of perceived electability. Electability will give them nothing. From Coslett: “And that is the crux of what Corbyn supporters in their teens and twenties are telling me again and again: that the current crop of candidates are so uninspiring that you can forget about winning a general election - they’d rather just have someone who represents their views about inequality, for once.” Or, as Jeremy Gilbert put it elsewhere on this site: “Even if it means we lose elections, there comes a point at which constantly deferring to the authority of our historic enemies just becomes more demoralising than losing elections does.”
It is also worth noting that Labour’s leadership is perfectly happy to embrace identity politics when it sees fit to do so. Ukip voters are also engaged in “identity politics,” but both major parties have gone to great lengths to court them. Labour not only promised immigration controls, but offered themed merchandise; Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham, two of Corbyn’s three more centrist rivals, have backed the EU referendum Cameron devised in part to appeal to Ukip supporters. And Ukip voters are, if anything, more alienated from the mainstream parties than the young. These voters, for whatever reason – perhaps because of their social conservatism and acceptance of hierarchical social structures and capitalist discipline, or just because they are older and more likely to turn out – are worth pursuing. The young voters on the left? Well, apparently, the children are not our future.
It’s hard to fault Labour for trying to learn the lessons of its own history, of Michael Foot, 1983 and Blairism. It’s also too soon to praise Corbyn for winning so much support to his banner; as Jeremy Gilbert noted, it is possible that Corbyn will fail to mobilise a broad coalition behind his leftist platform, the kind of mass mobilization that powered the Yes campaign and later the SNP in Scotland over the past year. He points out that Labour’s hard left, once epitomized by Tony Benn, long failed to recognize that the era of the mass union and the mass party ended with de-industrialisation; a failure to understand the social fragmentation caused by the transition to a service-based economy has hampered social democracy for several decades. Instead, they continued to imagine the proletariat as a unity, gathered into a single workers’ movement to be led by a single cadre party, without acknowledging that society had become more plural and decentralized.
Corbyn’s potential faults aside, he is the one reviving interest in the Labour Party and the left right now. One of the verities of modern European politics is that the narrow, free-market mainstream consensus has alienated large swathes of voters, accelerated the hollowing out of mass parties and fed populism in all directions. Maybe Corbyn doesn’t know precisely how to reach out to the alienated, but so far, he seems to be doing a far better job than anyone else vying for the leadership of his party. And if Labour doesn’t find a way to embrace the Corbyn camp, someone else will. In fact, in some parts, someone else already has.
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