UK Labour is not traditionally a populist party. The dominance of its parliamentary wing, wedded as it is to the pageantry and protocols of Westminster, militates against the construction of the sharp political divide that populism demands – and particularly the anti-systemic stance required by left populism. While the campaigns that achieved the largest increases in Labour’s vote share – 1945, 1997 and 2017 – all involved forms of populism, these are exceptions rather than the rule.
Labour politicians are usually most comfortable speaking in terms of the “national interest” and then arguing that Labour, rather than the Conservative Party, is best placed to realise it. This approach structures Labour’s political narrative: its parliamentary team is made up of good managers with good values whereas the Tories are bad managers with bad values. The object of the Party’s traditional critique is not the capitalist system as a whole, nor even its more visible beneficiaries. Instead, the Party seeks to undermine the public’s trust in the Conservatives’ ability to manage the system effectively, while simultaneously building trust in Labour’s ability to do the same.
One way to take stock of the Corbyn project, and to discover possible paths forward for the social forces that comprised it, is to chart its continuities and discontinuities with this traditional, non-populist Labourism. The best place to start is with the area to which theorists of left populism have given most attention: political discourse and communications strategy.
For the many not the few
The Labour Party’s traditional technocratic tone – presenting itself as the only true guarantor of “the national interest” and studiously avoiding antagonism – stands in stark contrast to a left populist communications strategy, which deliberately generates conflict to construct a majoritarian political divide between particular social groups and a clearly defined enemy or set of enemies as part of an anti-systemic movement seeking state power.
This left populist approach, to be carried out comprehensively, would have required the Corbyn project to develop a simple story about itself and to repeat it relentlessly. This story would rest on the construction of the Many – a set of social blocs bound together in common interest – and its enemies, the Few: tax cheats, greedy bankers, dodgy landlords, rip off bosses, big polluters and the billionaire media.
Such an antagonistic approach would generate opportunities to dominate the news cycle in a way that reinforced Labour’s central Many-Few framing. It would also lead to more sustained and targeted attacks on the project which could be turned against the attackers: the scale of attacks against the project would be presented as evidence of the real threat it posed to the ruling class, building public trust that the Party really was working for and with the Many to break the shackles of the Few.
Aspects of this approach may sound familiar as a version of it was, at times, pursued by Corbyn and his team. (I was part of the team: from 2016 to 2019, I was head of strategic communications and spokesperson for Corbyn and Labour.) For example, in Corbyn’s first speech of the 2017 election campaign, he invoked a central antagonism between “the people” or the “true wealth creators” and the “powerful” or “cosy cartel.”
He rose above the ‘party versus party’ frame and instead presented Labour as part of a movement that could beat the establishment. He named enemies: privatised rail, tax dodging multinationals, Philip Green, Mike Ashley and bankers. And he pre-empted the media’s attacks by arguing that the “media and the establishment” said the election was a “foregone conclusion” because they “don’t want us to win because when we win, it’s the people not the powerful who win.”
In the days following this speech, the slogan “For the Many, Not the Few” was adopted, which effectively encapsulated this left populist framing and placed it at the heart of the campaign. From this point on, every policy that Labour announced was presented as “For the Many, Not the Few” by taking on the rich to provide a universal benefit or service. These policies culminated in a manifesto, For the Many Not the Few, whose hostile leaking created precisely the attention-capturing controversy necessary to foreground Labour’s central Many vs Few framing and the popular policies that gave it content.
The 2019 general election campaign began in a similar way. Corbyn’s first speech took aim at dodgy landlords (represented by the Duke of Wellington), bad bosses (Mike Ashley), big polluters (Jim Ratcliffe), greedy bankers (Crispin Odey) and billionaire media barons (Rupert Murdoch). “Together,” Corbyn told his audience, “we can pull down a corrupt system and build a fairer country that cares for all.”
And he constructed an expansive ‘we’.
And he constructed an expansive ‘we’, claiming, “we’re young, we’re old, we’re black, we’re white, we’re straight, we’re gay, we’re women, we’re men, we’re people of all faiths and none, from the North and from the South. We're from Scotland, we're from Wales, we're from every part of this country. And when Labour wins - the nurse wins, the pensioner wins, the student wins, the office worker wins, the engineer wins. We all win.”
In his speech to launch the 2019 manifesto, Corbyn integrated the attacks he and Labour were receiving into his own narrative. “Labour is on your side,” he declared, “and there could scarcely be a clearer demonstration of that than the furious reaction of the rich and powerful. If the bankers, billionaires and the establishment thought we represented politics as usual, that we could be bought off, that nothing was really going to change – they wouldn’t attack us so ferociously... They know we will deliver our plans, which is why they want to stop us being elected.”
The ‘new mainstream’
One aspect of left populism, as laid out by Chantal Mouffe and practiced by parties like Podemos and politicians like Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is its transversal appeal. In Mouffe’s formulations, this usually involves sloughing off much of the traditional symbols and language of the left. For new parties, such as Podemos or France Insoumise, who have national republican as well as socialist traditions to draw upon, this has worked up to a point. But Britain does not possess a republican tradition for Labour to tap into. What’s more, it would be odd for Corbyn and his team to have captured the leadership of the Labour Party and then not use its brand, history and iconography, especially when it was theoretically possible to do so while drawing a big divide with its recent past.
But Corbyn’s Labour could perform a related manoeuver by using relentless majoritarianism – and a consistent focus on building for and with that majority – rather than a technocratic paternalism focused on providing state support to those who most need it. This majoritarianism did not always come naturally to Corbyn or many of the Party’s activists, who are motivated by a heartfelt desire to help those most in need. Effectively marshalling a left populist strategy would have required Corbyn to transform his moral outrage at issues like homelessness into a broader message about the brokenness of the system as a whole. Success could be measured, for example, by whether Labour’s policy of ending rough sleeping was seen as evidence of the party’s commitment to wider social change as well as the right thing to do.
Success could be measured, for example, by whether Labour’s policy of ending rough sleeping was seen as evidence of the party’s commitment to wider social change as well as the right thing to do.
At times, Corbyn and his team were able successfully to articulate this majoritarianism. For example, when laying out the party’s 2017 tax proposals, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell claimed, “the Labour party is now the party of low taxes for middle and low earners, while the Tories are the party of tax handouts for the super-rich and big corporations.”
Corbyn ended the 2017 campaign by combining majoritarian self-confidence with an insistence on the Many vs Few antagonism. His final rally speech contained two set pieces. First, he declared that Labour now represented “the new centre ground.” “This”, he said, referring to manifesto policies, “is the new mainstream, and we have staked it out and made it our own – together.”
Second, he read the closing verse of Percy Byshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.
Corbyn returned to this theme of a new mainstream for the Many not the Few in his speech to the Labour Conference later that year. He argued that the neoliberal “economic model... doesn’t work for most people” and as a result “Labour is now the new mainstream, developing a new consensus of how to run an economy for the many not the few.”
This new consensus was not a new form of non-antagonistic politics or class collaboration, but one that overturned the existing system. Corbyn proudly declared that chancellor Philip Hammond was “absolutely right” to suggest Labour posed an “existential challenge to our economic model.”
This self-confident assault on the status quo, the majoritarian appeal and Many vs Few framing were all repeated two months later after investment bank Morgan Stanley warned its clients about the dangers of a Labour government. Corbyn and his team produced a 90 second response video with the combative caption, “When bankers like Morgan Stanley say we’re a threat, they’re right. The next Labour Government is a threat to a damaging and failed system that’s rigged for the few.” The Labour leader combined majoritarianism with class antagonism by stating that “nurses, teachers, shopworkers, builders, just about everyone is finding it harder to get by, while Morgan Stanley’s CEO paid himself £21.5m last year and UK banks paid out £15bn in bonuses.”
“nurses, teachers, shopworkers, builders, just about everyone is finding it harder to get by”
The video was a highly effective piece of concentrated left populist communication. It was watched over 3.5 million times online and reported on widely in the media, including on the front page of the Financial Times.
Brexit and left populism
Brexit presented a significant challenge to this approach. The Leave-Remain divide cut straight through Labour’s coalition, creating an alternative polarisation in which Labour could never gain a majority.
The vote to Leave was animated by cultural, economic and political concerns. No left populism could be found in the cultural dimensions, which had a profoundly reactionary flavour. But there was some possibility to engage with the economic grievances of a broad mass of Leave voters from areas that were seen as economically “left behind,” alongside the economic grievances of the mass of Remain voters, often in bigger cities.
This was the strategy adopted in the 2017 General Election, as Labour effectively shut Brexit down as an axis of political contestation by respecting the result of the referendum and by centring the Many-Few axis as an alternative. But by the Labour Party conference in September 2018, this strategy was becoming stretched beyond its elastic limits, as Remain forces in the Party pushed hard for a second referendum and a winter of parliamentary Brexit showdowns loomed.
In response, Corbyn’s team tried to frame the Conference around a plan for national, green renewal through the UK’s towns, deploying the slogan Rebuilding Britain. A Green Jobs Revolution for the UK’s post-industrial areas was the main policy announcement of Corbyn’s speech. The conference’s artwork showed semi-nostalgic, semi-futuristic scenes of towns revived with wind turbines and other signs of economic and social progress. It closed with a party political broadcast titled “Our Town,” designed to appeal to town-dwelling Leave voters through a social democratic national-popular programme. It remains one of the Party’s most watched videos online.
Unfortunately, the Party consistently failed to deal with the third pillar of the Leave vote: questions of political sovereignty and democracy. A bid to bring greater democracy to the UK at all levels of society, including reclaiming powers to upgrade the economy and expand public services, could have provided a political left populist locus, alongside the economic one, around which the Brexit-divided Many could have regrouped.
A bid to bring greater democracy to the UK… could have provided a political left populist locus, alongside the economic one.
The reality of the Brexit process, with its endless and obscure parliamentary manoeuvres, alongside the growing strength of the ‘Stop Brexit’ camp, meant that the reactionary, right-populist strategy employed by the Tories proved far more powerful at setting the political weather than Labour’s insufficiently consistent left populist alternative. The clear victory of the Brexit antagonism over the Many-Few divide from the close of 2018 onwards further undermined the coherence of Labour’s attempts at a left populist communications strategy.
The main voice of Labour’s left populism, Jeremy Corbyn, was greatly diminished by the Brexit process. He was trapped in Parliament, as just another participant in a deeply unappealing set of parliamentary tricks and games which failed to satisfy anyone and enraged those who wanted to see Brexit through. From late 2018 through most of 2019, if Corbyn appeared on television, it would often come in the form of a short clip from a parliamentary intervention as part of a Brexit process that few in the country related to. And when his interviews were broadcast, much of the content would be about Brexit, with Corbyn stuck presenting an ever evolving, unappealing compromise struck internally within the party with little collective thought given to what would actually appeal to voters. The burnish of 2017, when Corbyn had appeared a politician apart, authentically himself, was painfully wiped off.
The Brexit situation also created a strategic argument against left populism, which while barely aired in this form was an unspoken motivating factor for some of the Corbyn team. With an election in 2019 likely, Labour needed to find a route to at least 40% of the vote, like that it had received in 2017 and was still polling after September 2018’s party conference. With Brexit centre stage, this challenge was substantial.
If the Party had adopted a more pro-Remain strategy, it would accept Brexit as the main political divide and therefore would need to win the votes of the overwhelming majority of the 48% who voted Remain in June 2016. This task was Herculean given that the other parties occupying that space – the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid and the Greens – had core votes, and that a stubborn portion of 2016 Remain voters were Tories whose objections to socialism or even social democracy outweighed their opposition to Brexit. To reach these non-Labour remainers, the Party would have had to shave off some of its edges, running on a more conventional offer and attempting to construct a majority around the cultural cleavage that separated Leave from Remain voters.
The other option would have been to adopt a more Leave-friendly position on Brexit and attempt to refocus the political debate around a different set of issues. Those in this camp saw the Conservatives’ targeting of Leave voters who didn’t usually vote Conservative as the biggest threat to Labour, both in the seats it held and the target seats it sought to gain. In order to keep both Leave and Remain voters in the Labour camp, the party would have had to overpower the Brexit divide with an alternative central antagonism, constructed through loud and effective left populism and a closing down of the Brexit debate where possible.
The strategy adopted ultimately fell somewhere in between. To overcome the Brexit divide, Corbyn insisted that he wanted “to bring people together.” While a worthy sentiment, this was in effect an effort to deny animating political divides rather than to shift focus onto another one. Labour’s approach began to seem like, at best, a confusing mix of contradictory approaches, and at worst, dissembling to win the election.
Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution agenda might have offered an alternative route to displace the Brexit antagonism – and it receives a glowing review in Mouffe’s recent essay on green left populism. She correctly states that these policies promoted “rapid decarbonisation of the economy, jointly with investment in sustainable, well paid and unionised jobs.” But despite forming the opening section of the manifesto, the main source of spending and investment and the campaign’s first major policy announcement, the Green Industrial Revolution was not the centre-piece of Labour’s campaign. While it generated strong support from sections of the electorate – and is the most developed policy programme of its sort anywhere in the world – it wasn’t articulated with sufficient real world meaning, and lacked the bite and political animus to catch the national imagination.
In the end, Labour pursued both populist and non-populist strategies simultaneously – and therefore neither effectively. While some set pieces, such as the revelation of the £500 million per weak threat to the NHS contained in secret UK-US trade talks, or the manifesto launch, were effectively delivered, the campaign failed to hang together.
The Green Industrial Revolution was not the centre-piece of Labour’s campaign.
The story of this failure can be told through the campaign’s slogan. 2017’s iconic “For the Many Not the Few” was dispensed with, as was the 2018 Conference’s “Rebuilding Britain.” Instead the Party adopted the blander option of “It’s time for real change.” The slogan fell flat as the campaign lacked a clear sense of what “real change” might look like. It ran into the further difficulty that it rested on the idea that real change can happen through the ballot box, just not the “real change” voted for by 52% of voters three and a half years previously.
Despite the lack of a unifying slogan, the campaign began well, with Labour rising rapidly in the polls. However, by mid-November the gap between Labour and the Conservatives was not closing as Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” slogan and the Brexit Party’s decision to not stand in any Tory-held seats allowed the Tories to capture the vast majority of the Leave vote. Searching for alternatives, the Labour campaign team changed slogan to “on your side” in an attempt to appeal to historic loyalties to Labour and suspicion of the Conservatives, as former Labour Leave voters seemed poised to join the Tory or Brexit Party camps.
In the dying days of the campaign, in a last-ditch attempt to close the persistent poll gap, “For the Many Not the Few” was reintroduced as a campaign slogan, but far too late to be noticed by the electorate or provide meaning to the campaign. In effect, Labour ended the campaign in the most boiled down, traditional Labour approach: claiming to be on people’s side and asking them to vote Labour to save the NHS.
A more complete strategy
As we can see, this left populist communications strategy, incompletely implemented as it was, was not sufficient to achieve widespread social change in the interests of the majority. While theorists of left populism have developed an expansive theory of political discourse, they are relatively silent on such vital issues as: the importance of organising progressive social forces; the institutional vehicle(s) required to advance the project; its international alliances; and how to approach the state. All five elements are crucial parts of a counter-hegemonic socialist strategy.
This would have to include a movement strategy that aided the development, organisation, militancy and unity among various movements, including the labour, tenants, climate and anti-racist movements. The goal would be both to increase the autonomous power of those movements and provide them with a shared strategic horizon of a Labour government, which would champion their aims and assist in turning them into popular national demands.
The Corbyn years saw a revalorisation of trade unions in public debate and three years in a row of modest increases in total trade union membership, the first such sustained increase in four decades. The Party committed itself to community organising, with a new unit that sought to strengthen community campaigns and responded positively to movements, such as the Youth Climate Strikers and Extinction Rebellion. However, the party mainly failed directly to intervene to stimulate the organising of progressive forces, by, for example, organising a mass trade unionisation drive, setting up tenants’ unions, or coordinating and cohering movement demands under a single banner.
The ideal movement-building approach would ally with a party strategy that aimed to transform Labour. This strategy, if successful, would turn Labour’s “entire organisation into a gigantic lever of popular mobilisations, championing the causes of all sectors of the oppressed and offering a governmental perspective of real change.” The party’s practices, policies and personnel would have to be actively changed so that it could stimulate and promote popular demands and win elections, without being co-opted once it had. In short, the Party, at least in theory, could have combined the impact of left populist communications with a social base brought together under its banner and a party format capable of forcing through its demands.
Labour’s transformation into a socialist movement-party was far from complete by the end of Corbyn’s tenure as leader in 2020, as evidenced by the rapid reversals that took place over the course of the following months under the leadership of Keir Starmer. While party democracy was never the priority issue in practice for Corbyn’s leadership, and the Democracy Review generated too few and too piecemeal changes, the direction of travel was towards change. From 2015 through to 2019, the party base had lagged behind the leadership, with Corbyn and his team breaching new political ground. But by Labour’s 2019 conference, the party’s grassroots were prepared to go beyond the leadership and confidently chart new ground themselves, winning substantial conference floor policy victories on a Green New Deal, abolishing private schools and setting up a National Care Service. This ‘Corbynism from below’ could have begun to initiate its own programme of party transformation had it not been for the election defeat and the change of leadership that followed.
‘Corbynism from below’ could have begun to initiate its own programme of party transformation.
Alongside building the movement and democratising the party, to mount a successful counter-hegemonic project Labour would also have had to combine the skilful development of international alliances alongside an understanding of the state as a site of class contest itself.
Despite Corbyn’s historic focus on international issues, the rest of the world played a relatively minor role in the project. Two of Corbyn’s most significant interventions as leader were about Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world: his apology on behalf of the Party for the Iraq war and his speech about the failures of British foreign policy following the Manchester Arena terror attack. He gave a wide-ranging speech about 21st century internationalism to the UN in Geneva in December 2017 which went unnoticed by the corporate media, but was praised on the domestic and international left. He also exerted considerable time and energy on the misnamed Party of European Socialists, which brings together the EU’s social democratic parties. However, on international issues, Corbyn was in a minority within a minority. Not only did the overwhelming bulk of Labour’s MPs not share their leader’s anti-imperialist politics, but much of his close team, both in the shadow cabinet and his office, did not either.
Preparations for government were limited in a different way. Plans for legislation were drawn up with the shadow teams, but the exercise was flawed. Despite John McDonnell’s analysis of the need to be “in and against” the state and the ideological impact of Tony Benn, Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch on some of Corbyn’s team, preparations for government tended to treat the Party programme as something that could be implemented through existing state machinery, without mass mobilisations and with little establishment backlash. One senior member of Corbyn’s team remarked after meetings with senior civil servants about Labour’s 2019 policy programme that the civil service was “genuinely excited” about carrying out Labour’s legislation. Such hopes would have melted on contact with reality had Labour entered government.
A left populist Green New Deal
This critical engagement with Corbynism should not simply be read as an assessment of the project’s missteps and mistakes. While there was plenty that could and should have been done differently, it is important to remember that the terrain of struggle – the objective political situation, balance of forces in society and the party and level of pre-existing political development on the left – was weighted against Corbyn from the start. Those who want to take inspiration from the successes of Corbynism and apply its lessons to new projects ought to look at what could have been done to expand the project’s available set of actions within this hostile context.
One such project is sketched out in left populist terms by Chantal Mouffe in her recent essay for openDemocracy. Mouffe rightly argues that the defeat or relative eclipse of various left populist or left populist adjacent projects does not mean that the systemic crisis of capitalism through which we are living can only be met with techno-liberal solutionism, state neoliberalism, authoritarian nationalism, centre-left managerialism or a return to twentieth century left approaches. If anything, the fracturing neoliberal hegemony, climate breakdown and the fallout from the pandemic both demand and create the conditions for an effective left populist response.
But assessing what this response might look like requires shifting from a narrow focus on communication to a more expansive analysis of all five areas of strategic concern necessary to building a counter-hegemonic project: communication, movement, party, international, state.
When it comes to communications, unfortunately a truly effective left populist approach is not currently a viable option in the UK given the political context. The effectiveness of a left populist communications approach rests on its capacity to shape the field of the political through discourse construction. Labour’s potential to engage in and shape public debate far outweighs that of any other political actor. Despite a few senior figures, such as Ed Miliband, the shadow cabinet member responsible for much of this policy area, being personally committed to economic transformation coupled with environmental protection, plainly, under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer QC, the Party will not adopt such an approach.
Starmer’s allergy to left populism is violent. His approach to politics, shown by both his time as Shadow Brexit Secretary and as party leader, is firmly within Labour’s traditions of progressive managerialism, parliamentary process, friendly gestures to the establishment and above all seeking a totalising “national interest” – a constant refrain in his public utterances. His method of politics is so traditional and anti-populist as to be parodic. As one satirical observer would have it, Starmer offers a “Prime Ministerial aesthetic, electability as a sort of cosmetic.” Or, as Rory Scothorne elegantly argued in the London Review of Books, “The ‘new management’ has been single-minded in its attempt to return – and be seen to return – the party to ‘loyal opposition’, a supporting role in the maintenance of British order, where the price of the adjective is the meaning of the noun.”
But despite the refusal of Labour’s key spokespeople to advance it, a left populist Green New Deal is far from impossible in the UK. Such an approach could be adopted by the movements and institutions that formed the foundations of the Corbyn project, with the aim of both shifting the ground upon which politics sits and preparing the left for the next upsurge, whatever and whenever that may be.
At the level of communications, such an approach would require the development of the Green New Deal narrative, both to foreground a central antagonism and articulate multiple demands. Naturally, this development must start with the settling on a name. While Labour used the phrase Green Industrial Revolution, as a nod towards the UK’s history as a pioneer of industrialisation and to emphasise the job creating aspects of the programme, it has now been adopted by Boris Johnson and his government. A coalition of activists and organisations without access to the media megaphone will not be able to compete with the government in shaping perceptions of that term.
Mouffe champions Green Democratic Transformation to stress the radical democratic dimension, which she insists upon in her work. However, I would settle on Green New Deal as the most effective term, despite it having greater historical resonance in the US than elsewhere. Not only are “new” and “deal” snappier words than “democratic” and “transformation,” but the Green New Deal formulation both already has some purchase on the international left and is partly already inscribed with a class antagonism by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s association of it with tax hikes for the rich and big corporations.
It is this class bite to the Green New Deal that needs to be developed most urgently. If the Green New Deal becomes a statist programme for environmental managerial reform, it loses its left populist potential. Rather it must pose itself as a threat to the forces represented by the Few, through attacks on their wealth, power and privileges and a benefit to the Many, through better jobs, health and society. To stand a chance of success, this left populist Green New Deal would require as much of the left as possible – in its grassroots, social movement, trade union and parliamentary forms – to be brought together to champion the narrative and its associated demands.
With the shared strategic horizon of a Corbyn-led Labour government gone, the combined articulation of diverse movement demands is substantially more challenging.
With the shared strategic horizon of a Corbyn-led Labour government gone, the combined articulation of diverse movement demands is substantially more challenging. For example, environmentalists and trade unionists will have less of an incentive – and face less cajoling from the party leadership – to agree on a Green New Deal programme and campaigns. But the vital work of building individual movements and bringing their demands together can, must and does still take place. Activists across movements will likely be the driving force of this work, hopefully assisted by a post-Corbyn left able to coordinate and unite its various grassroots, social movement, trade union and parliamentary strands.
While the Labour left is currently in retreat as Starmer and his team attack it to show their respectability to the establishment, both the prospects of a left populist Green New Deal and future party transformation can be kept alive. The relative democratic flowering within the party under Corbyn, culminating in grassroots policy victories at Conference 2019, has created skills and networks in the membership and trade unions that can be deployed both to resist the shift to the right and to propose and organise for progressive policies that the leadership will likely reject. Discovering that the leadership is not committed to the policies and politics that the overwhelming majority of members support could spur greater radicalism and educate members about the importance of party transformation.
One frequent and usually fair criticism of green politics is the technical or abstract nature of its policy proposals. This problem can intensify at the international level. A further criticism of progressive policy making is that it focuses too heavily on the state as the agent of policy transformation and too little on other forces that contribute to social change - and indeed to the balance of forces with the state.
The task of left activists, campaigners and strategists is to go further. We must develop a Green New Deal programme that concerns itself not just with the state but also can act at the site of production, distribution and exchange, in the labour process and relate to social reproduction while providing roles for a wide range of progressive forces, maintaining a strong central antagonism and relating the local to the global as it builds its demands.
To be able to make these demands a reality, substantial training and education of cadres is required. Despite having come so close to being in office, the strategic imperatives of transforming elected office into real political power remain too poorly understood on the UK left. Some of the Corbyn team’s struggles against Labour’s bureaucracy and constant establishment assaults could be instructive. The tacit knowledge about handling obstructive elements of the party machine, which rules of the political game do and don’t apply to socialists, and how to build institutional counter-power needs to be passed onto the wider movement. But this knowledge must be coupled with an understanding of public policy not as a technocratic exercise undertaken by a neutral state but as a means to ultimately transform the state, which itself is a complex sight of class struggle.
A central focus on the Green New Deal would force the left to take internationalism more seriously. Global progressive forces are generally disarticulated by geography, language, tradition and focus of struggle. But these divisions can be overcome by building successful frames, stories and ways of understanding the world that link the national and the global without leaving behind a substantial section of either. Building connections between these movements and linking struggles together under common banners could strengthen the power of a left populist Green New Deal and many other campaigns and demands.
In the decade or so following the 2008 financial crisis, as neoliberalism’s hegemony frayed, left populism came to be seen by many on the left as a shortcut to counter-hegemony. The Global North still faces a systemic crisis through which the ruling class has yet to chart a viable course. But while progressive forces are more powerful today than a decade ago in almost every sphere, they remain far from establishing an effective counter-hegemony. The promise of the moment is characterised more by the weakness of the ruling class than the organised strength of the masses.
The situation should lead neither to despair nor the disavowal of the basic tenets of left populist communications: maintaining a central antagonism through constructing a majoritarian political frontier between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ to support an anti-systemic movement seeking state power. Left populist communications alone were never sufficient to build lasting counter-hegemony – such a victory would require the kind of expansive strategy laid out in this essay, and possibly much more – but the experiments with left populism in the UK and elsewhere have advanced progressive forces along the right path.
In the UK, the left found its leader and opportunity for advance by accident. Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party as an extreme outsider, at a moment of historic weakness for the organised left, through a selection process that had been designed to hurt the left but instead helped it. Achieving lasting victories for the left in this context would have required the Corbyn team to appeal to the public, hold its position in the party and stimulate progressive forces all at the same time. Put another way, they had to learn to drive, while competing in a Formula 1 race and building their own car. That he and his team got so far for so long in such inauspicious circumstances is a huge credit to them and the movement that powered them, as well as evidence of the weakness of neoliberal hegemony.
Today, the terrain is much clearer: there can be no shortcuts to lasting social transformation. Left populist communications are vital and extremely effective when the conditions are right for a rapid advance, but they must not be abandoned in the harder work of deepening and strengthening our capacities while we wait for our next opportunity. A left populist Green New Deal, when combined with strategic planks focused on movement building, transforming the Labour Party, deepening relations to the rest of the world and developing a plan to act in and against the state, could provide a path for the left to advance again. We can and we must. We have a world to win and a planet to save.