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Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Centre
I. Nothing is forever, except absence. And if the bromides of the British pundit class seem timeless, that is because the political centre registers as an absence.
Credibility, they’re saying. What Corbyn needs now, and sorely lacks, is credibility. How does one get credibility? A sharp swerve to the centre. The capitals of the European centre are collapsing around their ears, from London to Madrid to Athens to Amsterdam. Only Paris has averted the complete collapse of the centre through, as Perry Anderson put, a yuppie simulacrum of populist breakthrough. And even there, it followed the implosion of the Socialist Party and survived only because its major opponent was fascism. Yet nothing can shake a belief that has never even been thought about as such. The answer – cleave centre – is given with the same confidence that spiritual adepts once prescribed trepanning for the sick. Corbyn needs centrist credibility, in other words, like he needs a hole in the head.
That Corbyn lacks credibility is the implied or explicit premise of almost every report, every editorial, every interview question in this election. When Corbyn supporters are sought out for a grilling on national television, the question is usually put with a degree of polite amusement: ‘do you really, in your heart of hearts, believe Jeremy Corbyn is a potential Prime Minister?’ The interviewee then has to choose between appearing to be unreasonable, in view of the polls, or offering a half-hearted, mealy-mouthed defence which amounts to the patronising idea, indulged by even his bitter enemies, that he is ‘a thoroughly decent person’.
II. Let us cut through the bad faith and bullshit. The answer to the question is ‘no’: by their standards, Corbyn has absolutely no credibility, and is not a potential Prime Minister. However, while this should be given its full weight as a material factor, we should also recognise that the British political and media establishment is akin to Standard & Poor’s in their disbursement of ‘credibility’ ratings. This establishment has spent years giving triple A scores to what turned out to be toxic political stock, while regularly using its ratings and public statements to organise the processes it claims to be reporting on. And these last few years have seen a credibility crunch of gigantic proportions.
This is not to double down on the unworldly claims of some of the Corbynite Left’s social media prize-fighters, who routinely claim that he is about to school Theresa May. As an expression of a devoutly held wish, an animating desire, this is laudable; as anything else, it is ineffectual bombast. The Conservatives may fall short of the 20 per cent leads they began to score after announcing a snap election. Labour’s polling, having been depressed to around 25 per cent post-Brexit and amid the ‘chicken coup’ and its reverberations, seems to have returned to around 30 per cent, which is where it has been in practice since 2010. But the local election results were poor, with the Conservatives gaining seats in the hundreds while Labour shed seats in the greater hundreds. Credibility may be a hugely depleted currency, but it is still a material force in this election. The punditocracy still has its power, and so therefore does its received wisdom. The centrist political establishment is on the back foot, but fighting back with ruthless determination and resourcefulness. The same countersubversive zeal with which May announced the snap election, pledging to crush the saboteurs, expunge division from politics and forge a unified national will, also animates the centre’s war on Corbynism.
The alacrity with which certain Labour Rightists are working to throw the election, urging people not to vote for the party or to consider a punt on Tim Farron’s salvation army, while MPs queue up to resign and burden the party with maximum organisational difficulty in the coming weeks, gives the lie to their moral browbeating of Corbyn supporters. The latter are routinely accused of sacrificing electoral adequacy for fanatical objectives, imagined to be lurking behind the current leadership’s iteration of Wilsonite social democracy. However, the putchists’ claim that through their sabotage they are only trying to limit the damage of a hard left leadership rings hollow: Labour, under Corbyn’s first embattled year, was weak, but not in the dire polling straits it is in now. They are destroying the party because they have lost control of it: a fanatical objective if ever there was one. Yet, hypocrisy aside, these tactics work and demonstrate an almost admirable single-mindedness – a willingness to raise the stakes to the point of mutual destruction, a suicide attack of sorts.
And the polls matter. Of course, ‘public opinion’ is an artefact of political intervention, and polling in itself – particularly the way it is used – is a kind of intervention. Everything about the process from the selection of things to poll about, to the necessarily partial and loaded framing of questions, to their subsequent presentation and interpretation, involves selecting certain tendencies for accentuation and consolidation into a consensus, and deselecting others. Insofar as they condense some of the complex force-fields of ‘opinion’ into stark numerals, much as IQ ratings claim to measure intelligence, they simplify and contour the political terrain. They measure political outcomes and, depending on how they are used, become part of a pseudo-democratic justification for pursuing those outcomes. Corbyn’s dismal poll ratings are in part the visible index of a very public auto-da-fé – no smoke without a blaze – but they also provide the justification for the continue the burning. The stop-hitting-yourself school of journalism says, ‘you are the butt of our jokes and the target of our relentless attacks, how do you explain yourself?’ And then holds, with smarmy sanctimony, that it is just doing its job by holding a weak leader accountable: it is convenient to have this doctrine distilled into a couple of magic numbers.
Labour’s polling weakness also, however, registers the reorganisation of the Ukanian political map after the Brexit vote, Corbyn’s efforts to neutralise the issue under the impress of democratic principle not availing. The delusions of ‘Lexit’ need no exhaustive recapitulation here. It is sufficient to say that Corbyn’s ability to hang on and keep Labour’s electoral situation respectable in the face of relentless attack had depended in part on the Right being divided into two hostile camps, neither capable of outright conquest. David Cameron’s administration was weak enough for Labour to force it into serial retreats on major issues, in part because the liberal Tory leadership was always at war with its own right-wing base. Brexit signalled the comprehensive victory of the worst side in this fight, and ensured the reunification of the right-wing vote under a leadership sounding the disgrace notes of the British far right in its bid to canalise UKIP’s base back into the Conservative fold. It was a victory for petty bourgeois reaction, but the initiative – or momentum, as we may prefer to call it – fell to the skilled ruling class pugilists who run the Conservative Party, and orchestrated Theresa May’s coronation while Labour combusted.
This situation, compounded and multiplied by the jaw-droppingly cynical ‘chicken coup’, is yet another episode – after the Scottish independence referendum, now likely to be followed by another – which has exposed the underlying softness of Labour’s support. One of the most telling areas of softness is in Wales, where regions which have been Labour for generations have first gone to UKIP, then to the Conservatives. The long-brewing collapse in Labour’s vote in Wales tracks the collapse of Welsh industries, allowed to take place under successive Labour governments. Only the absence of an efficacious single vehicle for defection, akin to the SNP, prevented this from registering much sooner. Whereas unionised working class communities formed part of the culture and habitus of Labourism, their atomised, minimum wage, service sector replacements were easily picked off by reactionary populists and pseudo-insurrection. UKIP, polling suggests, has been a conversion machine, turning former Labour voters, Liberals and above all non-voters, into Conservatives. And the signs are that the Conservatives will win in Wales – just as they scored a narrow victory in the West Midlands mayoral election, where just a year ago Labour took the police commissioner post with an overwhelming majority.
III. No doubt, it would be said of this that it is all too easy, all too convenient to blame everything on the political establishment, the media, and circumstance, and say nothing of Corbyn’s failings as a leader. Barely a day goes by without some member of the journalistic aristocracy insisting: “no more excuses, Corbyn is to blame”. We will come back to Corbyn’s limitations. But the truth is, nothing could be easier and more congenial than to parrot the talking points about what a nice but ultimately useless and ineffectual man he is. The other truth is, he is worth a hundred of any of his mediocre opponents, any one of whom would have broken under a tenth of what he endured before, during and after the abortive coup. Remarkably, the Tom Watson magic that worked on Blair and forced his graceless resignation, did not work on Corbyn – not because, in Len McCluskey’s lamentably macho phrase, he is a ‘man of steel’, but because he understood where his strengths lay and where his opponents were weak. He is, therefore, not the pleasant-but-drippy Islington vicar he is represented as, but a seasoned political combatant who has repeatedly handed humiliating defeats to the ruthless and previously powerful management of his own party – a humiliation which partly explains the fury of their payback.
It is therefore impossible, even if one were so inclined, to simply join in the delegated bullying passing itself off as wisdom, because its precepts are wrong. The standards by which he is routinely found wanting, summed up in that word ‘credibility’, are the wrong criteria. The only appropriate criteria for judging him as a leader are immanent to his own project. To even understand that project, one has to be able to speak about the acute crisis of neoliberalism and the secular crisis of social democracy.
Social democracy had one unique period of confidence and success, a period so exceptional in its conditions – decades of high, stable growth, full employment and a well-organised, militant labour force, and a political tolerance on the part of business for class compromise – that no strategy can be based on its return. That met its nadir in the ‘winter of discontent’, wherein a Labour government disgraced its covenanted compromise by savaging real incomes and provoking all out ‘wildcat’ war with sections of the working class. In the ensuing decades, social democracy in Britain adapted, more energetically than elsewhere, to an emerging neoliberal consensus, one imposed both with brute force through the wipeout of the labour movement’s big battalions, and through the subtle reorganisation of the fabric of everyday existence, so as to make solidarity a less feasible response to one’s problems. In this context, Labour struggled largely over how much of a distinctive policy agenda it could afford to retain.
As Stuart Hall put it, the result was New Labour’s ‘double shuffle’, in which a neoliberal leadership perpetually set out to cannibalise and convert a social-democratic base. It used some of the traditional language and keywords of the Left to communicate an essentially Thatcherite ideology to working class audiences unreachable to Thatcher. In the short term, this posture reassured certain propertied middle class layers and expanded the Labour electorate. In the long term, the more successful New Labour was, the more it undercut even its own part-occulted agenda of moral and social reform. If welfare was now a punitive institution of moral correction, if prison was the appropriate response to ‘anti-social behaviour’, if redistribution was no longer admissible, if inequality was off the agenda, if the rich were ‘wealth creators’ to emulate, then what use was there in any kind of solidaristic politics? Indeed, once the Tories selected a centre-seeking David Cameron who accepted Labour’s spending commitments and waxed concern about the environment, where was there left to go for Thatcherism-with-a-human-face? Most lost voters didn’t go Tory. Some did, and a sizeable minority began to vote for any conceivable alternative party of reform, from the Liberals to the SNP to the Greens. The majority, however, just dropped out.
It is vital to register the full significance of this dropping out. Unlike the ‘left behind’ UKIP voter, by and large, the non-voter is most likely to be poor, precarious and disorganised. They are among the most likely to be criminalised, most likely to suffer the consequences of rising inequality and attacks on ‘welfare scroungers’, most likely to be renting one of the few remaining council properties, most likely to have short, stressful lives. Survey evidence shows that this massive defection of Labour voters, temporarily covered up by mountainous geographical majorities and the addition of new middle class voters to Labour’s base, was largely a conscious rejection of the political status quo. It was the ‘I give up’ protest of people who, having been defecated on for years and then blamed for not smelling of roses, finally couldn’t take the same treatment from the party they voted for. But it was also an expression of powerlessness and melancholia. It is often a source of amazement among enlightened commentators that the poor are not only blamed for their poverty, the unemployed blamed for joblessness, but they often blame themselves – and increasingly so. This is a hallmark of melancholic subjectivity: the reproach that should be aimed at others is converted into a relentless self-punishment, corroborated every day in the news.
And all trends suggested that there was more of this to come. While heartlands eroded, the left-leaning young either didn’t vote or increasingly gravitated to any party but Labour. It only required a political agency capable of competing with Labour on its own traditional turf, and fusing the discontented layers in its base with heterogeneous elements, as the SNP did in Scotland, and the party was finished. Corbyn knew this, and he knew it was part of a continental trend of decline. And say what you like about him, he is Labour to his marrow.
IV. Corbyn was elected, then, to save British social democracy: to reconnect to Labour’s heartlands and its wayward younger vote with a distinct, though in practice moderate, shift to the Left. He sought to restore the idea, jettisoned by the Blairites and in danger of extinction after Miliband, of Labour as something bigger and more rooted than an electoral machine: a party based on Britain’s weak but still massive trade union movement, now supplemented in Corbyn’s conception by new social movements. He sought to develop a political agenda that would actually empower the various constituencies that would make up a natural Labourist alliance – and crucially break through the suffocating melancholic affects of internalised defeat, channel this deflected anger appropriately and enable disenfranchised people to experience their own potential collective power through a democratised Labour Party. This requires drawing hundreds of thousands of people into an active engagement with their own future. The political unconscious is in some ways a profoundly conservative force which keeps people in their habits. Shifting popular subjectivities is something that tends to happen in the plane of action.
This was and remains hugely ambitious, an incredibly long shot: to address the crisis of social democracy from the Left, for the first time, requires overcoming such entrenched and hostile institutional forces that it was always difficult to see how he would gain the breathing space necessary for this task. Ironically, the only kind of leadership that could possibly see it through would be a leadership willing, as the Labour Right manifestly are, to risk everything and even – as the Right have done twice before – split the party. But Corbyn has been a loyally dissenting member of the Labour Party and an MP for decades, and has spent most of those years in the political wilderness.
Understandably, given the paucity of alternatives, he and his allies stuck with Labour, even as they dwindled and faced the prospect of being wiped out. His commitment to a version of ‘broad church’ Labourism, the idea that Labour is the sole political vehicle through which a broad alliance of popular forces can be constituted to challenge power, may explain – as much as the weakness of his position, and the marginal position from which he was propelled – his caution in negotiating with hostile forces, his policy concessions, his broad first cabinet, and his counsel of caution to more militant sections of his supporters who want to pursue deselections and radical constitutional reform of the party. Certainly, he was unwilling to be morally blackmailed out of office by a cynical coup, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t accept backbench perdition again rather than risk the party. Labour MPs who conflate their entitlement to rule with the interests of the party are not well placed to take this point.
This may also partly explain Corbyn’s reticence on the national question which continually grows more decisive. His default Unionism will prove unavailing as Labour fails to regain lost ground in Scotland, and becomes more of a regional party in England and Wales. But reviving Labourism means renewing its claimed monopoly on all left-of-centre electoral forces, rather than making the best of a fractured political landscape by cooperating pragmatically with the SNP and the Greens. Even if Corbyn didn’t believe in such a monopoly, his leadership of the Labour Party commits him to it. But this also means trying to elide and neutralise difficult questions like Brexit which, though he rightly opposed it in the circumstances (since no ‘Lexit’ was possible), has left him struggling to form a distinctive, coherent position. Instead, waving through Article 50 with a three-line-whip, and waving the subject away for the election, he seems to hope that the troubling national question will dissipate and give way to the ‘real’ class issues he was elected to address. Unfortunately, the breakdown of the Union and the related crises of the EU have ensured that class questions are being worked out in large part through the containers of contending nationalisms.
Above all, Corbyn is a parliamentary socialist, notwithstanding his emphasis on movement-building and his critique of the British constitutional system. The fact that he believes in the necessity of extra-parliamentary mobilisation, alien though it is to the gilded generation of spads and technocrats, is not as novel as people assume. The point of all this mobilisation is that it must be given a concrete political articulation in a left-wing Labour government that fights for and gives voice to all popular interests – the working class, women, LGBTQ, the racially oppressed, the disabled, and so on. Even if he wasn’t the parliamentary socialist he always has been, his leadership of the Labour Party would force parliamentarism on him. This means that he has to prioritise fights on that terrain, and he has to find a way for a left-wing leadership of a broad party, a leadership that is necessarily going to be vilified and destabilised as long as it holds the reins, to fight those sorts of battles without going through the usual electoral channels. He has a sizeable party membership to support this, but it’s not yet clear what it is supposed to be doing (most of it isn’t doing that much), and how it juggles short-term electoral exigencies with the much longer game of rebuilding that kind of grassroots organisation and ideological consensus that can sustain a viable Labour Party.
One can regret, in this context, that Corbyn and his team are not better at the usual techniques of this game, that their handling of the media and ‘messaging’ has been so poor, that Corbyn isn’t the sort of ‘tribune’ figure who can turn media hostility to his advantage, and that he himself seems to believe that he is a ‘nice person’ and thus is often reluctant to display real aggression. However, none of this has anything to do with that spurious currency of credibility. Credibility of that kind wouldn’t win anyone over, and it would destroy the support he does have.
V. The problem is this: nothing is forever, not even the Labour Party. Tony Blair is in some respects a more attuned to this problem than Corbyn, because he really believed he had solved the problem of the Labour Party – the traditional, broad party of the working class, in all its different sections and prejudices – by liquidating it. He thought it was as good as finished. And when the recrudescence of this old idea came in a left-wing form, supported by the unions and a radicalising membership he said clearly, these are two completely different cultures and two completely different ideas of how to wield power coexisting in one party, and it is not sustainable.
And to this extent, Blair was right. Their attempt to coexist will result in a cyclone of destructive and mutually debilitating war. The recent loss of the mayoral contest in the West Midlands, for example, is directly traceable to the factional warfare. The Blairite candidate Sion Simons ran a defensive campaign using a Brexit slogan, failed to secure Unite funding (probably due to his support for Gerard Coyne), froze the leadership out (and was thus frozen out by them), and failed to turn out the Labour vote. This is one of the worst examples of a major loss due to factional strife, but it is a microcosm of processes unfolding at a national level. And yet, neither side can split, and nor would be wise to at this point. So all the Corbynite Left can do in this election is prevent a rout and try to stop the party from being broken, and strengthen their position for a post-election fight so that ideally it is the Right that is forced to leave, without the party name, the members, the union backing or anything but the cash of a few billionaires. But that means thinking about what may happen to them, if they lose; what they may be forced to do.
Thinking like this is sometimes loosely and mistakenly called defeatism. It is not defeatism. Defeats are part of the fabric of political life. The question is what you make of them. There is, in fact, in the history of the Labour Party itself, a dialectic of defeats. The origin of British social democracy lies, in part, in the defeats experienced by the working class after 1848, and the defensive ruts and foxholes of a labourist, cooperative class culture developed thereafter. It lies in a defeat for the trade union strategy of collaboration with the Liberal Party, and hoped for peace with business, signalled by a string of industrial setbacks culminating in the union-busting Taft Vale judgment in 1901. It lies, in part, in the failed Labour governments of the Twenties and Thirties, the first major split to the Right to form a pro-austerity National Government, and the subsequent wartime consensus that developed around overcoming the great social dysfunctions exposed by the 1930s.
Even Jeremy Corbyn’s unprecedented leadership is a curious ironic inversion of an earlier historic defeat. It was the scale of crushing losses inflicted upon the labour movement and the Left in the 1980s by Thatcher and her allies, and the comprehensive nature of the Left’s rout in Labour, that ensured there would be no left-wing split from the emerging ‘social liberal’ formation called New Labour. It was that sweeping defeat that enabled the Blairites to appropriate the language of democracy and party reform espoused initially by the Bennite Left. Using these reforms to downgrade the union role in Labour, they nonetheless created a far more membership-led organisation, breaking up the traditional duopoly of power enjoyed by the union bureaucracy and the parliamentary leadership. Absent this, it is impossible that Labour could have had its first ever leadership from the hard left. If defeat for Corbyn’s formal goals is probable, what secret resources might be found in that defeat? How can his followers make the most of it?
Defeatism is distinguished by a passive attitude to defeats. And nothing makes that more likely than going into the battle with the wrong kind of hopes.