This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
It looks increasingly likely that in a month’s time a slightly dishevelled figure from the British Labour Party’s long-forgotten “hard left” past, MP Jeremy Corbyn, will be elected its next leader. Vague amusement at the prospect has given way to alarm across the political spectrum.
Commentators sympathetic to Labour have come out almost unanimously to warn party members that such an outcome would equate to political suicide. The Guardian, normally quite sympathetic to the kind of anti-austerity plain-speaking for which Corbyn is renowned, is full of appeals to its readership (many of them natural Labour sympathisers) to return to their senses.
On the political right, amusement at the direction in which the main rival to the Conservatives is heading is mixed with stern warnings about what might happen if, heaven forbid, Corbyn was actually elected prime minister. The chattering classes are rattled.
So far the stakes in this curious episode have aligned along a familiar axis. The problem, it seems, is that Corbyn is an old-fashioned left-winger. He stands for the renationalisation of the rail system, reversing cuts to benefits and welfare, the abolition of university tuition fees and a re-alignment of the UK’s foreign and defence policy.
So far, so predictable. As the commentary insists, such an approach resulted in defeat after defeat for Labour – that is until Tony Blair brought the party to its senses.
Blair’s recipe was simple enough: to win, the party must fall in line with the same neoliberal approach as its Conservative rival – and virtually every mainstream political party across Europe and the advanced democracies. Corbyn rejects this inheritance, but he also rejects its political logic: that to win elections you have to show that you have understood the underpinning axiom of our times: “you cannot buck the market”. Well, he thinks you can.
Rejecting what politics has become
There is a constituency out there looking for more than a rather meek acceptance of the “neoliberalism-lite” that social democratic parties have been peddling for three decades. That constituency includes the fabled “hard left”. It also includes many traditionalists within the major trade unions and within the Labour Party itself, particularly in its former heartlands in Wales, Scotland and the post-industrial cities of the north.
Can the rise of Corbyn really be ascribed to this demographic? Perhaps, but there’s more to the story than this. Much more – especially for the young who are flocking, improbably, to Corbyn’s side.
What is becoming clearer is that there is a constituency willing to challenge what politics has become: shallow, pithy, televisual, tedious and disingenuous. This is a politics embodied in toothy, neatly suited, identikit middle-class men and women speaking in a kind of a corporate patois lampooned so successfully in the television show The Office.
It’s a world where unconvincing aspiration (“moving forwards”) and low attainment (“pushing the envelope”) kill initiative and hope for a better future.
A candidate like Corbyn stands apart from his colleagues – Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper. But he also stands apart in what he represents: a longing to address the myriad inequalities and injustices of the present in words that everyone can understand.
It is this authenticity that is so troubling at one level and so liberating at another. Corbyn is not just mouthing the words; he means it. So why all the fuss? Why not just accept Corbyn-mania for what it is: the emergence of a somewhat anachronistic figure who seems to be catching the breeze of a certain kind of resentment about the state we are in.
A candidate for pissed-off Britain
Context, as usual, explains a great deal. Corbyn is not alone in his desire to combat austerity. Nor is he alone in rejecting the logic of contemporary politics and the deep complicity of political elites in ever-widening inequality, destroying the inheritance of the welfare state and fetishising the market.
But hitherto those seeking to combat the destructive excesses of the present have been found outside the political mainstream: Greece’s Syriza is a rough-and-ready coalition of relatively recent vintage; Podemos emerged out of the street occupations of Spain’s 15M; the rise of Ada Colau, Manuela Carmena, the Italian Beppe Grillo and the Icelandic Pirate Party are all instances of outsiders finding ways of getting “inside”.
Here the “outside” is rapidly becoming the inside – the inside of the Labour Party, as all manner of constituencies join the stampede. All this is highly disruptive to what Labour means, or rather, what it has come to mean under New Labour: an election fighting machine designed to “spin” itself to victory on the basis of the fantasy we have been living with since Thatcher’s victory in 1979 – that the embrace of financialised capitalism will eventually improve the lot of the least well-off.
The fantasy is beginning to wear thin, but Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are happy to maintain the “business as usual” line; Corbyn isn’t. They seek to build on the inheritance of New Labour; Corbyn doesn’t.
Corbyn is not merely the return of the repressed (“the hard left”). Something more is happening here. That something is not just about what policies should be adopted to combat austerity; it is more about what kind of politics people want.
Just as Scottish National Party (SNP) became a proxy for “something has to change” in the last election, so has “Corbyn”. Corbyn’s constituency is not just “the left” – it is also that broader, less-easy-to-read group that seeks a change in the who, how, where and what of politics. Spain has its Indignados, the Italians have the “vaffanculo” bunch and now the UK has “the pissed off”.
“Corbyn” resonates as an antidote to “Westminster”, to a distant elite-driven politics. It seems to speak to that otherwise homeless group who seek affinities and affiliations off the back of concerns aired by the likes of Russell Brand and Naomi Klein, to name two obvious figures who argue that our politics is broken and needs to be fixed, “rebooted” and re-imagined along more generous, inclusive, participatory and, yes, more democratic lines.
Hitherto they have had little to hang on to in the UK context beyond sporadic bouts of direct action, climate camps or Facebook “likes”. The Scots had their chance at the last election to join the “post-political” or “anti-political” throng by transforming the SNP from a nationalist party into an approximation of a tartan Podemos. Now everyone else has their chance by joining “the Corbyn insurrection”.
Where does this leave Labour and politics?
The discomfort of many elements of the Labour Party is plain to see. It ranges from Blair’s trenchant advice for those thinking of voting with their heart to get “a transplant” to the sniffy dismissal of Corbyn’s politics by the likes of Polly Toynbee and the Guardian grandees. They are clearly perturbed at the spectacle of their sensible “modernising” party becoming a shambolic institutional approximation of Glastonbury: all noise, mud and hangovers. Is this the death of the Labour Party?
It might be – but then was not Labour already in its death throes? A once-proud party enjoying the active support of several million members has been reduced to a rump of ageing activists going through the motions “for old time’s sake”. Would it really be the worst thing to re-brand Labour as a party of a different kind: an “outsiders” (anti)party that homes the currently homeless?
15M produced no solace for PSOE (Spain’s social democratic party), but rather a raft of rivals who threaten to eclipse it in the general election. Perhaps it is better to bring the “outside” in, instead of hoping that it will go away.
The purpose of political parties is (usually) to win elections, and winning has been the justification for “modernising”. But does this modernisation diminish Labour’s chance to oppose and overturn the Conservatives?
The evidence is far from clear. The SNP did well on a “something has to change” ticket, with the details left usefully vague beyond some nod in the direction of increased power for local assemblies and the defence of the welfare state. Spain’s mainstream parties of both left and right have had to confront new political parties with a similar message. Italy endured a political earthquake in 2013 with Grillo’s 5SM party polling the most votes.
The game is changing. Change in the basic co-ordinates of political life is underway. “Corbyn” may or may not be the answer – but it is certainly posing the question.