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.
The political theorist Jacques Rancière once wrote that we know truly political moments by their inherent instability. “The political”, he wrote, is, in its purest form, a cry for equality in the face of injustice, a crudely formed and often poorly communicated carnal explosion, which could go anywhere, nowhere, or somewhere profoundly different.
This image captures at least part of Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent, and now re-election, to leadership of the British Labour Party.
Ordinary people and hardened activists support Corbyn in an expression of dissent against the economic, social and institutional status quo (Rancière called it “the police”). As if purely from feeling, Corbyn’s base has leapt almost out of nowhere to become a formidable force in the party, and in social democratic debate more generally.
This doesn’t conform to simple portrayals of naive millennials (Corbyn’s challenger, Owen Smith, got more of their vote, according to an exit poll).
Rather, the pent-up anger against Blairism and its perceived betrayals of the labour movement have now taken shape in a well-oiled movement intent on remaking the party as a “true” representation of working people and working-class politics.
Political outrage pure and simple
How, moderate social democrats ask themselves, has this happened? How has the party lapsed into such an “unelectable” wreck? Have the 1980s taught us nothing?
In answer to them, I believe it is necessary to take heed of Rancière and his insights into democratic politics as it occurs.
First, the key change that caused the explosion of Corbynism was Ed Miliband’s change to the party rules.
Miliband, supported by much of the party hierarchy at the time, claimed that a one-member-one-vote system would benefit the party, freeing it from accusations of bias towards the trade unions. What they hadn’t counted on were the implications of this move. It was a huge democratic move, a substantial alteration of the very DNA of the party.
It followed that the shock 2015 election defeat proved fertile ground for this pent-up anger, this political moment, to overwhelm the party establishment. This was no “entryism”; it was political outrage pure and simple, at a party that had become too technocratic, cliquish, stuffed with Oxbridge graduate SPADs (special political advisors) poring over focus group data.
The navel gazing in the party elite after their defeat has been quite unbecoming. Having just lost an election they should have won with Miliband, they lament “unelectability” when they failed to see Corbyn’s challenge coming. Obstinately, they hope he will run out of steam when the inevitable Tory landslide comes about.
Regardless of how true these strategic points may be, they get in the way of recognising that “Corbynism” marks an important turning point in the development of the party into a mass democratic institution again.
A recent New Stateman article about Labour’s “golden generation” – Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Miliband et al – noted that all of these politicians were nurtured in an era when the left had, supposedly, been defeated.
With the collapse of Soviet Communism in the 1990s, the far left was bruised and belittled, liberal democracy had won out and social democratic parties were easy pickings for centrist candidates like Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair. Their arguments about the need to appeal across the aisle rang true.
The return of the left
Following the totemic financial crises in Western Europe, this no longer seems the case. The left has returned, bolder and holding greater belief in the power of public ownership and protest politics than it ever has. Look at Podemos, Syriza and so on.
The take-home point is that left-wing ideas have gained currency again. These should be engaged in the same way the party engaged in the 1980s, with a debate on ideas rather than machinations about the party being “infiltrated”.
In fact, these institutional changes may well be doing exactly what Miliband wanted them to – re-engaging ordinary people.
The party is changing shape dramatically. Five years from now it may be almost unrecognisable, with evidence showing increased membership from those who have never engaged with politics before. 58% of new members have never been involved in a political party before.
This period will be one of flux, uncertainty, instability and paradox. It feels deeply uncomfortable. Inevitably, it has emboldened a Conservative Party wedded to the parliamentary system and the winning of power via a small, centralised elite party with a disciplined message.
But the institutional revolution Miliband started may, in time, bear fruit. And, in time, Corbyn will run out of steam (most likely through electoral defeat) and a more mainstream social democratic Labour candidate should emerge. The ranks of Labour voters have ballooned massively to over half a million.
This may not be the kind of party that wins Westminster parliamentary elections as they currently are, but future parliamentary politics is unlikely to remain the way it is. We are already heading for the House of Lords becoming at least partially elected, given its reluctance to implement Prime Minister Theresa May’s agenda.
The same argument could be applied to how progressive politicians respond to Brexit.
When David Cameron called the vote, he knew that a deep-seated dislike of the European Union was just waiting to bubble into a similar one of Rancière’s political moments, where all “expert” judgment and scientific argument gets caught in the wind of public outrage. Cameron thought he could beat it, but his case, built on technocratic arguments about economic security, meant nothing to millions of voters outraged by the EU’s profound democratic deficit.
Since the vote, many social democrats have discussed subverting Brexit through the courts or the House of Lords. This is deeply uncomfortable. Even if we live in a “post-factual” society, in which “expertise” is often rejected as a source of authority, insulating it from public opinion is hardly a noble resort.
Time to prepare a democratic future
Progressive politicians should see how truly political moments are unstable and uncertain; they do not run by the rules that we became used to during New Labour’s 2000s hegemony. Instead of retreating into protecting the elite “experts” the public are so disillusioned with, they should see Brexit as a moment for democratisation.
Progressive politics is living through a dramatic period of “properly political” instability. This has, at least for now, put the left at centre stage in UK Labour (and indeed the far right in the US if we look at the Republicans). In many ways, periods of dramatic democratisation are ripe for this kind of ideological politics.
The Labour reformers should have known what they were doing. Instead, they toyed with the image of democratic participation without realising what it would actually lead to – a democratic debate. But the next step is not to backpedal against democracy.
It is deeply troubling that a supposedly democratic institution like Labour should be wasting energy blocking members from joining and attempting to oust a leader chosen democratically by the membership from standing in its election through the courts.
Instead, the Labour reformers who supported Miliband’s institutional changes should have the courage of their convictions to follow through and make their case in a democratic argument about the most desirable form of progressive politics and policy for a new era.