Searching for Corbynism: why no one’s quite sure what Labour stands for

The hunt for a defining philosophy continues. PA/Jane Barlow

As the Labour Party struggles in the search for votes, picking up bruises in by-elections, thinking about its doctrine may seem an indulgence.

But Jeremy Corbyn continues to espouse a rather vague political philosophy. It’s still not clear what Corbynism is. That’s not a particularly unusual position – the tendency to skip theory and move on to producing a list of positions on various issues is as old as the Labour party itself.

Radical thinkers on both the right and left of Labour have looked upon this ambivalence with chagrin, which has occasionally resulted in confrontations about the party’s purpose. In or out of power, what does it believe and why?

Many Corbyn supporters have talked about Corbyn’s ideological certainty as a reason to vote for him. Despite his speeches often being a list of positions, his rhetoric seemed to value theory over pragmatism. Yet as Labour appears uncertain even over its core instincts – Brexit, for example – he appears to show a familiar penchant for tactics and positioning rather than vision and ideas.

Bought the t-shirt, but where’s the doctrine? Garry Knight, CC BY

The dispute over the significance of theory, or the aims and values which guide the party, is one of the fault lines in Labour’s ethos. There is much that Labour people share, allowing them to be in the same party and adhere to many of the same traditions. Labour stays loyal to its leaders, it writes and pays close attention to internal rules and procedures. It derives much of its identity from an interpretation of the culture of the organised working class.

Yet there are big differences in interpretation on other matters – the role of theory being one of them. Labour’s history is of a more traditional, even pragmatic method to politics. It has often substituted radical rhetoric for a substantive theoretical base.

Many on the left of the party have previously considered certainty in the realm of ideas to be a strength for their wing of the movement – the power of Bennism being one example. Having powerlessly observed the final years of the 1974-79 Labour government, the Labour left used its organisational strength within Labour to assert its highly interventionist economic policy. But some in the more social democratic wing have been mindful of it, too. As the Labour cabinet minister and socialist thinker Tony Crosland argued:

We have got to keep making the point that the far left are not the only people who can claim a socialist theory while the rest of us are thought to be mere pragmatists and administrators.

Corbyn’s left

The Corbynite left also sat and powerlessly observed the final years of the Blair and Brown governments. Yet while it has certainly triumphed (leadership elections included) organisationally, there has been little sign of the kind of ideational dominance seen in the 1970s and early 1980s left.

If Corbynism is to outlive Corbyn’s leadership, it must have clear tenets, which it currently lacks.

A distillation of Corbyn’s creed, in his words, is “a new kind of politics, and a conviction that the old way of running the economy and the country, isn’t delivering for more and more people”. In a recent speech to the Fabian Society, he used similar rhetoric, suggesting Labour “will put the public back into our economy and break the grip of vested interests … We will shrink the gap in income and wealth and build a more equal society.”

The aspiration for a more equal society is clear, though not distinctive. As for an enhanced role for the state in the economy, without a clearer statement of intent, and a definition of his socialism – one would imagine, for instance, far greater economic management by the state of the commanding heights of the British economy – Corbynism remains undefined.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell seems to muddy the waters more. He accepted George Osborne’s fiscal approach (for a time) which along with an insistence that Labour will not raise taxes seems to head in an entirely different direction to Corbyn’s suggestions of a more democratic and equal political economy.

Tactics, not creed

Team Corbyn seems to have greater clarity when it comes to strategy. The talk of “populism” that surrounded Corbyn’s 2017 relaunch was risky in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, but its origins can be found among advocates of a populist strategy on the left, which sees the politics of “us and them”.

But this is all tactics, not ideology. It neither defines a political philosophy nor substantiates a creed.

Corbynism began as a formidable coalition of the left which swept to the Labour leadership. It did so largely on the basis of what it wasn’t – New Labour and managerial – rather than what it was. Since then, much of Corbyn’s time has, understandably, been taken up by the burden of leading a divided party.

His assemblage of positions undoubtedly represents a programme of the left, but it lacks both theoretical strength and clarity. This criticism is not, of course, restricted only to the Corbynite left. Much of Labour’s political universe continues to propose useful policy measures to be taken up in local government, or to improve central government policy. Yet it still defines itself on the basis of political thinkers who lost the 1983 general election or who won the 1997 general election. It doesn’t have its own world view.

Renewing a party’s political philosophy isn’t, and can never be the responsibility of the leader alone. Whether Corbynism is something that can survive within Labour, through the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn or another leader, or whether something can replace it, depends largely on whether Labour – as a whole – can produce anything distinctive and concrete.