Jeremy Corbyn will not lead the Labour Party forever. This is true whether you think he is to step down within the next five months as opposition leader or within the next five to ten years as Prime Minister. The shape of the post-Corbyn left is, therefore, as yet undecided. The future is absolutely up for grabs. It is important to start sketching out what we want that future to look like now so that we are not caught off-guard. The Corbyn project itself was an accident of circumstances. As former Stop the War and Corbyn advisor Carmel Nolan put it, it was “a coalition of the willing and available”. This is important when thinking about a post-Corbyn project. Corbynism was a product of circumstance and necessity, defined against the New Labour hangover. The amorphous nature of the project was a strength early on, but also provided an environment in which the seeds of many of its most persistent problems could germinate.
A Great Variety of Morbid Symptoms
This formlessness, adopted in response to a particular set of events and historical accidents, has been somewhat retained from those early days. Since then, the Corbyn project has been in a near constant state of battle. For most of its existence – in stark contrast to the New Labour experience – these battles have mostly been with external forces. The intense ferocity of the establishment, both from inside and outside the Labour Party, was met with equal and opposite resistance. This often, and inevitably, spilled out into ugliness. The anger of the most aggressive Corbyn supporters fed a small band of furious aggro-centrists and vice versa. The bitterness of these years was far from Corbyn’s fault alone. As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush said in his interview with this website, online platforms have broken down old forms of control but not formed new ones. Online Corbynites, like the cybernats before them, operated as an early insurgency in a new era of anarchic mass communication. Now, other groups, including Brexiteers and Remainers, have found that the chaos of social media can help revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries alike to amplify their messages effectively (and angrily) – and party machines can do very little about it.
The 2017 general election marked the point at which Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour became more obviously safe from external threats. Since then the inherent tensions within the movement have begun to present themselves more visibly – most notably on freedom of movement, Brexit and antisemitism.
The antisemitism crisis gripping Labour is the most immediately concerning of these ruptures. Chris Williamson’s long overdue suspension this year was emblematic of the tension at the heart of the Corbyn project but has certainly not been the only example of the party’s total failure to get to grips with antisemitism within its ranks. Corbyn’s public defence of Williamson as late as February gave grave cause for concern. A sense that there is one rule for Corbyn’s personal friends and another for others prevails, not without reason. Away from antisemitism, the way in which harassment complaints against David Prescott were handled by the Leader’s Office have done nothing to quell those fears.
The danger right now is that the modern left, in a new-found position of growing but precarious internal strength, finds itself unable to shake off the cranks that populate the movement. This failure seems to stem from a warped understanding of solidarity, as well as a siege mentality which grew up in part in reaction to the relentlessness of the attacks directed at Corbyn. This attitude has been further cemented by the fact that Ed Miliband’s relatively meagre left turn resulted in similar media ferocity: there is an understandable belief that too many forces within society have it in for Labour, and must be resisted. However, when solidarity becomes complicity, it has become toxic.
The Old is Dying
Some on the left are highly sceptical about calls to effectively “decouple” particular individuals from the Corbyn project. Their argument is simple and reasonably persuasive and runs as such: “look what happened last time, from Kinnock follows Blair”. I understand the trepidation. That is why I think it is so important that those who wish to see the conspiracist strand of Corbynism expelled from the movement must always be clear and precise. This isn’t a call for moderation. This is a call for a genuine youthful radicalism, unburdened by historical relics. Nothing less than a realignment of radical democratic socialism with unapologetic social liberalism and inclusivity. It would be naive to assume there are not opportunists who may try to seize the chance to turn Labour’s clock back, but these elements of the party are now weak. They must be resisted but they shouldn’t be feared.
The centre left, meanwhile, has utterly failed to respond adequately to Corbynism. It has failed because it has not been able to arrive at a coherent understanding of why it lost. Its analysis has been wafer thin, preferring to look at surface level details, take comforting lessons and deal in snark as opposed to develop any deeper level critique. With a few exceptions, centre-left politicians within Labour have failed to confront their own limitations and failings, and have shown no signs of embarking on a route back to relevance within the party. This will require an attempt to either make inroads with the current membership or get their own people to join in sufficient numbers (ultimately, they will have to win 50%+1 of the membership to win back the party.)
The failure of the centre left’s analysis is visible in its refusal to learn lessons from the way in which much of the very real good work of the last Labour government was so easily undone, as discussed in Joe Bilsborough’s recent piece for this website. New Labour’s acceptance of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism led to an inability (or a lack of desire) to challenge both capital ownership and the balance of labour power in a way which could have embedded longer-lasting social democratic outcomes. It is worth noting that this was an explicit failure of the New Labour strategy. For all the justifiable criticism levelled at New Labour, it was at least a sincere attempt to achieve progressive ends within a neoliberal framework to which its adherents believed there to be no alternative. The real problem with this came when, following the collapse of 2008-2010, the disciples of New Labour failed to defend the best parts of their own legacy from Conservative attack lines. A strategy which saw hard-headed “common sense” as intrinsically linked with its own aims ran out of road. The new “common sense” was to accept austerity. That common sense has now been utterly discredited. The Labour Party’s establishment allowed itself to fall into ideological traps as it chased an ever more abstract, and most damagingly, right wing version of the “sensible”. The game became tied up in weird metanarratives about how positions were right because “it’s what the public thinks” – every ideological concession a strategic victory that would never arrive.
The leadership contest that best sums up the Labour Party’s total abandonment of politics is the 2010 contest. The range of candidates included a boring Blairite hangover, a boring Brownite hangover and a different type of boring Brownite hangover making timid gestures towards the soft left. Diane Abbott was also there as a nod to the idea that somebody might have once believed in anything at all. Marginalisation may be toxic for a political movement but the Blairites and Brownites demonstrated that total hegemony can be too. It makes you lazy. (This characterisation might be a little unfair on Ed Miliband, who has since shown that he can engage credibly with left wing ideas. But during his leadership it felt like he was being held hostage by a particularly dull focus group. You occasionally saw glimpses of the possible but it was important to obscure that totally with painfully bland mealy-mouthed nothingness.) When the 2015 leadership election came around, it is unsurprising in retrospect that the membership couldn’t cope with yet another Brownite hangover, a turbocharged neo-Blairite banging on about points based immigration systems and a man unconvincingly impersonating a left-winger (who’d run in the previous contest as a Blairite.)
The New Cannot Be Born
The answer, then, is neither the conspiracism of the worst elements of the Corbyn project nor the vacuity of the worst elements of the centre left ‘resistance’. Instead, we can look elsewhere for positive examples to follow. New Zealand’s recent wellbeing budget should inspire us to break from economic orthodoxies which stand up to little scrutiny, but a break like this must be accompanied with policy positions that live up to the rhetorical flourish. Across the Atlantic, in a land where leftism has historically struggled to take root, the recent rise in prominence of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and especially Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been cheering. AOC embodies the exact opposite of the crank elements of Corbynism and the dourness of much of the centre left. She is positive, she is ideas-focused, she is exciting. Her thinking is forward looking, it is driven by a grassroots movement, it is unapologetic. AOC doesn’t come across as a person who has been locked in a room with the same old men for three decades, but as a genuine human being. She represents not just democratic socialism but democratic socialism with a human face. In a recent Netflix documentary, she discusses adopting the “Abolish ICE” slogan. Her verdict? It sounds “gangster”. The UK left should remain reflective and always be prepared to challenge itself but must also adopt this attitude on policy: say what you believe, say it loudly, don’t apologise for it. Abolish the Home Office. AOC is full of the energy of the possible. Her campaigns are driven by a limitless imagination. Things are possible, we can do them, we are doing them. When? Now!
It is important that any future post-Corbyn left movement has a solid grip on what it stands for. The demand for imagination does not mean conceding an understanding of the moment. Within the crisis of representative democracy enveloping parts of the world, there is a grave danger that should also be a reason for optimism. The strategy of the modern nationalist populist grifter is to portray themselves as the defender of genuinely laudable concepts such as democracy and freedom of speech, while eroding them in real terms. This weaponisation of democracy and free speech should be deeply concerning for the modern left, but that the nationalist populists feel they must champion them should be cheering: they can be weaponised for our aims much more coherently than they can be for theirs. David Runciman argues, both in his book “How Democracy Ends” and across a series of three podcasts available here, that there are really three intertwined stories of democracy: the fundamental principles of Ancient Greek democracy, the advent of parliamentary democracy in the 17th century and the modern representative democracy eventually arrived at during the 20th century characterised by universal suffrage and mass communication. Developing a clear understanding of which of these interconnected stories are actually under threat is vital but, more than that, developing a new story is the key to moving past our current stasis and malaise. A fundamental redemocratisation of people’s lives must take place. The current system has become disconnected from people’s lived experiences. This necessary revitalisation of democratic life will certainly involve Lords reform and proportional representation; it may even involve further extension of the franchise. It should absolutely incorporate democratically run local services. Any genuine attempt to save democracy must also involve a real commitment to workplace democracy. The slogan “Take Back Control” hit home so immediately because the basic feeling of having control over one’s life is so far from universal. Work (both in its existence and absence) is the dominant force restricting this sense of control and self-direction. By granting workers a genuine voice, not only can real improvements be won but a renewed sense of citizenship and solidarity can be fostered.
Andrew Cumbers’ “Reclaiming Public Ownership: Making Space For Economic Democracy” challenges us to engage with Hayek when thinking about this issue. Hayek wrote:
“If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them.”
This argument is persuasive as a criticism of centralised state ownership but strikes equally true as a critique of neoliberalism. The way in which people’s lives are dictated by decisions made by actors – primarily focused on their own interests – at such a distance from the lived experiences of those who will be affected by those decisions is a major cause of crisis. Ensuring that decisions are made by those who will live with the consequences, whether in municipalised utilities or through worker democracy, should be a central tenet of the left’s own “Taking Back Control” agenda.
Further to this, the work of Karl Polanyi goes someway to adding a philosophical shape to the task for the modern democratic socialist. Polanyi’s conception of socialism is as
“[..] essentially the tendency inherent to industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.”
Polanyi sees this as in contrast to market societies in which all things are commodified including land, labour and money. The concept of the self-regulating free market is a utopian hypocrisy that fails on its own terms; free markets always require state coercion. Polanyi’s solution of subordinating the economy to democracy and society is more relevant now than ever.
Free market capitalism’s fundamental hypocrisy with regard to the state’s role in the economy is illuminated further by Mazzucato’s “The Entrepreneurial State”. She argues that while government investment has consistently powered wealth creation allowing businesses to share the risks and privatise the rewards, a myth has persisted of state intervention as anathema to innovation. In fact, the opposite has regularly been true. This is by no means an argument for a totally centralised state-planned economy, but understanding that this pervasive myth about government spending and innovation is ahistorical and countering it is crucial to developing any new left project. State investment is going to be a key driving force in any new economic settlement, partly because state investment and subsidy has historically been a key driving force in almost any economic settlement, but, also because the radical transformation of society required to both combat and adapt to climate change will require elements of war economy style planning.
As an aside, it is worth noticing the ease with which free market capitalists and nationalist populists smooth out their internal hypocrisies, but those hypocrisies must also be viewed as a source of potential weakness.
Mazzucato’s “The Value of Everything” contains another vital insight for those wanting to move past the current settlement:
“A resource destroyed by pollution may not be counted as a subtraction from GDP but when pollution is cleaned up by marketed services, GDP increases.”
Indeed, as previously discussed, the New Zealand break with the GDP consensus is heartening. GDP is a social convention presented as a hard science. Its creator Simon Kuznets’ put it best:
“Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”
GDP is a measure of economic activity but this is an insufficient measure of human progress. Economic activity is not, in and of itself, a moral good. This is particularly true in an era which will be defined by climate crisis. The purpose and nature of growth must be a political battleground. As Karl Polanyi might argue, the economy cannot be disembedded from wider society.
The democratisation of the economy, the wielding of the state as a tool to drive innovation and the jettisoning of the GDP obsession all represent breaks with prevailing myths of our time. Capitalist realism, or the belief that there is no alternative, as defined by Mark Fisher, has come under incredible strain in recent times but it still persists. The stubborness of capitalist realism is why Rutger Bregman’s reminder in “Utopia For Realists” that every achievement made by civilisation, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to the weekend, began as a utopian fantasy is so important. Sometimes we forget that things are possible!
Bregman’s book contains ideas which sit comfortably alongside the recent exciting policy developments of think tanks such as Autonomy, Common Wealth, NEF and IPPR. This growing network of left policy wonks mirrors the Mont Pelerin Society and others which were so crucial in the development of the neoliberal consensus. This new left intellectual infrastructure is beginning to develop detailed proposals on UBI, UBS, the Four Day Week, Citizens Wealth Funds and alternative models of ownership. It is a programme that sits comfortably within an Polanyian vision of society. The emergence of the Four Day Week campaign, in particular, stands comfortably on the shoulders of giants: the labour movement, Keynes, Marx, Bertrand Russell and William Morris. The four day week is important because it reconnects with Marx’s observation that
It builds upon the campaigns of the past. The weekend and the eight hour day were themselves once utopian projects. Bregman shows us that such utopian projects can be realised. A rediscovery that better things are possible in this way is vital.
Bregman’s other big idea is freedom of movement – a concept with which the Labour Party, even in its current guise, continues to struggle. This must be a key battleground of a new radicalism within the party. A new approach to immigration must sit alongside calls for the strengthening of a civil libertarian and socially liberal streak within the Labour movement. Demands must be made for drug liberalisation, prison reform, the abolition of the Home Office and the immediate closure of detention centres. Moves must be made towards arguing unequivocally in favour of immigration. Widespread support must be sought. Climate crisis is going to lead to a continual cycle of refugee crises emanating from resource shortages and natural disasters disproportionately affecting the global south. It is morally imperative that a robust case be made for a compassionate planned response: the alternatives are too hideous to contemplate. Freedom of movement is a climate justice issue.
Anthony Crosland was right when he said that in the blood of every good socialist:
“there should always run a trace of the anarchist and the libertarian, and not too much of the prig and the prude.”
The challenge, then, is to build an agenda around these ideas while breaking from the most limiting aspects of the present movement.
It is my sincere belief that there is a working base of support to be found that stretches from non-conspiracist Corbynists to left Corbynsceptics. The terms used here are crude but this could broadly be constituted out of a synthesis of the best elements of Momentum and Open Labour within the existing Labour Party. It is important, frankly, not to dilute such a programme by seeking coalitions that don’t work. A church broad enough to win support and narrow enough to function effectively must be sought.
This must sit alongside a radical reconceptualisation of “solidarity”. As it stands, too often “solidarity” manifests itself simply as a way in which people who have attended enough of the right meetings can get a pass for unacceptable behaviour. We must reject this utterly, and construct an understanding of solidarity in which the goal is nothing less than emancipation from structural oppression and bigotry. Solidarity cannot simply be a process, it must be a direction. Our solidarity must contain room for self-criticism. It must not be a paranoid solidarity but a self-reflective solidarity.
In the here and now, we can support such a settlement by embracing and amplifying the work of those who embody some or all of these ideas already. We cannot wait for the perfect people to do things for us – they will not come along. There will be no individual saviour. The search for, for example, “a British AOC” is a red herring, AOC is a once in a generation politician and even she cannot do it alone. We must be ready to acknowledge ours and others limitations but also see beyond them and embrace all of our strengths. We must control the controllables, fight the winnable battles, be constructive and embrace ideas. We should start movement building now. Is it possible to construct a new left media infrastructure that doesn’t look like Skwawkbox? Is it possible to construct effective grassroots political education networks? Is it possible to effectively embed the movement within communities through, for example, activist-led volunteer-run food banks and cooking classes? Crucially, in internal battles, we must say what we think. We must be ready for the moment whatever it looks like when it comes.
Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.
In our world today, we face formidable challenges: climate emergency, the failure, cruelty and collapse of neoliberalism, and the subsequent rise of the nationalist populist right and techno-feudalism. We are living in an age of anxiety characterised by precarity, underemployment and overwork. In terms of preserving the planet, defending liberal democratic norms, and preventing a slide into authoritarianism, our fight could not be more crucial. Although capitalist realism has shown signs of decay, too much contemporary thinking is still imprisoned by the capitalist realists’ characteristic lack of imagination. This is why the policies underpinning Corbynism 2.0 must be preserved. They represent the possibility of a truly meaningful break from this oppressive consensus. However, these economic policies must also sit alongside a bold socially progressive reform agenda that has yet to materialise: one of abolishing the Home Office, liberalising drug and prison policy, abolishing detention centres and more.
Our task right now is to work on both extending and fulfilling the radical potential contained within Corbynism while combating the toxic conspiracism that thrives under its banner. Our task is to continue to construct a democratic socialism that is ready for the challenges of the 21st century. We must be ready. Better things are possible!