Jeremy Corbyn is a ‘dinosaur’, a ‘throwback’, an ‘unreconstructed relic’ with politics from the last century – and yet his brand of parliamentary socialism seems, incredibly, to be about to win the Labour leadership election. As the right wing of the party tries harder and harder to paint him as an historical irrelevance, his campaign seems to be more and more able to latch onto popular enthusiasm in a way that fellow leadership hopefuls Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall could only dream of.
This internal crisis is an inversion of the old dynamic of modernising Blairites and nostalgic leftists – and has resulted in a 66 year old Labour party socialist becoming the focal point for an increasingly popular understanding that the left can offer a viable future.
1. The left was assumed to be extinct.
If one reference point has dominated the centrist response to Corbyn, it has been the struggle within the Labour party in the 1980s. It seems much of the mainstream media thinks the Militant tendency has been spontaneously refounded, and is going about its business as if it had never been expelled. Article after article returns to the experience of the 80s and attempts to prove that history is repeating itself. As Huw Lemmey parodies:
“Instead, Corbyn clings to a frankly outdated idea of the working class. There aren’t any factories any more, so Militant Michael Foot Hamas (?) Wasteland Terrible Fashion Sense. Does Corbyn really think Britain is full of people who live paycheck to paycheck and really want fairer pay deals, comprehensive healthcare free at the point of delivery, efficient government-run infrastructure services, lower energy bills and higher taxes on the financial services? I haven’t had a single conversation with a working-class person in the past year where they’ve said that. Anyway, what is ‘working class’ anymore? I mean, even Magda has a Gucci handbag she brings with her. Yes she’s wonderful, but she doesn’t do windows – I can give you the number of the agency if you’d like?”
The narrative that the media and the centre of the Labour party are trying to communicate is clear enough: whereas the Blairite right is innovative, future-oriented, open to change, dynamic, [insert buzzword here], Corbyn’s politics are a rearticulation of the same old socialism. Any momentum his campaign may have is supposed to be the product of a heady mix of revolutionary zealousness and the stupid idealism of youth. To them, the suggestion that we’re seeing a mass mobilisation of people to the left of the Labour mainstream is ridiculous at best – after all, the dominant narrative frame has, for years, been based on the assumption that these people do not actually exist.
Jeremy Gilbert’s understanding of the reflation of this campaign to historical precedent makes one thing very clear – Corbyn’s campaign is fusing hard and soft left in ways that go far beyond historical reenactment.
2. The left didn’t die; it mutated.
One of the major inaccuracies caused by the assumption that the Labour party is undergoing a historical reenactment of the 1980s is the assumption that the primary force behind Corbyn is organised entryism. A spectre is haunting the Labour party – but it’s a spectre of the future, not the past.
In pointing to tiny sects such as the CPGB as the source of the inflation of Labour’s membership, the press has demonstrated a remarkable overestimation of the effect, resources and organisation of far left parties. The Socialist Party and other offspring of Militant are now small organisations which could not in their wildest dreams be accountable for the entirety of the Corbyn surge.
Whilst socialists with views far to the left of the Labour Party have worked for years (and years) to reclaim the party and smooth the path for left wing candidates like Corbyn, they have not been the primary driving force behind his campaign.
Instead, social movements – around housing, the NHS, disability, education and others, all of which could broadly be defined as ‘anti-austerity’ – are going to play an unprecedented part in the internal democracy of an electoral party. Without centralised organisation, the Corbyn campaign has rallied a general sentiment and a broad political narrative to its own cause, and built on the Labour left by calling on a whole new layer of participants. This is what Adam Ramsay has called ‘political polyamory’, which allows participation in political parties to take place in increasingly mobile and fluid ways. We are not witnessing the reanimated corpse of the 1980s hard left, but instead a new form of hybrid organisation and a new kind of momentum.
Social movement actors are leveraging their ‘support’ role to apply remarkable pressure to the neoliberal consensus in a way which has surpassed every expectation. But in a way, this should perhaps have been predictable. We’ve seen this dynamic of a struggle between social movements and ‘project fear’ in the UK in the Scottish independence referendum, and in a number of more diverse example – like the OXI vote – further afield.
But how does this social movement intervention in the Labour party link to that other emerging pattern influencing social democracy – Pasokification?
3. The right continues to misread the situation.
Due to the specific pressures of a first-past-the-post electoral system, instead of seeing the general rise of a challenge to Labour’s left by a party like the Greens, the recomposition of the political centre ground is withdrawing support from previously hegemonic positions in more conflicted ways. One of these has been the specific regional challenge of the SNP’s colossal anti-austerity landslide in Scotland. Another has become clear over the course of the leadership contest.
Pasokification has caused a collapse in Labour support, in the sense that the Labour core vote has been progressively more disenfranchised. But beyond that, the mechanism of the leadership election (for the first time: one member, one vote) looks like it will result in the marginalisation of the right wing of the party, leading to a form of internal Pasokification.
The Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, is languishing in last place, despite her billionaire backers. She is scrambling to claim that Corbyn doesn’t have a ‘monopoly on hope’ – which, of course, suggests that reality is almost the exact opposite. Mocked as a Tory by the party’s grassroots, and with almost no constituency Labour party nominations outside of London, those obsessed with ‘electability’ seem to have totally lost the ability to be elected. Even a relatively left candidate like Burnham is being driven left to avoid the abyss into which the right seems to be falling.
The Blairites may argue that Corbyn is a dinosaur, but they are the ones becoming extinct.
4. Labour’s continued failings are breeding a re-emergence of popular socialist politics: Corbo-Futurism.
The sheer inability of dominant actors to understand that political conditions have shifted since the 1980s is remarkable. They have been totally outflanked by mass political action, and are standing dazed and confused in the ruins of the centrist consensus. Corbyn’s campaign shows how new forms of mobilisation and the recomposition of the political middle ground are creating conditions within which socialist politics, once again, appear like the only avenue towards a redemptive future.
The surprise growth of Corbyn’s campaign is due to a new form of political engagement and a new sense of hope – and these two combined are the practice and theory of Corbo-Futurism.
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