The Corbyn Effect
Blair and company argue that the Tories crave a Corbyn win, but the trap has been set a move beyond that: Cameron and Osborne can rest confident that the terror of electoral wipe-out will have a neo-Blairite Labour party galloping towards their position anyway. Always fighting the last war, and on a badly-chosen battlefield. The Labour mainstream cannot adapt to new parameters, cannot think except in the abjection of the spectre of a hard left, even as they appoint themselves the true custodians of the world-to-come.
Having failed to stand up to claims that over-spending caused the financial crisis (it was the allocation decisions of deregulated market actors, since you ask), and having joined in the anti-immigration mood with some vigour (if also with occasional cognitive dissonance), the party is hardly placed to offer a local vision of political renewal, still less muster anything like internationalism or a novel settlement for the great questions of the age (stagnant economies, spreading inequalities, humanitarian crisis within and at the gates of Fortress Europe, a foreign policy that does not undermine itself even in the narrow range of national interest, a trajectory for expanded human freedom and comfort). They have only platitudes, and this explains in part the bile of the anti-Corbyn moment. Utterly unable to engage on the merits, theirs is also a retreat to a ‘comfort zone’, one of personality-engineering and fickle non-policies, desperate to catch the eye of the floating voter who hates them for their indecision and rightly perceives the abyss of their purpose.
As Paul Mason argued the morning after the election, this emptiness is the result of some longer-term trends:
[Labour] in its current form it has almost no ideological base, or coherence. Miliband’s innner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted. Blairism, of course, has massive support among the now wrinkled and pensioned ex-ministers and former giants of 1990s journalism, but that’s not much use… It has failed to account for its defeat in 2010, failed to recognise the deep sources of its failure in Scotland, and failed to produce any kind of intellectual diversity and resilience from which answers might arise.
The failure goes on, and is only compounded by the shrill denunciations, as if Corbyn’s suggestion of opposing tax cuts for the rich in a time of austerity was the common sense definition of “hard left”. This is how the Overton Window works. To have Labour advisors ripping into mild social democracy as if it was the establishment of a command economy is to shrink the possibilities across the entire political spectrum. This is not reorientation to “the centre”. Nor is it moving past left and right. It is establishing the axioms of the right as the very horizon of politics, and then calling it objective reality. We live in a society in which something like re-nationalisation of the railways is a hugely popular policy, even (by a slimmer margin) amongst Conservative voters, and in which no one is able to seriously propose it. Mary Creagh thinks this is a sign of good sense (re-nationalisation apparently unworkable, a stone age notion). But – and here we must concede something to the ‘Mont Pelerin of the Left’ crowd – you have to contest political reality in order to create it. Arguments, organisation, persuasion. Not submission and mimicry (at least not at the scale of the Blairite panic). Or else they win even when you win.
Anti-Corbynites will at this stage justly complain that all of the above misses the central, inescapable, terrifying point: a party leader must be able to win nationwide parliamentary elections, and winning is predicated on capturing new voters, who will mostly be swing electors of no particular ideology and not some shy gaggle of hardcore Bennites in hiding since 1997. And it is winning that requires a range of skills in coalition-building, in political manoeuvrability, and in crafting a narrative which is both suitably empty (so that all positions can be contained within it) and robust (so that there is a narrative identity to hawk). Principles, a strong voting record, repeatedly being proven right in the face of prevailing credulity, loyalty to the historic role of the party, a refreshing honesty, basic decency in talking about opponents…all of that is secondary, or worse. Denying the need for these competencies is thus an infantile leftism, a retreat, a fantasy, a comfort-eating binge (as if there was anything comfortable about being set upon so within Labour’s putative broad church).
Although it can obviously not say so explicitly, such advice counsels that the electorate are idiots, and should be treated as such. Grow up, and realise that this is a game of manipulation in the pursuit of power, not open debate in the service of public good. In the intricacies of political advertising, vapid talk is a feature, not a bug, and yes, it too reflects the alliances made with interest groups in the market and the media. For now, there can only be charisma-void candidates, who can at least be relied on not to actively repulse in the marginals. What else did you expect? As so many have noted for so long, the consequence is an endless dilution of ideas (of what might once have been haughtily thought of as political theory) in which power is its own reward, and a light balm the best the body politic might hope for even in the event of a grand Labour victory. This is, you will notice, the opposite of how the Tories have carried on. They use their position to remould the state, and in ways that are pretty obviously “right wing”. It is hard to imagine that anyone but Corbyn has the political courage to do the same for the left, but then they are not expected to, and no positive case exists to be put for them (apart from that Burnham believes in the NHS, which is, I guess, some kind of comfort). What, say, is the identifiable meaning of Yvette Cooper?
This is an extract from a longer piece, originally posted on the excellent blog, The Disorder of Things – read the full post here.