All the commentators seem to agree that something extraordinary happened when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. There is no agreement, however, on what, exactly, was so extraordinary. For the anti-Corbyn side, what’s extraordinary is that a relic from the ‘hard left’ – a faction thought to have been permanently subdued in the 1980s – managed to win the leadership and alter the party beyond recognition, assisted by social-media-savvy but politically inexperienced young people (plus a smattering of old Trots). Labour’s political identity and its inheritance of practical knowledge, both the product of long, often bitter experience over more than a century, are consequently seen to be under grave threat.
The same facts also feature in the pro-Corbyn version of the story. He almost certainly wouldn’t have become Labour leader without social media (though his opponents tend to mistake a useful tool of contemporary activism for an originating cause). The Labour Party has indeed been transformed, more than doubling its membership to over half a million on the back of an unembarrassed and credible opposition to austerity and neoliberalism. But there’s a difference: in the first version of the story, Corbynism represents a dramatic deviation in the history of the Labour Party; in the second, a dramatic return to, or resurrection of its values.
The disagreement about Labour’s true identity has more to do with clashing ideals in the present than with conflicting analyses of party history – but the history is often bent to fit a particular agenda. It is a distortion to present Corbynism, as its critics sometimes do, as the second wave of an alien invasion: first the Militant Tendency, now Momentum. Corbyn’s politics belong to a tradition that stretches back to Labour’s beginnings (this could never be said of Tony Blair’s). Those who adopt this view would do better just to come out with what they actually mean, which is that it was only in the 1990s, under Blair, that the Labour Party finally found its perfect form. But it would also be a distortion to present Corbyn’s politics as the dominant strain in the pre-Blair Labour Party. The social democratic values he stands for – a strong welfare state, public ownership and provision of services – were most fully realised by the postwar Attlee administration, but this was, for any number of reasons (mainly relating to the Second World War), exceptional rather than representative.
In other words, Corbyn may be atypical, but his views aren’t extraordinary. He is manifestly not a revolutionary – whatever the papers may say – and only in a highly circumscribed sense can he even be called a ‘radical’. While it’s true that his roots are in the Bennite ‘hard left’, this tradition – characterised by a commitment to wealth redistribution and Keynesian economics, as well as by some tentative support for workers’ control of industries and a deep scepticism about the European Union – is not to be confused with the ‘far left’. These terms are often used more or less interchangeably to describe Corbyn and Corbynism, but the ‘far left’ is more properly used of extra-parliamentary groups and movements committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Corbyn is not proposing to replace capitalism, by revolutionary or other means. He is not even proposing very significant wealth redistribution. What he has so far felt able to put forward is moderate by the standards of the Bennite left of the 1970s and 1980s: according to the economist James Meadway, the economic proposals in Labour’s 2017 manifesto were more conservative than those put forward in 1983 by the SDP – the breakaway party formed by a faction of Labour’s right wing. Labour under Corbyn is promising, among other things, to abolish tuition fees and expand free childcare, reversing at least some of the cuts imposed by the Conservatives – and by their coalition partners between 2010 and 2016, the Liberal Democrats. It proposes to pay for these measures by raising income tax for the top 5 per cent of earners – though nowhere near pre-Thatcher levels – and by increasing corporation tax from 19 per cent to 26 per cent. The lowest rate under Thatcher was 34 per cent. Corbyn isn’t trying to take us back to the 1970s – at least not yet.
Of course, context and direction of travel matter at least as much as the detail of particular policies – otherwise, it would seem to follow from the facts above that Thatcher was more left-wing than Corbyn. Policies or political positions which, if a continuance of the status quo, would not be a disruptive intervention in a society, can be exactly that if proposed in a different context. In one sense, free university education is not a remotely radical policy: it was, until quite recently, what we had in this country (many other European countries still have it). But to call for its reinstatement in Britain now is to challenge an already deeply entrenched model of education as a private rather than a public good, and of students as individual consumers and entrepreneurs who must borrow to invest in their own ‘human capital’.
The significance of Corbynism has less to do with Corbyn or his politics than with what it discloses about the political system in which we live, widening an already growing gap between the reality of that system and the story it tells about itself. The story we have been told is that we live in a reasonably open and well-functioning democracy, in which political decisions reflect, for better or worse, the will of the people. We are assured that in this system – in clear contrast to totalitarian societies – political dissent and challenge are possible, and that the absence of advocates for positions to the left of the ones currently available to us reflects a lack of real appetite for them: people just won’t vote for the left. One variant of this story says that this is because people have realised that left-wing policies don’t work. Another holds that the problem is that people are too bigoted and irrational to see the merits of a more just and compassionate society. Either way, the message has been, in effect, that this is as good as it gets – even while for many, ‘this’ has been getting more and more difficult. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, demonstrating that things certainly could get worse. And after that, following a wave of anti-austerity movements across Europe and America, something utterly unexpected: a left-wing candidate managed to scrape together the required nominations to stand for the Labour leadership, and won a landslide victory.
The events of that campaign and of Corbyn’s subsequent embattled tenure – the purges, the attempted coup, the smears – demonstrate (or confirm) the degree to which the self-appointed political ‘centre’ has drifted to the right, leading the spectrum of political possibility to contract accordingly. Corbyn’s left reformism is mild by the standards of earlier generations, by the standards of some other European countries, and even in comparison to public opinion in the UK: the polls – though admittedly a fallible guide to people’s convictions and voting behaviour – consistently show majority support for a fully public NHS, for the nationalisation of rail and utility companies and for the scrapping of tuition fees. But this moderate agenda is, clearly, totally unacceptable to the British political establishment. This includes most Labour MPs and those who identify themselves as ‘left-leaning’ or ‘liberal’ journalists, many of whom remain wedded to a market-friendly model shaped by the legacies of Thatcher and Blair.
Corbynism has also called the bluff of those who argue that the recent homogeneity of British politics is simply reflective of a public consensus. It has become apparent that people are not only prepared to vote for a left alternative but they are even prepared to pay to vote for it (by joining the Labour Party), and willing to rally in their thousands in support of the chance to vote for it. Shutting their eyes to all evidence to the contrary, Corbyn’s critics maintained from the first that he was ‘unelectable’; something they continued to insist on right up until the general election of June 2017, which showed the biggest increase in Labour’s share of the vote since 1945, the year of Attlee’s first election victory. While a few still cling to this line – attributing Labour’s performance to the Tories’ poor campaign, or devising creative theories about the motivations of Labour voters (the political theorist Andrew Hindmoor suggests that people only voted Labour because they were sure the party wouldn’t win) – the ‘unelectability’ objection has now largely been dropped. But electability or public opinion were never the real issues at stake for Corbyn’s critics; they, not the electorate, are unwilling to tolerate any serious challenge to a political status quo which is extreme when judged by the same comparisons – to history, to other nations, to public opinion – that show how moderate Corbynism is. The neoliberal character of the status quo doesn’t reflect a public consensus, and it hasn’t for a long time: for example, no opinion poll since the mid-1980s has shown popular support for public sector privatisation.
Corbyn now arguably occupies a stronger position than at any other time in his leadership: this summer a Momentum-endorsed slate of candidates was overwhelmingly elected to the party’s National Executive Committee. Yet the assault has been continued, led by some of his own MPs in conjunction and occasionally in co-ordination with a media whose quarrel with Corbyn has been described by a former chair of the BBC Trust, Michael Lyons, as ‘quite extraordinary’. The favourite – and perhaps the most persistent – of the many lines of attack employed so far is the charge of antisemitism.
No one has yet produced any evidence either that antisemitism is more prevalent in the Labour Party than elsewhere in British society (within the Conservative Party, for instance), or that its incidence within Labour has increased since Corbyn became leader. The dispute is really about Corbyn’s positions on Israel and Palestine – positions which, again, have broad public support. Those who make the charge pretend to honour a clear distinction between antisemitism and criticism of the state of Israel, but have in fact consistently sought to undermine the distinction in such a way as to stigmatise and stifle the latter. The recent debacle over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) guidelines provides one illustration of this.Alongside an uncontroversial definition of antisemitism (long ago adopted by the Labour Party), the IHRA offers a number of ‘examples’ of antisemitism in practice, which include drawing comparisons between Israel’s policies and those of the Nazis, and ‘applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation’. The argument that it is antisemitic to apply ‘double standards’ to Israel is one that is often used to brand criticism of the country as racist, on the grounds that Israel is singled out although many nations commit human rights abuses. There are very good reasons for singling Israel out, such as the deep complicity of Western liberal democracies in its violence. The point is especially pertinent in Britain, which is implicated in everything that is happening in Israel and Palestine today, as in the Middle East more broadly. Britain, after all, occupied Palestine for the thirty years between the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the founding of the state of Israel, overseeing and facilitating the construction of Jewish settlements. Yet Palestine is conspicuously absent from the sporadic conversation about ‘coming to terms’ with our imperial legacy – Rhodes must fall, but what about Balfour?
The prohibition on comparisons with the Nazi regime has also proved a useful weapon for those who wish both to shield Israel and to damage Corbyn. While Israel was completing its transition from de facto to de jure apartheid state by enshrining Jewish-only settlements in law, the attention of the British media was once again focused on Corbyn and the Labour Party. The charge this time was that Corbyn had, in 2010, been present at an event where someone had made the forbidden comparison, and that he was thus antisemitic by association. The fact that this someone, Hajo Meyer, was a Jewish Auschwitz survivor who saw similarities between his treatment at the hands of the Nazis and what was now being inflicted on Palestinians, was no barrier to his deployment as cannon fodder.
Corbyn will not satisfy his opponents by conceding or apologising (though the IHRA examples have now been accepted in full). His accusers – who will be satisfied only with his removal – do not speak for all British Jews, who are increasingly critical of the actions and position of the Israeli state. The ‘Jewish vote’ shouldn’t be simply conflated with a pro-Israel one or treated as fixed. Political ‘common sense’ has tended to assume a tension between principle and pragmatism – and to counsel in favour of the latter. What this misses – and what Corbyn at his better moments exemplifies – is that the two can converge: that adherence to principle can be a source of strength.
If the path Corbyn has started to follow is again closed off, there are two foreseeable consequences. The first is that anger and disaffection will find another outlet. While frequent reference to a racist and right-wing public opinion has been a convenient device for the protection of the status quo, there is no virtue in maintaining an opposite fiction of the British people as saints and socialists. The appetite for Corbyn’s vision of a more compassionate and co-operative society coexists with a counter-tendency that has been well nurtured in recent years: the tendency towards suspicion of strangers and neighbours, the scapegoating of the vulnerable, resentment and a desire to dominate others. This tendency was on full display during the Brexit referendum campaign, and was given a formidable boost by the result. (There is no need to choose between the interpretation of Brexit as a protest against a neoliberal political establishment or as expressive of an ill-informed, racist bigotry: it is both.) Islamophobic sentiment and related attacks are on the increase, legitimised by a media which has for years been normalising far-right rhetoric. British liberals like to believe that Americans are a different species but they didn’t think that even the Americans would elect Trump. Boris Johnson – limbering up with carefully pitched comments about women in burqas and suicide vests – is a threat not to be underestimated. And there are fates worse than Boris.
The other foreseeable consequence of the defeat of Corbynism is that what remains of the achievements of an earlier Labour Party will be undone. The combination of the economic consequences of Brexit and another few years at the mercy of the Tories or Labour ‘moderates’ will spell certain death for the NHS (even without Brexit, the health service would be doomed to an only slightly slower demise). In this context, the attacks on Corbyn’s leadership are attacks on all those whose lives depend quite literally on a break with politics as we currently know it.
What is no longer an option is a return to politics as usual. Those who claim otherwise are incapable either of acknowledging the scale of discontent or of understanding its basis: they would rather blame ‘populists’, or the distorting effects of social media ‘echo chambers’. From this point of view, the sources of Corbyn’s appeal and his success are equally mysterious: it must be a result of infiltrators, nostalgia, a youth fad. ‘Democracy’ must be defended, but the idea that Labour candidates should be made accountable to the members of their constituency parties through a mandatory reselection process, for example, is ‘totalitarian’. The Brexit referendum must be rerun, because democracy malfunctioned in that case, but the decades of neoliberal reforms, carried out against the will of the population, were safely within the bounds of the legitimate and tolerable.
In the event that Corbyn survives to win an election and form a government, what may be hoped from it? It has often been said that we should not expect his troubles to end when he becomes prime minister, and indeed that this may be the moment when his real problems begin. This is probably true, if not very useful. What we may hope for also depends on a more basic and fundamental question. If you think that capitalism can be managed in such a way as to afford a decent life for all, then it is precisely this we should hope for and demand from a Labour victory under Corbyn. If not, the hope must be for something else – whether a step towards a more radical transformation, or just some temporary relief. Perhaps there are little grounds for hope from either perspective. But in immediate practical terms, it doesn’t make much difference. After all – to paraphrase the favourite slogan of the right – what is the alternative to Corbynism now?