Don Flynn assesses the Corbyn legacy
Corbyn’s most important achievement is that he gave a political voice to a generation destined to exist as 21st century capitalism’s exploited working class. Considering the need for the political representation of this new proletariat as neoliberal globalisation moves deeper into crisis is the critical next step for the Labour Party.
Does the scale of Labour’s defeat in the unwanted December general election mean the end of Corbynism? How much of the reduction of the party’s share of the vote is down to its four years of dalliance with left wing socialist standpoints which the electorate has shown decisively that it is not prepared to support? What about Corbyn himself? Portrayed in the mainstream media as a London bubble politician, indecisive on key issues and tainted with the charge of antisemitism; was he the reason why so many so-called traditional Labour voters couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the party this time?
Getting a sense of the tasks which now have to be taken on by socialists in the party means, in the first instance, understanding what Corbynism was and why the package constructed around the man and his principles were insufficient to get Labour into power this time round.
Corbynism is best understood as a delayed political response to the earthquake that hit globalised capitalism seven years previously. The crisis that exploded in 2008 imposed an all-hands-to-the-pump emergency response to the collapse of banking credit on all the major parties. Support quantitative easing, direct bailouts for the banks and austerity-driven cuts to public services was embraced across the board with Labour scarcely distinguishing itself from the Conservative Party’s demands for deep cuts to the living standards of the working and lower middle classes.
Millennials take the biggest hit
Over the immediately following years one section of the population among the worst hit by these measures began to put together a political response which challenged the assumptions behind austerity policies. This was the younger age cohorts which had, in previous decades, done the most to adapt to the conditions that prevailed in competitive, individualised labour markets. In the jargon of the time, they had invested in themselves by undergoing extensive periods of higher education, taking on the risk of a huge debt overhang in the hope that they would reap the rewards of well-paid, skilled professional employment.
The Great Recession that followed the debt crisis showed what a hollow hope this was for a large proportion of these young people. The jobs market was increasingly configured around the principle of precarity which replaced the vista of well-paid employment with years of unpaid internships for those trying to get into the creative industries, and zero-hour and Uber-style jobs for the rest. Meanwhile asset inflation – a direct consequence of the state support given to sectors which had caused the crisis in the first place – led to soaring house prices which ended the dream of owning a home, or even that of affordable renting.
It was this large group of people who saw sense in the demands being formulated on the left of the Labour party for major structural reform which would give a leading role to democratic political procedures and institutions in shaping a better society. In turning in that direction they came across a small group of leftist politicians who had spent decades on the fringe of the party precisely because of their principled opposition to the turbo-charged version of global capitalism that had been favoured during the years of the Blairite ‘third way’. Corbyn was to the forefront of this small band.
With a party membership now suddenly rising to the half million mark the question was whether this new enthusiasm for left wing politics could translate into success in the electoral arena. Corbyn’s centrist and Blairite critics thought ‘no way’, and the sound of their jaws crashing into the floor was one of the most memorable things that came out of the general election of 2017. Rather than providing them with a disaster which they could demand Corbyn took ownership of, they saw voting support for the party rise to a point where it was nearly on a par with that won by the Conservatives. The years of hung Parliament politics opened out as a result.
Depriving Theresa May of the majority she craved seemed like a victory for Corbyn’s Labour Party that was worth celebrating. In fact, it simply created the conditions that were most inimical to the left continuing its uncomplicated march towards government driven by the anger and frustration of millennials. It was in this hung Parliament that Brexit became the absolute logjam that prevented serious consideration of the policy measures needed to overcome austerity and begin the restructuring of the economy. It also exposed the divisions in the progressive camp as the debate around leaving the EU pushed people into the extremes of Brexit and Remain.
The team immediately round Corbyn saw the dangers for Labour if it tried to resolve its dilemma by simply coming down on one side or the other. Its initial instinct in seeking to honour the referendum vote by arguing for the softest Brexit possible had to confront the brutal fact that this would mean the alienation of its newly won support from young voters, who largely favoured Remain. The long period of attempting to square this circle led to disaffection among pro-Brexit working class voters in Wales, the Midlands and the smaller towns of the North. But even more, the vacillation weakened Labour’s appeal among people of more cosmopolitan inclination, causing a drift of over a million votes to the Liberal Democrats and Greens.
The conundrum this created for the party’s strategists was underscored by the realities of the internal migrations of British citizens over the past forty years which have come about from the deindustrialisation of the Midlands, the North and South Wales. The young and educated were leaving the parts of the country which had been plunged into bleak economic dead ends, heading for the better prospects of London and the South East. The loss of this segment from community life in the affected areas meant an end to the renewal of working class culture, particularly that part of it that was conducive to resistance and struggle against elites.
The dispute over the UK’s membership of the EU suddenly offered people who had lost the habit of digging in and fighting back the chance to at least take sides in an argument that was driven by splits in the ruling class. Rebellion in pursuit of its own interests had ceased to be a part of the daily life of these communities, but at least they could now take on a foot soldier’s role in someone else’s revolt. The vicarious pleasures to be got from identification with other people’s victories, so strongly present in the fanaticism that goes with supporting football teams, was present in the backing given to the Faragist insurgency against Europe.
In retrospect it seems inevitable that Corbynism would come to grief because of its inability to transcend the dilemmas imposed on it by hung Parliament politics. With identity politics mobilised to full screaming pitch, the case for a democratically accountable government to take the leading role in getting sustainable growth back into the economy, implementing everything required under the terms of the ‘Green Deal’, bringing the provision of homes back into the realm of public policy, and turning the tide on inequality across British society was drowned out in the noise.
What next? Dismissing the calls by the right wing and centrists in the party, who think that a leader with charisma is all that is needed, will be the easiest thing to do as the elections for Corbyn’s successor get underway. Socialists will need to counter banality of this sort with the demand that post-Corbyn Labour continues to engage with the generation of newly politicised people who are going to spend the next decades of their lives struggling for security in their employment, searching for affordable homes, and trying to raise families in the choking smog of the country’s congested cities.
Viewed from this standpoint Corbynism did not fail. Whilst the leap into government office was beyond it at this moment in time, it has forged a bond with the social forces that will grow stronger and more combative in the coming years. The next Labour leader has to be someone with the vision and strategies for building on this achievement.