Labour's identity crisis
More broadly, Corbyn’s project as leader explicitly contested New Labour’s reinvention of the party. Yet ‘Corbynism’ was riddled with its own ambiguities and contradictions. One paradox related to the party’s identity. Labour was believed to have reclaimed its heritage in 2015, symbolised by the leader’s attendance at the Durham Miner’s Gala alongside the festival in Dorset to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Corbyn told an interviewer that Labour was now ‘a class- based socialist party’. He assured supporters that under a future government, coal mines would be reopened.116 A year later, Corbyn announced to a trade union conference: ‘Labour is back as the political voice of the working-class’. Throughout history, Labour had retreated to the comforting illusion of its ‘homogenous proletarian base’ in Britain.117 Yet in so doing, Corbynism never addressed the fundamental question of what were the party’s roots in a world transformed by the demise of class politics and the halting of Labour’s forward march? Confusingly, the more Labour sought to emphasise its credentials as a working-class party, the more alienated working-class voters became.
There were pervasive contradictions of strategy and ideology in Corbyn’s party. Had Labour reverted to becoming a traditional party of Labourism, or did it now represent a new ‘social movement’? The leader’s team operated by controlling the national executive and trade unions, imposing discipline through oligarchy and centralised control. Yet Corbyn’s grassroots organisation, Momentum, espoused the virtues of collective participation and internal democracy in the Labour Party. The Left instinctively opposed the presidential style that encouraged blind loyalty and deference to the leader. If the leadership had too much power, it risked being caught in an ‘aristocratic embrace’ that would lead to betrayal - a repeat of the Ramsay MacDonald debacle.118 The NEC, the trade unions and the annual conference were necessary to constrain the leadership’s authority. Yet Corbyn’s rise to power and his ability to defend his leadership from PLP opposition centred precisely on his messianic quasi-presidential appeal. Was the leader a disciplinarian asserting the Left’s dominance through central control of party institutions; or a pluralist committed to post-1968-style liberation politics? The search was underway for Corbyn’s soul.
Other paradoxes of Corbynism soon emerged. The first concerned the ongoing tension in Corbyn’s party between ‘Labourism’ and ‘socialism’. The trade unions had regained their ascendency by 2015. The Labourist wing historically believed the party must focus on ameliorative reforms that improved the living standards of working people. The philosophy was ‘bread today, not jam tomorrow’. Improving working-class prosperity and welfare must take precedence over ideological victory. Labourism was committed to the existing Westminster institutions, parliamentary government, collective wage bargaining and moderate class politics. It aimed to advance ‘a mild form of social democracy’.119 Yet throughout his career, Corbyn’s politics strenuously emphasised the limits of Labourism. Intellectuals who influenced the Left most - notably, Ralph Miliband, Leo Panitch, Colin Leys, Perry Anderson and David Coates - focused on the constraints imposed by the conservative and anti-intellectual predisposition of the Labour tradition.120 They emphasised the backwardness of British socialism, its inability to act as an agent of modernisation within the economy and polity.121 Through the Labour Party’s formation, ‘the now enclosed and defensive world of working-class culture had in effect achieved its apotheosis’.122 Marx deplored Labourism as striving to modify capitalism rather than transforming the economic system. Ralph Miliband referred to the ‘bankruptcy of Labourism’.123 He insisted socialism must be a transformational creed, inculcating revolutionary political consciousness among the working class.124 Throughout his career, Corbyn paid lip service to Labourism while decrying its limitations.125
The second paradox of Corbynism related to the politics of personal autonomy and collectivism. Not surprisingly, Corbynism was soon labelled ‘populism for the middle-classes, serving the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and well-heeled’.126 The electoral strategy of Corbyn’s party centred on embracing the educated and prosperous middle class. The central plank of the 2017 manifesto focused on the abolition of university tuition fees combined with no tax rises on incomes below £80,000. Labour’s programme reflecting changes underway across the industrialised countries, where social democratic parties relied increasingly on educated voters.127 As a consequence, the centre-left became less focused on class and redistribution.
Under Corbyn, the party’s agenda emphasised individualism, personal autonomy and the politics of identity to an unprecedented degree. Corbyn’s twenty- first-century socialism celebrated the individualism of the Left, exemplified by the party’s embrace of Universal Basic Income (UBI) alongside the four-day working week in the public sector. A report on the four-day week by Lord Robert Skidelsky for the Shadow Treasury team claimed in libertarian terms: ‘Having to work less at what one needs to do, and more at what one wants to do, is good for material and spiritual well-being’.128 The historian Thomas Franks believed that the growth of identity politics encouraged an emphasis on ‘demographic self-recognition and self-expression . . . the bread and butter not of leftist ideology but consumerism’.129 The thirst for self-actualisation was the underlying orientation of Corbynism. Neither in 2017 nor 2019 did Labour insist that taxes should rise for middle- and high-income earners to improve public services. The party’s prospectus sought to ease the burden on the middle class rather than tackling endemic disadvantage in the structure of the economy and society.
As a consequence, Corbyn never confidently embraced the traditional politics that had dominated the party since the Second World War. Under his leadership, Labour was a long way from being a movement ‘of the trade unions and working-class, pursuing socialist reforms of capitalism using the state’.130 Corbyn was determined to appear at the Durham Miner’s Gala (Photo 9.2) marching behind the banner of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Yet this act evoked nostalgic memories of working-class politics that had long passed into abeyance. The 2017 manifesto contained doses of Labourism, underlining the dominance of the trade unions (not least as the major source of campaign funding), but their influence was actually to nudge the party to the Right. Labour committed to retaining the Trident nuclear submarine against the leader’s wishes. Foreign affairs were downplayed following attacks on Corbyn’s links to terrorist organisations. After the Manchester arena bombing, Corbyn denied he blamed terrorism on the conduct of British foreign policy.
Nevertheless, elsewhere the Labour Party advanced the undiluted statism that was historically anathema to moderate Labourism. The manifesto committed to ‘bring key utilities back into public ownership to deliver lower prices, more accountability and a more sustainable economy’, including the railways, water, gas, electricity and the Royal Mail.131 The emphasis was on the top-down restructuring of the British economy. Yet it was not clear that the party’s industrial policy would produce more well-paid jobs, benefiting working-class voters. The proposal for a ‘Citizen’s Wealth Fund’ (CWF) and the broader ‘institutional turn’ in economic policy was certainly imaginative.132 Yet practical questions remained. Would the CWF be overseen by civil service technocrats, creating a new bureaucratic elite; or elected politicians?133 There was little evidence of any concerted thinking about involving citizens in the design of public policy. Labour’s 2017 manifesto felt as if it was forty years behind the times. Many figures on the Left grew frustrated at the perceived poverty of ambition in Corbyn’s project. They envisaged a radical social movement overcoming obstacles to the reform of capitalism imposed by the economic and political elite.134 There was
PHOTO 9.2 Jeremy Corbyn attends the Annual Durham Miner’s Gala, July 2017. Source: Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images.
the emphasis on democratic ownership by workers and citizens in contrast to the centralised corporatism of the Attlee years. Furthermore, it was feared that automation was likely to shift power towards capital, requiring countervailing measures. For radical thinkers and activists, Corbynomics had to extend democracy from politics to the economy, echoing the twentieth-century syndicalism of G.D.Fl. Cole that favoured self-government and workplace democracy rather than suffocating managerial control.135 There were demands for the rebalancing of power: reforming the institutions of the British economy, extending workers’ co-operatives and instilling a ‘right to own’ where employees were given the right to purchase a company collectively. McDonnell’s adviser, James Meadway, insisted that in economic policy, ‘Keynesianism is not enough’. The strategy must democratise the economy, redistributing income, wealth and power.136
The leadership henceforth adopted the language of transformational socialism. A party document acknowledged: ‘State ownership has historically tended to be too centralised, with power in the hands of a private and corporate elite’.137 Yet the party’s programme hardly matched the ambition of the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculated that the Liberal Democrat manifesto in 2017 was more redistributive and fiscally progressive than Labour’s. Scrapping £9,250 tuition fees took priority over reversing welfare cuts. Labour professed to be a party on the side of the dispossessed. Yet it was wedded constitutionally to the sectionalism of the public sector unions and the vocal grievances of the public service middle class. Its commitment to the disadvantaged in British society appeared shallow.
As a consequence, ‘contradictions [were] opening up within [Corbyn’s] own support base’. In particular, ‘concerns over the softening of the position on immigration and Brexit left supporters feeling uneasy’.138 Many of those supporting him reacted against New Labour’s illiberalism. They sought to advance civil liberties and human rights. They wanted to scrap the independent nuclear deterrent. They welcomed EU free movement, emphasising the right of migrants and asylum seekers to settle in Britain. They continued to view Brexit as repugnant nativism, evoking a past of imperialism, colonialism and empire. The former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, eventually persuaded Corbyn to oppose Brexit in the 2016 referendum.139 Corbyn’s most committed supporters advocated a second referendum on EU membership, or even parliamentary revocation of Article 50. Eighty per cent of the Labour Party membership by 2019 supported a second referendum. Yet since 2016, the leadership were drawn back repeatedly to accepting the Leave position. Corbyn’s contribution to the Remain campaign in 2016 was, at the very least, half-hearted. The day after the referendum, he called for Article 50 to be triggered immediately. Corbyn rejected European Economic Area (EEA) membership, a form of ‘soft’ Brexit, as it entailed free movement. He expressed sympathy with so-called white working-class voters in Leave areas. While 65 per cent of Labour voters supported Remain, 70 per cent of Labour-held constituencies voted Leave. In these seats, MPs feared the party’s instinct in supporting freedom of movement would be electorallv damaging.140
Labour’s ‘core’ voters, many of whom drifted to UKIP by 2015, were perceived to be the ‘losers’ of globalisation, opposed bitterly to cultural openness. In 2017, the party performed worst in former industrial seats dominated by Leave supporters.141 The seeds of Labour’s catastrophic defeat in 2019 were sowed two years previously. One commentator noted: ‘Many Labour MPs remain frightened of losing the white working-class vote in old mining and metal working constituencies in the Midlands and the North. In poor, post-industrial areas there are not yet many votes in being pro-European’.142 The decisive influence on Corbyn’s views of European integration was Tony Benn, who in the 1970s viewed the EEC as undermining British national sovereignty while blocking the passage of the radical socialist agenda. Benn declared: ‘I loathe the Common Market. It’s bureaucratic and centralised, there’s no political discussion, officials control Ministers, and it just has a horrible flavour about it’.143 Corbyn believed the EU:
Knowingly, deliberately maintains a number of tax havens and tax-evasion posts around the Continent - Luxembourg, Monaco and a number of others. I think we should be making demands: universal workers’ rights, universal environmental protection, end the race to the bottom on corporate taxation, end the race to the bottom in working age protection.144
Yet after 2016, Corbyn’s dilemma was that even he acknowledged the class grouping of Leave voters could not propel the onward march that Labour required to win power. His political identity rested on opposition to the economic system,
Britain’s ‘dominant ideology’, which had little appeal to these voters.145 As a consequence, Corbyn manifestly lacked a coherent long-term political programme underpinned by a cohesive cross-class electoral coalition. On Europe and migration, the choices that Corbyn confronted were unenviable. Labour shifted tentatively, eventually becoming the second referendum party. Yet over Brexit, Corbyn’s Labour appeared as divided as the Conservatives, some achievement given the divisions threatening to tear the Tories apart.
Ultimately, the Corbyn agenda embodied the contradictions that afflicted Labourism and the Left for the last century. The party was anxious ‘to speak for the people’ yet at the same time was determined ‘to change them’.146 Corbyn sought to give voice to popular anxieties while developing his participative style of democratic politics. At the same time, the party’s programme of transformational socialism was achievable only if citizens became less materially acquisitive, more altruistic and motivated by the common good. Not surprisingly, Labour politicians struggled not to sound self-righteous and condescending. They seemed out of tune with popular sentiment. Corbyn’s politics were easily ridiculed as bureaucratic, interfering, bossy and overbearing. The party’s outlook recalled George Orwell’s observation in the 1930s:
To many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders.147
An incoming Labour government under Corbyn and McDonnell would compel companies in the UK to offer ownership stakes to employees. The party advocated the compulsory purchase of privatised utilities without compensation. Labour was convinced it could increase private sector investment while imposing austere physical controls on the British economy.148 Following a period of prolonged crisis for British capitalism, Labour insisted the power of government would restructure the economy. Corbynomics took inspiration from Thatcherism’s relentless pursuit of neo-liberal policies, without acknowledging the antidemocratic nature of the Thatcher government’s ‘elective dictatorship’.149
Moreover, for all the damage inflicted by post-2010 austerity, Britain was not a country that voters felt had gone to the dogs. There were innumerable problems in the nation’s public sphere, from rising youth violence and knife crime to endemic discrimination against minorities; the health service was visibly failing. Still, longitudinal research did not indicate that Britons were less contented than in the past or in comparison to other countries.150 The belief that Britain became more individualistic and atomised in the aftermath of Thatcherism is questionable. Those who enjoyed unprecedented personal autonomy often found new means of negotiating the subtle relationship between self and society.131 They did not give up on community life or civic association, even if the balance tilted towards individualism and private consumption. There was still the desire for social connection, evidenced by the continuation of volunteer-run cafes, parks, recreational facilities and community spaces in the face of austerity. In reality, economic and social change since the 1970s advanced and hindered the Left’s project in equal measure.152
The problem was that the image of Britain on which the contemporary Left relied was partial and inaccurate. Corbyn’s socialism was torn between the deeply contradictory instincts of trusting citizens and re-educating them. His project went against the grain of the ‘individualist popular culture’ that had been reshaping Britain since the end of the Second World War.153 Corbyn’s leadership pitch in 2015 repudiated the Blair era and adopted the rhetoric of transformational socialism. Yet what had replaced the New Labour project still remained nebulous and imprecise four years after Corbyn had taken the helm.