Monday, 5 September 2016
Corbynism and the 'sociological imagination'
Since we've all recently been challenged to take our sociological imaginations on a journey around Corbynism, and because it's always important to analyse what's going on rather than just shout about what we might think of it or believe about it ourselves, the new blogging season kicks off this week with a (we hope) honest look at the belief structures behind Jeremy Corbyn supporters' support for 'their' man. Since he seems almost certain to be re-elected leader of the Labour Party later in the month, this seems all the more important. Mr Corbyn, someone like him, or someone who shares most of his views and outlook, seems likely to lead Labour for a long time to come. So what do Corbynites believe, and why?
Blair was wrong about almost everything. Here's the first and perhaps most important of the Corbynites' beliefs. Tony Blair (above) and the Labour governments of 1997-2010 may have done some good things, they say, but in general they did not restructure the economy enough to serve working people, they relied too much on big business to renew the public realm (especially in the case of the expensive Private Finance Initiative), they did not launch a concerted enough attack on poverty, and they generally frittered away public goodwill with a liberal and centrist agenda that ended up dry, dusty and without sufficient moral will to create a new consensus. You can deny most of this all you like. Inequality on most accepted measures did fall in these years, despite the enormous increases of those at the top of the income scale. Most private companies do not make a king's ransom out of government spending (though some do): even those notorious robber barons, the Train Operating Companies, make rather meagre or tiny profits, and preside over a railway that - despite popular myth - is not much more expensive than that in other countries. But there is no denying the fervour or power behind these arguments, especially as the Blair-Brown years came to an end amidst widespread public disenchantment with those administrations' closeness to those blamed for the economic meltdown of 2007-2009, namely the big banks.
The Iraq War is an original sin. This is the touchstone, really, without which Corbynism would be impossible. Labour progress on the domestic front is incontestable, and indeed most Corbynites would be happy to say that tax credits, the National Minimum Wage and increases in Child Benefit (for instance) did help people on lower wages. But in terms of foreign policy, the Blair government's decision to join the US in the 2003 invasion of Iraq - and the disastrous civil war in that country that followed - explains most of the Blair-hating rage of this movement. It explains why Mr Corbyn won't rule out putting Tony Blair on trial over the Iraq debacle (though on what charges, it's never quite made clear). It helps us to see why the Stop the War movement's views have become so influential in Labour, despite that grouping's often-ridiculous and manytimes-offensive views of the world beyond Britain's borders. It explains to some extent why Blair's foreign policy successes - from foreign debt relief to Sierra Leone, through Bosnia, Kosovo and up to the Gleneagles Summit of 2007 - are now to be airbrushed out of Labour history, perhaps permanently. And understanding Iraq's absolutely vital role in Labour's new insurgent identity should help any observer understand why Mr Corbyn's own deeply toxic and unpleasant views - on Northern Ireland, the Bosnian tragedy of the 1990s, on Ukraine and Syria - are so easily excluded from the realm of debate. Put simply, Iraq is the original sin of New New Labour, and blots out everything else around it.
Winning elections isn't the be-all and end-all. This point rather follows on from the current rejection of the Blair years. What's the point of being in power, Corbynites say, if you're just going to be 'Tory-lite', 'Red Labour', capitalist, reformist mealy-mouthed sweeper-uppers? What's the point of campaigning for a Labour government if they're then going to 'privatise the NHS' (they didn't, really, or at least not in the way critics mean), pander to the roads lobby (that's not what the roads lobby says), cut Inheritance Tax, let corporate profits rip, hollow out high streets, preside over homelessness, rely on food banks? Again, it's all very well detailing the actual picture - that rough sleeping fell by about two thirds under Blair and Brown, that food banks on any scale are a phenomenon of the tough coalition years, that the NHS had the shortest waiting lists and highest satisfaction ever when Labour left office in 2010 - that in short to do anything at all you have to be in power - but it's also important to deal with the reasons behind this widespread worldview. It can't just be ignored, or dismissed with a few statistics. The very real hardship of the post-Great Recession world has made many people feel quite desperate about the world that surrounds them: that it has no moral heart, no point to its politics. The overly-technocratic view that got Labour in this mess in the first place requires adjustment. Government must have a poetry, as well as a prose. Labour lost that. Left-leaning Labour supporters who ordinarily wouldn't have gone anywhere near Mr Corbyn wanted to put it back. They might well have accidentally filled that moral space with a new rage and hatred possessing a darkness all its own, but Mr Corbyn has all along been reaping the benefits of his Labour opponents' apparent loss of vision.
Polls are often wrong. Look at the polls. They are dire, so awful that in fact that they are grotesquely and in the modern era uniquely bad for Labour. Any other political leader would have been drummed out of office long ago - as, indeed, the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, including many of its most left-wing members, would dearly like. How do Corbynites parse this gap between their own enthusiasm and the wider public's apparent deep dislike of their man? Well, they point to the 2015 General Election and the 2016 EU membership referendum. Polls were wrong then, they say. Then they say: well, experts predicted that Labour would lose 150 councillors in the last local elections. They actually 'only' lost 18. The polls might be wrong, Mr Corbyn's defenders say. Why should we trust them? Look at Westminster by-elections. Look at Sadiq Khan's capture of City Hall in London. Now most of this is just plain wrong. General Election polls were a little off in a tight contest - enough to make a big difference. EU polls weren't that wrong: half the polls in the immediate run-in said Leave would win, and the final poll of polls put things pretty neck-and-neck. Westminster by-elections at the moment are returning a much, much lower swing to Labour than even Ed Miliband managed in 2011. The 2016 local elections saw the Labour vote share fall by six per cent on the last time those wards were fought - six years into a not-very-popular austerity government. And so on. But again there's enough of a germ of truth here for everyone to see what Corbynites are getting at. Polls can be wrong. There are quite possibly three and a half years to the next election. Polls are not everything: Labour definitely outperformed predictions at (say) the Oldham by-election last year. Pollsters might think such a defence misguided. It almost certainly is. But it can't just be dismissed. Polling has to prove itself again - as it began to, for instance, in Mr Khan's battle for the London Mayoralty.
There's no point talking to the established media. Any other political movement would be appalled at its press. There's no nice way to put this, but the current Labour leadership team aren't even a laughing stock among Westminster's closest observers - the press pack that follow all the ins and outs of formal political life. They're either pitied, or plain ignored, or actually resented quite a lot for just not doing the job that they are paid to do - oppose the Government. Even the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror has called for Mr Corbyn to go, with as much effect as almost everyone else in the party's power structures begging him to step down. Corbynites aren't interested in any of this. They're not worried, firstly because they think (with some justification) that they could never get a hearing for any of their views whatever they did among the 'capitalist media'. But they don't think this really matters for a second and even more powerful reason: the idea has gained currency that social media will do their job for them. Facebook and Twitter will stand in for newspapers and the television. It's hashtags, not headlines. Powerful stuff, in a world that is undoubtedly seeing many people empowered by the immediacy and new usefulness of interactive technology. And Facebook does have a big reach (Twitter really doesn't). There's always a 'but' though, isn't there? Here, it 's this: since it's pretty clear that Corbynites (rather like the UK's EU Leavers and Remainers) in the EU referendum are really talking to fellow-thinkers when they make their case in countless Twitterstorms, blogs and pictoral memes, this seems like another very worrying example of a belief structure that won't be borne out by reality. Still, they can have a go.
Build a social movement. The polls are against you. The media is against you. At times it seems as if everything is against you. What do you do? You fall back on each other. Yes, the road will be long and hard, as many Corbyn supporters accept (a recent poll showed only a bare majority of them thought that Labour's leader could win a general contest with the Conservatives). The next election is probably lost. Maybe the one after that, too. But look at Podemos in Spain. The Five Star Movement in Italy. Syriza in Greece. Perhaps you can build a bottom-up social movement out of a rainbow alliance of Left groups - the more left-wing unions, the popular campaigns that have sprung up against austerity, campaigns on social issues. Get petitions going. Hold meetings. Fire people up. Then, and only then - perhaps some years down the road - string the whole thing together. Maybe it won't work, the logic goes, but it's better than just accepting a set of vanilla soup compromises as your politics. In vain might you say that Podemos came third in the most recent Spanish elections. Without purchase would be your observation that this obviates, at least for now, the very point of having a 'Labour Party' at all - to win and use power in working people's interests. The idea of a pure or 'right' social movement, which would contain a perhaps much smaller Parliamentary Labour Party as only one element in a wider Popular Front, seems a beguiling one.
There you have it: six building blocks of a political phenomenon. The sociology of the support we can leave for another day, but perhaps older, less-metropolitan Labourites who feel that they want something a bit more 'authentic' and a little more 'real' might cover it for now, given what we know about the shape of the Labour selectorate's like (or dislike) of the man.
So we hope we've done justice to the whole phenomenon. If you elected a Labour government that disastrously tried to part-privatise (for instance) the Tube at the same time as progress on reducing inequality stalled, if you got angrier and angrier about the political classes' behaviour over Parliamentary expenses, if you listened to a slick ex-lawyer tell you that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes and then you found out it couldn't, if you felt that compromising your values in 2015 didn't even get you very far, if you thought the polls were usually wrong, if you kept watching in despair as the Daily Mail and the Sun bent, distorted and downright broke the truth, if you'd looked on in dismay as 'politics' became professionalised and centralised, what would you do?
But, but, but. We mustn't make the mistake, as the great historian and controversialist A.J.P. Taylor put it, of equating massive events with huge or deep-rooted causes. Beyond talk of mentalities and belief-structures, next to our analysis of 'movements' large and small, and just as important as sociological interpretations that risk shading into free association, is the historian's sense that some events might involve only small pushes, inconsequential flashpoints, little drivers. For MPs' decision to nominate Mr Corbyn was caused by as much chance - by a sense that he would never get anywhere - as the situation demands, just as many of his supporters think that Labour can't possibly win in 2020 or 2025 so they may as well be represented by someone who speaks up for their truest instincts.
That's led to a situation that is not as close to the much-discussed Trumpification of Labour politics as its Seinfeld-ification: a ludicrous sitcom about almost nothing, in which a newly Labour Kramer now bursts into the room at regular intervals to shout 'you'll never guess what Diane Abbott's just said!' or 'you can't imagine who John McDonnell has just threatened!' If it was an emoji, it would that yellow head looking down to the right with a wavy mouth to make it look as if it's enduring something piquant-but-painful - a spectacle almost too embarrassing-but-funny to bear.
So yes, imagine ahead and sociologise away - but there's still a balance to be struck between structure and chance, causation and happenstance, analysis and, well.... stuff just happening, in this case launching a darkly absurd, tragi-comic, smash-into-all-the-walls skidfest of Clouseau-esque misadventures in which the same cast drives banana-skin-spewing Mario carts around the same poorly rendered blocks again and again and again.
History has causes. But choices - bad as well as good - also have consequences.