New Labour offered change for two decades, without ever really meaning it. Jeremy Corbyn is the near-inevitable consequence
The remarkable emergence of Jeremy Corbyn from the relative obscurity of Labour’s backbenches has taken most political commentators by surprise – and indeed Corbyn himself. In hindsight, however, it seems to make perfect sense, especially once the implications of Ed Miliband’s changes to the leadership selectorate became clear, that the debate on Labour’s direction would be driven overwhelmingly by complaints about the Conservative government’s devastating austerity agenda, underpinned by fear about what the next five years might mean for the welfare state and public services.
In this context, the austerity-lite agenda offered by the ‘mainstream’ leadership candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper – let alone Liz Kendall’s enthusiastic embrace of Osbornomics – was never going to cut the mustard. Nevertheless, the party elite have prevented Corbyn even getting on the ballot had the so-called ‘morons’ been a little more careful with their nominations. That so many centrist and ‘soft left’ MPs nominated Corbyn despite not supporting his candidacy, based on the mistaken belief that he could not possibly become leader, is clear evidence of just how disconnected the Labour elite has become from the labour movement and its centre-left supporters.
Although his candidacy would have quickly expired had this error been avoided, the patronising nature of the gesture appears to have paradoxically fed the sense that only Corbyn represented a new, authentic style of politics – uncalculating, unspun and, crucially, under-estimated.
This disposition appears to have shielded Corbyn from scrutiny to some extent. The low point of his campaign came when he suggested that he might, as leader, campaign for the UK to leave the European Union – a scenario that is probably anathema to most of those members and supporters that have now elected him. Corbyn later reversed his position, albeit unconvincingly.
At the same time, his candidacy has helped to bring issues such as the relationship between the monetary system, the banking sector and public investment into mainstream public debates. My personal highlight of the leadership election was when Financial Times columnist Matthew C. Klein conceded that Corbyn’s idea for ‘People’s QE’ ‘could actually be a decent idea’ (it also has the support of former CBI and Financial Services Authority chief Adair Turner).
Of course, this is not to suggest that Corbyn is likely to be elected as Prime Minister in 2020. His leadership may help to broaden economic policy debates, and he may indeed step aside before the next election in favour of a more moderate figure. But the Conservative Party know they have very little to fear from a Corbyn leadership, because he does not appeal to the relatively narrow portion of the electorate they need to hold onto to win another majority under the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. The one ‘known unknown’ that could have disrupted their strategy – Europe – has now become a key dilemma for Labour too.
But the Labour elite has only itself to blame for this predicament. What may turn out to be New Labour’s greatest sin is how its vacuous use of concepts like ‘change’ destroyed what little trust the electorate had left in the mutterings of politicians of any stripe.
As I have discussed in more detail in Globalisation and Ideology in Britain, what New Labour usually meant when it talked about change and newness was how left-wing politics needed to be de-radicalised, because there was simply no alternative to the seemingly exogenous and inexorable process of globalisation. It referred, in fact, to the opposite of change, that is, to preserving rather than transforming the main tenets of Thatcherite economic statecraft.
David Miliband reinforced this phoney change discourse when establishing his Movement for Change (MfC), in anticipation of becoming party leader in 2010. MfC was designed purely as an alternative power base for Blairite (or Blair-ish) activists, who were content to support hyper-local campaigning activity, while leaving the big policy questions to the technocratic elite.
Liz Kendall’s disastrous campaign for the leadership used the discourse of change and newness liberally, but also quite crudely – she often in the same breath slammed Ed Miliband for not changing enough, even when he quite clearly represented something (slightly) different from what had gone before. The Liz Kendall candidacy represented the point at which New Labour doublespeak doubled back on itself, and ultimately snapped; although, predictably, David Miliband’s endorsement of Kendall praised her ‘clarity’ and ‘plain speaking’. His article in The Guardian opened:
There are a number of reasons why politics around the world is splintering. The most important is quite simple. The process of globalisation, defined by the intense interconnections of economics, culture, security and environment that characterise the modern world, is posing fundamental questions about purpose and strategy for the traditional centre right and centre left.
Kendall ended up with less than 5 per cent of votes, but her impact on the campaign was far more profound than either Burnham’s or Cooper’s. She reminded everyone on the left who had become fed up with Labour that, despite Ed Miliband’s well-meaning leadership, the things they were fed up with were still very much present. A right-leaning media hugely exaggerated Kendall’s prospects for victory early on in the campaign, and in doing so handed a rationale for a large group of activists who had up to this point been content to mobilise outside the Labour Party, to instead mobilise within the party in support of Corbyn.
It is hugely naïve to think that a slight shift back to the centre would be a significantly more electable proposition than that now offered by Corbyn. As the financial crisis exacerbated emergent (and resurgent) socio-economic divisions, Blairism – whatever that is – ceased to represent the centre-ground of British politics. The fact that several leading figures from the right and centre of the Parliamentary Labour Party announced that they would refuse to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet – despite his enormous mandate – within hours of his victory, speaks to the hubristic attitude that continues to characterise New Labour politics (although most have cited profound differences on issues of EU membership or national security, rather than economic policy, as the reason for their decision).
Equally, however, Corbyn’s supporters would be naïve to think that the job of rebuilding Labour’s ‘grassroots’ is now complete, or even that significant progress has been made in this regard. Corbyn’s career has largely been that of the professional provocateur, and his politics are embedded not in the economic struggles of the UK’s peripheral regions, but rather the left-liberalism of cosmopolitan London. With Tom Watson also elected on Saturday as deputy leader, and John McDonnell now appointed as Shadow Chancellor, Corbyn’s Labour Party also has an acute shortage of women in leading roles (as he appears to acknowledge). The hegemony of neoliberalism has certainly been dented; but it will be actually be reinforced over the long term if the Corbyn campaign does not now evolve into a much larger and more inclusive movement than was necessary to win the leadership.