Almost everywhere in Europe the centre-Left is in crisis. In the year 2000, social democrats or socialists were in power in 10 out of the 15 countries that made up the European Union of the time. Today, only a handful of recognisably Left-leaning governments hold power. It is against this backdrop that Jeremy Corbyn’s rise should be seen.
The vacillating, ‘third-way’ social democracy of Tony Blair was predicated on the idea that only compromise could win at the ballot box. For many years Left-wing activists would swallow their ideological objections – or at least soften them – on the back of electoral success. “We have to do this stuff to win”, an activist friend used to shrug whenever New Labour briefed against the trade unions in the right-wing press, or announced some draconian policy targeted at asylum seekers.
But electoral expediency is just one of the reasons for the centre-Left’s embrace of politicians like Tony Blair. The decline of the industrial working class is the other. By the 1990s, the Left had been shorn of both its historical agent and narrative.
This generated a centre-Left politics which pitched itself largely to the middle classes – with a nod to the poor through policies such as increased social security payments. When Tony Blair boasted in 1997 that under New Labour Britain would retain the toughest anti-trade union laws in the western world, he was consigning Labour’s hitherto electoral base to the dustbin of history.
Corbynism is both a response to this as well as its logical conclusion. The return of the Corbyn project to uncompromising simplicity – anti-austerity, anti-war, nationalisation – is a rejection of the previous three decades of Labour policymaking.
But the Corbyn project is also a response to changing electoral realities. During the Blair years, the centre-Left fashioned a rod for its own back by hanging everything on electoral expediency. Thus, when the compromisers of the third-way stopped winning elections after the financial crisis, their project was an empty husk. If Labour was going to lose anyway – and the centre-Left has been doing that just about everywhere of late – then better, surely, to lose on its own terms and with policies activists actually believe in.
As it turned out, Corbyn proved popular, winning 40% of the vote at the 2017 General Election despite the inauspicious backdrop of precipitous Left-wing decline. The tantalising prospect of winning elections without having to heavily dilute the party’s core message had become a reality.
Where continuity with New Labour remains, though, is in Corbynism’s pitch to the middle classes. Indeed, the Left that is in the ascendance in Britain is marked by a combination of hard-Left rhetoric and centre-Left policies that – on paper at least – would benefit the middle classes. In this sense Corbynism is an inversion of a central New Labour principle. Blair and New Labour sought to appease the Daily Mail in public, while pushing redistributory policies via stealth. In contrast, Corbynism scares the hell out of the Right-wing newspapers while pursuing – in public at least – a fairly orthodox social democratic agenda.
It would be easy to read this purported moderation as a clever strategy on the part of Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. The assumption among Labour’s enemies is that McDonnell is talking a good social democratic game with a plan to unveil a radical socialist agenda once firmly in power.
Yet I suspect the reality is more prosaic, not least because no one, least of all socialists, is entirely sure what a socialist agenda would entail in the twenty-first century. As things stand the word is little more than an affectation, a statement denoting one’s commitment to a world marginally better than the one that currently exists.
To be sure, Labour’s tentative economic agenda for Britain appears to be brimming with interesting ideas and initiatives. It is just not socialist in any recognisable sense. The current fetish for nationalisation among Labour activists, for example, is not matched by a radical party platform. Labour is pledging to renationalise just a handful of key services – the railways, the postal service, water and electricity.
Indeed, no country that has followed that path of wholesale nationalisation has remained prosperous for long. Nor has any contemporary socialist thinker found a way to calculate a price without the existence of some sort of market, which is why the real economy in every officially socialist country has always been a rapacious (and ultra-capitalist) black market.
None of this impugns the type of social democratic agenda as set out publicly by John McDonnell. But the programme for government Labour has been tentatively articulating is a long way from the ‘anti-capitalism’ that fires up Labour activists. One suspects this is because the latter functions more as an identity signifier rather than a meaningful set of policies. Radicalism has become an assertion of personal brand in a social media marketplace where recognition hinges on standing out.
Thus domestically at least, the Labour Party in the next generation looks much like the party’s previous incarnations. A Labour government would bring about a rebalancing in the workplace that would go much further than the timidity of the New Labour years, with workers gaining greater access to the tools through which they could assert their bargaining power. But neither this – nor anything else proposed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – amounts to socialism.
Indeed, the degree of radicalism favoured by the hard Left is probably impossible in a parliamentary system with regular election cycles – it is hard to believe that British voters would acquiesce in the massive economic dislocations that would come with any radical structural change.
Like all liberal democratic countries in a global system, Britain is ultimately a hostage to capital. As such, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are dependent on the mood of the electorate, which has little of the ideological passion required to hold out against the capital flight and economic sabotage that would invariably accompany any transition to socialism. Labour faces a stark choice post-Brexit: social democracy in one country or socialism for one election cycle. I suspect the party will opt for the former.