Don't Blame Jeremy Corbyn for a General Failure of the Left

27/06/2016 09:07 | Updated 27 June 2016


Photo credit: YouTube/RevolutionBahrainMC

Post-Brexit Britain is shell-shocked and traumatised, and as ever those two sentiments have produced ricocheting recriminations. Perennial anti-Corbynites have allied with those devastated by the result to pin the blame on Jeremy Corbyn, who supposedly did not campaign energetically enough to bring out the Remain vote among Labour supporters. In fact, as has been exhaustively pointed out, almost two-thirds of Labour supporters voted Remain, around the same proportion as SNP supporters and only a few points behind the passionately Europhilic Lib Dems, and it might reasonably be asked if Corbyn's endorsement might have had more impact had his colleagues not been working to undermine him for nine months previously. In reality, however, this revolt is born of panic rather than reason. It is also entirely misdirected. Labour is facing a much profounder problem than a failure to convey its message properly; and the Parliamentary Party is on the brink of ejecting the sole leader with any hope of solving it.

Traditionally, Labour has been supported by a coalition of the working classes for whom social democracy or socialism was a matter of economic interest as well as intellectual compulsion, and the liberal middle classes whose social conscience led them also to those conclusions - the 'herbivores', as they were dubbed. With the working classes making up two-thirds of the population but as much as one-third of them regularly voting Conservative in the middle of the twentieth century, Labour could not win an election without both wings of this alliance.

The conventional wisdom, the narrative constructed by the Conservative Party and subsequently by Tony Blair, runs that the progression of deindustrialisation wiped out the working classes as a force and made the old Labour appeal to them redundant. The party adopted the Conservative language of the 'classless society' and moved to the right, expecting that they could rely on the support of what they believed to be no more than a rump of the working classes which would never, after all, vote Tory. The political world came to be concentrated in 'urban' Britain: liberal, cosmopolitan, laissez-faire.

The only problem with this was that none of it was true. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, in 2012 61% of people identified as working-class, a figure that is largely unchanged since the 1980s. The post-Thatcher period did not see a dissolution of class, merely a marginalisation of it which left the political class incapable of analysing society's growing inequality. While affluence grew for some, most others endured wage stagnation and growing job insecurity. Labour's rightward tack under Blair expelled from the public political discourse the left-wing ideas which might have formed a platform that these latter could believe in and shifted the country's political thinking to the right, precluding the ascent of any left-wing solution to their predicament in future.

The 'left-behind' people saw mainstream politics come to be dominated by young urban professionals, whose lives and beliefs they did not understand and whose rhetoric seemed empty and absurd when compared with the conditions in which they lived. The media had no interest in them except as leverage in their struggles with the politicians. When UKIP activists came knocking on provincial doors who came from the same background as their inhabitants, who understood their concerns, they grasped the hand this insurgent party was offering them.

The reality, then, is that this rupture in the party's base has been a long time coming. In a report edited by Tristram Hunt, Labour candidates for Parliament wrote that their canvassers in the 2015 general election had seemed like "middle-class Ryanair passengers" who had nothing in common with the working-class voters to whom they were speaking. Labour is regarded as middle-class and élitist. The party's working-class base and its middle-class metropolitan liberal base are staring at each other across a rift with a mutual incomprehension that is hardening into hostility.

The EU referendum has not created Labour's problems, merely accentuated this harsh divide. The working classes do not trust Labour to defend their interests, which they believe to be best served outside the EU; the middle classes, devastated by a blow to their cosmopolitan identity, increasingly dismiss the working classes as racist and ignorant of their own interests. Labour's split is not just between MPs and members. It forms a crevasse straight through the base itself. In the referendum, the two groups naturally aligned themselves along opposing sides. To blame Corbyn for the result, therefore, is entirely futile. The real culprit is twentieth-century de-industrialisation.

This divide is a long-term problem that cannot be solved by a mild shuffle at the top. If Labour is to win elections in future, if indeed it is to weather what has become an existential crisis, it must find a way of reconciling its two constituencies, and this can only be achieved by the two figures currently standing lonely at the centre of a media whirlwind: Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is not to say that Labour is divinely ordained to win elections under them; thus far they have appeared fatally incapable of promulgating Labour's platform coherently. However, only their left-wing instincts can bind together Labour's drifting constituencies. The priority now must be to listen to the 'left-behind' people and satisfy their justified resentment.

The Labour Right has shown itself to be too full of preconceptions about the near-inherent racism of the British working classes to do so effectively; their idea of 'listening', informed by the failed policy of triangulation, has been to make unconvincing, usually numerical, promises about migration. But a ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror - if anyone pays attention to such things any more - found that 53% of Leave voters were motivated primarily by the ability of Britain to make its own laws, compared with 34% citing migration. On the radio on Saturday morning, a veteran of the Second World War exclaimed in tears, 'I've got my country back!'. These are not people who are simply rabidly opposed to migration and all that facilitates it. They are largely people whose control over their lives has been stripped away by poverty, lack of jobs, and a professional political class constituted of people whose lives are alien to them. They wanted that control back.

The media have decided by now that the referendum was a spasmodic kick in the teeth for the élites. Like all prevailing media narratives, this contains some truth but is reductionist. As Camus suggested, mere resentment, negation of the existing order, cannot create a true rebellion, only a sense that something better might replace it, and the rebels of Brexit believed in self-determination, for the nation and, by projection, in their own lives.

For Labour to tap into this burning desire for control, it must be prepared to tax the rich and to defend deficit spending for the sake of investing and creating employment in 'left-behind'. With jobs come a sense of purpose and greater spending, which will lift the depression that has settled over many of these towns. Their residents, if work is abundant, will feel that they wield control over their lives again. These are natural Labour voters who are in desperate need of Labour's support: Labour has a moral duty and a political duty to offer it. It is a platform to win votes and to improve the country.

Right-wing Labour lacks the political courage to achieve this. Fixated on the delusion that all elections will be won in the centre and blind to the future difficulties they will create if they assist in the country's swing to the right, they will continue to offer misplaced tokenism to those who need investment and chase a fanciful middle England that is unreliable.

Corbyn has no divine right to win the next general election, and unless he improves his strategy he will not win the next general election. Another leader who could credibly - that is, without a sudden and expedient conversion - offer a left-wing platform that would restore personal control to Leave voters could do just as well, but since the Labour Right will work to keep Corbynites off the ballot, there is unlikely to be such a replacement. Back under right-wing control, Labour will drift into oblivion as the two tectonic plates of its base come to separate irreconcilably. The only hope of the party now is to be bold, offer a radical new alternative to those who have realised their power in this referendum - and to keep Corbyn, who alone can make that appeal credibly, as leader. History suggests that Labour cannot win without him.