Corbyn Was Never The Point

06/03/2017 15:17
Peter Nicholls / Reuters

The talking heads have descended already on the corpse of the Labour Party, and I don't intend to fight for the scraps. Copeland was a predictable disaster - the share of the Labour vote there has been declining for two decades, but the current leadership has at the very least failed to arrest this decline - and the message from Stoke, where Ukip was plagued with controversy, is inconclusive, certainly not a signature on the death warrant of Labour's northern foe. Corbyn's leadership cannot be discounted as a factor, but nor can the continued sullenness of his party. All of this has been said more verbosely and for much larger remunerations elsewhere, and none of it is actually all that interesting.

The finger-pointing to which we are bound to be subjected for the foreseeable future is meaningless, betraying a complete misunderstanding of the party's travails. This is not simply because the Labour right, while it moans constantly about what Corbyn is getting wrong, has yet to devise its own convincing programme which could re-harmonise the increasingly acrimonious relationship between the party's socialist working-class and liberal middle-class bases. In fact, these cataclysms have almost nothing to do with the internal struggles of the party, which are themselves merely symptomatic of the failure of its enduringly mediocre personnel to confront the changes in modern politics.

Plenty has been written about the 'left-behind' voters who have now created Brexit and Trump and are threatening to make a fascist President of France. But they have mostly been regarded - and possibly accurately - as something of a throwback, Luddites who provide little more than a general talking point and a useful demos for a small group of right-wing commentators with populist pretensions. There have been very few attempts to analyse the actual content of left-behindedness.

Left-behindness, more a frame of mind than an ideology, is broadly characterised by a patriotic consciousness, scepticism of the benefits of internationalism and particularly of migration, a conservationist attitude to national culture, and - importantly - a desire for more state intervention in economic life and to improve the state of poorer communities. Left-behindness votes against EU membership but at most elections splits between Labour, the Tories and Ukip, though some of its number have voted Lib Dem over the last decade, not because they agree with its outlook but as a mainstream anti-political protest, that is, out of pure bloody-mindedness. It is partly defined in opposition to the other great force in western politics, liberal internationalism, which is far more ideological and is split, often acrimoniously, between Labour, the Lib Dems, and the liberal Cameroon wing of the conservatives, but which generally agrees that EU membership is good because it is internationalist, internationalism is good for its own sake (though this will usually be expressed in economic and social terms), migration is positive and should be subject only to loose controls. These two forces are not only bitterly opposed to each other, but also totally incapable of understanding each other - hence each resorts to crude caricatures of the other's position.

Hypothetically, this could present a golden opportunity for social democracy, which is what many of us were thinking when we voted for Corbyn. We could see that Labour's base was beginning to drift apart, and that one potential way of re-marrying its traditional and economically-struggling constituency, its ideological left, and the national political centre would be through a new platform which would promulgate radical economic policies in common-sense terms. This would stem the flow to Ukip by those angry with the failure of the political mainstream to cater for their concerns, bring back exiles to the Greens and Lib Dems frustrated by the party's failure to stand for anything they recognised, and realign the political centre whilst bringing over various centrist voters intrigued by the vitality of its new ideas and, according to polls, in agreement with its ideas.

Incidentally, this vitality never materialised. Nor, in reality, did the platform: even after two leadership elections, which should have been perfect opportunities to formulate policy or at least recalibrate the leadership's objectives, it is unclear what the party stands for. But more importantly, it has become clear that social democracy is in fact incapable of creating a common ground between left-behindness and internationalism.

In part, this is an ideological problem. Too many of the issues which separate internationalism and left-behindness are binaries, or at least treated as binaries by the media. Too great a proportion of the population, we are told, will close its ears to the argument that migration has harmed some communities; too many will refuse to engage, on the other side, with a spirited defence of the benefits of migration. In fact, migration is, I believe, an issue which could be at least neutralised if we were to localise our discussions of it: too much coverage is devoted to national figures, when the social, cultural and economic impacts of migration are usually confined to the local. But in general, a party cannot find a compromise between being pro-EU and being anti-EU; between being pro-free trade and anti-free trade; between belief in tolerance of difference within a border, and a conviction that migrants must be 'made to integrate', which is often code for 'homogenised'.

Potentially more intractable, however, are the economic pressures creating these tectonic political shifts. Capital and labour are both more mobile than they have ever been before, and as a result both increasingly defy state regulation. If a large corporation is discontented with its tax rate, it will move abroad. If a manufacturer feels restricted by labour regulations, it will outsource its operations. Workers, for their part, can now move to all-new places and, in doing so, often end up being exploited for their labour, to their detriment and to the detriment of indigenous workers whose wages are forced to compete.

It is no surprise that people have revolted against this order. But their revolt is circumscribed by these economic realities. Social democracy cannot function if companies cannot be taxed and regulated and held to account by unions. Meanwhile, left-wingers with liberal sympathies will be unable to convince squeezed workers to follow them whilst extolling the virtues of migration, which the left-behind believe to be harming them economically and culturally.

With social democracy rendered inadequate to articulate the needs of the left-behind, they have instead turned to what the media has euphemistically termed 'right-wing populism', and what is in fact, particularly in Trump's case, simple fascism. To be clear, fascism does not principally mean the persecution of Jews, as we tend to imagine. Fascism does entail the persecution of minorities in general, hence Trump's attacks on Muslims and the links to anti-Semitism in his circles. But it is not this aspect of it that wins most of its converts. Fascism at its most basic means attempting to re-establish unity of identity and of purpose in the nation. It means restricting the inflow of foreigners, by use of state force if necessary. But fascism also offers those disconcerted by the freedom of the market what seems to be the only viable remaining method of controlling companies. Social democratic formalised regulation appears to be failing, but the techniques of fascism - constantly negotiation behind the scenes accompanied by occasional and arbitrary displays of strength - have been more successful. This is the relevance of Trump's deals with various American manufacturers to keep jobs in the country, and his infamous Twitter attacks to destroy their share prices. Liberals were wrong to sneer at the disingenuousness with which he cloaked these ambiguous successes: he achieved far more through his arbitrary power than they have through social democratic methods, and workers in fear of their own jobs will take note.

Is fascism, then, bound to contend with liberalism to conquer western Europe? Certainly the current evolution of capitalism is bolstering it. Its hardline anti-migrant policy and its success in clipping the wings of business make it an attractive proposition for the left-behind. If fascism is able to exploit their concerns, then women and minorities in western Europe, and particularly Muslims and Jews, are in grave jeopardy. There might be an alternative in the third category of belief that exists, pure socialism: socialists are weak for now, but socialist ideas are being rejuvenated by publications like Jacobins and garner increasing interest online. At the very least, if western Europe is set once again to be stalked by men in brown and black shirts, we'll be glad for a few hammer-and-sickle insigniae to perform the function that socialism has always performed best: bashing the fash.