Sunday 28 August 2016

Why the Establishment Doesn't Get Corbynism

Spare a thought for the poor hacks paid to write about the Labour Party. Your job is to throw down boiler plate with a semi-original angle, while making a conscious effort not think about it unless you're employed for that express purpose. Making matters trickier is that last year's silly season saw every seam strip mined to throw dirt at Jeremy Corbyn. With little else left to be excavated we see a churn of pretty much the same stuff. This then has led to the new journalistic sub-genre of the anti-Corbyn missive, and their recycled insights come in two flavours. The first are attacks on the leader's character, of which the tedious Traingate non-story is an example. And the second goes after his support, which typically entails questioning the intelligence of those who back him.

Of the second type is Euan McColm's piece in The Scotsman. Reading like a desperate bid to get the thousand words necessary to hit pay dirt, Euan's piece is at turns insulting, at turns patronising, and is nothing we haven't read already. But what it does do is condense the common sense among plenty of journalists and politicians. And because it so often persists that Jeremy supporters are mendacious or brainwashed or thick or naive, we have to ask why it is the view is so widespread.

First up is the worldview of most media and politics people. Politics, as in big P politics, is a tightly circumscribed field. It's all about parties winning elections and forming governments. The province proper to political thinking and commentary therefore are the personalities (and occasionally, the policies) that grip the legislature of one's choice, be it Westminster, Holyrood, or the council chamber. Analysis, though mediated to greater or lesser degrees, is determined by electoral calculus in the last instance. Hence the motif of electability goes forever unchallenged. This is more than an ideology of politics, it is how it is practiced, reinforced by the repetitive actions of generations of politicians, journalists, and activists. This has two consequences for the reception of politics that cannot be assimilated to the vote-catching/vote-winning merry-go-round.

There is an expectation that everyone knows the rules of the game. Hence genuine bewilderment as to why Jeremy's support remains so stubborn in light of awful polling, a parliamentary party in revolt, and reports about the leader's incompetence. Yet from the point of view of Corbynism, it's the unquestioning adherence to the rules that have been Labour's undoing. A Labour government is always a lesser evil to what the Tories have on offer, but for two goes on the trot our party have lost while playing it by the book. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, you can begin to see why Corbynism might want to try something else. As it happens, I believe Labour can win a general election by adopting a different approach, but as there's a campaign on and it requires a thorough critique of Jeremy's leadership, that's something you can look forward to reading after the polls have closed.

The second is the perception of political activity. For those wedded to the conventional view, elections are the be-all and end-all. Hence campaigning for a party with a view to winning an election and voting are the standard means of doing politics. Other forms, such as internet activism, protesting, going on demonstrations, holding rallies are, at best, tolerated and at worst viewed with some suspicion, and seen as distractions from "proper" politics. But in the main, the allotted role of the mass is to participate at set intervals and go home again once the polling stations call time. Given their walk-on, walk-off part the sudden eruption of huge numbers into the Labour Party at the behest of Jeremy Corbyn of all people makes no sense. Lacking a sociological imagination and not appreciating how social and political change are intertwined, it can't be anything other than the agitations of sundry Trots, or their being cultists predisposed to hero worship, or so-called "virtue signallers", or the utterly deluded. Without a sense of what's happening and assuming Corbynism is one or all of these things, there is little realisation that calling this constituency - which is now a large majority of the party - thick, brainwashed, etc. will only swell their ranks and firm their resolve. And if recent years should have taught us anything, establishment finger wagging benefits anyone but the establishment.

The sad thing is Jeremy's opponents in the party and wider society have now had over a year to understand Corbynism, and with very few exceptions, they haven't. It's not like they're incapable - sociological analysis isn't voodoo, after all. It's as if they don't want to.


Lidl_Janus said...

Jeremy Corbyn is a friend of terrorists, and if he's PM, and Putin thinks of launching the nukes, it'll be down to France to defend Europe.

- The formula for every Conservative attack ad at the next general election. Obviously, CCHQ will have spin doctors who'll buff the message, and a fat file of evidence backing this stuff up. It'll work, too - the mere threat of Miliband working with the SNP and maybe scrapping Trident worked, so this should go down very well.

- Traingate is more significant than you assume - along with the peerage row, it calls into question the line - a constant among critics, even - that Corbyn is 'a principled man'. He stoops like anyone else.

- "for two goes on the trot our party have lost" ...
...I'll leave this to others.

BCFG said...

This explains the blatant wearing it on your sleeve bias of the unfree media where Corbyn is concerned. Everything the media does in relation to Corbyn is calculated and not some innocent lack of understanding. It isn’t that they misunderstand Corbyn it is that they don’t want to understand him or understand him enough to treat him as an enemy. Corbyn exposes the unfree media for what it is. Any progressive person should thoroughly hate our media with a passion.

That said, where the establishment do misunderstand Corbnism is a belief that it offers a threat to capitalism itself. In reality Corbynism is a rather mild dose of social democracy, and a much needed dose! The question becomes, what is it about modern capitalism that cannot tolerate anything outside the neo-liberal consensus? I suspect this is 90% ideological and 10% structural. In other words, if there is enough pressure from below Corbynism can be implemented with little immediate problem. People just have to get over decades of brainwashing, which is no small thing! The fact that the Sun and the Mail are the best selling newspapers tells us more than 20,000 academic journals and saves a lot of time!

The worst lie, of course, is that Cobyn’s supporters are a bunch of Middle class Trotskyist do-gooders, when actually they are the disaffected and the traditional labour supporters who have come in from the cold. Blair changed New Labour to appeal to the Middle classes and those working class Tories who in the 1980’s voted Thatcher even when the community around them was collapsing, these people even flirted with the SDP and the Liberals at one point but their true home is the Tory party. The quicker they go back to their natural home the better and at that point real politics can be reborn and replace the ever growing trend to authority and technocracy. The problem for these working class Tories, who speedy speaks for, is that the Tories are a little too liberal these days, which is why UKIP exist!

A vote for Corbyn is a vote for democracy, choice and a rebirth of working class representation. To paraphrase the spirit in a Christmas carol:

This boy is working class representation and self respect and this girl is democracy. Beware them both but most of all beware this boy!

BCFG said...

My first paragraph seems to be missing, which went something like:

If there is one thing secularists, liberals and conservatives cannot tolerate it is opposing ideologies. This is why the media are hostile to Corbyn, note hostile and not lacking understanding! Corbyn represents a challenge to the shared ideology of New labour, the liberals and the Tories who all follow the ideology of the ruling class, albeit with some cosmetic differences.

MikeB said...

@ BCFG - Unfortunately, I don't think that the international order will allow anything that presents itself as an alternative (regardless of how moderate it really is) to be implemented "with little problem".

Recent events in Greece and elsewhere indicate that any suggestion that there IS an alternative will be quashed immediately with the usual methods - a run on the currency, capital flight, a ramping up of demands for debt repayment and so on. The "independent" Bank of England will concur and force any Chancellor to toe the line. Brexit will be a further pretext to argue that the UK economy is precarious and that "common sense" neoliberal measures are imperative.

The media have, of course, long been captives of this economic common sense. For them, Corbynists will remain idealistic simpletons and/or sinister ideologues.

Narcoboy said...

This is politically illiterate. The reason why Labour lost in 2010 was partly a result of the financial crisis unfortunately happening on Labour's watch, partly because of Brown's personal unpopularity and partly because the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were plausible enough and popular enough to hobble together a working majority. They managed to present a convincing enough narrative to the public that made a change of government necessary.

In 2015 Labour lost because they failed to present a convincing economic policy to the public, failed elect a leader that at any time looked like a potential Prime Minister in waiting and convinced themselves that a more populist left wing platform would reap electoral benefits. It didn't and it never will do.

The media understand Corbynism. The vast majority of us who want an electable Labour party capable of real change get it. What most of us don't get is the failure to recognise that increased party membership and increased turnout at political rallies does not represent a substantial part of the electorate. Most of the electorate don't follow politics in the way that you or I do. They probably don't even know who John McDonnell is. They make a superficial choice based on an overall impression they get from the two minutes of the news that might filter through to them. And if the opposition leader comes across as cold, detached, out of his depth and unwilling or unable to communicate with the wider public, then that leader and that party is doomed.

Phil said...

Saying "we get it, you don't" kinda sums up the point of the piece.

Speedy said...

I think people do "get it" - Labour MPs for example have to engage with their own constituents - and the polls uniformly suggest Corbyn is a vote loser.

This made me laugh though: "It's all about parties winning elections and forming governments."

Er... yes? I realise "commonsense" is a dirty word in sociology (as I was taught in my first sociology lesson!) but this, surely, is the raison d'etre of the Labour Party. Isn't it?

But you know, I think you know all this... what they (and clearly, I) genuinely don't get is how seemingly intelligent people can care about improving the lives of ordinary people (through a Labour government) and support Corbyn - the only reason I can see is: well, we'll lose 2020, then probably 2025, but maybe around 2030 things will be different and the public will be ready for our socialist vision. Is that it?

Well, you're certainly playing a long game...

Igor Belanov said...

Narcoboy and Speedy are clearly subscribe to the 'football club' theory of political parties. Like a football club, a political party has its equivalent of a chairman and management. These people know how to run the club and the responsibility of the fans is to keep their opinions to themselves, pay the admission money and cheer on their team, receiving the vicarious thrill when their team wins.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party over the past 15 years has resembled a combination of Peter Ridsdale's financial acumen as chairman of Leeds and Steve McLaren's tactical wisdom as manager of Newcastle. In an unexpected move, a more humble supporter was made manager of the Labour Party who actually believed that the fans should have a say in how their 'club' is run. Some people treat this as heresy- it's time to bring Ridsdale and McLaren back, only they can guarantee success!

Politics is not football, except in the sense that those with the most money have the most success. Yet Labour might well do a Leicester yet.

David Parry said...


'In 2015 Labour lost because they failed to present a convincing economic policy to the public, failed elect a leader that at any time looked like a potential Prime Minister in waiting and convinced themselves that a more populist left wing platform would reap electoral benefits. It didn't and it never will do.'

Actually, Labour lost in 2015 because it continued to lag behind on economic competence, a combination of the legacy of the global financial crisis, which as you yourself point out, happened on Labour's watch, and the then coalition government generating a house price-based boom by funnelling state subsidies into mortgages through 'help-to-buy'. The latter not only enabled the Tories to give the illusion of managing the economy in a competent fashion, but, perhaps even more crucially, benefitted swing voters in Tory-Labour marginals, including not only 'aspirational' working-class voters, but also middle-class property owners, who could look forward to higher house prices.

Moreover, the loss of all but one seat in Scotland to the SNP hardly helped matters. This followed Labour's collaboration with the Tories in the 'better together' campaign, which for Scottish erstwhile Labour voters, having experienced a profound sense of abandonment under Blair and Brown, was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. By positioning itself, at least in rhetorical terms, as an anti-austerity, social democratic alternative to Labour and the Westminster cabal, the SNP was able to capitalise on this sense of disillusionment to spectacular effect.

The reasons for Labour losing the 2015 general election have nothing to do with it being too left-wing. Where parties position themselves on the political spectrum is seldom, if ever a deciding factor of electoral outcomes. Parties rarely, if ever win or lose elections on the basis of being too left- or right-wing. The reality is always more complicated than that.

Speedy said...

i just think that most Corbyn supporters simply don't care about the consequences and don\t want a Labour government if it does not represent their ideals. They'll be alright, so they think, and they don't care about the others.

They complain about Tory individualism, but this is a perfect example of their own. They are profoundly decadent because they do not believe there is anything left to lose - yet on the threshold of Brexit when everything from the NHS to workers rights is up for grabs, we have have never needed a stronger Labour voice.

They think their games will cost nothing, because everything is already lost, but they have no conception of how much more will be lost, and they will bear full responsibility. And they won't care, because they will be loving it. Until they need an operation or seek work that is, then it will all be the Tories, and Tony Blair's fault. But no - it will be theirs'.

jim mclean said...

I have been accused of being a "Workerist" as I have concerns that a rich young person, a graduate of the oldest college in the countries oldest University, can get elected to the NEC on a platform that relegates the Parliamentary route as secondary to the movement, a movement which seems to be led by disgruntled members of the very establishment they intend to overthrow. The founder of momentum appears to be another Oxford Trustafarian,I just do not trust the leaders.

Alex Ross said...

Most people I know with Corbyn issues have been radical activists (mainly Trots or Anarchists) in the past and most still are (only in a mellower form – in their unions or local campaigns or disability rights campaigns). My memories of radical activism, which are not all bad – some fun and confidence building – are contaminated by memories of expected conformity, bossy and often aggressive characters who couldn’t handle dissent, the unnecessary polarisation of arguments, having to do things which you had no idea what the purpose was (like selling naff papers or getting people to sign petitions which just got binned afterwards). There is a sort of Déjà vu with the rise of the Corbynistas for us old, miserable, ex-Trots. It is nice to see an increased interest in politics amongst the young…however it is getting really tiresome being labelled a “Blairite” for making any criticism of Corbyn – and any criticism of Corbyn being identified as a “smear” even if it is factually accurate.

Paul Ewart said...

Insightful as ever, Phil, but I think you've missed or glossed over a couple of factors: you allude to the performative element of politics without quite fleshing it out - Westminster journalists have fixed assumptions about how successful politicians operate: this, I gather from the likes of Andrew Sparrow is important. They cannot tolerate anything out of the ordinary; they are culturally programmed by repetition, proximity and expectations. They are, in a word, interpelllated, willing participants in the conservative hegemony.
The second, related, but discrete, has to do with access to power and relates to both the media and the PLP., and that is status anxiety. The media and MP's depend upon each other to maintain power, thus the whole Westminster merry go-round. Corbyn must be stopped at all costs because he threatens the status quo: his reluctance/refusal to play the game threatens all that they hold dear.