Thursday 16 July 2015

Understanding Jeremy Corbyn's Support

Is Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour leadership pack? According to unattributed private polling, yes he is. As we know, polls are never wrong. But what is undeniable is the mass support his candidacy is attracting, and some people are starting to get a touch worried. Yet where has this groundswell of support come from, and what's driving it? Is the influx of Trots and Tories to blame?

1. In common with quite a lot of Labour Party members, I'm a socialist. And I believe that policy and the machinery of government can ameliorate social evils, restructure economies, and empower people to take charge of their own lives. Something that's the opposite of this. For a long time people who share these views have learned self-denying ordinance. It was apparently necessary to avoid appearing too left in every election since 1997 in order to win. This situation got particularly irksome over the last five years because, formally speaking, Labour had identified inequality as a social problem and austerity as a counterproductive policy response to the economic crisis. Despite this, time and again, for every progressive position adopted a regressive one was also dropped in. Labour tried to make weather on some issues, and submitted to the prevailing winds on the other. Harriet Harman's tax credit debacle summed this situation up perfectly.

After years of watching Labour governments that left much of the Thatcherite settlement intact, and not winning twice on the terrain of "sensible" politics, there are many Labour members who are pissed off. They know from the experience in Scotland that anti-austerity politics can be electorally attractive. They know from speaking to former Labour people up and down the country that many feel the party doesn't care about people like them any more - giving the likes of UKIP (and worse) an opening into the mainstream. And they believe - rightly - that the job of the opposition to pose an alternative choice to the Tories at election time. Why vote for austerity-lite when one of the parties will give you the real deal?

The Corbyn campaign condenses all these frustrations and combines it with the hope for something better. It's not that supporters don't care about winning power in 2020 - they do. But they think getting into a race to the bottom on immigration and beggar-thy-neighbour is not the way to win power again. If the Labour right wants to win these members over - and I assume they do - they need to understand this, because badging more of the same as 'electorally credible' won't wash.

2. The Labour Party is a proletarian party. Thrust those images of flat caps, whippets, and blast furnaces out of your mind. A proletarian is someone who has to work for a living - they rent out their ability to labour under the direction of an employer for X amount of hours and receives a wage or salary in return. As a vanishingly tiny minority own enough capital and property to live off, this is the lot of the overwhelming majority of people not just in Britain, but in advanced industrial societies everywhere. It's a social category far wider than the archetypal industrial worker that has animate political fantasies past and present - it takes in people from all manner of occupations, all kinds of incomes, all skill levels, all ranges of conditions of work. It is a messy mass of people who, understandably, are closely related to the bulk of retirees (former proletarians) and people who depend on social security (occasional/semi-proletarians, family members who cannot work).

The labour movement and the Labour Party are expressions of that section of this class who have banded together around common interests, such as securing better pay and better conditions at work, the provision of public services, and so on. It is not a movement of angels. Many of the prejudices of and conflicts between different sections of this class also find life within the movement. Therefore as a proletarian party Labour is not a pure organisation that clearly expresses the short, medium, and long term interests of proletarians in general. Rather it aggregates them as they are. Attacking public sector pay or social security, for instance, is definitely not in their interests but sometimes appears to be. Blaming immigrant workers for lowering pay is also a concern, even though everywhere and at all times it's the decision of employers that are to blame. And so on. Therefore the mish-mash of policies adopted in the manifesto reflect the uneasy, disparate unity the party rests on. It's not just a matter of weak MPs capitulating to media hobby horses.

It's not all negative though. Occasionally the Labour Part refracts the common interests of its constituency as well, interests best served by policies that promote security and that defend what's left of the welfare state. Yes, as a contradictory social body Labour is quite capable of pursuing policies whose logics are at odds with one another - sometimes simultaneously, and sometimes within the same policy. What the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn's candidature represents is a more or less expresses those interests attacked by austerity, undermined by torrents of media bile, traduced and slandered by leading politicians of all parties. Little wonder that he's so far cleaning up where affiliated union nominations are concerned. The lesson here is if you press down on interests you find politically inconvenient, they will still find a way.

3. Movements don't just happen, they always have a precipitating factor, a flash point that sets things into motion. And #JezWeCan has two. The first is the aforementioned austerity: the prospect of a five year long assault on our movement and everything it stands for. Then there are the other Labour leadership candidates. Cast your mind back two months when there were still five in the field. How did they acquit themselves in the immediate aftermath of the general election? We heard that Labour lost because it was insufficiently pro-business. Because we were too left wing. Because we'd vacated the centre ground. Because we dismissed people's aspirations. Because we were too soft on the deficit and debt. It does make you wonder what manifesto these would-be leaders stood on - none of these criticisms stack up. Ah, but it's the vibes we gave off apparently. Nevertheless I was very annoyed to find crass and simplistic explanations straight out of the 1997 how-to manual getting bandied about as if there were truths relevant for everywhere at all times.

I wasn't the only one who was annoyed. Tens of thousands of other Labour Party members and supporters were too. Until Jeremy got his name on the ballot paper, many were distinctly unenthused and indifferent to the outcome - the deputy leadership contest was starting to look more interesting. Is it any surprising then that those of left, and some not so left persuasions, have grasped the Corbyn campaign with some alacrity? Perhaps if Liz Kendall wasn't so unreconstructed in her so-called "modernism" that some wouldn't have been frightened into Jez's arms? Maybe if Andy Burnham had avoided being slippery about his London accommodation arrangements, and stopped bigging up Labour's spending record in one breath and attacking it in the next. There is certainly an element of anyone-but-this-pair in Jeremy's support, and it's something that Yvette Cooper - who has the most coherent centre left campaign among the "sensible candidates" - has had problems intersecting with. Nevertheless Jeremy's presence has forced the candidates to tack moderately to the left. All have denounced Dave's plans for unions, and all but Liz saw how immoral and politically stupid backing benefit caps and tax credits cuts were. Had they not tilted that way, there's a very good chance Team Jez could be doing even better.

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Jonathan said...

He's telling the membership what they want to hear speaking to someone in my CLP she said she was voting for Corbyn because he's true to our values. When I asked her how Corbyn would win over voters she said it didn't matter as he would be true to our values.

Phil said...

The point about the Miliband-era self-denying ordinance is a good one - not only is it a bad look, not only are people sick of it, it didn't work.

But the trouble started a long time before Miliband, I think. Labour's history from 1976 to 1994 was one of quietly backing away from any remaining left-wing commitments on the grounds of realism. Then in comes Mr Tony Blair to reveal that being bold and openly shedding left-wing policies will not only ensure realism, it will make the party popular again. And it did work, in its own way, for a time - although what would have happened in 1997 if Smith had lived is the great unknown.

The trouble with New Labour was that it ran out of road: there's only so far to the Right you can go before you effectively cease to be Labour altogether. Enter the Eds, who tried to pull off an excruciatingly clever manoeuvre of appearing to tack Right (for presentational credibility) while actually edging Left (to stay 'Labour' and to respond to the people who actually want more left-wing policies - which, in some policy areas, means most people).

And this is the sense in which Burnham and Cooper are the continuity candidates; I see no sign that they've learnt that "face Right, sidle Left" isn't going to work. I'd vote for Cooper in a straight fight with Kendall, but what a depressing choice that would be. Corbyn's candidacy has been a massive breath of fresh air.

It's interesting how little they've thrown at him; the "our friends from Hezbollah" line is pretty feeble stuff. But perhaps it's not surprising; by pre-Blair standards his policies are remarkably moderate. He's coming in under the radar by espousing Old Labour policies, Keynesian economics and common sense - the cunning is fiendish.

asquith said...

He's probably the most "intersectional" candidate but you'll have to forgive me for not liking him.

I think he is bad news for the whole nation. And it really shows, doesn't it, the stupidity and blindness of the Toby Youngs and other Tories that, rightly perceiving Corbyn as unelectable, they endorse him for leader to knock Labour out. How can anyone do such harm so frivolously? I oppose all Corbyn supporters, left and right.

I have made my, presumably unsurprising, decision to vote for Farron in future. He isn't saying or doing anything Mr Gladstone didn't and he has my support from now on.

Johnnyf said...

A fine explanation of the current situation, Labour needs to be true to its values and then learn how to convince enough voters that these values are the way to create a better society within the context of the world as it is . Running scared from our values in the face of a hostile establishment and their powerful interests by diluting what we stand for worked at a time when the Tories were in crisis but is seen by some as the only way to win . This strategy is flawed in my view and takes you to 1 a place of looking weak and muddled as in the recent election or totally incapable of making any significant change as would be the case if Liz kendall and her supporters were to win the day so what would be the point of that ype of Labour party ?

Gary Elsby said...

"In common with a lot of Labour members, I am a socialist".
Pissed myself there Phil.

Using austerity in the General election was a stupid move and I think most thinkers think that way.
The rest of the cast involved in the leadership campaign have so far given out contradictory messages without really committing to any plan we have never seen before.
The touches that nail Blair and Brown (as Ed did) to me are junior politics looking for an audience.
Everyone is clever after the fact and certainly pushing for a lead position.
I said from t eh start that Jeremy Corbin will win and I said so in this blog. Interest that everyone is now taking Jeremy (me) serious.
We know how it works though.
I'm altering my prediction to suit.
It is Jeremy's to lose because my earlier prediction still holds strong. 50% of the Labour membership still can't be wrong considering the party has been split by this amount for over 10 years,
Undoubtedly, considered opinions within Labour will be looking for reasons to vote 'sensible' of which Jeremy will be seen as not.
Labour needs a bright thing brimming with ideas that will see off Osborne's gifts to the working classes.
A Burnham or Cooper type whom can be wheeled out as an understanding to austerity and the causes of austerity for the good.

'There are too many Tristram's in the Labour party' wrote one media wag.
Too true.
These are the, 'we told you so' people who came out of the starting blocks 6 hours after Labour and Ed fell.
More austerity and more right wing-ness is the only cure for Tory ills.
Been there, done that and anyone could have won the 1997 election on any ticket Labour put out. The rest is history.
So Kendall is pushed as this leading light brimming with 'we told you so ideas'.
Still bollocks.
So it doesn't surprise me that Jeremy leads the pack with his own new (old) ideas offering complete change.
I disagree that labour shifted to the right in 1997, it was more like 1987(?) with a complete 'policy review' which lost out in 1992.
There will still be legions of Labour members with heads in hands distraught at the thought of a shift to the left.
They may have been right once, but not this time and Jeremy has it to lose.
So let's watch a big bag of tricks come out towards the run in.
Tories tipping Jeremy is one of them.
Being declared insane will be another and of course, being a Chinese/Russian/Libyan/Syrian spy will be another.
Let's not forget that every benefit thief in the UK will want Jeremy as leader along with casual ISIS immigrants.
Oh yes, I can see it.
Sensible Andy and Yvette will be there to pick up the pieces and Lizzie will tell of sound accounts signed off.
Vote Jeremy.

Unknown said...

Corbyn needs to win to let Labour Party members see what a true Labour policy should be and not just a little bit less nasty copy of Conservative ones. People like me have longed for someone to wear the Labour rosette and say things that I'd forgotten were at the heart of Labour doctrine. Thankyou Jeremy Corbyn.

jim mclean said...

Labourism and Democratic Socialism have never been at ease with each other.

Igor Belanov said...

I don't think Democratic Socialism is on offer, and Corbyn is basically the Labourist candidate.