Saturday 1 June 2019

Corbynism and the Second Referendum

No matter how you slice and dice it, last week's EU election results were an abject disaster for Labour. Yes, the Tories polled nine per cent of the vote which probably makes it their worst result ever, but when you answer it with a return of 13% that's hardly compensation. And then there is the YouGov poll that put Labour and the Tories level pegging ... behind the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats for a general election. Appalling. Thankfully, polls are a snapshot, not a forecast, and what they have captured is an electorate basking in the full glow of EU rebellion - the backwash of the results, if you will. And there is precedent for this. Remember Cleggmania when, in the enthusiasm of the 2010 leaders' debates, the LibDems powered to second place in the polls? Or, even further back, how the formation of the Social Democratic Party was treated as a blessed relief from two-party politics and topped Westminster voting intention?

Does that mean we can put our feet up and wait for the polls return to normal? If only politics were so easy. Labour's predicament going into the EU elections was it had a Brexit position designed for a general election. Farage's return to politics and field testing of his Brexit Party vehicle was always going to monopolise the anger of leave voters brassed off about the Tories' failure to serve up Brexit. As advocates of leaving come what may, including the stupidity of no deal, with this dynamic in play an insurgency galvanised its counter-insurgency: the very simple no to Farage, and yes to the EU by way of the LibDems, Greens, Plaid in Wales (ignoring Scotland's "special circumstances"), and trailing in their wake, our friends the CHUK-ups. Under the circumstances of a second order election where the consequences, broadly, do not matter as per a general election, middling positions were crushed. The polarising logic that governed 2017 and gave Labour and the Tories a wild ride returned and smashed us instead.

Given these appalling results, the Labour right wasted no time crowing their displeasure. The Twitter hashtag #ExpelMeToo saw sundry right wingers coming out in solidarity with Alastair Campbell and, with all the strategic verve they've demonstrated time and again, invited automatic self-exclusion onto their heads. Well done, comrades. Nevertheless, their dismal theatrics aside, the party went into this election something less than the sum of its parts. The compromise position of customs union deal or general election or second referendum, despite being perfectly clear on paper, does not make for snappy campaigning in a polarised contest. The campaign the party ran, not surprisingly, turned out fewer leafleters and door knockers than even the local elections (indeed, it seems my polling district didn't even receive a Labour electoral communication - though UKIP and the Brexit Party got theirs out). And, if that YouGov poll is a reliable indicator, 42% of party members went mostly LibDem or Green. Labour's biggest electoral asset, the size and depth of its body politic, was almost completely absent. If the party couldn't convince its own members to support it, then we're in big trouble.

The immediate priority of the Corbyn project is building and holding together a coalition that can win a general election. To do this successfully means understanding where a) the huge membership came from, b) why we were unexpectedly insurgent in 2017, and c) the character of the relationship of that constituency to the party. This enables us to think about strategy more deeply and with greater chances of success.

On the first two, we've discussed this many times before and so doesn't really need repeating in much depth. The two (overlapping) sources of Labour's expanded membership were the return of many thousands of activists and members who were alienated from the party in the Blair/Brown years, as well as a periphery of previously non-Labour activists who were in and around the labour movement (and as documented in Alex Nunns's The Candidate). And the second, larger group, were representative of the decades-long wider transformation of class composition and class politics. I am talking about the mass of networked (but, paradoxically, often atomised) workers engaged in immaterial labour. That is the increasing displacement of wage earners who made stuff by wage earners who produce intangible things, such as knowledge, data, services, care, relationships: what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the authors of the Empire trilogy, call socialised workers. Why does this matter to politics? Because it leads to a different experience of what it means to be working class.

Here comes the theory bit.

As Marx noted in Capital, the wage relationship individuates workers. The employment contract is between you as an individual and your employer as a single, legal entity. You give your labour power for x amount of time, and it is you who receives your wage or salary from them. However, because the workers Marx was most concerned with produced material things, be it raw materials torn from the earth or commodities shot out a factory's gates, these workers had to cooperate with one another (under the command of the boss/firm, who organised the production process) under shared conditions. Therefore, despite the individual legal relation between worker and boss, the bringing together of workers under one roof or manufacturing complex tended toward cooperative and  solidaristic social relationships: the capitalist production process necessarily engendered a collective agent that would resist workplace reorganisation, the imposition of wage settlements, the lengthening of the working day, intensification of production, and would, by virtue of its collective muscle, contest management for control of the workplace. The dark satanic mills of Marx's day, the mines, the factories, the shipyards and railways simultaneously individuated but collectivised workers. And out of these conditions grew the trade unions, the friendly societies and cooperative movements, and ultimately the Labour Party.

The world of immaterial labour is similar, but different. Work is very much a necessity (as education, social security, the media, and politics never stops to remind us), but immaterial labour mobilises something else. Manual labour tends to mobilise the physicality of our bodies, whereas immaterial labour mobilises our brains. Not necessarily in the narrow definition of so-called brain work, but our sociality, our being as social beings. For example, the training I received for my first ever teaching gig was a copy of a module handbook and the directions to the room the class was taking place in. The training I received for my first ever supermarket job was on food safety, how to pick up cooked chickens with skewers and tongues, how to operate ovens, and so on. In both cases the real meat and gravy of the jobs, of being a personable service provider was something I had to provide myself, drawing on my prior history as a social being forged through countless social interactions. This was not inessential to these jobs, but absolutely central to them. And these competencies were not owned by the employer, like the deep fat fryer or the white board, but by me. They are inseparable from my brain, and any enhancements to social competencies picked up in the course of this work leaks out into the social world outside of work and ultimately becomes part of a skill set that may later be employed elsewhere. As far as capitalism is concerned then, work in the advanced societies depends to an ever greater extent on capturing our sociality and redeploying it for profit (this, indeed, is the business model for social media and so much of our digital infrastructure). And because capital aims at capturing our social qualities, it does not so much organise production any more but piggy backs off our spontaneous capacity for social production.

What has this got to do with politics? For one, because socialised workers acquire their competencies through, well, being social, there is a broad tendency for them to be more socially liberal. The right can moan about political correctness and diversity quotas as much as they want, when it is the system they hold sacrosanct that is feeding off the very social stuff that, over time, is eroding the sorts of attitudes they used to skilfully push and exploit for a good old bit of divide and rule. The second key characteristic is as immaterial labour has expanded in scope over the last few decades, it follows that the younger someone is the more likely their job now and their future career trajectory will be characterised by work of this sort. Younger workers are more likely to be socialised workers, which helps explain not just the values differences between the generations, but their tendency to vote in opposite directions too. And lastly, unfortunately, they are less likely to encounter the traditional institutions of the working class and when they do, well, what have unions got to offer them? Apart from bits of the public sector where the strength, power, and purpose of unions are more evident, why would a bar worker, a book seller, a dressing room attendant, a Deliveroo courier, or call centre worker sign up? Well, we know the reasons why and, it appears, increasing numbers of socialised workers do too, with unions posting the second successive year of membership rises - though this is mainly in the public sector.

And Corbynism? The bulk of its support who came to the party, and those who voted Labour in 2017, did so not because they were spontaneously socialist, though the alignment of values were a factor, but because Labour produced a programme that spoke to their interests. The cuts, the decimation of services, the running down of the NHS and education, crap jobs, the housing crisis, zero prospects, the insecurity, the sense nothing could get better, all of a sudden Labour offered something else that spoke to this diffuse and at times keenly, and times faintly felt complex of pressures. The new working class connected with the party of the old working class, and a programme the right wing careerists and the sneerists damned as a hard left throwback because Corbyn's rebooted Bennism offered the most modern solutions to the most current questions. It wasn't out of affection or magic grandpa nonsense, but was something a wee bit more mercenary: it was transactional. Socialised workers voted Labour in disproportionate number because it offered them something. As far as the party continued doing so, it had an advantage over a Tory party in long term decline as its base rose and fell on Brexit.

Unfortunately, in the context of the EU elections this transactional relationship came a cropper. Immaterial labour tended to vote remain over leave in the EU referendum, and since this constituency has grown as younger voters have been added to the electoral rolls and leavers have passed away, there is a sense that the vote to leave has robbed younger people of something - be it greater economic stability, the amorphous possibility of a better future, as well as a rude rejection of liberal internationalism, which, of course, is also a component of social liberalism more generally. Immaterial labour tends to believe staying in the EU is in its interests, again, on a transactional basis, and so is more disposed to a soft Brexit, a second referendum, or no Brexit at all - with the latter being the most preferred. Therefore, while you can put down an unwillingness to compromise to a certain impatience, the instinct to remain spontaneously arises from the experience of being a socialised worker where nothing is permanent, nothing is getting better, and what you do have is threatened.

An obvious problem for the Labour Party then. Given the opportunity to state their preference on matters Brexit-related, unsurprisingly the parties of second referendum/remain did well as immaterial labour asserted its interests regardless - well, those sections that thought it important enough to vote did. Unfortunately, crossing our fingers and hoping this was a mere flirtation is not good enough, especially as the next election will have Brexit front and centre, whether it takes place in early autumn or comes later. To keep the bulk of its 2017 support the party's position has to pivot more towards them. This does not mean going full remain, the party cannot reduce itself entirely to one side of the Brexit schism because it needs to appeal across it to win. But never again can it leave itself so dangerously exposed. If Corbynism is to realise its promise and be the vehicle by which immaterial labour sets about reworking society in its image, the party must shift to a soft Brexit plus confirmatory referendum position. It's not something I particularly like, having fulminated against it previously, and it will cause us a great deal of difficulty in some leave-voting seats, but we're in no easy option territory. In such a situation, our best bet is to go with the wisdom of our crowd.


1729torus said...

Putting barriers between the UK and the EU will slowly but inexorably impoverish the British population over time.

Even products exclusively produced in Britain that rely exclusively on domestically sourced inputs will get more expensive because they won't have the same advantages of scale as before to the extent exports into the EU are reduced

The opposition of younger people to Brexit is highly rational.

A big concern for the Britain should be that the ever increasing wage differential will start to cause younger Brits to start emigrating to Germany, Sweden, or Ireland. The UK can't really risk a demographic crisis with such low productivity, and Brexit will reduce productivity further.

SimonB said...

Talk of a second ref is easy. If it’s to be more than just an electoral tactic then surely we need to consider the details? What question(s) will be asked? Will it be binding or advisory? Will there be a turnout threshold? Will it be a simple majority again? Of course, the bigger question remains: what will get through parliament?

Anonymous said...

'the party cannot reduce itself entirely to one side of the Brexit schism'. Sometimes you have a binary choice. So the Labour party can try to appease the Brexit party or it can discover a backbone.
The idea that its current position is a general election position is just laughable. The EU have got a deal ready to go, they say they won't reopen it, I have never heard anything other than a desire for more unicorns from Labour. Indeed their current position is that they approve of May's deal if some way of binding future parliaments could be found to protect the environment and workers rights so that they could support some Tory legislation on the subject. Abject in conception, utterly lacking in self-belief, and impossible to deliver in the British constitutional system. The only restraint possible on future parliaments is membership of the EU, which is why it is hated by the right.

Anonymous said...

You are fixated on the Labour Party as the Party of Labour.
2017 was where the Party attracted once again the educated, logical, caring bourgeoisie that utterly reject the passionate bigotry of the Tories.
They go where they see the most likelihood of policies that they think will make the UK a more tolerant better place.
They are not fighting capital as such, will not vote for a mush of triangles if there is a better bait, and are currently lost to Labour if they think they can successfully fight Fahrage populism elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Well, I would probably qualify as your younger voter who has joined the labour party recently and been to the local meetings, where I have witnessed a lot of ranting but no real questions being asked or no-one really doing anything productive. It's a frustrating sight. I even went to a labour policy meeting thing where I heard the big names speak and was somewhat underwhelmed because this didn't seem to me to be a discussion about the proposals (esp. around encouraging more partnership structures in the economy) which I had read up on with a view to offering ideas. Instead it seemed to just offer a platform for people to tell us their war stories.

I see that the leave vote has taken away my freedoms to work and live wherever I want to in the EU - including Ireland (most people seem to forget this) and I am yet to hear what gains there are. It appears that the generations above have once again taken something from my generation and the ones coming and offered only the prospect of cleaning up their mess (e.g. climate change, housing) in exchange.

I understand labour's position and you have done a great job in articulating it, but at the end of the day the idea of a "customs union" is a bit of a nonsense, because exports to third countries would not be covered by EU trade agreements but imports would - leaving us at a disadvantage (not huge for goods because the vast majority of our exports go to EU countries) - and that's before you get into our biggest exports not covered by such an arrangement, services. Incidentally, our biggest service sector is retail- before anyone thinks of banking and bankers.

What I want from labour is to a) stay in the EU b) reform our democratic system (get rid of the lords, land reform, compulsory voting, PR or STV systems) c) improve infrastructure massively outside of London and d) shift power from London to regions. In that way I believe the EU will disappear as an issue. We need to engage more with the EU not less (we send civil servants when other countries send ministers to meetings) - austerity is currently baked into the economic thinking of the EU in the form of neolibralism and we should do all we can to change that...for everyone's sake.

Anonymous said...

Well apart from the fact that at the moment I think I'd rather it was civil servants than ministers pitching for us I agree, and for the record, I'm 66.

qwertboi said...

I agree with Phil's reasoning and indeed would go farther. Corbyn's Labour was right to accept the result of Cameron's foolish Referendum and has been right to adopt the "complicated" conciliatory stance which the media presents and 'fudge' and lack of policy. Also, despite the Corbyn-haters' accusation that JC is a liar who did not campaign effectively for Remain and who did not vote Remain in the privacy of the referndum-booth, and that JC is a staunch Leaver who abuses his ledaership of the party to affect or enable Brexit, JC's 'complicated' position is STILL justifiable, not least because it shows Labour's concilliatory approach to be sincere. This, in turn, shows Labour to be an intentionally good and honourable agent.

Althought honourable, the position did damage Labour's performance in the local government election and the EU Parliamentary election. Nevertheless, Labour was right to adopt the position.

It would, though, now be unsustainable and actually counter-productive (and exactly for the reasons Phil describes). The Brexit party and farage's ambitions need us to throw our weight behind a confirmatory vote. Also, I would like my party leader to say that the decision to leave the EU is regrettable and wrong. Austerity. Austerity. Austerity. Austerity. JC should answer every question about brexit with a snarling comment on Tory Austerity and the harm it does people, families, children, women, communities, the economy and our future.

Labour needs, as SimonB rightly says above (8.18), to be adopting this position for more than tactical reasons. "What question(s) will be asked? Will it be binding or advisory? Will there be a turnout threshold? Will it be a simple majority again? Of course, the bigger question remains: what will get through parliament?".

This is a line that Jeremy Corbyn should enthusiastically take. His Bennite and pro-democratic principles will, once again, be acknowledged, respected and esteemed by the many people who need a strong and popular Labour party.

Boffy said...

"And there is precedent for this. Remember Cleggmania when, in the enthusiasm of the 2010 leaders' debates, the LibDems powered to second place in the polls? Or, even further back, how the formation of the Social Democratic Party was treated as a blessed relief from two-party politics and topped Westminster voting intention?"

Not good examples. In 2010, the Liberals did enough to stop Labour taking most votes, and then formed the coalition with the Tories, that allowed the to to set in. In the 1980's, the SDP again did enough to splinter the Labour vote, and only collapsed, when Thatcher took the country into the Falklands War.

If the next Toy Leader treats leaving the EU as another Falklands War, by rallying its troops behind the flag of a planned No Deal Brexit, whilst Labour is still floundering for a decisive position, and still unbelievable in its offering then whether the Liberals and Greens are in a strong enough position to win, or beat Labour is irrelevant, because the anti-Tory vote will be sufficiently split to allow the Tories to get a clear majority.

Boffy said...

"The compromise position of customs union deal or general election or second referendum, despite being perfectly clear on paper,"

Except even on paper its not clear. No Labour spokesperson seems to even know what they mean by Customs Union or how it differs from the Single Market. Even less can they explain how its possible to be in a Customs Union and yet do separate trade deals, or how they could have a seat at this Customs Union without being in the EU!

What is worse, the position of Corbyn and others on that, and its relation to when it was no longer possible and a second referendum had to become the option has been stretched to a level of complete absurdity. Its not believable, and the use of semantics around it simply and correct leads everyone to believe that it is just a question of duplicity.

BillW said...

Original article a 'Curates Egg'. Also too lengthy to offer a detailed critique here at this time of night. Suffice it to say the regrettably anonymous commentator claiming to be young has more or less hit the correct keys for me, and I'm definitely not young!

Andrew Curry said...


Thanks for this good articulation of the impact of the rise of the services economy on politics, and the emergence of a different type of working class. It goes a bit further: there is a positive feedback loop between the experience of socialised work and the emergence of “post-materialist” values (cf Inglehart), emphasising autonomy, self-expression, etc, at the expense of “modern” values which were more aligned to the world of manufacturing and emphasise hierarchy, authority, conformity, etc. In fact, the whole values split across Brexit can be read quite convincingly as a values war between post-materialists (now just cresting 50% of the population, by some calculations) and the moderns (just declining below it). I say ‘quite convincingly’ because the research on agree/disagree values questions to Leave and Remain voters suggests a clear values split along these lines.

The problem I think Labour has is that it is listening too attentively to MPs such as Lisa Nandy in Leave voting seats. The other research here suggests that Labour voting Leavers are the group most likely to have changed their minds on Brexit, and that Labour Remainers are more passionately convinced of the importance of Remaining, whereas Labour Leavers are less so. (Flipchart Rick has a very good blog post on this). This is one of the effects we saw in the European elections.

They are much more likely to respond to arguments about austerity—as you observe in your piece. And the Remainers will be happy with a straight commitment to a clear confirmatory vote, rather than this endless positional nudges. Indeed, given the Withdrawal Agreement seems dead in the water (and is *still* a terrible agreement anyway), and the alternatives appear now to be between No Deal Brexit and Remain, and No Deal is so far from any Labour position on Brexit, itls a fairly simple position to take. The frustration of normally Labour-voting Remainers is that the leadership seem to be the last people in the party to grasp this.

Anonymous said...

Where, in your opinion, does the alt right phenomenon fit in with the tendency for young immaterial labour to be socially liberal? Do you see this as an expression of a different strata?


Alan Story said...

Two lefties have now written that Corbyn should “pivot” and back a second referendum.

But neither has written that Corbyn and many other lefties were wrong in the first place to back the lunacy of the Bennite-Lexit project. Or that to argue to remain in EU also MUST MEAN to work for a major reform of the EU.

Instead, changing course is seen as a matter of mere electoral pragmatism for Labour.

One has written:

The main reason to change course would be this: if it seems clear that Labour can’t win back the support lost to the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, or the SNP at the next general election by any other route. That’s a valid consideration, and a difficult judgement call to make.

But if the Labour leadership does now pivot towards the second-referendum camp, it should be seen in a realistic light, as a major setback for the Corbyn project, and for any prospects of meaningful political change. It’s not a choice that should be made lightly, without taking full account of its pitfalls.

The other has written:

If Corbynism is to realise its promise and be the vehicle by which immaterial labour sets about reworking society in its image, the party must shift to a soft Brexit plus confirmatory referendum position. It's not something I particularly like, having fulminated against it previously and it will cause us a great deal of difficulty in some leave-voting seats, but we're in no easy option territory. In such a situation, our best bet is to go with the wisdom of our crowd.

PS: I was talking to a passionate young Momentum supporter the other day. She said that she was getting very depressed by the Corbyn infallibility project.

Alan Story

Speedy said...

I think you miss the point a bit here - Brexit is not just an issue, it is a new alignment.

Since the alternative of socialism effectively died in 1989 (and not just because of the fall of the USSR but the hegemony of global capitalism) the left has no longer seemed 'fit for purpose'. The argument was 'lost' and so it was just different versions of the same thing - as you have often pointed out, Blairism is just soft Thatcherism.

However, with Brexit, there is a real choice again - internationalism, shared sovereignty and (broad) social justice of the EU v market-ravaged isolationism of WTO rules.

It may not be a choice you like or agree with, but it is THE choice and a very clear one. It is THE choice seen by the electorate - the fact that 'you' ie, the Labour leadership cannot see it (nor can they see that they are on the wrong side) is neither here nor there. Labour has become like the Liberal Party of the 1920s - it has lost its purpose and constituency.

Just because working class voters vote leave does not make them right, just as voting Tory never made them right - Labour should stand for what is in their best interests if it is to have any point whatsoever.

Phil said...

Belated reply to Eric re: the alt-right. The thing to remember is when it comes to socialised workers, there is a *tendency* for them to be more socially liberal. A tendency means not all socialised workers are. In much the same way how what was the "traditional" working class tended to vote Labour, but not all did (indeed, I come from the section that did not).

Can the alt-right be explained in terms of strata? Probably. I suspect a lot of this movement has an over representation of people from petit bourgeois and declassed backgrounds, as per classical populist and fascist movements, and the fact it's a very male movement is not without significance too. You have to think about how masculinity is in flux and how the world does not fit the expectations a standard white, male upbringing socialisation process inculcates. Obviously work needs to be done on this, but those are my hunches.