Wednesday 25 March 2020

Oh Jeremy Corbyn

"My voice will not be stilled, I’ll be around, I’ll be campaigning, I’ll be arguing, and I’ll be demanding justice for the people of this country." Thus spake Jeremy Corbyn at his last Prime Minister's Questions at Wednesday lunch time. As per the etiquette of the Commons, Boris Johnson paid him a more courteous tribute than some trading falsely as Labour MPs. And with that, the Commons broke up early for Easter. When it returns, in all likelihood Johnson will face tougher questioning from the obsequious press pack than his new opponent at the dispatch box.

That's for another time. Sadly, Jeremy's time as leader came to the calamitous ending his opponents always forecast it would. In large measure thanks to their own scabby efforts. But while the awful 2019 general election will always be associated with his name, in the long-term Corbyn's legacy will come to be appreciated as a necessary correction to the party. Not just because the movement he occasioned into being recovered Labour as a moral crusade with a moral purpose, as it should be, but also, more crucially, Labour was once again fused with a new class base that can only become more important with time.

As advanced on many occasions on this blog and elsewhere, the stark age effect we see captured by sundry polling - younger people voting Labour, older people voting Tory, younger people more pro-EU, older people Brexity, younger people socially liberal and progressive, older people more socially conservative, and so on, is not an outcome of "values" or, in conservative and alt-right parlance, of brainwashing by a permissive media and lefty university lecturers. It is an effect of class recomposition, which expresses itself long age lines. By way of a quick explainer, since the expansion of the state after the war growing numbers of workers have been drawn into employment whose object is not the production of surplus value, and therefore profit, but the reproduction of the social relationships, institutions, and technologies of population management advanced capitalist societies depend on. Following the arguments of Italian post-Marxism, the character of their labour is immaterial. Their concern is the production of relationships, of data and knowledge, of care and socialisation processes.

From the 1970s onward, immaterial labour underwent a double expansion. Despite the best efforts at curbing public spending in bouts of capitalist revanchism across the Western world, the state grew in size and dispersed itself among semi-autonomous (and occasionally competing) institutions. Simultaneously, some of these functions were hived off to the private sector, while increasingly the offshoring and decline of manufacturing saw jobs replaced by an expanding for-profit service sector, such as retail, warehouses full of call centres, adult care and, more recently, the growth of the gig economy. This recomposition of labour is a decades long process, and it stands to reason the younger you are the greater the likelihood the entirety of your work career comprising immaterial work of some form.

What had this to do with Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party? In the first place, there was an alignment of values. Immaterial work is fundamentally about relationships, of our capacity as social beings getting exploited for the benefit of an employer. But that sociability demands an aptitude to rub along with others from all kinds of backgrounds, with all kinds of characteristics. This is one thing self-identified cultural conservatives cannot get to grips with. Liberal institutions aren't responsible for socially tolerant values, it's embedded in the character of the work underpinning the class relationships of the system they defend. Jeremy Corbyn's politics, its internationalism and anti-racism is most closely aligned to the spontaneous common sense of our rising class of immaterial (or socialised) workers. More so than Ed Miliband's Labour with its racist mug, of the clamouring for immigration controls by the Labour right, and certainly more than two metres distance from Boris Johnson's noxious, opportunist racism.

Second, Corbyn's Labour spoke to the general material conditions of immaterial labour. He spoke out against the precarity endured by millions of workers. He spoke up for the public sector, cynically starved of resources by the Tories who saw public spending cuts as their easy passage into office following the 2008-9 economic crisis. And as a means of reinforcing the class relationships their party serves and is sustained by. He stood by young people who have been criminalised, scapegoated, and super-exploited while both parties have traditionally looked the other way, and championed the interests germane to them without the abysmal triangulation and failed cynicism characteristic of his predecessors. And thirdly, Corbyn's Labour took up the immediate interests of immaterial labour - the housing shortage, crap pay, mounting debt and, above all, the climate emergency. In so doing, Labour has cohered itself a new base among the new working class. To put no finer point on it, Jeremy Corbyn saved Labour as a going concern as well a rejuvenating it through two waves of huge membership increases, striking deep roots into and contributing to the political coherence of immaterial workers. Labour has provided for them a collective political focus neither existing trade unions nor other organisations have managed, contributing to its emergent consciousness and a shared sense of interest - a politics that will not go away when Jeremy retires to the back benches.

Unfortunately, improving on the potential shown by the 2017 general election was thwarted thanks to a splintering of the uneasy coalition Corbyn was then able to construct. In 2019, being the party of the new working class was necessary, but it wasn't a condition sufficient for turning in a creditable performance. It showed Labour's core vote has grown appreciably versus the party's previous electoral outings under the Labour right and the soft left, but this is a concentrated vote. Our constituency's "inefficient" geographic distribution, coupled with Johnson's more adept handling of Brexit's class politics, and the wedge the remain movement - cheered on and abetted by Labour's parliamentary fifth columnists - were able to shove between Corbyn and the pro-EU base chipped off a million or so crucial votes. Were the situation different, were Brexit not an issue the antipathy many (mainly older) Labour voters had with Corbyn might have been swallowed on anti-Tory grounds. But the combination of the two were too much.

Nevertheless, Corbyn's great legacy is not just re-energising the party by aligning it with 21st century class politics, but being the most effective opposition of my life time. To the centrist hacks and the idiot MPs, their idea of effective opposition is opposing zero hour contracts by championing one hour contracts, or extending tenants' rights by increasing the period eviction notices require by a week or two. Meanwhile, Corbyn has wrenched British politics to the left, forcing first Theresa May to abandon the overt austerity politics of Dave's misbegotten administration, and despite Labour's defeat in December (you know, the one the right won't stop reminding the left about being the party's worst performance since 1935) you had a pre-Coronavirus crisis chancellor unveiling big spending. Rishi Sunak did not announce the Tories' conversion to Corbynism, but it's unlikely they'd have pitched in the direction of state intervention and serious infrastructure commitments were it not for the spadework done by the Corbynist shadow treasury team and the advocacy of John McDonnell.

There is no greater compliment than having enemies adopting your priorities and politics. And while there are significant differences between Jeremy and Keir Starmer, the most likely successor, there is schadenfreude in watching the likes of Labour First shill for a candidate whose policy platform they've spent their entire history struggling against. Our party's history enjoys its ironies too. The uncertainty starts to arise when it comes to navigating the changed class politics of the world during and after Coronavirus. The myths underpinning public spending and the limited efficacy of the state have been utterly destroyed, disproved in the stark realities of income guarantees, unlimited funds for the NHS, and business bail outs. As Keir, like many other Labour politicians, haven't got the first clue about the dynamics underpinning Labour's support - not even an instinctive grasp of them - I fear a future in which the party will pass up opportunity after opportunity, and let the Tories cruise back into office. Jeremy Corbyn, for all his faults, did understand the necessary direction of march. It's therefore up to us on Labour's left to carry on struggling, carry on fighting, and carry on pushing the lessons of the last five years. It's either this, or ruin.


Anonymous said...

Lets hope the members will have a voice going forward otherwise many will leave after all they don't just want to be election fodder (there to knock on doors). With all the experience they have some may wish to contribute to developing policy and campaign strategy etc.

Lidl_Janus said...

He should've walked in 2017, and put his thumb on the scale before the subsequent leadership election. Michael Howard did this in 2005 and it worked, to the tune of a decade in power and counting.

Of course, the problem is that the Labour left has spent years disdaining the notion of media-friendliness or the idea of actual strategy, so there's no David Cameron in their ranks.

(The Blairites have of course made the opposite mistake of assuming that courting the media (in and of itself) constitutes a strategy, hence Jess Phillips' failure).

Braingrass said...

One of most important struggles for the future is party democracy. Something it seems Keir is opposed to.

Shai Masot said...

It's a tragedy that we're losing Jeremy now that he has, at long last, managed to successfully address our anti-semitism crisis. Not one new case since the start of December. Well done Jez!

James Semple said...

A fine defence of the Leader who brought me into Party membership after fifty years vacillating in the political wilderness.

Not all 79-year olds are Tories.

Unknown said...

Although I fully support all the policies put forward by Jeremy Corbyn I have been devastated again and again when he apologised for the anti-semitism in the Labour Party. He should have said time and time again that it was a myth constructed by right-wingers to destroy the left and Corbyn himself. Having joined the party in 1971 I thought we would finally have a proper Socialist government only to lose the election. Starmer will continue what the right wing has started and destroy the party I love. I am so sad but angry too.

Anonymous said...

Just a personal view . It does not seem appropriate getting emails from Labour Candidates asking for your vote during this 'crisis'. I had yet another this morning. Given the situation I would have thought it more appropriate to suspend the process and stick with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader until at least the early months of the New Year. He has got a good track record of speaking up for the NHS and public sector and he is trusted in this regard.