Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party and UK Opposition Leader has unnerved the Australian political class. Nicholas Reece wrote in The Age on Monday that ‘Corbyn’s win is a disaster for Labour in Britain,’ which would have ramifications in Australia. His piece is just one in a series of comments from Labor politicians and former advisors, all agreeing that this is UK Labour’s darkest hour.
In his article, Reece substitutes anecdote for data. It is enough for him to cite the ‘unanimous view of political professionals and everyday Britons’ he spoke to this week to declare ‘Labour will now spend a very long time in opposition.’
For a group of people who pride themselves on their ability to win at all costs, Labor’s political class’s critique is remarkably untethered from any form of evidential foundation. UK Labour indeed is in crisis but blaming it on Corbyn’s rise is to confuse the symptom with the pre-existing disease.
Corbyn’s election sets up a real-world challenge to a central belief of Labor’s political class – that shifting to the left will not win elections. This betrays a two-dimensional sort of thinking that belongs to the analogue age: we only have to move the marker rightwards until we reach the magical point of electability. The social base, which made this sort of strategy a viable way of winning in the 1980s and 1990s, has changed. Trying to win more elections on this basis is most certainly madness.
Corbyn’s win spells the death of the post-Thatcher Third Way strategy – no longer do enough people buy the idea that the coupling of corporate rule with mild redistributive projects and symbolic gestures is a meaningful, or even viable, political project. In the present context this can no longer form an election winning majority. Social democracy, as we know it, is dead. The voters have been down this road before, and they already know it leads nowhere.
Viewed from this perspective, I suspect it’s the possibility of Corbyn’s success rather than his failure which is driving the conniptions of many in Australian Labor.
Corbyn won the leadership election because he tapped into the deep and commonly-held feelings of Labour members and supporters. He was the candidate who most strongly articulated a vision of society where the common good, not greed, drives policy.
For his supporters, Corbyn was the candidate with a heart who spoke like a fellow human being in speaking up for everyone else. Too many commentators, though, are focusing on the man, and missing or dismissing the movement.
This is about more than one man; it is about how a growing movement relates to that man. In this sense, Corbyn’s leadership is much like a light bulb: it draws power from the hundreds of thousands who voted for him. He can only shine in so far as he taps into a current of change.
More and more people are deciding that a future filled with student debt, insecure work and overpriced rent is just not good enough. They want a different future, one with strong communities and a sustainable and just economy – the sort of economy which puts a solar panel on every roof, and a roof over every head.
In one sense, it is the very ordinariness of the candidate which makes him an effective conductor of that energy. It is, however, the energy behind the candidate which provides the hope for the future. Even if Corbyn’s leadership blows out, the fact that he shone at all is evidence of the undercurrent of a desire for change.
The Labour leadership election and Corbyn’s subsequent victory involved the active participation of over 500,000 people, with 59.5 per cent of them going on to give their first preference to Corbyn. On the day after the announcement of the leadership election results, over 14,500 people joined UK Labour. More are continuing to join. Labour’s membership has now reached over 325,000 people.
A large and active membership base is not sufficient to win a general election but it is necessary. Moreover, a general election victory in of itself is not enough to achieve systemic change. The real question is whether the energy of the hundreds of thousands who participated can be successfully channelled into organising the millions required for long-term change.
For UK Labour to win the next election, millions more people will have to believe it can be a vehicle which can radically improve their lives and their communities. To do this, Labour will need to present itself as a credible alternative government.
Labour lost the 2015 election even as more and more people thought their own economic position was deteriorating. They lost because not enough people believed that it would get better under a Labour government. In other words, Labour lost as more and more people were losing faith in the present economic model and not enough people had hope that it could offer a meaningful alternative.
To generate enough hope in a credible alternative is no easy task, but in the current context it’s an impossible challenge if you don’t believe in any alternatives, or you look to gain credibility through endorsement from discredited and despised elites.
Corbyn’s victory shows the rules of the political game have changed, and those who’ve spent their lives playing by those rules are deeply upset.
Image: Chris Beckett / Flickr