As the dust settles on another Australian election campaign, in which the population resoundingly supported no party, no program, no leader, British Politics is undergoing a sea change. Thrust into the centre – almost like a feat of the imagination, some flight of fancy recalling A Very British Coup – came Jeremy Corbyn, a social-democrat in the old style. For the first time in decades, there is a national leader in the anglophone world arguing against neoliberalism in Old Left terms. (Before his emergence, the greatest hope had been found in Scotland; outside the English-speaking world, in Greece, Spain or Latin America.)
The response in the British Labour Party has been phenomenal. Tens of thousands have flooded into the party, inspired by a leader who doesn’t belong to the technocratic world of focus groups and marketing. Corbyn speaks as if he believes in something, as if he stands on principle (and not as if all his ideas have passed through some hideous neoliberal consensus filter).
To understand Corbyn’s rise, the best place to begin is probably Richard Seymour’s book Corbyn: The Unlikely Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso, 2016). Seymour traces the development of Corbyn, who ‘intelligently exploited an opening which has come about from the decay of the old parties’. This opportunity came when the Blairite majority in the Labour Party decided to change their election rules, giving their members a greater weight in leadership elections. No-one expected the mass campaign that this unleashed, least of all the Blairite MPs in the party. Indeed, the Left punched well above its weight, precisely because
the normally effective modes of political control, had broken down. At the core of this was the degeneration of the union link, which had been hacked away at over years, with the result that the traditionally cautious union bureaucracies seized on a drastic opportunity to reverse their losses.
It’s the sort of thing some theorist might consider in an essay on the role of accident in history.
To assess the significance of these events, Seymour does a fine job recounting the history of the British Labour Party. He points out that only the Atlee government had ever really advocated social democracy, and in conditions of the post-war boom, which ended 40 years ago. Otherwise, it was liberalism that dominated, and the Blairites who are ‘in fact authentic legatees of their party’s traditions’. Moreover, the British Labour Party has always been structurally undemocratic, ‘a party in which the power is overwhelmingly concentrated at the top’. As an organisation it has ‘cleaved to its constitutionalist, electoralist roots’.
Furthermore, in the conditions of a stagnating economy, social democracy is effectively off the agenda:
[For] the managers of social democracy, the attempt to resist these cutbacks and gross transfers of wealth [brought about by neoliberalism] to the private sector was hopelessly utopian.
To provide a welfare state, one needs to ensure growth as well, something impossible at the moment.
Given these facts, Corbyn is facing an uphill battle, as evidenced by the consistent attacks on him by his own MPs. That he maintains the support of the membership doesn’t overcome the problem that the party’s bureaucracy is against him. It’s a contradiction that surely can’t last. For Corbyn to survive he would need to embark on a critical war of position, restructuring the Labour Party even more, enforcing reselection of MPs, putting sympathetic supporters in decisive positions. None of this seems likely.
Should he fail, he may well have played a role not totally unlike that of Sanders in the US: to channel back discontent into the traditional structures of power. Or perhaps, given the difference in structure between the Democrats and Labour, Corbynistas might have the chance to carve out some space for themselves in the party, though one wonders quite what point this would be if the leadership returns to its neoliberal ways.
Part of the interest for Australians in Seymour’s book comes in the shock of recognition. His narrative rings in our ears like so many echoes of our own history. Each step in British politics had its own correlate here: the rise of neoliberalism in the Australian Labor Party, their conclusion with each defeat that one needs to move to the right, the increasing ‘embourgeoisement’ of the leadership (quite literally, in this period many of them became entrepreneurs, sat on company boards, etc.), their imperial adventures, the ideological adoption of individualism and the breakdown of the notion of a social contract, the demonisation of the the poor, marginalised and unemployed, the resulting disintegration of the party’s base and the ongoing disillusionment of the population with the political leadership, the turn of these people towards ‘anti-politics’.
Importantly, though, the temporalities were different. If British Labour was out of office for the entirety of the 1980s, the ALP was in charge of one of the most electorally successful eras of its history. Australian Labor made a more decisive transition to neoliberalism earlier than its British counterpart. Indeed, according to one story, during the 80s the British Labour Party sent representatives over to Australia to learn how to impose this model.
The Australian process began in 1983 and 1984 when the ALP won office. They immediately adopted the three mines policy, infuriating many of their supporters. They implemented the wages and incomes Accord, trapping the unions into a tripartite agreement with business and government, which effectively lowered wages without having to face industrial action – it could be understood as what Gramsci called a ‘passive revolution’, an integrative exercise which allowed fundamental restructuring without allowing significant breaks from its hegemony (see Elizabeth Humphry’s relevant argument). When they did face a series of strikes – nurses, the Builders Labourers Federation, pilots – the ALP crushed these with their control of the ACTU and the cold hand of the state.
This sequence resulted in the flooding away from the ALP of key sections of its left and opened up the space for several third party formations, the first was the Nuclear Disarmament Party (formed after the ALP abandoned its no uranium mines policy), then the smaller New Left Party, which quickly dissolved itself out of existence, and finally the Greens, which has now become the primary third party in Australia and embraced the bulk of progressives who looked for an alternative to the ALP.
This process effectively eradicated the Labor Left, consigning them to oblivion. This Left had always advocated for progressive values only in the context of a larger and more decisive allegiance to the party, just as the party itself had once advocated for reforms only in the context of a larger and more determinate allegiance to Australian Capital. Everything changed, even the lexicon. Reforms were not alleviations of social injustices but policies to further the interests of capital. The party could no longer be considered ‘social democratic’ but rather ‘socially liberal’. The ALP left never recovered from this process. There was no Corbyn or John McDonnall (Corbyn’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer) with their institutional influence.
For this reason, should the ALP change its internal rules and accidentally make things more democratic, it would still be unlikely that we could see a Corbyn phenomenon. Radical energies now flow outside the ALP (as they have for 30 years) and are likely to do so in the future. For a period it seemed more likely that a similar figure might emerge in the Greens, but they seem intent on squandering their opportunities, most obviously in their ‘turn’ toward the mainstream announced by Richard di Natale when he took over the leadership. For the moment, all avenues seem blocked off. It seems we might need to wait for our own ‘accident’.