It was supposed to be a funeral on Thursday, but as we canvassed around Battersea, it was unclear what we were supposed to be sad about. We were five deep at every conceivable outpost and doorknocking in council estates half a dozen times during the day (after many more attempts in the weeks leading up to polling day). I was often the oldest person in the group, though rarely was I the only non-member of the party. Everyone was nervously upbeat but also very conscious that this was judgment day. We were relishing the excitement of a possible end to Third Way politics. Yet the polls were convincing us of the wisdom of taking this moment to mourn the Corbyn campaign.
By 10 pm that night, it was clear that the political topography of Britain had completely changed in a way very few had predicted.
Theresa May’s poorly thought-through manifesto, her dodging of debates and general humourlessness in the trenches laid the terrain for what one Tory Minister described as ‘the worst campaign of my entire life.’ The expectation that the British people would simply defer to their betters was proven to be sheer hubris.
But it would be a mistake to see this as just a Tory loss. The undeniable turning point in this election was Labour’s manifesto. Deeply rooted in class politics, it prioritised reinvestment in social care, spending on housing, a fully-funded NHS and the abolition of tuition fees. Labour members knew that the magic money tree existed. It grows in the walled gardens of Mayfair and Belgravia and in the sunny climes of remote tax havens. The manifesto was not designed to scrimp and trim to find funds. It promised that the richest section of society was going to pay for this radical agenda. This was not right wing populism. Comparisons by the commentariat with Trump and Farage are almost impossible to take seriously (especially since Corbyn’s feat has prompted Farage to promise a return to the political fray). This was the politics of the redistribution of power and money. The manifesto demanded more of the electorate than just hollow sloganeering, and this was answered.
Those who are suggesting that a more technocratic, centrist candidate would have won are fundamentally missing the point. Such a candidate could not have defeated May’s politics of managed austerity. There is an appetite for a radical transformation of the electoral paradigm, of which the Brexit vote was just one example. In pitching an unapologetic manifesto, the Labour party successfully animated the base of the party that had joined as a result of Corbyn’s leadership, particularly young people. Pragmatism and technocratic posturing by established party figures, with their practical strategies, felt stale and unambitious.
The real question is what might have happened had the party actually supported its leader. Instead, prominent New Labour candidates campaigned against him in numerous seats. One candidate described him as ‘radioactive.’ This quietened down as the polls tightened, but it never went away. To be clear, so that we remember: the Blairites would rather lose, and essentially destroy the party, than have a socialist as Prime Minister. They would rather dismantle the sun than let it rise on a new day for their party. They were defeated.
The media hardly covered itself in glory either. There were outright attempts to discipline the vote on the part of tabloids like the Sun and the Daily Mail (which tellingly fell flat with the electorate). But even liberal-left magazines like New Statesman embarrassed themselves in this respect (Corbyn was labelled ‘unconscionable,’ as Prime Minister would be ‘morally intolerable’), and this culminated in a dismal editorial. The Guardian was barely better, but to be fair, redeemed itself with its own call for a Labour vote. Liberal commentators exhibited an almost sadistic desire to root out hope from where it had been preciously stored in the hearts of young and old – they were desperate to crush it with patronising assumptions about received wisdom. And they are still at it, days later, impervious to their own ridiculousness. Nick Cohen’s headline is so comically smug, it looks like something drafted by a parody account: ‘I was wrong about Corbyn’s chances, but I still doubt him.’
There have been several notable mea culpas. But the general lack of accountability is still mildly stunning. If you were as bad at your job as some of these people are, you might consider doing something else, even out of sheer embarrassment. It’s a testament to their own self-superiority that this does not occur to them.
In light of this election, what might be possible, dare we ask, in Australia? For what it is worth, I would argue there are two key lessons. First, a leftist manifesto can be popular. (Corbyn’s was hardly even that radical if we take a proper view of the Labour party’s history.) In fact, an appeal to class politics is probably the only route out of meaninglessness for nominally left social democratic parties from now on. There is no need to be defensive about this – this election has been proof of concept. The appeal of class politics can overcome outright internal party hostility, it can transcend the decaying and increasingly crankish tabloid headlines, it can even shirk the disapproving stares of the liberal technocrats from the banners of The Guardian.
Corbyn’s success shows that you do not even need a particularly charismatic or even assertive leader to win. His speeches were often somewhat awkward and halting, he lacked the polish and attack of someone like Bernie Sanders (who himself hardly tops the tables of slick statesmanship). He was certainly warm and relatable, and the memefication of Corbyn came easy, it’s true – but this was more emblematic of the nature of his base, rather than his personal style. For the most part, policy was more important than the personality, save for one important exception: Corbyn is known for his long track record of resisting the Labour whip on touchstone moral issues like Iraq, as well as much of the New Labour agenda. People respect his kind of commitment, it demonstrates integrity.
Sam Dastyari, in his own typically vacuous take, missed the point. ‘In the battle between nothing and something,’ he wrote, ‘something will always do well.’ If someone can tell me what that actually means, please do get in touch. Unfortunately for Dastyari, when it comes to political strategy, memes count for nothing.
I have short shrift for pragmatic Laborites, especially those whose personal ambition outweighs their political imagination. The party has rightly struggled to overcome its shameful treatment of asylum seekers, among its other dark moments of selling out the poor and vulnerable. But for what it is worth, I do not think everyone in the party is an amoral hack (though even those blinded by the light on the hill would admit these people haunt in their ranks). Those in the party who are sympathetic to the politics of Corbyn should take this opportunity to be bold. If not now, then when? It will involve some fresh faces, no doubt, and in that sense the rigid rules around the election of leader will be a barrier to the change needed. So might be the grip of the union bureaucracy. But it is not impossible.
Here we come to the second key lesson for the left: trust young people. Corbyn has transformed the membership of the UK Labour party in a way that bucks the trend of other similar mainstream social democratic parties. Party membership swelled to over half a million (it is still growing). During the general election in 2015, the figure was just over 200,000. As Cathy Alexander noted in 2013, ‘there are more people on the waiting list to join the Melbourne Cricket Club than there are rank-and-file members in all Australian political parties put together.’ That still remains true, but for the ALP there was a boost after the membership got a say in the leadership contest. It sits at around 54,000. Not everyone in social democratic parties wants more members (indeed, Blair’s former political secretary was blunt on this point). But if these parties are to remain relevant, even viable, membership is clearly important. These are the people who win votes. It’s a matter for them of course, but if I were in the party, this would be my objective.
And the two points are intertwined. Without decent policy, there is no animation of young people. Without young people, and others previously uninterested in politics, these parties will wither. Under Corbyn, the strange rebirth of radical politics has hardly been easy, and always been fragile. It remains to be seen if this is possible in Australia, but regardless of how things specifically unfold organisationally, it is worth taking a moment to think about a left agenda on a grand scale.
What would we need? I would propose the following:
- Fully funded Medicare
- The abolition of university fees
- An end to off shore processing and mandatory detention
- An increase to the minimum wage
- Investment in public housing
- An increase in pensions and disability support
- Social services funded by an increase in corporate tax rates and reforms to superannuation taxation
- A vaguely sane approach to terrorism that does not involve increased surveillance and draconian police powers.
There are others – including an interesting question around a universal basic income versus a job guarantee. I would much rather debate that than which various mutation of offshore processing is superior (hint: none are).
It is hard to see how this kind of platform could make its way to the top of the necessary hierarchy. But universal programs, paid for by the wealthy, are the future for left discourse around social democracy. And I would argue, for social democratic parties if they are to have a future at all. (Corbyn polled 40 per cent of the primary vote, in 2016, Shorten polled 34 per cent.)
It may be that Labor in Australia cannot respond to the problems of our present, and will fail to be the focal point for any kind of radical political organising. But if that is the outcome, the fault lies with the party. The Corbyn example shows that people respond to the class politics. Labour’s manifesto demonstrated that our political future need not be one of sacrifice, timidity and fear. It can promise egalitarianism, abundance and compassion. The left will need to work to make these a reality either with Labor or against them.
At around midnight, it became clear that the seat of Battersea swung 10 per cent away from the sitting Tory, with 6000 more votes going to Labour compared with 2015. It turned red right under our feet that day, something we perhaps sensed but scarcely believed. It turned out to be both a funeral for pragmatism and received wisdom, and a rebirth of an entirely new kind of possible future.