CURA director Professor Jonathan Davies reflects on the implications of June’s general election result for the socialist left in the UK.
When Jeremy Corbyn was first elected in 2015, I argued that he would only be able to resist the establishment backlash, especially from his own perfidious MPs, if he could make the surge that propelled him to the Labour leadership infectious. When Theresa May called the General Election on 18th April 2017, there was precious little sign of this happening. Labour was polling in the 20s; the Tories seemed on course for a landslide and the left set for a historic defeat. The renaissance between then and the election of 8th June is staggering and of historic proportions. Corbyn’s election campaign, a simple left wing manifesto, mass rallies, positive media exposure and an appeal rooted in his quiet sense of personal authenticity, has transformed the prospects for the left in Britain. The Corbyn surge has indeed become infectious. In the process, it has shattered several myths.
It first shatters the myth of “unelectability” peddled by critics from the now-contrite Owen Jones rightwards. If a Corbyn led Labour Party can achieve more than 40%, only a month after polling 28%, there does not seem to be any inherent barrier to it winning 45% or 50% of the vote. Corbyn’s success is performative: as a Guardian columnist put it, “the more plausible he looks, the more support he will gather“. This insight was borne out by an initial post-election Survation poll, showing Labour now in a 6% lead. Moreover, even before the surge got going Corbyn was more popular, not only than the toxic figure of Tony Blair, but also Ed Miliband, former leadership rival Yvette Cooper and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. The takeaway lesson from the election is simple: a left wing candidate can win on a left wing manifesto.
Second, and relatedly, the Corbyn campaign shatters the self-serving establishment delusion that we have entered an age of “post-truth” politics, where emotion and belief hold sway over reason and fact. Academia is notorious for making epochs out of fads, and “post-truth” politics is a case in point. Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the USA both tap into a fervent sense of possibility. There is a craving for authenticity, the hope that sincerely held beliefs can be rendered factual and truthful on the ground: that ordinary people can once again exercise influence, if not mastery, in the political world.
It thirdly shatters another self-serving establishment myth: that young people won’t vote. It rather confirms that abstention was not due to “apathy”, but reasonable and reasoned “antipathy”, or alienation. For decades, the mainstream political parties had nothing to offer people demoralised or repelled by neoliberal groupthink. For a long time, there has been good in-depth research refuting the theory of “apathy”, ignored by psephologists and pundits (e.g. Marsh, O’Toole and Jones, 2007). The reprehensible Tory claim that Corbyn bribed younger people to vote for ‘free stuff’ is further refuted by evidence showing tuition fees were by no means top of their list of concerns. Nonetheless, Corbynism resurrects the idea that “free stuff” funded from progressive taxation is precisely the mark of a decent society and that burdening young people with £80 billion in tuition fee debt was a national disgrace.
Fourth, it shatters the conveniently anti-working class myth that Brexit and UKIP voters are one-dimensional racists. At the start of the election, it seemed that UKIP had done its job and the Tories were set to clean up in former Labour heartlands. To be sure, a large number of working class UKIP votes did go to the Tories, but many were convinced to vote Labour. Surely, then, more still can be won back. It is worth recalling that until Cameron called his referendum, EU membership was a non-issue. A year later it seems to be a non-issue once again. To the consternation of both Leavers and Remainers, Brexit did not dominate the election. In good part thanks to the Corbyn campaign, nor did immigration. Ideological and everyday racism remains a huge issue in British politics and society. The Leave vote unleashed an appalling wave of hate crimes, as did the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London. Yet, Labour’s campaign on an optimistic anti-austerity, pro-public services platform has begun to change the narrative on both immigration and security. Given an alternative upbeat political focus, fear of foreigners began to slip down the list of voter concerns.
A fifth myth, now shattered, is that a supine and impotent left could do nothing about Brexit but seek to retain membership of the “single market” described by New Labour spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, as “Mrs Thatcher’s greatest achievement”. To cling to the single market under current rules is effectively to say that corporate interests must always dictate how the British economy is run. Arch-Brexit Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan pointed out that “several trade union and Labour figures, including some Remainers, now see Brexit as an opportunity to withdraw from EU rules that hamper the nationalisation of industries, and encourage contracting out of public services to private firms”. During the EU referendum campaign, this so-called #Lexit position – for a left wing Brexit – was dismissed as fantasy politics, even by committed socialists. Today, it does not appear quite so fanciful. Labour will undoubtedly have to take a clearer position if it enters government and set out the economic and political parameters of what a progressive Brexit, including the idea of a “reformed” single market, might look like. The defence and extension of free movement remains an inviolable principle for the internationalist left, an issue Labour has fudged. But whatever this position might be, the left is now in a position to influence the debate.
What of the broader significance of the Corbyn surge? I have long been wary of using the word “crisis” to describe the drearily routine politics of the UK under austerity. While there has been enormous suffering for which the term “social crisis” is apt, in politics “crisis” is meant to convey a sense of upheaval conspicuously missing for much of David Cameron’s “age of austerity” (see Bayırbağ, Davies and Münch, 2017). However, in winning over nearly 13 million people, Corbyn may have provoked an incipient full-blown crisis of the British state, something that appeared until recently to have been averted in the aftermath of Brexit. This is partly a crisis of political legitimacy. The prospect of a weak and divided Tory government propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party, a pre-historically bigoted organisation whose culture and politics are alien to the vast majority of Britons, looks like a recipe for instability and strife. It is also partly, at last, a political crisis of neoliberalism. This is the authoritarian “free market” doctrine that Britain’s politicians managed to resuscitate after the 2008/9 economic crisis. Presented with an intelligible non-UKIP alternative to the debilitating free market austerity consensus, people were very quickly persuaded and voted for it. Most importantly this is, and has the potential to further become, a crisis of hegemony in which the left in all its forms can fight with renewed confidence for socialist alternatives. A new wave of anti-austerity struggles is one possibility, linked to the refusal of Tory hard Brexit logics – notably Mrs May’s threat to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven.
From the standpoint of austerity, the revival of the British left through the improbable vehicle of Corbyn’s Labour Party is thus a cause for optimism. But it certainly is not cause for complacency. Whether the notoriously fractious British left can seize the moment remains to be seen. Little has yet been won and the British ruling class in both its economic and political guises is a formidably ruthless force. The neoliberal Blairite wing is already on manoeuvres. In the Mail on Sunday, Peter Mandelson called for “moderate” Labour MPs to stand by Theresa May, provided she takes a more flexible approach. He enjoined that “mainstream Labour MPs, who worry about the impact of the continuing Corbyn revolution on centrist voters, should be prepared to stand by the wounded PM, and likewise she should welcome their approach in the national interest”. If nothing else, this shocking intervention lays bare the extraordinary lengths to which the Blairite right will go to sabotage the left. On the electoral front, voting preferences are extremely fluid. Since the 2015 election, a working class Labour voter might have migrated from Ed Miliband to UKIP via Brexit and then to the Tories, only to be won back at the last minute by Jeremy Corbyn. This fluidity shows that Labour can no longer rely on traditional working class affiliations: it can only win through building and sustaining political credibility. Nor should we overestimate the influence of socialist ideas. Moreover the battles Corbyn faced as Labour leader seem trivial compared with what he would endure as a socialist prime minster, presiding over an ailing 21st Century British capitalism – potentially severed from its European markets.
But with these necessary warnings this is, at last, a time for optimism among anti-austerity forces and the left. The new politics fits very well with our core research priority in CURA, to explore the parameters and potentialities of the emancipatory city. As his enormous election rallies attest the Corbyn surge is, if nothing else, an urban movement anchored in Britain’s cities. If it is to progress further, with the age of austerity finally brought to a close, urban politics will be crucial.
Jonathan Davies is Professor of Critical Policy Studies and Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University.