Friday, 6 January 2017

What is Corbynism?

We have a good idea what "physical" Corbynism is: it's a movement. Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, it has swollen in size to accommodate hundreds of thousands of new members. These huge numbers cannot be laid at the door of the "usual suspect" activist community, let alone the thinning ranks of British Trotskyism. As I've argued many times previously, the party has transformed because the most forward-looking chunk of, for want of a better phrase, new, networked workers have come on board. And so when last year's leadership election came around, the stakes weren't whether Labour was poised to win the next election or not: it was a matter of life or death, of whether there would be a Labour Party. Since then, these new numbers have not, in the main, flexed their muscles - apart from Jeremy's resounding win. The left were returned in the constituency sections of the NEC elections, but not by overwhelming votes. Lots of constituency officers were issued marching orders at CLP AGMs, but overall the movement remains as it was during the summer: diffuse.

Yet, can we talk of Corbynism as a body of ideas? Contrary to the sneers, people are attracted to Corbyn's person on this basis. He's against cuts. He's against war. He stands up for the poor and vulnerable, defends social security and the NHS, attacks the scapegoating of immigrants and refugees, opposes privatisation and blind faith in markets, and rejects a system loaded in favour of the rich. All things Labour had a patchy record on under the blessed Ed and, under Blair and Brown, well. What about positive proposals? During the first leadership campaign, Jeremy talked about "People's QE" - the idea of printing money (as we were then in a deflationary period) and rather than handing it to the banks to drive up property prices, which this government and its predecessor has done for the last six years, it would instead be put to more productive uses, such as house building, infrastructure renewal, green investment and so on. The second was the idea of life-long learning, of scrapping tuition fees and expanding further and higher education to make it even more accessible. This has the virtue of making it easier for people to retrain as old skills become obsolete and new ones are demanded by the rapid pace of technological and social change.

Is that it? Well, there is more movement on this front. We've heard talk of Jezza's left populist relaunch and there was that, ahem, kipper-lite video. More interestingly, Clive Lewis has put out a piece expanding on Corbynomics. The stuff about the need for an industrial strategy and investing in green industry is all very Miliband, but he makes a crucial break with the neoliberalism of the ancien regime.
The genius of the market is supposed to lie in its ability to allocate society’s resources to their most efficient uses without central direction. Labour has long recognised that efficiency doesn’t always correspond with what is socially optimal or, in other words, “fair”. We’re now facing up to the fact that the market is not always the best guarantor of efficiency either.
Quite correct. Clive is also right to locate this problem in the context of an ageing population, climate change, the small matter of Brexit uncertainty, and a wave of automation that threatens to destroy millions of service and desk-based jobs, and not a few professional occupations too. If Labour are going to be banging on about an industrial strategy, then now is politically smart to do so. In recent days, The Economist has broken ranks and is the first centre right publication to come out and attack the Prime Minister's well-known cluelessness and dithering. The division in the conservative establishment about her government is starting to open, and it will only be a matter of time before one of the mass circulation Tory dailies start saying the same thing. If Labour is to stand a chance at the next election, we have to oppose this shambles with solutions, and half-inching the long-term economic plan rhetoric that did will for Dave and imbue it with substance that chimes with the experience of millions of people would be a good place to begin.

On the question of defining Corbynism as a current, Keynes-inspired industrial strategies plus two eye-catching policies aren't what you could describe as an intellectually distinct left politics. The vision thing, of how Britain is versus how it could be isn't a major component of the party's message. Corbynism isn't a worldview, yet. And for as long as it isn't, its purchase will remain limited.

Unfortunately for the viability of Corbynism as a project, that semi-conspiranoid and hyper-partisan rantings exercising a disproportionate influence over the Corbynist activist base present a problem more serious than a few silly tweets. If Jeremy and his comrades were clearer earlier about strategy and destination, the stronger and more coherent his support in the party would be and the less traction the likes of The Canary would have. But because leadership and, for want of a better word, guidance is slow coming from the top, solidarity among the movement is having to be forged in the crudest terms elsewhere - with all the documented problems that entails, including the fetishisation of social media. The dominant character of Corbynism now is defensive, brittle, and not at all confident engaging with the world. This is why supporters are more comfortable trolling fools like John McTernan or quibbling if it was a brick or a piece of masonry that smashed a window in Wallasley. A movement capable of winning over millions more people this does not make.

What is Corbynism? That question cannot yet be answered. But something has to be arrived at soon, otherwise it runs the risk of never becoming anything.


Anonymous said...

The genius of the market is supposed to lie in its ability to allocate society’s resources to their most efficient uses without central direction. Labour has long recognised that efficiency doesn’t always correspond with what is socially optimal or, in other words, “fair”.

It's interesting that it is widely believed among right leaning economists that the 'invisible hand' still exists - that the marketplace organises itself without outside intervention. One would think that the 2008 crash would have catastrophically disproved this notion, but it still seems to persist.

Never mind that this is a distortion of Adam Smith to begin with, but the idea that markets progress towards optimal order independently seems ridiculously superstitious.

Igor Belanov said...

It's always going to be difficult to pin down a concept such as 'Corbynism' when Corbyn himself is far from an intellectual or political strategist.

But I reckon three things are obstructing the formation of a coherent 'weltanschaaung' for the Labour Party at the moment.

The first is that the policy-making organs of the party are not easy to change and are still heavily influenced by the right.

The second is that Corbyn has been very cautious, particularly after his 2016 leadership victory, and has sought to promote party unity by sticking to indisputable ethical issues rather than engaging in programmatic statements.

Lastly, even the left-wing of the membership is divided. Some are waiting for Corbyn to take the lead and effectively form a kind of Corbyn fan-club, while others are determined to focus on democratising party structures and wresting them away from the right, rather than concentrating on radical policy proposals.

I don't see the situation changing for a while, and I think it will take a more concrete line on Brexit from the government before Labour will be able to move out of its current hesitation.

howard Fuller said...

"New networked workers", sorry Phil, Corbynism is very much a middle class movement which at best is just another fad for the left.

At it's worst it could destroy the Labour Party, which is happening at the moment. I have never seen such a bile led movement exceeding the worst that even the WRP could produce.

Igor Belanov said...

"At it's worst it could destroy the Labour Party, which is happening at the moment"

It is funny how a party can be 'destroyed' when it acquires hundreds of thousands of new members. Then again, as we know, it's all an operation to bring the party down from within, organised by Ted Grant from beyond the grave.

Jack said...

To the question "What is Corbynism" there is no such thing. Corbyn is the closest we have to an authentic Socialist and that is all people need to understand. Therefore when political decisions need to be made Corbyn will say "what would a Socialist do?" Corbyn is a Socialist not a Corbynist.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes Howard, Corbynistas are all so MIDDLE CLASS eh?

Unlike all those Progress lobbyists, SPADs, "researchers" and PPE graduates. Sons (and daughters) of toil one and all!

Ed said...

If there was one thing pre-Corbyn Labour was renowned for, it was the absence of bile, especially within party circles. Armando Iannucci made a whole TV series based on the premise that Labour insiders were known to be easy-going, amiable chaps who never raised their voices and always played the ball, not the man.