General Election 2017: The Politics of Nostalgia

8 Jun

The Labour Party – especially its leader, Jeremy Corbyn – has had a surprisingly good election campaign. Labour started 23 points down from the Conservatives; the latest polls put the Tory lead at anything from 12 to just 1 point – a historically unprecedented surge. Corbyn’s hunch that the more people saw of him and his policies, the more they would warm to Labour, was proven correct. Despite two years in which he had faced internal plots and sabotage, massive media hostility, a second leadership election, the EU referendum, and a snap election, Corbyn’s team had somehow managed to develop concrete, costed policies, that appear to have resonated strongly with some of the public. Because of the electoral system and other factors, the surge is may still not translate into Labour gains in parliament. Nonetheless, the Labour turnaround – coupled with UKIP’s ongoing collapse – clearly gives the lie to every defeatist Remainer who argued that Brexit would mean the immediate death of leftist politics in Britain.

The Labour surge partly reflects the dreadful campaign waged by Theresa May’s Conservative Party. May’s political strength before calling the election was exclusively based on the Conservatives’ unambiguous commitment to respect the result of the EU referendum. Conversely, Labour was in profound disarray, torn between a pro-EU metropolitan base and parliamentary party on the one hand, and northern and Welsh working-class Leave voters on the other, and led by a north London leadership with little apparent appeal in the traditional Labour heartlands. Because most British people are democrats, May’s position won support, with the so-called “48%” rapidly melting away. However, the Tories apparently mistook this as support for May and her agenda. In truth, May is a hollow, incompetent, technocrat with little vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future – and the election left her disastrously exposed. Despite calling a “Brexit election”, she had virtually nothing to say about it beyond slogans and platitudes, and the ground quickly shifted to matters of public spending and security, where she was far weaker. May’s comical avoidance of the public, awkward flailing under the slightest scrutiny, and frequent U-turns, made a mockery of her “strong and stable” mantra. She was not even able to hold her own base, threatening Tory-voting pensioners with a “dementia tax”, followed by a shrill retreat. Even if she is returned to office, as most commentators expect, she will be enduringly weakened and this cannot fail to influence the Brexit talks.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has drawn the largest crowds to political rallies seen in Britain since the 1950s, reflecting his desire to rebuild Labour into a social movement, not the zombified electoral machine it has become. While this ambition is very far from being realised, his campaign has been an important challenge to politics-as-usual in two respects.

First, he has made Labour the first major European political party to openly challenge austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, thereby tackling directly the paralysing mantra, promoted since the 1980s, that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). His pledges to open a £500bn investment bank, abolish tuition fees, revitalise public services and renationalise railways and the Royal Mail are premised on the slogan “it doesn’t have to be like this”. However backwards-looking his agenda may be – on which, more below – this is a welcome challenge to TINA. The idea that our social, economic and political system is set in stone, susceptible to only minor tweaks, has crippled progressive politics since the 1980s, and any revival must tackle it head on. For the Labour Party, it is a dramatic – albeit not deeply shared – abandonment of the “Third Way” centrism practised since 1988. Of course, the groundwork for thinking that voting can induce dramatic change was laid by the EU referendum. And, while Corbyn perhaps dare not say it openly, reflecting the party’s internal divisions, his proposals include policies that would be ruled out under EU state aid rules. In this sense, he is connecting – however faintly – with the democratic ideal of “taking back control”.

Secondly, Corbyn has openly challenged Britain’s approach to foreign and security policy, garnering public support for doing so. This is striking given that his main weakness was always assumed to be security, given his previous antiwar postures and engagement with groups like the IRA and Hamas. However, increasingly desperate attempts to use these associations to smear Corbyn, while perhaps resonating with elements of the Tory base, have largely fallen flat. Again, the experience of two decades of adventurist foreign policy seems to have persuaded many to conclude that Corbyn has perhaps got a point. His response to the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London – highlighting the “blowback” from Britain’s foreign interventions and craven relationship with states like Saudi Arabia, as well as austerity-driven cuts to the police – resonated strongly with the public. It spoke to their common sense after 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tory bluster that Corbyn was “blaming the victims” failed to cut through. Corbyn’s position is, again, unique among major party leaders in Europe and among Labour leaders since 1983.

In short, the British public is being offered a starker and more meaningful choice today than at any point in the last 30 years. This speaks to the wider revival of democracy, and political contestation, flowing from the EU referendum, which has – again contrary to Remainer defeatists’ expectations – actually shifted the centre-ground leftwards. Immediately after the referendum, the Tories scaled back their austerity targets and began appealing to the “just-about-managing”, and now they are running on a washed-up version of One Nation Toryism, plagiarised in part from Ed Milliband’s “Blue Labour”. However weakly, May has emphasised the “good the state can do”, talked up an “industrial strategy”, and pledged to promote equality. This may yet win round some working-class voters – especially those who had previously defected from Labour to UKIP – but on this terrain, Corbyn has the more convincing record.

Nonetheless, there are many unanswered questions and weaknesses surrounding Corbyn’s campaign. The most striking aspect of Corbyn’s platform is its backward-looking, defensive character, premised heavily on the defence of the crumbling national-welfare state. Even the £500bn investment bank is premised on Keynesian pump-priming, not a vision of a future economy. There are serious structural challenges in contemporary capitalism that Corbynism does nothing to address, like the productivity crisis, the growing de facto labour surplus, and looming automation. Radical solutions, like universal basic income, shorter working weeks, and full automation, mooted in academia, are actually being trialled, in part, elsewhere in Europe. Corbyn’s vision for Brexit involves clinging onto EU regulations that stifle scientific experimentation, like genetic engineering. He and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, look at Uber and see only the problem of zero-hours contracts and poor pay – not the promise of a fully automated transport system, potentially under public, not private, control. In this sense, Corbyn’s platform is far more conservative than Labour manifestoes in the 1960s and 1970s, when leaders like Harold Wilson talked about embracing the “white heat of technology” to transform the economy and society. Corbyn is channelling the Spirit of ’45, in the words of Ken Loach’s nostalgic documentary, not 2017, let alone some future year.

This same conservatism applies to Labour’s attitude to Brexit, which is all about dampening its economic effects, rather than charting a clear path for political and economic renewal. Despite May’s evident weaknesses, she earns cheers when talking tough on Brexit, just as she is booed when discussing public spending. Corbyn’s position is the opposite. Asked about Brexit and immigration, his responses on “managed migration” are stilted concessions to concerns about the “white working class” and its “legitimate concerns” about migration. It is a reminder that the Labour party remains caught between contradictory social bases. Corbyn has been unable to articulate a vision that squares this circle in a truly progressive manner. He has capitulated to the idea of migration as a “problem” by opposing “gangs” of migrant workers being “brought in” to “undercut” British wages (largely discredited as a myth) and proposing structural funds to relieve “pressures” on public services caused by immigration. He has not challenged the basic notion of the economy as a zero-sum game that causes people to see immigrants as competitors, because national-welfarism is ultimately premised on this notion of creating benefits from which “outsiders” are excluded. He has not even explicitly tried to link anti-immigration sentiment to neoliberalism, to encourage people to see the economic system, and not their fellow workers, as the problem. Instead he has made vague appeals to British traditions of “decency” and “care”.

A final problem is Corbyn’s politics of security. He treats this issue like all the rest: pump in more resources. But arguably there is only a tenuous connection between police numbers and security from terrorism. Moreover, Corbyn has rightly made his name opposing the bloated security state. Lacking here, as on the right, is any credible analysis of, and systematic solution to, the root causes of – especially home-grown – terrorism. Corbyn’s blaming of foreign interventions leaving “ungoverned spaces” merely rehashes tired clichés and does not explain why people within governed spaces – our own societies – end up terrorising their fellow citizens. Moreover, the historical response to “ungoverned spaces” has been to seek to govern them, through interventions to build “state capacity”, which have more often than not gone very badly wrong. What looks like an anti-interventionist agenda could very easily turn into an interventionist foreign policy.

Thus, Corbyn does not resolve the problems of Labourism, even if his campaign represents an important challenge to the status quo and potentially creates important space for progressive alternatives. Although a Corbyn government would be more decent and humane than another Tory administration, it would lack a clear, forward-looking vision for a post-Brexit Britain capable of addressing our many social and political problems. However, so would any Tory administration. The campaign has exposed Theresa May’s inability to fill Brexit with political content, beyond macho rhetoric and even more backward-looking and delusional proposals, like an “Empire 2.0” trading system with the ex-colonies and the recreation of the seventeenth-century Board of Trade. In that sense, Labour and Conservatives are both trading on a politics of nostalgia; the poetry of the future remains to be written.

Lee Jones

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