Centrism is finished
Where did Corbynism come from? Although hidden from view during the long decades of the neoliberal consensus, there were always alternative roads that could have been taken, argues Mark Perryman in his keynote essay in this anthology. “The film Pride is a good place to start looking for inspiration,” he says, highlighting its alternative vision of how class and community solidarity can unleash human potential on an immense scale. Indeed the Corbyn phenomenon, in its appeal to young people and engagement with their interests, has much of the zest of the early Rock Against Racism initiatives of the late 1970s.
And for good reason. The Brexit referendum result and the bigotry it unleashed required a response that went way beyond the conventionally political. The Corbyn leadership offers an opportunity for the burgeoning extra-parliamentary social movements to reconnect with orthodox electoral politics for the first time in decades. And this reconnection will shape the political outcomes that a future Labour government can deliver. The influx of new forces should also transform the Party into a more democratic, campaigning movement - no small task given the moribund nature of many local CLPs. Some constituency parties have been in “special measures” for over 20 years, a legacy of the Blair-Brown era when the most effective way to deal with contrarian grassroots activism was to just shut it down.
Perryman sees the continuity of Corbyn with Bennism, the old left and roads not taken in the past. But I think there is also something post-political about Corbyn that transcends left and right, that cuts across ideology, offering common sense solutions to the new problems in the age of austerity. These solutions are necessarily radical, because the problems of housing, debt, public health and education, environmental degradation, exploitation at work and many other areas express themselves in an unusually sharp way.
There are some excellent contributions here. Jeremy Gilbert examines how alternative ideas to the neoliberal consensus were marginalised for so many decades. Des Freedman quantifies the scale of the media hostility against Corbyn - The Guardian is singled out for its one-sidedness, with over three quarter of its readers backing Corbyn and only 9% for Yvette Cooper, the paper’s preferred choice in the 2015 leadership election. Andrew Gamble looks at the staggering collapse of the May project in a few short weeks in the spring of 2017, despite having just won a by-election in a seat held by Labour since the 1930s and trounced Labour in local council elections.
In an important piece, Eliane Glaser distinguishes between populism - a negative bashing of elites aimed at disrupting the political system, and a popular left politics, which retains a belief in democratic structures and seeks to succeed within them by advocating a compelling vision that will win enough votes. Corbyn’s campaign was an example of the latter, she contends.
But the stand-out chapter for me is Maya Goodfellow’s essay on immigration, debunking the pseudo-sociology of the so-called ‘white working class’, “a mythical block of people who are all assumed to hold the same views.” She rightly condemns Labour MPs like Stephen Kinnock who perpetuate this lazy narrative, which “erases the experiences of working-class people of colour and implicitly suggests their poverty and disenfranchisement are somehow acceptable.” Corbyn’s election marked a distinct break from the “controls on immigration” mugs of the 2015 general election. Instead, he appointed their principal critic, Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary, and focused on solidarity rather than scapegoating. But the limitations of the 2017 general election manifesto show the Party needs to go further, “to be part of a project that reimagines the ‘us’ that both defines the nation and stretches beyond national boundaries to form part of a global movement.” Leftwing parties need to unite to tackle worldwide challenges such as global exploitation and environmental destruction.
These pieces are all broadly supportive of the Corbyn project, but the menacing alternative is alluded to frequently. Unless there is further renewal of the Party’s core beliefs and a commitment to its true supporters, the alternative is the electoral and organisational collapse of the Party, as has just happened to the French and Dutch Socialist Parties.
The lesson is clear: centrism is finished. Parties that claim to speak in the name of the working class and attack it in office will be ruinously punished.