This is going to be a long one.
The Labour Party has a tumultous history with and as the left. The usual imagery is of lunacy, splits and infighting – a stereotype that isn’t entirely unfounded in some quarters. Now the Corbyn leadership has had a few weeks to settle down, I wanted to outline some thoughts on how I see the leadership playing out, and whether or not it is too much to envision Corbynism as an ideology of government, not just opposition. This involves looking at a number of points. Firstly my own position, to contextualise my musings on the subject. Next, my thoughts on Corbyn and his prospects. Finally, a few words on potential strategies in terms of the Party and perhaps the Labour left in general.
My own position
I don’t claim to have an unproblematic position on all this. In fact, I see it as inherently unstable at points. This is because I see myself as bouncing around different positions within the same broad tradition. At points I have been soft left and hard left (in Labour terminology); my analysis of society and politics is more critical than what I propose practically. This is mainly because I try to combine my critique of capitalism, neoliberalism and so on with what I feel is possible to achieve in the UK in my lifetime.
I approach UK politics and social relations in a broadly Gramscian and Bevanite fashion. I am interested in power relations, inequality, cohesion and so on – my political interests don’t lie all that far from my academic interests. I agree with Corbyn that the left as a whole (i.e. the centre of the party all the way to the hard left), as well as some of the left outside of Labour (whilst having a lot of sympathy with this position), needs to work to transform Labour to represent the labour movement. But, Labour should be more than just the labour movement’s mouthpiece in parliament. By its very nature, Labour needs to be a broad church – but it should be configured to advance the position of the most vulnerable in society, as well as those who are in a better position but still not that well-off. Note that this entials more than simply humanising neoliberalism as was the aim of the Third Way.
Labour’s biggest challenge by far is making itself part of a wider hegemonic project on the left. Socialist and left social democratic ideas must become common sense, normalising collectivity and deep equality (i.e. not simply liberal equality under the law and the state, but not necessarily dogmatic equality of outcome – the latter is certainly not possible in my lifetime, I don’t think). The question here, for me, is whether Labour can simultaneously struggle to create, maintain and reproduce counter-hegemonic politics (e.g. dismantling Thatcherism and One Nation Toryism, whilst also moving beyond the Third Way in a meaningful way) whilst remaining, necessarily, an establishment party? This question highlights the centrality and utmost importance of having a vibrant, well organised and reflexive labour movement. Labour is and will be a contradiction in many ways if it wants to move beyond social liberalism (perhaps even if it wants to move to the Nordic model of Social Democracy, if that is able to happen in the UK). Parties to the left of Labour are probably not much help in this regard because they understandably have their own agendas which will only intersect periodically with Labour’s aims – this is particularly the case when there are so many, which all have differing responses to Labour, usually being ignore, work within, pull leftwards or destroy. Again, understandably, none of these parties are likely to want to ‘fall in line’ as it were, and why should they be expected to? But again this highlights the importance of building a hegemonic bloc, which can take disparate views and positions and present them as united. For this to happen in the context of the party (and let’s be honest, Gramsci would hardly be impressed with Labour), it needs to be big enough and have its roots in the subaltern classes from which organic intellectuals can be drawn. This will take a united party, a united movement, and a hell of a leadership.
So, what about Corbyn?
Broadly speaking, Corbyn and I agree on a lot. In principle I am supportive of the majority of his policies. But, I wonder if he has prepared for, and is prepared to, employ the needed strategies of a left-winger in charge of the Labour Party (history has shown us that the ‘turn up, state your case, let rationality prevail’ approach has not been all that succesful for the left). Whether we like it or not, we do need to appeal beyond our core base to win a General Election in the UK – particularly considering the changing nature of the working and middle classes over the last number of decades. However, we need to find a way to do this that isn’t simply moving to the ‘centre ground’ or thinking we can simply pull the public leftwards. To return to a Gramscian context, the public must move left of their own accord, but they will not do that if the ground is not made fertile for such a move. As such (and I would say this considering my interest in discourse and ideology), we need to – somehow – alter the frame and terrain of debate, in order to fundamentally change the language of debate. If this doesn’t happen, we will continue to use language and imagery that a large section of society is fundamentally suspicious and perhaps scared of, without having well articulated reasons for feeling so (and without the these reasons to contest, how is the left supposed to assuage these fears?). Currently the left operates on terrain controlled by the right. That the Conservatives felt able to brand themselves the party of the workers and set up a trade union group (however laughable that may be) is testament to this.
What is the end goal? Put simply, it has to be to change the structure of (civil) society, and to reduce inequalities in power relations (as lofty as that sounds). Corbyn’s Labour, as a political party, can only do this by winning elections and participating in the system it ultimately wants to change. But – and Corbyn has acknowledged this – winning elections isn’t enough. Otherwise the left could have embraced New Labour and be done with it (this article will already be long enough, so it is perhaps not the best idea to bring up the Marxism Today debates). To turn a very Third Way sounding phrase, Corbyn must move beyond Old and New Labour, and convince the electorate that he has done so. This is something I believe Ed Milliband started, but couldn’t finish. Current British political discourse, in my reading, sets up the left to fail. It guarantees that promises will be broken if they do not conform to a tightly controlled set of noms (we can look at Syriza, the SNP and the Lib Dems for examples of this). The alternative employed by some of the left is to not engage with this and instead make unrealistic demands of governments, in an attempt to pull the wool from people’s eyes (this is admittedly a gross oversimplification). A different strategy is needed.
Towards a Gramscian electoral strategy?
‘Gramscian’ and ‘electoral strategy’ in the same sentence may be a bit of an oxymoron. But I am of the position that a thinker’s work can be adapted, as long as one takes steps not to misrepresent or misappropriate.
My feeling is that although Gramsci only had limited time for electoral politics, his thinking can still be used in this scenario, particularly if election isn’t the sole end. Although winning elections is the raison d’etre of political parties, it isn’t of the labour movement, which is what makes Labour so unique. But in Gramscian terms, it is less of an electoral strategy and more of a political strategy, which involves moving the frame of the centre. If the centre is where elections are won and lost, of course Labour must capture it, but the centre ground is on the political right currently; that would achieve little for the labour movement beyond token changes. In the words of Pablo Iglesias: ‘The struggle to occupy the centrality of the board is precisely the struggle to determine where the centrality of the board is’. For me, this is the first step. If this is not achieved any left policy will look ridiculous. Case in point being the relatively moderate and Keynesian economic policies of the Corbyn Labour party being presented – with ease and as common sense – as disasterous for a civilised economy that would rather avoid becoming a banana republic with inflation running at Zimbabwean levels.
Gramsci argued that one cannot embark on the war of manoeuvre without first winning the war of position. This is something that I feel that a Corbynite Labour is (potentially) ideally placed within British society and politics to do so. Discourse will not win an election, but when policies, legislation and manifestoes are presented within particular discursive frames, the terms of debate have already been set. Those outside the orthodoxy can only participate in such debates by positioning themselves in relation to the orthodoxy and therefore cement their outsider position. An outsider position, as with Corbyn, will provide a surge of support from people who want things done differently, but in my mind it is not sustainable. Eventually people will want demonstrations of statecraft, not just promises that another world is possible. The public must be given the tools to be able to interpret the issues from a significantly different angle.
As with many posts like this, I have to admit that I am ending on a thoroughly unresolved note. So to inject some positivity: this is the first time in my generation that I have seen the broad left in the UK in a position where it is possible to challenge the terms of debate and perhaps begin to put forward sensible egalitarian proposals that do not hinge on a capitulation to neoliberalism. That’s exciting.