The confusions of anti-politics: UK edition

Tuesday, 8 September 2015 



Can I just finish?

The Unstoppable Jeremy Corbyn

If the struggle between Rudd and Gillard over the dead soul of the Labor party, and the hollow leadership election that followed, occasionally descended into farce, it is nothing compared to what is now going on in UK Labour.

Having lowered the entry price to Labour’s leadership contest to £3 and the Parliamentary party lowering the bar to let nobodies like Jeremy Corbyn join in – all to “spice up” what would have been a very dull contest indeed – things have now turned horribly exciting instead.

Much has been made of Corbyn’s candidacy having brought thousands of new, especially young, people into the party and of the large enthusiastic audiences that have cheered him on around the country. Big deal. What was supposed to be significant in a democracy was not the hundreds or thousands in a political party but the millions in society they represented. In the case of Labour, its political significance over the last century lay not in being any sort of mass party, but that the union leaders who made and financed Labour represented a social weight given by millions of union members.

With that having long fallen away, the farce of the leadership contest and the excitement it is generating for some is yet another example of how the nature of politics is being turned upside down – not as a reflection of something socially significant, but as the supposedly socially significant thing itself. The problem is not necessarily the absence of this old type of representative politics but that the transition to what we have now is not being recognised.

This is surprising because at least now things should be clearer and were, if anything, sometimes quite confusing in the past. The government that started Labour’s rot was not Blair’s but the last “true” Labour government in the late 1970s, which despite coming to power based on the support of the unions and its millions of members, turned on them to impose bigger cuts in real wages and social spending than the evil Margaret Thatcher that followed and certainly more than Tony Blair. It was a Labour party that died in the Winter of Discontent in 1978 and has not been seen since. Blair provided Labour’s only electoral victories in the last 40 years because the hollowed out Labour party he inherited perfectly suited the hollowed out state UK politics had since become.

Labour carried on as a shell of its former self but received a hammer blow in the General Election this year. Not so much in the defeat but in the loss of Scotland, a region it had made gains in during the Thatcher years that disguised the erosion of its base in its English heartlands. The loss of Scotland has now brought that home and posed to Labour that its governing days may be over. No wonder the party leadership has so vigorously turned on a candidate that most clearly expresses it.

In effect, the hysteria over Corbyn comes from an understandable refusal of the Labour leadership to recognise the decline of Labour as having social roots but instead lying in the subsequent political maneouvres of Blair and now Corbyn. As a result the discussion of Corbyn gives him significance he simply doesn’t have.

Corbyn is being compared to past electoral disasters like former Labour leader Michael Foot, or Tony Benn who ran for the deputy leadership under a Labour left program in 1981. But both of these were senior Labour figures who had already held prominent positions in the party, and rose to its leadership because they represented militants sections of a union movement that had some social force. Corbyn who was elected in 1983 when it was all coming to an end represents nothing but his constituents and, other than winning Parliamentary Beard of the Year, has consequently been ignored ever since.

It is why, for example, not only is he clearly unused to media attention, but his program has been preserved in aspic and represents a nostalgic mix of out-of-date leftyness, like leaving NATO (which might have had a rad edginess in the 1980s in the middle of the Cold War but hardly means much in a time when no one knows what NATO is for) or the type of old-style Keynesianism that the clapped out British economy has periodically relied on since the Second World War and which Labour and the unions were last able to generate enthusiasm for in the 1960s. It also why, faced with something new, such as the sudden recent turn in the migrant issue, he can do little but waffle the same things he could have said five years ago.

If the hysteria over Corbyn by the Labour leadership is understandable given it is preferable to grasping the real social cause of Labour’s ungovernability that Corbyn represents, then the enthusiasm for Corbyn from the other side repeats the same mistake but is even less understandable.

The delusions are summed up by UK Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who has spent the year bouncing from one lost cause after another because he fails to recognise the social significance of anything. So we had enthusiasm over the rise of Syriza in Greece in January, triumphalism over Russell Brand’s (!) endorsement of Miliband in May and, fresh from those disasters, now the endorsement of Corbyn as a chance to “rebuild the left”.

The obvious response to this last hope is why bother? The example of Syriza would have shown that it doesn’t matter how radical is the party coming to power, but rather what was going on in society when it did. In Syriza’s case, the rapid rise, decline and implosion within the space of a year were all indications of not only its lack of social base, but that what was happening in society was a rejection of the old parties – yet leading to a fatal acceptance of being run by the EU than an onward march to something new. No wonder those like Owen are so willing to blame the Greek tragedy entirely on the power of a bunch of EU bureaucrats.

Similarly Corbyn’s rise represents not the radicalisation of UK society but the fumbled manoeuvrings and panic of a party leadership unsure whether it will govern again. If Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, it will less likely radicalise society as Jones hopes, but accentuate Labour’s detachment from it by becoming a political bun-fight. The Labour leadership have already promised a battle within the party that will make the Rudd-Gillard killing season look like a picnic, and no doubt the left will weigh in to Corbyn’s defense, get involved in Labour’s internal dramas and treat it as the world-shattering event it isn’t. Good. They can all sink together.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 8 September 2015.

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10 responses to “The confusions of anti-politics: UK edition”

  1. F on 8th September 2015 11:22 am

    A small part of this synopsis relies on the continued success of the SNP, which isn’t a given. If ever there was a party gaining office out of an anti-politics drift, its the SNP. What comes after their inevitable collapse is hard to predict.
    At the same time, the Tories have moved right-wards on a range of issues, far to the right of where Cameron is or wants to be. He is being wedged by two parties to the right, and more importantly, the right of his party.

    As a slight digress, but a point still linked to Cameron’s future outlook: Immigration. You’ve been tweeting an awful lot about Germany’s ersatz popular embrace of refugees, comparing it to what is going on in the UK(and here). To say that Immigration is a red button issue in Britain is an understatement. Its an issue that has been there ever since the first Polish plumber and Romanian waitress turned up in the UK. So, in the UK immigration/arrivals is seen as an issue with the EU, not necessarily an humanitarian issue. Many blame the Blair years for the supposed porosity of England’s borders, opening the economy to the Eastern Europeans when other EU nations closed or restricted theirs. This was fine when the economy was ticking up, but was not so popular when the recession came. The EU is a dog of an issue in the UK. For whatever reason, many problems in the UK are now seen as flowing from the EU. Anti Eu sentiment used to be just an obsession with control from the British elite, but now its so much broader. Much of this anti EU sentiment is the channeling of anti-immigration sentiment. Its ok to hate on the EU, but we all know what they REALLY mean. Cameron has to now skate a period where significant parts of his party want a “yes” to leaving the current EU arrangements. What does this mean for Britain’s future? Where Corbyn is on any of this is largely irrelevant: England blames Labour for the ‘mess’, and Scotland is obsessed with its own fairy tale.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 8th September 2015 4:46 pm

    I agree that SNP can by no means be considered a permanent thing. Its main impact on Labour is to make Labour face that its case for being a governing party is no longer assured, hence the histrionics about Corbyn.

    On EU and migration, what we are seeing is the consolidation of the moralising of the issue which means that there is a very strong distinction now being made between economic migrants and refugees. It has been happening in Australia for a while and I think a similar thing is happening in the UK.

    The anti EU feeling in the UK I think tends to be over-estimated as it is such a political football. Until June there was very strong support for staying (61/27). One newspaper poll suggested this had changed, to a narrow majority for leaving, but I think mostly due to Calais. As in Australia, Merkel’s actions in Germany have now thrown everything up in the air.

  3. Orbital Weaver on 9th September 2015 6:08 am

    Good analysis. Only one quibble. My small quibble concerns your statement that “no one knows what NATO is for any more.”

    I’d suggest the purpose of NATO has become pretty clear over the last 12 months. And in part, this purpose harks back to Corbyn’s formative years.

    The purpose of NATO is to respond to current military threats from the Russian Federation and from ISIS.

    So, Corbyn looks even nuttier when his anti-NATO statements are read in the context of recent events in Syria and the former USSR.

  4. Phillip O'Reilly on 9th September 2015 9:36 am

    You are still my favourite scold Shrike. Yes, the social contract is gutted, zombified, dead and buried.Well, perhaps. I am skeptical about that myself. Things change, relationships change with generations and economic circumstances. you are right about Corbyn, the only thing going for him is that he is vastly superior to Cameron. We have the same situation in Australia, a fairly ordinary opposition leader having one redeeming feature, he is in every way the overwhelming better choice of candidate.
    Oh and look, Hillary in the USA, despite a little bark missing from previous battles is stratospherically the best candidate.
    So hold your nose and vote for the good of the country, that’s what I do. A bit of a pattern there no?
    By the way Orbital Nato is currently an ally of ISIS through its member Turkey, as in supplying arms, personnel and logistics, that sort of thing. Let alone the fact that the civil wars in the middle east are the creation of NATO anyway. NATO has also a long-standing policy of provocation along the Russian borders,since the 1940’s in fact, this policy has never worked out particularly well, ask the Georgians and the CIA how things went there. That is how bureaucratic war works, create mayhem, bomb, shrug shoulders at inevitable failure, move on to next.
    Corbyn, bless him, sounds saner.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 9th September 2015 4:16 pm

    Things do change, and the change I wanted to highlight, brought out by the Corbyn campaign, is how political maneuverings have completely replaced what I see as the more important shifts in society that were represented by Benn and Foot. In contrast Corbyn is more a product of an insecure leadership and a left with nowhere to go. Which is often combined with what is at the moment a widespread but passive detachment from the political class to appear as something more radical than it is.

    Good point on NATO, although I would see Turkey as pretty core NATO, which, as you say, is ambiguous about ISIL to say the least. If NATO can’t even get its act together against ISIL, there’s no point anyone being in it.

  6. Nicholas on 12th September 2015 4:41 pm

    If Jeremy Corbyn adopts an economic policy based on Abba Lerner’s Functional Finance, he’ll deliver full employment at current prices. Sadly, he shows no sign of questioning the neoliberal framework. He rabbits on about the need to reduce the government deficit. His badly named People’s Quantitative Easing is really Overt Monetary Financing, which is consistent with Functional Finace. Unfortunately he has chosen to co-opt the term “quantitative easing”, which is about shuffling the wealth portfolio of banks (replacing bonds with reserves), not increasing aggregate spending in the economy.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 12th September 2015 11:59 pm

    I don’t know if it’s that useful to see it as neoliberalism versus something else. Like most western economies, if the UK didn’t have massive government subsidy propping up across the economy, it would fall flat on its face.

  8. Graeme on 14th September 2015 12:59 pm

    Any party in a Westminster-style party system that elects its leader in a US-style primary is going to face a huge base vs MP tension.

    And Corbyn is going to face a hostile media on top of his lack of frontbench experience.

    But the ‘anti-politics’ slogan here is hollow. And not befitting The Shrike.

    There’s definitely a metaphor to be drawn between the success of Corbyn/Sanders and Trump/Palmer. But to reduce it to ‘anti-politics’ implies a confected agenda based on modus operandi and style.

    In Corbyn and Sanders’ case it is a reassertion of an ideology that was assumed for three decades to be not just repressed but entombed a museum. In Corbyn’s case it has found fertile soil in a response to a mix of the politics of nationalism (Blair in Iraq; SNP v Home County Tories) and the realities of recession and austerity. (Austerity here means for citizens; not the ‘propping’ up of industry, banks – but there’s a nice piece on making that distinction).

    I’m not saying that soil is likely to be fertile enough to build a winning electoral position. But that’s another matter. Milliband’s Labour-lite could not achieve that.

    The thesis that the major parties once leveraged off a majoritarian social base ignores the fact that we had a multi-party system from the 1890s to the 1920s, and with the decline of the two-party axis, we would have a fully fledged one bar for the survival of pseudo-majoritarian election laws (backed up here with compulsory turnout and compulsory preferences).

  9. The Piping Shrike on 14th September 2015 11:42 pm

    Oh I agree with much of that. Corbyn has been posed as anti-political surge from below but it has a lot more to do with the collapse of authority of a political party from above. That’s the “confusion”.

    It’s not a case of majoritarian social base but any social base at all, which even the landed v commercial parties of the early 1900s had. Now you have this talk that Corbyn will go out and construct a “social base”, upside down of how things happen.

  10. What’s left after the Greek debacle? (Part 3 of an obituary) - Left Flank on 5th October 2015 6:32 pm

    […] to the leadership of a British Labourism experiencing advanced decomposition. Such a development is even less plausible as a potential route to radical social change than Syriza’s strategy was. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how anyone can still take it seriously […]

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