Trolls, bullies, and wounded egos stalk Twitter and Facebook. Blocks are interposed. Friends are defriended. The internet is the forum of choice in the most recent Battle of Britain that is Jeremy Corbyn. The mainstream media has joined the battle rather than offer any analysis. Cool perspectives are not available.
‘Corbyn: The Strange Birth of Radical Politics’ by Richard Seymour is not itself always dispassionate. Tony Blair, for example, appears as “an SDP viper in the Labour breast”. Nonetheless, Seymour usefully takes us behind how Corbyn emerged, to explore why he did. This generates lessons for all concerned with advancing a more equal society. Seymour identifies Corbyn as a product of crises in politics, social democracy, and the labour movement.
Of course a popular withdrawal from politics is depriving democracy of its lifeblood, participation, across Europe. Voter turnout is on an ongoing downward trend. Membership of political parties has dropped precipitously. This is not a matter of apathy driven by contentment and affluence. Seymour argues rather that it is about deliberate abstention, a rejection of the choice on offer, and the lack of difference between political parties. He concludes “it is not apathy that characterises a growing chunk of the electorate, it is their effective exclusion from political power”. This abstention is particularly evident among young people and those living in poverty or from ethnic minorities who might otherwise be expected to vote Labour.
Social democracy has been a “casualty of neo-liberalism”. The strategy of Social Democratic parties had been to fund welfare state commitments from a thriving capitalist economy. However, they ended up embracing austerity policies as economic crisis took hold. Social democracy has not yet been able to present or pursue a convincing alternative economic model. Its economic base has disappeared, and it has “lost its purpose”. A ‘Social Liberalism’ has taken its place, where “the leadership is neo-liberal and the direction of policy is aimed at gradually converting the base to a neo-liberal common sense”.
The crisis in the labour movement is seen in falling trade union density, the decline of leftwing groups, the transience of social movements and the sparsity of egalitarian publications. It is presented by Seymour in terms of the impact of Blair on the Labour Party. Under Blair’s ‘third way’, equality was abandoned for meritocracy and welfare shifted from being a safety net to being a lever to get people into paid work. While power had never been vested in party members, party conferences became ever more stage-managed as power was concentrated in a leadership that relied on polling and focus groups for its vision.
Seymour suggests “Corbyn is the culmination of a series of defeats for a form of political organisation that seems to be inadequate in today’s world”. He offered real choice, pointed to a different agenda, and practised a new politics. However, he considers that Corbynism is “headed for a defeat of its own”, particularly if progress is not made in the short term in addressing: popular values; party organisation; electoral prospects; and policy.
Ideologically, Corbyn’s call for a “kinder politics” is important, particularly on issues of immigration and welfare. Seymour considers, “Corbyn is willing to challenge more than the establishment; he aims to run against popular prejudice and win”.
Corbyn must revitalise the Labour party. The influx of new members is encouraging. However, there is a challenge to democratise the party and secure active engagement from members.
Corbyn’s electoral strategy aims to “rebuild the core disintegrating vote while motivating abstainers”. Labour’s share of the vote has not grown, though Seymour notes that polling companies weight against young and poor voters on the basis that they don’t turn out, obscuring any rise in support. However, he concludes that Corbyn is “unlikely to recoup enough of Labours electoral losses to carry a general election”. He suggests that there is a contradiction, however, in prioritising this electoral goal in that the “main point of Labour’s existence is to win Labour governments, however much these governments may undermine Labour’s other purposes in the long-term”.
For policy the “most pressing task is to demonstrate that there is a coherent alternative economic model”. Corbyn has committed to end austerity and introduce a “People’s Quantitative Easing” with investment in infrastructure, jobs and high-technology industries. This is to be funded by closing tax loopholes, stimulating growth, and spending less on, for example defence projects like Trident. Seymour highlights that this “agenda is not the stuff of which revolutions are made”, but he is not convinced that, if elected, Corbyn would be able to implement these policies anyway.
Ireland still awaits its Corbyn, its Sanders or even its Podemos. This book offers some insights as to what a new politics might really look like and the challenges it would inevitably face.
By Niall Crowley