There’s a best-selling T-shirt available via Momentum which features a picture of Jeremy Corbyn with the headline ‘Since Day’. In black and white it is stark, simple, and stylish. Most who have bought it weren’t even born when the picture was taken in 1984 when Corbyn was being arrested on a protest picket outside apartheid South Africa’s London embassy.
For those millennials who belted out ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ at Glastonbury in 2017, a significant part of Corbyn’s appeal are his unwavering principles dating back to the 1980s. And the same applies to an older generation drawn to him who lived through some, or all, of the intervening four decades. Eager for change but never seeing enough of it to be satisfied that this was good as it gets, even when Labour won.
This is a leftism that loathes accommodation and concession. Rooted in a belief that giving an inch means the other lot takes a mile. That results in mistakes, missing the opportunity of alliances to be made, a popular majority to be constructed. But that doesn’t mean this unyielding isn’t framed by good reason.
At the 2017 general election Corbyn, and via the manifesto, Labour too, came to symbolise a break with consensus every bit as dramatic as Clement Attlee in 1945 and Margaret Thatcher in 1979. There was every sign that Labour’s new vision – for the many not the few – had popular appeal, not enough to win but removing Theresa May’s majority. The question now is whether it can propel Labour to victory the next time.
For the past two years Labour has been mired in the Brexit impasse, finding it almost impossible to break free and rechart that radicalism which had pushed May so close to defeat. Does that mean it’s now doomed to failure? In an interesting essay Ben Tarnoff describes the success of what he calls ‘the next left’, Corbynism included, in “pushing formerly fringe ideas into the mainstream”. At times that has been pretty hard to detect but Ben explains the reason: “The movements channelled and inspired are at an interesting stage of development: no longer in their insurgent phase, but don’t yet wield power on the scale required to put those ideas into practice.”
In just a few weeks Labour needs an insurgency of such a scale that will catapult it into government, anything less and it will be an ignominious defeat, a second best of catastrophic proportions.
The time for the process of insurgency, edging its way into the mainstream, becoming a popular majority is now. Doing so will be full of possibilities but fraught with the risk of defeat. To fulfil the former and avoid the latter, it is doubtful that absolutism will have the flexibility of purpose required. Rather the collective ability to distinguish strategy from tactics in order to identify politics as the art of the possible is how we will shape a practical progressivism liberated from impossiblism masquerading as idealism. This is what ‘since day’ Corbynism has to adapt, while never losing the core of its principled appeal.
Such a mix is often described as ‘left populism.’ If Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson succeed in fighting the general election as them on the side of the people versus Labour on the side of the establishment (don’t laugh) they will win, as right populists. The defeat of remain in the referendum which got us into this three-year-long impasse proved not only that, but the absolute necessity for Labour to locate its message in the vocabulary of both the people and change. Apart from those who mouth it, what’s wrong with the slogan ‘take back control’ is that it certainly has a whole lot more going for it than ‘keeping things as they are’, otherwise known as remain. The marketing guru who came up with the latter as a means to win a campaign versus the dynamic of ‘leave’ really should be banished to the stationery cupboard, for ever and a day.
But this doesn’t mean that left populism should become a politics of fudge and nudge, our lot virtually indistinguishable from the rest. Political theorist Chantal Mouffe helps us spot the difference: “Right-wing populism claims that it will bring back popular sovereignty and restore democracy, but this sovereignty is understood as ‘national sovereignty’ and reserved for those deemed to be true ‘nationals.’ Right-wing populists do not address the demand for equality and they construct a ‘people’ that excludes numerous categories, usually immigrants, seen as a threat to the identity and the prosperity of the nation.”
And of course this means no effective challenge to the causes and effects of austerity, no substantive alternative to neoliberalism. The discourse of ‘anti-elitism’ simply the flim-flam of the same old, same old. Nevertheless, as too many examples from the recent period show, it works.
Left populism has to be brave enough to reject all of this in order to become something that is entirely different. Again, Mouffe writes: “A left populist strategy aims at federating the democratic demands into a collective will to construct a ‘we’, a ‘people’ confronting a common adversary: the oligarchy.”
Since 2016, Labour has attempted to do this via the nuance of being a remain party for some, and a leave party via its own Brexit deal, for others. Now for all intents and purposes it is a remain (sic) party versus Johnson and Farage. That will spark gains here, losses there, we cannot avoid that. We have already lost the votes of those whose sole motivation is to get out of the EU as fast as possible. The best way forward for Labour is therefore pursuing a politics rooted in ending an era of austerity that didn’t begin with Brexit and won’t be ended by remaining. It will minimise further losses and not harm the gains one bit. Now where’s my ‘We are Many’ T-shirt?