Essays Writings

Labour Through the Looking Glass: 15 Early Morning Speculations on the Corbyn Surge

A piece of political science fiction, imagining what it would take for Jeremy Corbyn to make a success of his leadership.

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

1. If only Labour had a reason to exist…

I keep thinking of Landon Kettlewell, the dot com entrepreneur from Cory Doctorow’s novel, Makers. At the start of the book, he has just bought up the exhausted shells of Kodak and Duracell. To an audience of puzzled Silicon Valley journalists, he explains that these companies have history, infrastructure, administrators, facilities, supplier relationships, distribution and logistics. All they lack is a reason to exist.

To their own and everybody else’s surprise, the Labour establishment looks to be losing their party the same way they lost Scotland. That’s what set me thinking about Kettlewell. A month earlier, the Corbyn surge would have sounded impossible, a piece of wild political science fiction. Now, they were throwing every trick in the playbook at the Islingtonian candidate, to the opposite of the intended effect, and casting around for explanations as to what the hell is going on.

So here’s one more explanation to try out: Labour is Kodak, Labour is Duracell, Labour is the shell of something that has lost its reason to exist. As it currently stands, it is useless, but it is also the heir to a whole stack of resources that could be very useful indeed, if only it had a purpose.

Kettlewell has a solution for ‘Kodacell’: he is going to turn it inside out and put the companies’ resources at the disposal of a network, a grassroots network of tens of thousands of hackers and makers. Between them, they will make it useful again.

And so the absurd thought came to me: what if this is what Jeremy Corbyn’s election ends up doing to the Labour party?

2. What does this look like, if it works?

Bear with me, this will take some time, but there may be pieces here that start to fit together.

I’m thinking about what it looks like, if this works. No need to ask now whether Corbyn can win — that was last week’s question — but winning is the easy part and there are plenty of scenarios circulating for how things then go wrong. Could we construct a scenario for how things go right? Is there a plausible account of the next few years, in which a Corbyn victory turns out to be the best thing that had happened to the Labour party in a long while? And how would current events look, from that looking-glass future?

I’m not a member of the Labour party, I don’t have a vote in this leadership election — and I’ve hesitated to join the ranks of the registered supporters who will get one. But in the raw hours of May 8th, I wrote something that resonated with a lot of people who would have preferred some kind of Labour-led government to five more years of rule by the rich, for the rich.

Here’s a taste of that post:

What we have seen is a failure of politics, a failure of democracy at a cultural level, part of a larger story playing out across the struggling countries of the post-industrial west…

Labour is about to endure a tug of war between those who believe it needs to go leftwards and those who believe it needs to go rightwards. The truth is, neither of these directions will be much help. Right now, the only way is down.

That came from a place of loss; I’m writing this now from the vanishing point where scepticism and hope converge. My first reaction to the Corbyn surge was that this is wishful thinking, a shortcut, an attempt to bypass the journey down the hole into which we had fallen. But it’s worth at least trying out the alternative, the possibility that this might be one route into the upside-down world we need to learn to navigate.

A caveat, before I try to trace that route. My post-election post was about larger social and political currents. This one is about the Labour party, an organisation I only know from the outside. So it’s probably best to take what follows as one more piece of wild political science fiction. (Especially the part where I start writing Corbyn’s victory speech.)

It is after three in the morning, the sky is getting paler, and this is a story a man is telling himself to see if it sounds believable.

3. On the appropriate response to losing an election

Labour, as it currently existed, was useless. If the election campaign had left any doubts, these were buried by Harriet Harman’s attempt to explain why the party would not be opposing the welfare bill.

‘We can’t simply say to the public, you were wrong,’ explained the acting leader of the opposition. (Except, that was, the 75% of the public who hadn’t voted for the Conservatives, or hadn’t voted at all.)

This wasn’t an aberration, it was an unusually clear expression of a mind-set that suffused the Labour establishment. According to this mind-set, the appropriate response to losing an election is not to do a better job of making your party’s arguments, nor to do a better job of coming up with convincing alternatives that embody what your party stands for, but to do a better job of imitating the party that just beat you.

Those who thought of this as ‘realism’ thought of themselves as the heirs to New Labour, but this did New Labour a disservice. Whatever you felt about it, once upon a time, New Labour had worked. Some combination of Blair’s talent for summoning up conviction on demand, Brown’s brute cunning and the times in which they found themselves made it a formidable operation, until the men at the heart of it spun off into various flavours of self-delusion. But if Blair and Brown had been the Gallagher brothers of Brit Pop politics, the current Labour frontbench was a dodgy Oasis tribute act. The tunes might be the same, only if you thought they were going to wow an audience, you hadn’t really grasped how this works.

Harsh? Sure, but this matters, because it was the backdrop against which Corbyn’s leadership campaign started to make sense to far more people than even he could have expected.

4. An unexpected legacy

Let’s just say the Corbyn thing worked out. We’ll come to how this happened, but one consequence was to recast the Miliband legacy.

He became the leader whose reform of the way that Labour chooses its leaders paved the way for one of the great transformations in the party’s history. And there was a certain poetic justice to this, because inside the conflicted soul of Ed Miliband, there was a politician who wanted to be in the place where Corbyn now found himself, riding a wave of networked radicalism.

But in truth, it was a piece of luck. A reform designed to solve one problem accidentally solved another: the great conundrum of British politics, south of the Tweed, as of 2015. Like most other western democracies, a strange insurgent political energy was bubbling up from below the surface of politics as we had known it. But how could this energy ever break through in a parliamentary system locked up by first-past-the-post?

The solution was to take over one of the existing big parties — and Miliband’s legacy was to create the conditions under which this could happen.

5. The Return of (Groucho) Marxism

If it took Miliband’s reforms to make it possible, it took a candidate like Corbyn to realise that possibility. The day that nominations closed, he told an interviewer he was standing because ‘It was my turn.’ As Diane Abbott and John McDonnell had carried the standard of the Labour left in previous contests, he had been persuaded to do so this time around.

His lack of ambition was palpable — and this turned out to be his attraction. Here was the rarest thing, a politician with no hunger for power. The sincerity of this was unfakeable, backed up by the evidence of thirty years’ unfashionable dedication to his principles. (Another kind of left-winger — the roguish kind, a Livingstone or a Galloway — would not have had this effect.)

Well beyond the natural constituency of a politician with his views, there was an appetite for this, a kind of electoral version of the Marxist theory of clubs: ‘I don’t care to vote for any candidate who is after my vote.’

Meanwhile, as they tacked leftwards in response to Corbyn’s unexpected appeal, the other candidates seemed to embody that other Marxist dictum: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’

6. Occupy the Party

As the newspaper columnists woke up to what was happening, they reached for easy historical parallels. Among the most popular was the Militant tendency, the Trotskyite group whose entryist tactics saw them expelled from the Labour party in the 1980s.

The comparison reflects a failure to understand how the world had changed in the intervening decades. A takeover might be under way, but it was of an entirely different kind.

Militant was a party-within-a-party, a Marxist sect with an ideological leader, hierarchical, disciplined in its tactics, wedded to its own ‘correct analysis’. It belonged to another era, an era in which you met someone who told you a totally different story of how the world worked to anything you’d ever heard, gave you a newspaper and invited you to a meeting. An era in which almost the only way to develop and sustain a critique of the society in which you had grown up was to adhere to an alternative orthodoxy, a support group of people who schooled you in a different way of making sense of the world.

This mode of politicisation belonged to an era in which Google and Wikipedia were unimaginable. You had no way of checking or filtering the information and analysis on offer from your new friends, little chance of exploring and developing it. The experience resembled joining an evangelical sect.

The survivors of these sects may have got excited by the Corbyn surge, but the character of the surge was quite different: it resembled the waves of networked disruption that first broke into view in the events of 2011. This was not a stealthy entryist takeover, years in the planning, it was a spontaneous movement to Occupy the Labour party, a suggestion taken up with an energy that took everyone by surprise. Such networks are like a mood in action, a rolling conversation that gathers momentum and brings the boundaries of possibility into question.

One of the characteristics of such a network is that it learns, experiments, adapts. In Greece, Spain and Scotland, the energy of the network had already evolved from the horizontalist purity of 2011 into a series of experiments in interfacing with the top-down forms of institutional politics. On each occasion, this had happened rapidly and unexpectedly. Now, it seemed to be happening again.

7. After all the wild words

So much for the events leading up to Corbyn’s election and how they came to look in hindsight. Now the hard part: what had to happen after September 12th, for this not to turn out to be the disaster so widely forecast?

The new leader had to reach out to three different groups: a parliamentary party that would never have chosen him in a million years, the movement of members and supporters that he had enthused, and the wider electorate.

After all the wild words that had been thrown at his campaign, he had to claim the ground of common sense and pragmatism. Opposition to austerity was not some revolutionary project: it was a position backed by some of the world’s best-known economists, Nobel laureates among them. A government’s finances don’t work like the finances of a household — and yes, this is harder to explain than the ‘maxed-out credit card’ story that the Conservatives had been offering for the past five years, but so far Labour had not even tried to counter this.

‘From now,’ he told them, ‘our job is to challenge austerity, to help people learn about how finances actually work and how the decisions that shape their lives are taken.’

To do this, we need to work with everyone who shares our desire for a fairer, more just and more liveable society. If Labour could join forces with the Tories and the Lib Dems to campaign for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, then we should be willing to work with other parties, social movements and groups within society to campaign for an alternative to austerity. That doesn’t mean we stop being the Labour party, or that we form electoral pacts that take away people’s chance of voting for a Labour MP, but we need to take up our responsibility as the largest and one of the oldest forces within a wider movement for social justice.

8. The MPs

The talk of an instant coup came to nothing: even the hardest Blairites could see it was suicide, and no one was really enthused by the prospect of importing another Miliband. But the parliamentary party was biding its time. Corbyn wasn’t their second choice of leader, he was their last choice, the leader no one had expected.

Meanwhile, another unexpected effect of his victory was the split between the Blairite true believers and the bulk of the party. While it prospered, New Labour had justified itself on the grounds of pragmatism: your heart might lie to the left, but your head accepted the need to move rightwards. When Blair said he wouldn’t want the party to win with Corbyn in charge, he revealed the unspeakable truth: that he would prefer a Tory government to what most still thought of as a ‘real’ Labour government. This surprised no one, yet now that it was spoken, the internal coalition on which New Labour had been built began to unravel.

As it became clear that, against everyone’s predictions, Corbyn was holding his own at Prime Minister’s Questions and establishing himself in the leadership, a couple of the true Blairites left parliament to spend more time with their careers. In the resulting byelections, with candidates drawn from the grassroots movement, rather than the party machine, Labour saw its majorities increase, and this steadied the party a little. Perhaps the new direction was not electoral suicide, after all.

A surprising number of MPs began to rediscover the reasons they had come into politics in the first place. The renewal of the parliamentary party would not be complete, though, until the arrival of the 2020 cohort. For the first time in a generation, it felt like Labour was represented in parliament by people who were recognisable to their voters, who had worked in ordinary jobs, been self-employed, knew what it was like to live on the minimum wage or to queue at the job centre.

9. The movement

Over the past weeks, tens of thousands of people have found a faith in politics, a faith they never had, or thought they had lost long ago. It is not a blind faith nor an unquestioning one, it is not dogmatic. At its root, it is a faith in each other, as human beings, that we are something more than just self-serving consumers.

The future of the Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership would depend on what happened next with the movement which had grown up around his candidacy. ‘The job of this movement is not over,’ he told them. ‘There are four and a half years until the next election. We can’t wait that long to start rebuilding society, we need to start today, in the places where we live.’

There were three things that needed doing, now, he went on.

First, to start conversations that went deeper than doorstep canvassing, those five million checkbox encounters that had amounted to so little in the general election campaign. Labour needed to listen to people, not just when they fed back the soundbite opinions circulating in the daily papers, but in spaces where they had room to reflect on their own experiences, and to start making sense of the forces shaping their lives. The task of creating those spaces started in people’s kitchens, in rooms above pubs, in empty units in shopping centres, with house parties, meet-ups or pizza nights. Members of the leader’s team would show up to these events, sometimes the leader himself, and party organisers helped find guests and speakers, people to get the conversations started and to carry ideas from one town to the next.

The second task was for members of this movement to get active in the places where they lived, offering practical help and support to those hit hardest by austerity. ‘There’s a word for this,’ Corbyn told them, ‘an old fashioned word: it’s called solidarity.’ This was a movement for a society where no one would need a food bank, but while food banks existed, its members were going to be there, alongside the people running them and the people dependent on them, because these were the people with whom society would be rebuilt.

The final task would be a voter registration campaign on a scale that Britain had never seen.

10. The voters

The panic and despair of the Labour establishment at Corbyn’s victory was based, more than anything, on their certainty that he could never deliver electoral success. (That the same people had been certain, two months earlier, that he could never succeed in the leadership election did not cause them to question this.)

What were the factors that proved them wrong? The effectiveness of the voter registration campaign — not only in getting people onto the electoral roll, but in generating a wider sense that, this time, voting would matter — was clearly part of the story.

But another part of it was the gap between the way the political establishment thought about voters and the messier reality of the voters themselves. Most people don’t have a political opinion or identity in the way that people who dedicate their lives to politics tend to think of these things. The left-right spectrum is irrelevant to them, not because they subscribe to any of the analyses used to argue that this frame is obsolete, but because the words just don’t mean much. What they do have is a gut-level feeling about the direction in which society is travelling and a trust in their own intuitive judgement about whether someone trying to persuade them of something believes the words coming out of his or her own mouth.

Mainstream politicians had tried to respond to UKIP by borrowing as much of their rhetoric of xenophobia as they could get away with. Just like Gordon Brown with Gillian Duffy, the assumption was that UKIP voters were bigots, it’s just that bigots had now been identified as a target demographic. Yet this was too simple an interpretation of UKIP’s support, which was rooted in a deeper, vaguer sense that things were headed in the wrong direction, had been headed that way for a long time, and that nothing these voters heard from the mainstream politicians seemed to acknowledge this or reflect the experience of their lives.

11. The obstacles

Among the reasons people wrote off the chances of Corbyn’s Labour was the hostility of the press. Yet so much ink had been thrown at Red Ed and his Britain-hating dad, there was no stronger vocabulary left with which to damn his successor, so the message that Labour was lurching dangerously leftwards just sounded like more of the same. Except that what viewers identified when watching Miliband was his awkwardness, the constant sense that he was trying to work out who you wanted him to be, whereas you could see that Corbyn knew who he was and was happy with it.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the shadows of the defence and intelligence communities, contingency plans must have been drawn up for the possibility of a prime minister committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from NATO. But whatever its calculations, there were no outward signs of the deep state moving against the Labour leader.

The other predictable source of hostility, big business and the City, was preoccupied with the fall-out of the second wave of the global financial crisis, which broke in the autumn of 2016. It was that October that Labour first took a clear lead in the polls. The party also benefited from the damage done to the Conservatives by the deepening paedophile scandal.

12. Back to the allotment

Of course, in the end, the people who said Jeremy Corbyn would never become prime minister turned out to be right.

In September 2018, in his conference speech, he announced his intention to step down as leader. The leadership campaign that followed could hardly live up to the drama of 2015, but it was historic for another reason, as it led to the election of Labour’s first woman leader. Three years earlier, when she was among the backbenchers elected to Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet, few would have identified her as on the left of the party, but the platform on which she stood combined the anti-austerity commitments of her predecessor with a pledge to reform the electoral system.

As for Corbyn himself, he was only too happy to leave the despatch box and get back to his allotment.

13. Beyond a nostalgia for social democracy

It is August 2015, it’s getting close to six in the morning, and this is a story a man has been telling himself to see if it sounds believable.

Does it even come close? I’m not sure.

I can convince myself that there is a movement happening that could go far beyond the leadership contest, that the reach of the kind of politics Corbyn represents could go a lot wider than those who identify as on the left, and that a Labour party that confidently made alternative arguments would have a decent chance of reshaping political debate, despite the hostility of the media. (A hostility that hardly goes away if the party tries to play it safe, instead.) The hardest part is imagining the parliamentary party coming together around a Corbyn leadership, or at least giving it a chance.

At the level of political ideas, despite a lot of what’s being written, Corbyn’s platform hardly comes across as ‘hard left’. (For comparison, try watching this televised debate with Militant from 1982, where Peter Taaffe declares that Labour should nationalise 80–85% of the economy and ‘introduce a socialist plan of production’.)

What I do get from his campaign is a distinct flavour of ‘the Scooby-Doo theory of neoliberalism’: the idea that, if it hadn’t been for those meddling neoliberals (Friedman, Thatcher, Reagan, Blair), we could have got away with a social democratic end of history. That way of thinking always feels like it gives its enemies too much credit, makes them masters of events, rather than the opportunists that they were. Neoliberalism today is hollower than it appears, but that doesn’t mean we know what an equivalent of social democracy looks like for a world of international capital and networked individuals — or what an equivalent of social democracy looks like that knows how to include the people crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats and climbing fences at Calais.

These are hard questions, but the space in which we can articulate them and think carefully about them seems to be opening up. Whatever else comes of the Corbyn surge, it should help to enlarge that space.

The most encouraging thing I’ve noticed in his campaign is the crowdsourcing of policy ideas: 1,200 people contributed to theNorthern Future document. This has to be better than a policy-making process concentrated among the London-based thinktanks and inner circles populated by PPE graduates who have never worked anywhere beyond Westminster. It seems like the best chance for developing the principles of those supporting Corbyn into a policy platform that is not simply nostalgic for the golden age of social democracy. And it’s how Landon Kettlewell would make policy, if he took over Labour.

14. The reality-based community

There’s one other line that’s been ringing in my head as I read the churn of comment pieces, the phrase that Karl Rove used to Ron Suskind. ‘Guys like you,’ he said, ‘are in what we call the reality-based community.’ For many, it summed up the delusions of the Bush regime, and belonging to the reality-based community became a badge of pride. But I always thought that Rove had half a point, when he made that distinction between those who study reality and those who create it.

The alarmed voices of the Labour establishment surely think of themselves as the reality-based community. The panic grows as they find those enthused by Corbyn are seemingly immune to reasoned arguments. But reality is complex, it isn’t just composed of facts, those facts are always entangled with perceptions, and with stories that shape those perceptions. A lot of the reality to which Labour’s realists are currently appealing is made up almost entirely of perception, since its facts consist of the results of opinion surveys and focus groups. It’s worth asking whether these methods borrowed from the market research industry really plumb the depths of the electorate, or even its shallows. Not to mention, at what point perceptions that have become dislocated from the facts get to overrule them, whether in relation to the effectiveness of austerity or the impact of immigration.

Another chunk of the reality to which the realists are appealing consists of stories. For a story to work, it needs to show a certain respect to the facts involved, but there will often be more than one story that fits the facts. When Polly Toynbee writes that her heart lies to the left of Corbyn, but the 1983 election result tells her this would be futile, she is invoking what has been the definitive story of Labour’s wilderness years and its return to power under Blair, the story of ‘the longest suicide note in history’. Other stories are available, though, including one which might mention that, when the Tories took the seat of Lewisham East from Labour at the 1983 election by a margin of 1,909, they were helped by the 9,351 votes polled by the breakaway SDP, whose candidate was Polly Toynbee.

15. You get one chance

It’s nearly time for breakfast. I’ve been practicing like this, the last few mornings, because I want to believe that there is a constructive insurgency going on, a wave of networked disruption that will renew the Labour party, remind it why it exists and open up the politics of the country where I did my growing up. I want to believe that the party can take this and not just tear itself apart.

Give me a few more days, maybe I’ll have got enough practice.

Meanwhile, here’s one thing I am sure of: if Corbyn doesn’t win, there will never be another chance for a grassroots surge of this kind within the Labour party. The system for electing a leader will be reformed all over again, the gap that Miliband opened will be sealed and the control of the parliamentary party reasserted. And perhaps the result will be that the pendulum of politics continues to swing jerkily from blue to red and back again, as if by some ahistorical force of nature, but my hunch is that the gap between the reality talked about by politicians and the realities of people’s lives will continue to grow, the pressure will continue to build, and sooner or later it will find a way to break through the cracks of the existing system. Since I’m writing this from Sweden, which many of you still think of as the spiritual home of social democracy, let me remind you how ugly that can look.

First published on my old blog, the week that Jeremy Corbyn took the lead in polls for the 2015 Labour party leadership election.