- Editorial:critical times
The September 2016 re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, with a renewed and increased mandate, was a significant political event, which should not be overshadowed by recent electoral successes by the populist right. On the contrary, these successes make it all the more important to understand the challenges facing the left. It is crucial that we succeed in making connections with an electorate that appears to be turning away from the left as represented by the old social democratic establishment. This is particularly important in the harsh context of the increasingly hard-right political project that is being mainstreamed in the rhetoric of Theresa May and her government. That this mainstreaming of the hard right is being constituted through relations between figures such as Farage, Trump and Marine Le Pen makes it all the more urgent to analyse and contest the terms on which it is gaining ground.
Corbyn’s re-election confirmed that Labour cannot retreat from the challenge that his 2015 election made to the terms of post-crisis politics. But it also prompts reflection on his political discourse, as well as that of his leadership challenger Owen Smith - and, more widely, on the current possibilities for articulating a left progressive politics in Britain. This editorial makes a brief assessment of these.
It became clear during the leadership contest that neither the left nor right of the Labour Party is really engaging with the detailed work of developing a coherent narrative and agenda for a left politics in the post-crisis conjuncture, as envisioned in texts such as the Kilburn Manifesto.
The paucity of ideas coming from the Labour right is perhaps not that surprising. Their position is structured by an assumption that a few minor modifications can offer an easy route back to power: a little bit more credibility on the economy here, a bit of tougher rhetoric on immigration there - all, of course, without going as far as the ‘mean Tories’. Yet November’s presidential election surely dispelled any still lingering faith in the viability of the Blair/Clinton triangulation approach. Such a politics fails to recognise how significantly the political terrain has shifted: there can [End Page 4] be no return to an (old) new Labour script.
Yet instead of seeking to understand the reasons behind Corbyn’s election(s), and the broad support for him among the membership, large sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party have continued to treat it as a temporary aberration. This is what led them into the self-destructive leadership challenge after the referendum, which had the effect of drawing scrutiny away from the Conservatives at a critical juncture. For all the talk about ‘electability’, the actions of many figures in the Labour Party establishment indicate that they are perhaps most haunted by the spectre of a Corbyn victory in 2020, and will continue to actively undermine his leadership.
The absence of a stronger analysis and political project and narrative emerging from the left around Corbyn is more concerning. There have certainly been some signs of ideas that might become articulated as a coherent project, including some interesting thinking around the economy, and an attempt to draw on intellectual perspectives that offer an alternative to neoliberalism. For example there are some important emerging ideas about public ownership, and for challenges to some of the causes of precarity. But the most exciting thing about Corbyn’s election and reelection remains the political space that it opens up for thinking about alternatives. And it is crucial that the broader left engages with and attempts to shape this political space.
One way in which these emerging ideas could be developed is through a clearer articulation of how they can resonate with resentments and aspirations at the level of lived experience and common sense. There are certainly political openings here, and areas where there is broad support for alternative ways of doing things. Two key examples are the widespread support that exists for re-nationalising the railways, and the significant popular antipathy to the marketisation of the National Health Service. A strong focus on these issues could help to mobilise support for a Labour alternative. (And although...