Labour has formed a coalition of chaos among its own membership and voters.
Jeremy Corbyn has outstripped expectations. Recovering from a double-digit poll lag, Corbyn’s Labour Party managed to narrow the gap with Theresa May’s Conservative Party to two percent in June 8th’s general election. Polls now show a Labour lead whilst Corbyn addresses enamoured crowds. Although the main story of the election was the Tories’ worst campaign in at least a century, some of Labour’s increased support (in votes, vote share, and seats) stemmed from a popular manifesto and the appeal of Corbyn himself. The sources of Labour’s quasi-success (they remain 64 seats shy of a majority) will also cause serious problems. Labour’s 3 million new votes came from young people, who had largely previously abstained or been ineligible, a sizeable minority of former UKIP voters, and a smattering of Greens and Liberal Democrats.
This is, in hindsight, unsurprising. UKIP is now pointless. Its supporters inevitably ‘returned home’. UKIPpers were largely poached from Labour and the Tories, so it makes sense that their support would be carved up roughly proportionately (around 75% to the Tories and 25% to Labour, setting aside a significant number of non-voters). Despite its origins as a right wing or even libertarian party, UKIP was a ‘catch-all’ populist nationalist party that did not fit neatly (let alone coherently) on an economic right-left spectrum. Although the Conservatives could have attracted more of these voters, the toxicity of the Tory brand and a dreadful campaign ensured there was a ceiling to Tory Leaver-gains.
It is not shocking that young people voted for the party that bothered to engage with and offer something to them. Although the promise to scrap tuition fees was popular, it also mattered that Corbyn actually made the effort to speak to them and that Labour actively sought their votes, whilst the Tories did not. Following uneven austerity in an ageing society, many young people feel short changed. Traditional Tory vote-winners (prioritising pensions, house prices, and tax cuts) are a difficult sell to people with lower incomes, no pensions, and seemingly no prospect of home-ownership. This was exacerbated by the ‘strategy’ of watering down the usual Tory carrots, leaving only sticks, Brexit, and something about a tree.
The right face an uphill battle persuading people without capital to be capitalists. Whilst the Conservatives attempted to deal with the inequitability of a welfare system that prioritises age over need, they did so in a ham-fisted, clumsy, and equally inequitable manner. Fair proposals (e.g. scrapping winter fuel allowance) were subsumed by the furore over the ill-conceived, arbitrary dementia tax. It turns out it’s not a particularly clever strategy to take things away from the elderly without actually offering anything to the young.
Do Labour supporters know what they voted for?
It is surprising that Labour managed to attract both demographics, and retain the 37% of 2015 Labour voters who backed Leave, under the shadow of Brexit. The expected Remain-Leave polarisation failed to truly materialise. This was partly because the Liberal Democrats fought an uninspired campaign shackled to an uninteresting leader who was wobbly on the issue of sex between consenting adults. The fallout from the 2010-15 Coalition is apparently still an issue, particularly for ‘betrayed’ former students.
Primarily, though, the Brexit-election-that-wasn’t came from Labour’s artful fudge over their position. In terms of actual policy, Labour’s stance is not ambiguous. The only genuine distinction between Labour and the Tories is over whether ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, a difference which is fading given the post-election rebalancing of power between May and the less quixotic members of her cabinet. Given Labour favours ending freedom of movement, any purported commitment to single market membership is utterly hollow. You would be forgiven for being unaware of this if you listened to Corbyn’s rhetoric on ‘trade’, ‘jobs’, ‘openness’, and ‘rights of migrants’. Many voters believed a ‘Labour Brexit’ would be considerably ‘softer’ than it actually would be. This veneer will be hard to maintain. Corbyn has already ordered his MPs to abstain on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech that would have committed the government to keeping the UK in the single market, and has sacked three front-benchers who defied him.
It is worth placing this in a broader context. Labour’s manifesto does not remotely reflect Corbyn’s actual views. Setting aside foreign policy, defence, and the monarchy, the manifesto was essentially a fusion of populism with Miliband-esque social democracy and soft-dirigisme. This is a significant departure from Corbyn’s Bennite views and the Marxism of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
Corbyn has also progressively abandoned the commitment to civil liberties that was formerly a major plank of his cherished principles. Corbyn’s reputation as a Parliamentary rebel stemmed largely from his opposition to New Labour’s draconian anti-terror legislation. Once he was leader this somehow evolved into Labour being whipped to abstain and allow passage of May’s Snooper’s Charter. Connecting the recent Manchester and London terror attacks to austerity should be seen in the same light. Whilst smart electorally, it suggests a Corbyn government would expand, rather than rollback, the securocracy of surveillance, police powers, and detention without trial. The media’s obsession with Corbyn’s apparent weakness on security means this drift has been (and will continue to be) unchecked and under-criticised.
Back to the 70s
Corbyn’s antipathy towards globalism and the EU is not such a capitulation. It is entirely in line with his less-emphasised beliefs. Whilst Corbyn’s old-school socialism is cosmopolitan in principle, it is inward looking and anti-international in practise. He voted to leave the EEC in 1975, and voted against the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, on the basis that the EEC/EU was a club for capitalist conspirators. He comes from an intellectual tradition of scepticism towards trade and migration. Whilst he uses the humanitarian language of ‘exploitation’, Corbyn shares the UKIP-Trump view of economic migrants as stealing jobs and undercutting wages. Escaping the EU’s competition laws and state aid rules may be necessary for Labour’s nationalisation program.
Corbyn has not compromised with Labour moderates or liberals, but with UKIP and the reactionary communitarianism of ‘Blue Labour’ (an anti-globalist chauvinistic version of social democracy). Combined with Corbyn’s unabated strident opposition to neoliberalism and his rhetoric of optimistic idealism, this manoeuvre has allowed Labour to appeal to sections of society with radically different values and interests.
Whatever deal is made with the EU the UK has an uncertain future. If the UK is not part of the single market and customs union, what trade deals will it pursue with, with which countries? Would it accept freedom of movement as the price of accessing Indian service markets? If the UK got ‘partial’ single market membership, losing passporting rights in exchange for restricting freedom of movement, would a future Labour government renegotiate in the interests of the despised City? How would Labour react to a less multicultural, more insular, more patriotic society that younger metropolitans find stifling and older working class voters find comforting? Would manufacturing be promoted and protected at the expense of services? These are difficult questions for any government, but especially for one who would ‘betray’ swathes of its supporters regardless of its choice.
Vladimir, John, and Jeremy
The fact that no demographic is a homogenous bloc further muddies Labour’s waters. For many, Corbyn and Labour’s actual policies were an irrelevance. Given the deeply entrenched tribalism of UK politics, both Labour (yay red team) and the Tories (yay blue team) will automatically secure around 25-30% of the vote. For others, any apparent shift to the left would be sufficient, especially following 7 years of Tory governance. Some young people were simply voting in their perceived interests. Others had idealistic motives.
Even among Labour’s ideological supporters there are deep divisions under the surface of Corbynmania. There is a significant divide between ‘Leninists’ and ‘Lennonists’. The Leninists, who define Momentum, are dyed-in-the-wool true believers in socialism. This group is itself fractured, and includes a wide spectrum of Post-War Consensus enthusiasts, libertarian socialists, various regressive left sub-genres, Trotskyites, and even Stalinists. The Lennonists are cosmopolitan idealists who, whilst keen for a stronger welfare state and a fairer society, are social democrats or liberals who would have supported Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, or Emmanuel Macron with the same fervour they show for Corbyn.
Many Lennonists are simply unaware of the extent of Corbyn’s radicalism, let alone the sordidness of his closest allies. I suspect this stems from the media crying wolf so often, describing people like Ed Miliband as Britain-hating communists, that saying that Corbyn is surrounded by autocracy enthusiasts sounds too obscene to be true. Conversely, the Leninists, well aware of Corbyn’s history and associations, are holding out for his radicalism to become more apparent. They might not be disappointed. Corbyn’s mask of moderation occasionally slips, revealing extremist tendencies. McDonnell’s stated disdain for Parliamentary democracy suggests Labour will not be restrained by a manifesto.
The future of a confusion
It is unclear how long this ramshackle coalition can hold. For the foreseeable future it will be easy to rally opposition to an unstable government. The Conservatives will continue to struggle with the fallout from the Grenfell disaster. More unforced Tory errors and infighting relating to Brexit and leadership challenges are likely. ‘Strong and stable’, ‘coalition of chaos’, and ‘magic money tree’ have taken on new meanings following the £1billion price tag of the DUP’s support. If an election were held tomorrow Corbyn would probably be Prime Minister, albeit at the head of a minority government or clown-car-multi-party-coalition. Nevertheless, Corbynism is squatting on a time bomb of irreconcilable visions of Britain’s future.
Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh