You know that dark cloud shading into fascist brown accumulating above the White House? It’s pretty frightening, so it’s entirely normal and expected for some to (desperately?) discern a silver tinge its edges. One of them is superstar economist Yanis Varoufakis, who suggests Trump’s election signals a new wave of change. Coming from a similar, but decidedly non-Marxist standpoint, Robert Skidlesky reckons there is some progressive potential in ‘Trumpism’. A Keynesian kernel in a racist, bigoted shell, one might say. Another variant of comment looking for a hint of sunnier times to come, leap on the discrediting of the opinion polls and the mess our politics and economics are in. And that is the line of argument suggesting the Labour Party could well sweep to power at the next general election.
You should look to the future with optimism, but always temper it with intellect. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out. Liam Young, writing for the Indy puts forward quite a simple thesis. Economic dislocation gave us Trump (though, as with most things, it’s complex), therefore it could help the left too. Because people are fed up with established politics, an insurgency from the left can be just as successful. Stated baldly like that, yes it can. Though, no doubt due to reasons of space, Liam doesn’t offer any deeper analysis. Just an exhortation for us to ride the wave or get swamped by it.
There are a few things worth remembering. The rising tide of populism has two legs. The first, which the left are more familiar with seeing as they’re increasingly drawn from it, is the growing mass of networked workers. Long atomised and repelled by an establishment politics of technocratic managerialism, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the summit of Labour is an outcome of them moving into the party in large numbers. Considering membership was stubbornly stuck and the activist base wasn’t getting any younger, the surge of new members and support has already saved the party from PASOK-style oblivion. Not that Jeremy will ever get any thanks for it. As argued previously, our hope lies in continually recruiting from and encouraging the many millions of networked workers to get involved in politics, deepening the alliance between the existent labour movement and the emergent layers. Hence the importance of the Corbynist party/social movement conception that’s got a few knickers in a twist.
That, however, isn’t all there is. The processes that have created this layer of workers and are lifting them to prominence is the same that has cut a swathe of deindustrialisation through the advanced nations. For every newly integrated and networked worker, there are others that have been discarded and left to fend for themselves – the so-called left-behinds of many a hand-wringing op-ed. Meanwhile, the uncertainty this results disproportionately excites and antagonises middling layers who, by virtue of their class locations, feel keenly the cutting wind of status anxiety as it buffets our economies. UKIP, as the party condensing, displacing, sublimating these fears is the opposite expression of the same dynamics underpinning Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. UKIP definitely is not a working class party, but in many Labour-held constituencies it has become the default choice for the anti-Labour sections of our people. Though that could all change thanks to Theresa May’s One Nation turn.
The key to making inroads here, and also into Tory-supporting working class and middling voters elsewhere is the sense of self-security. Despite Tory politics having exactly the opposite effect, Dave well knew this was his best bet of pulling off a governing majority. It was embarrassing, but the ad nauseum repetitions of strong leadership, the long-term economic plan, the Conservatives’ five-point plan for sorting out your local council, and talking up Labour/SNP coalition chaos, the abolition of Trident, and so on worked. Contrary to the self-serving diagnoses of the time, it had sod all to do with “aspiration”. To win, this is the nut Labour has to crack. Perversely, the messier it gets, the more it may favour the Tories. We failed in 2015 because Labour wasn’t interested in occupying this ground, and so looked unconvincing as it danced around it with pledges for more housing and controls on immigration. In one sense, our current leadership understands this where economics are concerned and, reluctantly, they are right that Labour cannot be seen to be thwarting the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Yet the emerging economic programme, which takes a tough line of deficit spending but has something to offer the new working class and the old, and the self-employed, and therefore makes a good fist at offering security-in-work is undercut by the leader’s well-known views on pacifism and unilateral nuclear disarmament. If anxiety and ontological insecurity is powering the populism that has so far found expression on the right, this is a problem for the forging of an insurgent coalition from the left.
I don’t know how this can be overcome short of a hugely damaging exposure of Tory incompetence over Brexit (not beyond the realms of possibility) or May’s entanglement in an unpopular war, or something that destroys the perception of their governing credibility a la the 1992 ERM debacle, constant infighting, and the drip, drip of sleaze. Meanwhile we still have our own problems of disunity, albeit more restrained these days, and we have to repair the damage a summer of whingeing and shenanigans inflicted. Let there then be no illusions, if we want to make sure the next big upset after the election of Donald Trump is victory with an overall majority for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, a lot of hard work and hard thinking has to be done. Now is not the time for the comfort blankets.