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Understanding Jeremy Corbyn’s support

440px-Jeremy_CorbynIs Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour leadership pack? According to unattributed private polling, yes he is. As we know, polls are never wrong. But what is undeniable is the mass support his candidacy is attracting, and some people are starting to get a touch worried. Yet where has this groundswell of support come from, and what’s driving it? Is the influx of Trots and Tories to blame?

1. In common with quite a lot of Labour Party members, I’m a socialist. And I believe that policy and the machinery of government can ameliorate social evils, restructure economies, and empower people to take charge of their own lives. Something that’s the opposite of this. For a long time people who share these views have learned self-denying ordinance. It was apparently necessary to avoid appearing too left in every election since 1997 in order to win.

This situation got particularly irksome over the last five years because, formally speaking, Labour had identified inequality as a social problem and austerity as a counterproductive policy response to the economic crisis. Despite this, time and again, for every progressive position adopted a regressive one was also dropped in. Labour tried to make weather on some issues, and submitted to the prevailing winds on the other. Harriet Harman’s tax credit debacle summed this situation up perfectly.

After years of watching Labour governments that left much of the Thatcherite settlement intact, and not winning twice on the terrain of “sensible” politics, there are many Labour members who are pissed off. They know from the experience in Scotland that anti-austerity politics can be electorally attractive. They know from speaking to former Labour people up and down the country that many feel the party doesn’t care about people like them any more – giving the likes of UKIP (and worse) an opening into the mainstream. And they believe – rightly – that the job of the opposition to pose an alternative choice to the Tories at election time. Why vote for austerity-lite when one of the parties will give you the real deal?

The Corbyn campaign condenses all these frustrations and combines it with the hope for something better. It’s not that supporters don’t care about winning power in 2020 – they do. But they think getting into a race to the bottom on immigration and beggar-thy-neighbour is not the way to win power again. If the Labour right wants to win these members over – and I assume they do – they need to understand this, because badging more of the same as ‘electorally credible’ won’t wash.

2. The Labour Party is a proletarian party. Thrust those images of flat caps, whippets, and blast furnaces out of your mind. A proletarian is someone who has to work for a living – they rent out their ability to labour under the direction of an employer for X amount of hours and receives a wage or salary in return. As a vanishingly tiny minority own enough capital and property to live off, this is the lot of the overwhelming majority of people not just in Britain, but in advanced industrial societies everywhere. It’s a social category far wider than the archetypal industrial worker that has animate political fantasies past and present – it takes in people from all manner of occupations, all kinds of incomes, all skill levels, all ranges of conditions of work. It is a messy mass of people who, understandably, are closely related to the bulk of retirees (former proletarians) and people who depend on social security (occasional/semi-proletarians, family members who cannot work).

The labour movement and the Labour Party are expressions of that section of this class who have banded together around common interests, such as securing better pay and better conditions at work, the provision of public services, and so on. It is not a movement of angels. Many of the prejudices of and conflicts between different sections of this class also find life within the movement. Therefore as a proletarian party Labour is not a pure organisation that clearly expresses the short, medium, and long term interests of proletarians in general. Rather it aggregates them as they are.

Attacking public sector pay or social security, for instance, is definitely not in their interests but sometimes appears to be. Blaming immigrant workers for lowering pay is also a concern, even though everywhere and at all times it’s the decision of employers that are to blame. And so on. Therefore the mish-mash of policies adopted in the manifesto reflect the uneasy, disparate unity the party rests on. It’s not just a matter of weak MPs capitulating to media hobby horses.

It’s not all negative though. Occasionally the Labour Part refracts the common interests of its constituency as well, interests best served by policies that promote security and thatdefend what’s left of the welfare state. Yes, as a contradictory social body Labour is quite capable of pursuing policies whose logics are at odds with one another – sometimes simultaneously, and sometimes within the same policy. What the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn’s candidature represents is a more or less expresses those interests attacked by austerity, undermined by torrents of media bile, traduced and slandered by leading politicians of all parties. Little wonder that he’s so far cleaning up where affiliated union nominations are concerned. The lesson here is if you press down on interests you find politically inconvenient, they will still find a way.

3. Movement’s don’t just happen, they always have a precipitating factor, a flash point that sets things into motion. And #JezWeCan has two. The first is the aforementioned austerity: the prospect of a five year long assault on our movement and everything it stands for. Then there are the other Labour leadership candidates. Cast your mind back two months when there were still five in the field. How did they acquit themselves in the immediate aftermath of the general election? We heard that Labour lost because it was insufficiently pro-business. Because we were too left wing. Because we’d vacated the centre ground. Because we dismissed people’s aspirations. Because we were too soft on the deficit and debt. It does make you wonder what manifesto these would-be leaders stood on – none of these criticisms stack up. Ah, but it’s the vibes we gave off apparently. Nevertheless I was very annoyed to find crass and simplistic explanations straight out of the 1997 how-to manual getting bandied about as if there were truths relevant for everywhere at all times.

I wasn’t the only one who was annoyed. Tens of thousands of other Labour Party members and supporters were too. Until Jeremy got his name on the ballot paper, many were distinctly unenthused and indifferent to the outcome – the deputy leadership contest was starting to look more interesting. Is it any surprising then that those of left, and some not so left persuasions, have grasped the Corbyn campaign with some alacrity?

Perhaps if Liz Kendall wasn’t so unreconstructed in her so-called “modernism” that some wouldn’t have been frightened into Jez’s arms? Maybe if Andy Burnham had avoided being slippery about his London accommodation arrangements, and stopped bigging up Labour’s spending record in one breath and attacking it in the next. There is certainly an element of anyone-but-this-pair in Jeremy’s support, and it’s something that Yvette Cooper – who has the most coherent centre left campaign among the “sensible candidates” – has had problems intersecting with. Nevertheless Jeremy’s presence has forced the candidates to tack moderately to the left. All have denounced Dave’s plans for unions, and all but Liz saw how immoral and politically stupid backing benefit caps and tax credits cuts were. Had they not tilted that way, there’s a very good chance Team Jez could be doing even better.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid


  1. jeffrey davies says:

    hum you say 2020 but whot if those ninty nine percent who aint rich show they dont want anymore of the tories then theyd have to go jeff3

  2. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    The mere fact that he hasn’t taken any and every opportunity to supplement his already, (by most people’s standards,) adequate to generous MP’s salary with various essentially criminal and otherwise morally delinquent financial shenanigans has done him little harm in my book either.

  3. Russell says:

    Corbyn’s campaign has tapped into a pent up demand for democratic socialist policies after 20 years of neo-liberal economics and a previous 2 decades of monetarism. He is drawing people back to the party.

    1. John P Reid says:

      And drawing more away

      1. Chris says:

        Is he?

  4. David Pavett says:

    The fact that labour rests on a base of people who must sell their labour power in order to live is one thing. But it is a simplistic sort Marxism that then deduces from from the contradictory tendencies within that social class the contradictions of Labour policy. The existence of those tendencies provides the formal possibility of their simultaneous expression in Labour policies. It does not necessitate it.

    The detailed form of political expression cannot be deduced from the underlying economic and social base. The proof is that the contradictory tendencies hardly expressed themselves in the Blair years because of the supression of the socialist elements and sentiments within the Party.

    Blairism was rooted in the acceptance of neo-liberal values and the rejection of socialism and even the aspiration of real social equality. The Party was remodelled in the light of the precepts of neo-liberalism (that’s how we got Jerks like Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna in the Shadow Cabinet).

    So, there is no reason why Labour should not remodel itself again in the light of the sort of values esposed by Jeremy Corbyn. For that to be possible, though, those values would needs to be articulated in a clear and detailed way and that is something that has not happened yet.

    Miliband tried to shake off Blairism without articulating a clear alternative and for that reason remained its prisoner.

    The difuse, confused, theoretically barren, oppotunist accomodation with ruling class values is the stock-in-trade of Labour/Social Democratic parties across Europe but there is no reason in principle why one or more of them should nit break with this tradition and start to develop a clear left voice. Could Labour do that? I never expected it but political life is full of surprises.

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