Does Labour need a functional means to lead rather than fight the Corbyn effect?

 Apart from recommending Turgon’s corrective to the UK’s misremembered (and highly politicised) recent past, Matthew D’Ancona’s comparison between Trump and Corbyn throws another compelling perspective on history and time in the digital era:

The structure of western politics is in radical transition. In May, the British general election was won in the most conventional manner imaginable. As Blair had warned in an interview with the Economist in January, it proved to be an election “in which a traditional leftwing party competes with a traditional rightwing party, with the traditional result”.

Yet alongside this conventional system a quite different form of politics is emerging, with a quite different structure. To borrow the jargon of semiotics, it is “synchronic” (cross-sectional) rather than “diachronic” (part of a serial narrative, with a before and after). It is governed by what Martin Luther King, in a very different context, called “the fierce urgency of now”. It recognises that today’s voters are the children of the digital Big Bang, bombarded with an unprecedented blitz of information, data and noise.

They exist in bubbles of digital mayhem, less bothered by the future and the past than by getting through life moment to moment. Their universe is defined by the immediate and the deafening data stream. The contents of that stream are not ideologically coherent but they are identifiable. Corbyn, for instance, speaks to the fear that global capitalism, for all its success, has made serfs of us all, no longer citizens but the puppets of planetary corporations that are accountable to none.

And this:

History did end, but not the way that Francis Fukuyama meant. It was simply absorbed into an all-encompassing present. “Our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid,” says Trump. The candidates who will succeed are those who intuit what is bothering the electorate at that particular moment, who seem to empathise and who promise to ease the worst aspects of modernity’s pressures while exploiting all of its tools to full effect.

In the Babel of the digital nanosecond, voters are driven less by pristine moral imperatives than by the crushing weight of the immediate and of proximate stimuli. Successful politicians of tomorrow will be those who stretch out a hand and offer an analgesic. That’s why Corbyn is winning. He understands that the axiom of our era is not “Lest we forget” but “Make it stop”.

Talk to anyone involved in serious constructive politics anywhere in the West, and this is their abiding problem. It doesn’t mean to say that Corbyn and Trump are by any means the same quantity, but that in some quarters disgruntlement is replacing ambition as the primary motivator of mass audience.

Alistair Campbell provides some much needed perspective from outside the current Labour bubble, on how that generally works:

I am beginning to fear that Mr Cameron, surely the least strategic Prime Minister of our lifetime, is beginning to pass Napoleon’s test for generals by being the luckiest. He told his wife on the morning after the 2010 election that he feared they would not after all be moving into Downing Street. Five days later, helped by Nick Clegg, he was there. Five years on, he left Downing Street staff in little doubt that he thought they would be having a new boss after the election.

But the fear among the non-committed, who ultimately decide elections, that a Miliband-led minority coalition propped up by the SNP would not represent stable or effective government, allied to the Tories winning the politics of the economy because of what the Guardian’s Larry Elliot today rightly called the ‘catastrophic misjudgement’ of failing to rebut the idea Labour caused the crash, was enough to get Cameron over the line.

The  problem is that Campbell is not running, and as the contest has gone the grey middle aged man from the Tory heartland of Wiltshire has been providing all the colour  in this campaign. So much so that the latest YouGov poll is suggesting that the game is already over.

 Simon Wren Lewis, (channeling Buckmeister Fuller?) argues that regardless of the result Labour must get over its managerialist timidity:

Whether Corbyn wins or loses, Labour MPs and associated politicos have to recognise that his popularity is not the result of entryism, or some strange flight of fancy by Labour’s quarter of a million plus members, but a consequence of the political strategy and style that lost the 2015 election. They should reflect that if they are so sure they know what will win elections, how come they failed to predict the Corbyn phenomenon. 

A large proportion of the membership believe that Labour will not win again by accepting the current political narrative on austerity or immigration or welfare or inequality and offering only marginal changes to current government policy. On economic policy in particular they need to offer reasons for voters to believe that there are alternatives to the current status quo of poor quality jobs, deteriorating public services and infrastructure, and growing poverty alongside gross inequality at the top. 

That means, whether he wins or loses, working with the Corbyn phenomenon rather than dismissing it.



  • chrisjones2

    The problem for Labour surely is that they remain in denial. The electorate rejected them BECAUSE they were seen as too left wing and economically destructive

    Now Corbyn proposes to accelerate that trend.

    Electoral suicide

  • Reader

    No – Labour activists have given up the struggle to make their party credible. Now they want to make it incredible. It’s all down to post election fatigue – a bad time to elect a new leader.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, All great high flown stuff. But “the fierce urgency of now ” dates from the 1960s when America burned. We have Ferguson still. Labour veered to the left in 1931, 1951, 1981 and now after 2010. After the Bevan-Gaitskell struggle in the 1950s, Aneurin Bevan, by then dying of cancer, shocked his left wing supporters by doing a U turn to oppose nuclear disarmament, then the iconic policy of the left. He had a great phrase for CND that could apply today, ” an emotional spasm.” Our current spasm might indeed last for quite a time.Or else not. We may be in an era of big swings, as Canada did 20 years ago.Or greater not lesser political choice.

    How many are actually in spasm today? Might not exhaustion with austerity and disillusion that ” boom, and bust ” had not actually ended after all not account for a lot of it?

    Meanwhile we have a majority Conservative government in power with a 37% share of the vote. While in the US we have a dynastic struggle still in prospect enlivened once again by the thrill of interruption by renegade forces.

    Trump in the US and Corbyn in the UK (as I’m now not alone in noting) both Know-nothing conservative throwbacks. Great gas.. But poor Scotland, when the disillusion begins to hit.

    But to go with the flow, I’m tempted to attempt a critique of Paul Mason’s brave analysis, Post capitalism

    Yes, the same Paul Mason who predicted a month ago that a Greek deal was doomed and Grexit was inevitable, But to fair to Paul, why not rage against the banality of the whole apparatus of predatory banks. Libor rigging at the click of a mouse, hedge funds and Standard and Poors telling us at what rates our governments should borrow? But let’s not get carried away …


  • kensei

    I think the idea that this was a “traditional left wing vs traditional right wing” is the first and most serious mistake that is causing Labour all sorts of problems. It is simply refuted: look at Scotland, and look at Corbyn. Scotland’s move away from Labour has been coming for some time and there a few factors at play, but the idea that led to a rout was “Tartan Tories”. It’s membership in England and Wales is also in full revolt as Corbyn demonstrates.

    Blair stated that those on the Left had nowhere else to go: hence he could govern party and country from the right edge of his coalition. That is no longer true. The SNP provided an outlet in Scotland, and there are potential options opening in England. The establishment would have Labour elect a UK wide version of Jim Murphy to the leadership. That probably wouldn’t produce the same catastrophe unless it precipitated a split, but it’s madness to think that Tory-lite would lead to either election, or even if they managed it, a better lot for many of Labour’s supporters.

    I’m not sure this is simply an emotional spasm. Labour’s base has been hit repeatedly since 1980 and there are a lot of problems – crap jobs and stagnating wages – that the post 1980 rightwing consensus has produced and not solved. A political class that has utterly unanchored with the real world and the working class in particular doesn’t help either.

    Labour can’t win elections without it’s base, any more than it can without a section of the middle. If it has to pay the piper for New Labour in order to reconnect with it’s core support and figure out what it really believes in, it has no choice but to cough up. Corbyn is a poor candidate IMO because it seems he is reaching back rather than trying to find new solutions, but perhaps it’ll generate some ideas too.

  • Brian Walker

    kensei, Your short analysis of Labour is pretty much on the money -( which means I agree with it). But I wonder where this ” real world” is that people talk so much about? Managing the state’s business is complex. Ideology rules where evidence is lacking. What goes around comes around, with differences. This is called politics. The 1970s and early 80s were a lot rougher.

  • kensei

    Managing the state is indeed complex. There doesn’t seem to be any apparent evidence that a PPE from Oxford followed by a short career as a Spad is great preparation for administrating it.

    The phrasing is clumsy, but the sentiment behind it is simply that the governing have become detached from the governed. The function of government isn’t simply administration as you elude and benefits from a wider variety of views adding to the debate. Even in administration, it is helpful to be able to relate to the impact on the lives people lead rather than simply as numbers or agents in a theoretical model.

    The 70s and 80s may have been rougher, but the unions still provided a route for the working class to influence and enter politics. That is much less true now. And minorities have always been under represented.

  • Brian Walker

    kensei, I have no axe to grind but I think that today’s PPE graduate from Oxford is faring better than the two Oxford PPEs Wilson and Heath who dominated the mid sixties to the mid seventies ( speaking as an Oxford history graduate myself, like the chancellor). Cameron’s record should not be dismissed. The alienation theme may turn out to be overblown..Of course it may turn out quite differently with him going down as the PM who withdrew the UK from its continent and ” lost” Scotland. But somehow I don’t think so. There maybe more political realignments before we’re through but again, I suspect the 2, or 2 and a half party system has life in it yet.

  • kensei

    Heath maybe, but Wilson? The permissive society, the education reforms and keeping the UK out of Vietnam mark his administration as far more significant than the current government.

    FPTP guarantees that the 2 party system has life in it, unless regional powers arrive a la Scotland. But the rise in inequality and the long stagnation of wages is going to be a driving force of politics for a while, and it really depends if Labour can sort itself out if it isn’t going to cause churn.

    China might be about to deliver another hit to the global economy. That would not be fun.

  • mickfealty

    I don’t disagree for a moment with any of that Brian. I think Mason’s Marxist’s certitude that this the end may prove as naive as his certainty in Grexit.

    If u haven’t already it’s worth watching his presentation and subsequent interrogation at a Guardian event. I think he gets some things right, even if the grand narrative is wrong.

    I think he’d be on more solid ground talking about what we already know has happened than what he might believe is happening. We *are* in a post Industrial Age, as evidenced by a whole slew of grand and repurposed former headquarters of local newspapers up and down the country.

    When I was researching a presentation on the 150 anniversary of the Irish Famine I recall spending 7/8 hours in the basement of the Belfast Central Library.

    Apart from noticing that people even back in those days hated potholes just as much as today and that some denizens of Holywood were accustomed to the same drunken foibles as some of their antecedents, the thing that struck me was the latest dispatches ‘from our correspondent just landed at The Havre’.

    We know knowledge production has been speeding up in steps and stages ever since. This information revolution introduces the complications of a significant switch in the flow of information as well as speed.

    And its effects are undeniable. They may only be developing changes already in play (independent voters in the U.S. Are set to out number registered Democrats and Republicans combined f/e), but there’s little doubt people in power (or seeking power) are struggling to know how to play them.

  • kensei

    I’m not sure his grand narrative is entirely wrong. The crowd sourcing and sharing nature of the internet – and open source software was perhaps the first example is a challenge to capitalism. 3d printing technology might well spread similar approaches into the physical world. The consequences of practical AI such as that which Google is developing are frankly terrifying – perfected self driving cars essentially eliminate the need for every taxi driver on the planet. Renewable energy and better battery technology could lead to very low energy costs in the long term and energy sits at the base of civilisation.

    Taken together they all open the possibility that there is a serious alternative to the profit motive for the first time in quite a while. Lots could go wrong in that, and there is also a chance we end up in a capital intensive new feudalism. But the consequences of these are going to take quite some time to play out. I don’t think either of us will live to see the end of that chain of causality.

  • Barneyt

    Perhaps Blair and his team won power in 97 by lurching to the right, which sadly is perhaps a poor reflection of the electorate. He wagged his tail like a tory and barked like a tory. Another flavour of Tory was therefore elected, as there was hardly a hairs breath between the conservatives and new labour (economics, PFI, defence etc..). Even the NHS could not secure the protection it should have expected of a (new) labour government.

    Left wing politics receive ridicule, mostly in the form, “great idea but it cant work”. Many don’t want it to work. The UK electorate was blinded in the 80s and 90s by sell off after sell off. With 250 pounds worth of shares and the ability to buy a house they perhaps could ill-afford gave them a sense of success and seat at the capitalist table as they saw it. Its shallow and the Tory’s took advantage of the sense of wealth it gave (however small). Voting Tory for many in England traditionally allowed them to demonstrate social progress as they saw it and financial betterment. As I say, it was shallow and remains so.

    I wonder how many of these people now rue the off-loading of state assets and are now complaining bitterly that a vulgar American company now owns “our” sacred Cadburys (I dont mean to suggest the latter was state owned, but I use it as a metaphor).

    Corbyn I hope will inject some humanity into the UK. Ok policies such as exiting Nato won’t get him too far. I would place the unilateral removal of nuclear in this camp too, however, I am not too convinced this will be as damaging as many think.

    The City, the very core of capitalism will confront Corbyn with many of the compromises he will have to face and the conflicts he will have to fight, and inevitably lose. Its entrenched in everything we do and there is no way it can be unpicked. I do agree he won’t get that far, but the ride will be interesting, and it should help remind Labour who they are and what they should stand for….it should! If it causes a revision with regard to how the core services should be managed, I welcome this labour episode.

    As I have said before on this site, New Labour has made the Torys less frightening. As a consequence, it will change little if labour stay out of power for the next generation, as they will only gain power if they once again do as the Torys do.

  • mickfealty

    Nor am I Ken. Nor, to judge by his comments at the Guardian event (below), is he. And, for once perhaps, I agree with much of what you say above.

    The question is how do you prepare for the opportunities of low cost energy, and how do you make it count. Does it necessarily lead to an egalitarian post capital society?

    The question is well worth asking. I just think that one of the casualties of all this networked disruption is the kind of linear narrative the end of capitalism implies.