Labouring under false pretences: Corbyn v the hegemony

6 Aug 2016


Many adjectives can be applied at present to the Labour Party; organised, coherent and disciplined certainly do not come to mind. Akin to a ‘back to the future’ moment, Labour, not for the first time in its history, is in turmoil. PLP vs CLPs. Corbynites against moderates. Ideological purists or savvy electioneers? The Red Labour Facebook page has been a delight to follow in recent days. On 18 July, to a flurry of Jezwewill hashtags, they proudly announced how support for their messiah was increasing within the party– 54% for the ‘Red Man’, with Eagle (pre-drop out) and Smith on 21% and 15% respectively.[1] Only last night Owen Smith was being derided as a ‘tory’ and a ‘Blairite’ for lobbying for the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer. Seemingly unshakeable evidence for his preference towards privatisation, apparently. On the other side of the elise, Reg Race’s Saving Labour have been laying the knife in, and twisting it deep. On the main page of their website they state not only that ‘Jeremy Corbyn cannot win a General Election’, but he ‘has alienated almost all his colleagues in Parliament’, failing ‘to set any kind of policy agenda’. Incendiary words on both sides, it seems. If one refuses to back Jeremy – they are labelled in some cases ‘tory scum’. Within the same extreme paradigm if you are an ardent Corbynista – well, you must be a trot or a Stalinist surely?


This debate has not only become hyperbolic, it has become highly reductionist – facts and figures have been substituted for pure emotions. This is a trend within the British body politic as Brexit revealed. It is clear to me that Corbyn cannot remain the leader of the Labour Party. It is true that he lacks leadership. Scruffy shirts and an un-kept beard, his PR team must be having a nightmare. Appearance and party management aside, there are clear structural trends which not only suggest that Jeremy cannot succeed in an election battle, but more importantly that a Labour Party seeking to put on offer a totally radical, transformative leftist agenda will be shot down in 2020. As much as it pains me to say it, Labour is currently on the wrong-side of history. The days of the materialist battles surrounding inequality, pay and union bargaining are long gone, for now. Am I a ‘Blairite’? A ‘Brownite’? A ‘Fascist’?. Or maybe I am somebody who is looking at the cold hard facts. Let’s face it – Britain in the average mainstream has become far more conservative over the past three decades. There is clear empirical evidence to support this statement. To any Corbynites hoping voters will wake up in 2020, reject neoliberalism’s evident ills and start parading the streets chanting The Internationale, look away now. Caution is advised.


New Labour must take a fair share of the blame for this. It would appear that the legacy of Blair is a highly naturalized and entrenched form of Thatcherism. What Thatcher failed to achieve amongst the electorate in the 80s, Blair clearly delivered. According to Gallup’s surveys the year 1979, the supposed epitome of decline, heralded strong support for the Post-War Settlement and its institutional settlement. In response to the question ‘What would you say is the most urgent problem facing the country?’, 31% of respondants deemed the cost of living crisis to be of a high importance; 16% for unemployment whilst the indices for supposed right-wing law and order issues where low – only 11% for strikes. This is of huge significance. This is compounded by research from the renowned sephologist Ivor Crewe. Even at the height of the Thatcher apex, support for a strong social state did not waver. Indeed when faced with the question Which do you think the Government should give greater attention to – trying to curb inflation or trying to reduce unemployment? Even by May 1986, the highpoint of the free-market revolution, a resounding 81% deemed the defeat of unemployment more vital than a low and stable monetary supply (13%). This outstandingly signals a decline in support for monetaristic tendencies throughout the Conservative revolution. Moreover when posed with a question regarding benefits, 53% and 45%, large majorities in 1987 and 1986 respectively,  decreed ‘Benefits for the unemployed are too low and cause hardship’. Only 26% and 35% agreed with the antithesis in the same years. This is vital. Firstly – this is the era of Corbyn. Such views, largely subscribed to amongst the public, bolstered and galvanized his opposition to the Thatcherite administrations. His schema can be glanced in these surveys. Secondly, almost paradoxically, amidst one of the most radical-right wing governments in British history, the public remained socially responsive. On issues ranging from welfare, unemployment and redistributive taxation, it would appear that Britain – from Scotland to London, was a highly liberal nation. It was surely on the back of such a socially minded sentiment that the public were able to put their trust in the Blair-Brown project. 


1997 onwards is where things get interesting, however. This is when a sea-change in public mood is taking place, which would ultimately be damning towards the Corbyn project and highly successful for forms of right-wing fanatasim. The rhetoric and spin of the Blair era, always rightwards rather than left, has frozen the political landscape in a glacier. By refusing to debate, discuss or acknowledge inequality or re-distributive policies, they were banished to the fringes of the political arena. Also from the public concern it would appear, too. Through studying data from the British Social Attitudes Survey one can clearly see that between 1986 and 1996 support for re-distributive policies never fell; they remained steady at 43%. They however have stayed below 40% consistently since 1997. Britain through New Labour has become a centralized polity. Voters expectations have, on the whole, normalized with the dominant elite consensus peddled by a rampant ‘Murdochracy’. At the beginning of Blair’s premiership 46% of respondants deemed high unemployment to be of a grave concern; by 2005 this had fallen to 25%. Similarly in the same year support for income redistribution had fallen by twelve percentiles. It would seem that the rampant individualism, which so many wished to shed in 1997, has become entrenched and enforced.


Whereby the Third Way legitimatised Thatcherism, the cycle has been continued by the Coalition. The pernicious welfare narrative has stuck. In a 2013 Sunday Times YOUGOV poll 74% supported the freeze to child benefit for a family earning £26,000 a year; 47%, think ‘the government is not being tough enough towards people on benefit, and more should be done to force them into work’. Just a glance at the latest BSA survey makes for grim reading compounding this. 45% strongly believe in less spending on those who are unemployed; 60% believe that the duration of unemployment benefit should be limited. Perhaps more alarming is the rightward shift in opinions concerning the National Health Service; 45% who are ‘dissatisfied’ believe the NHS has a funding problem whilst 33% are dissatisfied with social care. Will this align with elite conceptions of privitisation down the line? Perhaps.


As Mark Fisher states in his book Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?,  'It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism.' The same logic can be reapplied here. It’s not that Corbyn has bad ideas. His focus on inequality is timely as offshore tax havens are only getting fatter with bank deposits; fatter than the growing number of donations to foodbanks sprouting up around our financialized deprived towns and cities. But are people listening? To put it bluntly – do people care enough? A system or prevailing ideas, no matter how amoral or distasteful, has become legitimised and internalised amongst large sections of the public. A country which re-elected one of the worst ever performing governments to office in 2015 and ceded the European Union in 2016 is not going to elect a Socialist government in 2020.  


The trajectory is, and has been for decades, rightwards. It is not that Jeremy is wrong. It’s that the forces at work are moving against him and his kind. Neoliberalism’s success is in its hegemony. This does not end with a Conservative government. It is a normalized set of ideas and principles, no matter how false, which have been made true in the eyes of the many. The reassertion of the left should actually learn from the Neo-Classical project. What began in Mont Pelerin in the 1940s did not become universally accepted, arguably, until the 2000s.


The left now need to build up a counter school. A counter-hegemony. Postcapitalism, which will be discussed elsewhere, offers this. If nurtured, we could see the left reverse this trend and even normalize social justice in 30 years’ time. Small steps, for now, though. This means working within the system. Getting elected by framing a moderate alternative. Not quite demanding the bourgeoisie against the wall just yet, Jezza. Campaigning on issues which appear, at least discursively, to matter to people such as immigration, might be a start. Instead of rallying against every single cut and change to the welfare state, Labour would do well to embrace Universal Basic Income – a cheaper and fairer alternative. The left is not dead. Quite on the contrary. Brexit presents a clear opportunity to re-write the script; to fuse the patriotism unleashed with an appetite for social justice. Answering every problem with the old ‘raising taxes’ and ‘increasing spending’, the classic ‘Michael Foot’ approach will not work. Going back to the 1980s is not the answer. Especially with the shift in attitudes. The left must learn, embrace change and be smarter. You can rally around the poor and the oppressed all you like – but you can change nothing from a perpetual state of opposition.


It is obvious, however. It is not ‘False Consciousness’. Britain has become more conservative. Labour needs to work within this framework. Like it. Or fail.


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