By Graham MacPhee*
It may be difficult to appreciate from afar just how significant Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labor Party, the main opposition party in Britain, really is. After all, Corbyn as yet holds no state office — only a North London parliamentary seat — and any prospect of his leading a UK government is years away.
But make no mistake: His victory is a political bombshell, and this mild-mannered, soft-spoken left-wing MP is packing political dynamite.
The key to understanding the importance of Corbyn’s victory lies in the role that former prime minister Tony Blair’s “New Labor” movement played in transforming the political landscape — not only in Britain, but across Europe.
In the decades following World War II, Labor forged a cross-party consensus around a broadly social democratic program. Focusing economic policy on full employment, it built the National Health Service and a welfare state that dramatically reduced social inequality and expanded economic and social democratization. But when Margaret Thatcher’s government tore up the postwar consensus and began deindustrializing Britain and dismantling the country’s social safety net, Blair managed to present the New Labor project — that is, a sweeping and calculated tack to the political center — as a smart and modern alternative to Thatcherism’s neoliberal agenda.
But it wasn’t an alternative at all.
Behind the hype, New Labor amounted simply to the abandonment of social democracy and capitulation to both the style and substance of the corporate takeover of democratic politics. Not only could all public assets be privatized at knockdown prices, but all policy U-turns could be packaged and spun to an ever-shrinking section of the electorate — the “floating voters” of a notional “middle England.”
The War on Hope
Despite a run of electoral success during the Blair era, over the long term this program has proven economically, socially, and politically disastrous.
While high-paying jobs are shipped overseas and the UK economy is subordinated to the short-term profit drive of the financial sector, inequality and social exclusion have mushroomed, forcing impoverished families to feed their children at food banks and charity kitchens. Yet the new neoliberal consensus nonetheless established an extraordinary sense of its own inevitability and endurance, even as the country lurched into an illegal war in Iraq and the global economy hurtled into the deepest recession since World War II. The political doctrine of both Thatcherism and New Labor is simply that “there is no alternative.”
This sense of disempowerment is a result of the profound damage that neoliberalism has inflicted on democratic politics. It’s not simply that the New Labor “brand” has become toxic through its association with the slick and empty messaging it borrowed from corporate PR — it’s that politics itself has been discredited as the preserve of elites with little or no regard for popular concerns. As electoral participation has ebbed, popular disenchantment has tended to benefit ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, and racist currents, since neoliberalism’s doctrine of inevitability leaves little room except for resignation and the politics of hatred.
Against the elite’s apparently unshakeable stranglehold on politics, Corbyn’s election as Labor leader comes as an earthquake. But there were earlier tremors.
In fact, neoliberalism’s electoral invincibility has been crumbling for some time, most notably in the extraordinary popular mobilization around last year’s Scottish independence referendum and the subsequent obliteration of New Labor in Scotland. What the collapse of the Labor vote in Scotland showed was that a community of purpose across broad sections of society could be translated into real political outcomes, even in the teeth of overwhelming hostility from the media and elite opinion.
The popular movement that propelled Corbyn’s victory shows that ordinary people understood this lesson in a way that completely escaped the political class.
That Corbyn’s victory is a bombshell for received political wisdom does not mean, however, that his program is particularly radical or “hard left,” as mainstream media in both the United States and the United Kingdom have begun to paint it. In fact, Corbyn’s proposals are modest and practical. They include shifting some of the burden of the financial downturn from people to corporations and providing a sensible measure of economic stimulus, while restoring valuable social safeguards like rent control and collective bargaining rights.
Nor does it mean that Corbyn’s future success is guaranteed, or that Labor’s political fortunes will be transformed overnight. The return of even a moderate social democratic program in Britain has a whole host of mountains to climb, starting with the vast majority of Labor MPs who, over a period of decades now, have been carefully selected for their compliance with the New Labor agenda.
The point of Corbyn’s victory is that such a return is at least practically possible, if a sufficient coalition of forces can be brought together. Finally, after all this time, there is an alternative.
Horizons of Possibility
Without downplaying the huge difficulties facing the reemergence of a workable social democratic alternative in Britain, it’s worth considering its potential impacts across Europe and globally to understand the stakes involved.
New Labor led the line in the transformation of social democratic parties into robotically reliable instruments of the neoliberal takeover. For a time, the Labor Party provided what appeared to be an electorally successful model while pushing corporate interests in the name of “social justice.” In Britain, this somersault was sold through a muscular faith in the “free market” policies of the U.S., and by extension its foreign policy. In continental Europe, the evisceration of social democracy was promulgated instead under the rubric of EU integration and the relentless progress to an “ever closer union“ that almost no one desired and even fewer voted for.
As the promise of a “social Europe” proved to be a mirage, all that was left was the free movement of capital and the ability of corporations to dodge taxes on a pan-European scale. This identification with the supranational agendas of foreign corporate and political elites has made the former social democratic parties virtually unelectable, while letting conservative and Christian democratic parties off the hook and able to present themselves as at least financially “realistic.”
Despite their electoral decline, the former social democratic parties continue to play a significant role in propelling the EU austerity regime. This damaging role was most graphically illustrated in the brutal and utterly counterproductive punishment meted out to Greece following Syriza’s abortive attempt to challenge neoliberal austerity. According to the Financial Times, the paper of record for global elites, Greek attempts to negotiate a solution could be dismissed out of hand because they failed to gain the support of the German Social Democratic Party or the French Socialists. Yet as the same paper notes, the German Social Democrats’ electoral weakness has emboldened the right wing of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, shifting the political center ever further to the right.
While the compliance of the former social democratic parties has worked to justify the EU austerity agenda and shift discussion to the right, resistance has been left to newly formed or previously marginalized political movements in smaller economies such as Ireland, Portugal, and of course Greece. Greek opposition to austerity could be so easily steamrollered because of the country’s political and economic weakness, and its harsh treatment was designed to send a warning signal to insurgent movements such as Podemos in Spain.
But an anti-austerity alliance led by a party from a major European economy with experience in government and international institution-building would shift the balance of power significantly. As the Financial Times warns, “Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are scrappy young parties that define themselves against the mainstream,” while in Corbyn’s case the “sudden transformation of an established party is more shocking than the eruption of a new one.”
If a resurgence of social democracy in Britain could begin to challenge the continued imposition of austerity in Europe, it could also raise questions about Britain’s stalwart subservience to the United States.
At the very least, a Corbyn leadership will allow (rather than stifle) discussion of the anti-democratic TTIP, or Transatlantic Trade and Industry Partnership — a corporate-favored “free trade” agreement between the United States and the European Union following close on the heels the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated in secret by the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim states.
More headline-grabbing is Corbyn’s commitment to ending British involvement in the apparently endless procession of U.S. military interventions.
Labor’s track record with regard to Britain’s neo-imperial role was never edifying, even before Tony Blair. Indeed, the postwar nationalized economy and the welfare state were built around a conception of national community that hid its dependence on the extension of the empire into the 1960s, at a particularly bloody cost. Equally, this imperial extension was predicated on Britain assuming a subordinate role in support of the new global hegemon, the United States.
But current geopolitical reality for European states is dominated by the fallout from Washington’s catastrophic destabilization of the Middle East, a fallout from which Americans are largely insulated. Many in Europe have little appetite left for the hopelessly ill-conceived “war on terror,” and Prime Minister David Cameron has already indicated that Labor’s refusal to support airstrikes in Syria would effectively veto British military action.
Nonetheless, the political calculation on the right is that even though enthusiasm for military intervention is declining, the sense of crisis and threat generated by this period of destabilization will be enough to keep “national security” viable as a powerful stick to beat a resurgent Labor Party. Corbyn’s opposition to replacing Trident, the costly nuclear weapons system leased by Britain but controlled by the United States, and his skepticism about the continuing value of the Cold War alliance NATO will doubtless feature relentlessly in this attack plan.
Of course, all of these possibilities remain to be played out, and it is far too early to begin speculating about the prospects of a Corbyn-led Labor Party at the next general election in 2020. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the 66 year-old Corbyn will still be party leader by then.
But the election of an avowed socialist and longtime peace campaigner to the leadership of one of the main political parties in Europe, and in a nation-state that plays an important geopolitical role, doesn’t happen every day. That such credentials have been unthinkable in a Labor leader for three decades is an indication both of the drastic narrowing of political possibility over that time and of the extraordinary break with the recent past that Jeremy Corbyn’s victory represents.
*Graham MacPhee is a professor of English at West Chester University. He is the author of Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh University Press, 2011) and co-editor of Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective (Berghahn, 2007).