It’s beginning to sink in. Six months after Jeremy Corbyn was elected, and two months before the first big electoral test of his leadership, that initial moment of total hope and seeming invincibility that initiated the Corbyn project is nearing its end. If the polls are right, Labour will win in London – but it faces armageddon in Scotland and uncertain results in the local elections and Wales. Across the pond, a Bernie Sanders win in the Democratic primary would have given Corbyn’s a massive boost; after Super Tuesday that looks much less likely.
The end of the era of jubilation and disbelief is less a crisis for the new Labour left than a necessary stage in a process – and every indication is that Corbyn’s grip on the leadership is growing stronger. But it must be stared in the face, and it should be cause for reflection among Corbyn’s supporters.
On the face of it, and from a rational perspective of policy appeal, poor poll ratings make no sense. Labour’s new social and economic programme is popular: cracking down on the excesses of the City, public ownership of the railways, an alternative to austerity, backing junior doctors and defending the NHS – all are vote winners. The problem is that popular policies are barely visible in the public eye, amidst a maelstrom of relentless press hostility, calculated backbench (and frontbench) indiscipline, and –worse than any tabloid red baiting – the manufacturing of a perception of shambles in the leadership.
In the coming years, the string of attacks that the Conservatives will impose on public services and ordinary people will be endless. To unions and social movements, these must form a point of mobilisation for a series of defensive struggles to defend the welfare state, and the Labour leadership’s support will be an invaluable asset in these campaigns. But at a higher political level, unless Labour’s response is woven into a broader, easily comprehensibly vision for society, the limitless stream of cuts, sell-offs and attacks on rights and freedoms could become a distraction rather than an asset to the left’s narrative.
Failing to focus on the bigger picture is a problem for the commentariat as well, much of which is used to pronouncing on the viability of political projects in terms of superficial data. In the run up to major elections, we look at events and issues, and attempt to relate these to poll ratings – thereby producing coverage that resembles analysis. But what has characterised the politics of recent years is its unpredictability, and, outside of a short time frame, the inadequacy of the old models of punditry. Without acknowledging that a deeper, long-wave process is at work, it is impossible to understand anything about the new and powerful insurgent politics that is ploughing into the political mainstream.
It is in this deep process that the new Labour left must place its hope: the same process that took the banking crash, the anti-austerity movement and growing societal inequality, and crystalised it into a widespread disdain for the financial elite and a yearning, felt well beyond the base of the radical left, for an alternative to neo-liberalism and establishment politics more broadly. That sentiment may not show up in some polls, and without a well-honed political expression it may not yet show up at the ballot box. And yet, often intangible and unarticulated though it may be, it is perhaps the most powerful sentiment in modern British politics.
The process by which the ideas that fuelled the Corbyn leadership catch light across the wide electorate is not a passive one. Like the anti-austerity movement that provided the backdrop for Corbyn’s rise, this next challenge will have to be another gear-shift in the pace and level of activity on the left: it will require a large new activist base to grow still further, and to push the narratives and ideas of the new left into communities and spaces where radical ideas are seldom heard. Those who cut their teeth on the unstoppable wave of optimism of the summer of 2015 must begin the gruelling low-level ground war for 2020, and a myriad of defensive social struggles in between.
Frenetic activism needs to be matched by intellectual legwork. The answer to bad poll ratings and electoral setbacks is not to soften Corbyn’s political approach, but neither is it to assume that radical ideas will bring themselves victory – as if all that the British public has been waiting for is for someone to rhetorically oppose austerity, or to boldly state a series of principles. What is needed an encompassing and positive vision for society – unashamedly socialist and radical, but which is geared towards a new world, and which, above all, exudes clarity and competence.
Much of this effort is already underway. John McDonnell is building up an arsenal of radical economic alternatives and heavyweight advice. Momentum has, after a period of focussing on its internal structures, begun to gear up to the enormous task ahead. Like left wing movements all over Europe, Labour has now embarked on a march down the path of most resistance. There can be no victory by triangulation or ideological retreat, and there will now probably be no reassurance in a Sanders victory. What lies ahead is a gruelling ground war, but it is one which, with a little intellectual clarity, Corbyn can win.