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13 January 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:40pm

Why Labour’s leadership election is not a battle of left and centre

The risk for Corbynsceptics is that they allege Labour lurched to the left after 2015 – when the true source of the divide is more fundamental.

By Chris Clarke

The aftermath of December 12th disastrous result for Labour has already shaken down to a standoff: between those who think you can have Corbyn’s approach without Corbyn, and those who say you need to ditch both.

To make our case, proponents of the latter view (the so-called‘moderates’) must articulate much more clearly what’s wrong with Corbynism. And we must do so quickly.

The risk is that our charge becomes simply that Labour lurched to the left after 2015 – when the true source of the divide is more fundamental.

This is illustrated by the fact that Jess Phillips is likely to be the candidate from the so-called ‘right of the party’. A self-proclaimed socialist and feminist, Phillips has vocally attacked privilege in parliament. Her misgivings about Corbynism clearly come from a progressive standpoint – be it on freedom-of-movement or racism in the party. I remember, in 2015, watching a video where she cheerfully told Jacob Rees-Mogg she’d like to nationalise all she surveyed.

If socialism is based on striving for equal rights, equal opportunities and fair outcomes then it’s hard to find an issue where Phillips is not an impeccable left-winger. (Nor, while we’re at it, do I understand why those who cut rough sleeping by three quarters during the 2000s are seen as the ‘Labour right’, while those who looked on helplessly while it ballooned in the 2010s identify as the ‘Labour left’. But that’s a question for another day).

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The point is that the current schism has very little to do with where you sit on the left-right scale. Instead, it’s about the world view which is bound to the Corbyn project, and the populism this analysis creates.

There are three components to Corbynism. The first belief is a form of tribalism, which treats the political spectrum as a moral spectrum. This approach assumes the left is where virtue lies, and that self-interest and spite are the only reasons why anyone would take a different view. It relies on the politics of class war, cold war or culture war, and populates the political stage with a cast of traitors and bogeymen.

As an approach, this belief system is electorally toxic, preventing self-examination or compromise. It seeks to dominate and denounce, not persuade. It guarantees that Labour’s membership cannot be a broad church and its voter base cannot be a big tent. The footage of well-spoken Corbynites denouncing working-class lack of ‘empathy’ is where this leads. So too the host of ‘good versus evil’, ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’ positions adopted by Corbyn before 2015, which provided right-wing media outlets with endless fodder.

The second component of Corbyn’s populism is an analysis which says far-sighted elites control society for personal gain; that prejudice and inequality are always imposed from above. This is the thin end of the conspiracist wedge, based on ideas about coercion and the agendas of ‘elites’. It leads to paranoia about a shadowy ‘MSM’, and stops Labour from navigating the media or contemplating the limits and possibilities of government.

Since 2015 this idea that we live in a quasi-dictatorship has led Labour to diminish questions about how we’ll pay for things as a right-wing conspiracy, and to dismiss concerns about electoral arithmetic as an establishment plot. A tendency to assume all problems are authored by a Puppet Master has also led to the anti-Semitism crisis. The notion of ‘the one per cent’ pulling the strings can be a gateway drug to conspiracism about a Jewish cabal. Labour anti-Semitism is almost impossible to eradicate without also jettisoning ideas about BBC bias or the ‘deep state’. Hence, it lives on.

The third aspect of Corbynism is a cherry-picked version of the past. The premise is one of ‘neoliberal’ decline, the country having supposedly tacked to the right on every front. This ‘Spirit of ‘45’ analysis says a left-wing Arcadia – a form of ‘original socialism’ – once existed but has been polluted by modernity and consumerism. The 1997-2010 governments are regarded as part of this decline. Thus, the only Labour government many Brits remember is deemed a failure, and the campaign narratives deployed focus on misery and deterioration. They identify nothing positive in modern society and say little about the future.

This myth also stops Labour from engaging with an interconnected world. Corbyn’s lifelong Euroscepticism, for instance, is based on a siege economy, stopping the march of capitalism. Thus, Corbyn was profoundly unsuited to make the positive case to working-class communities for why the EU is a protection against the challenges of globalisation. Now, as we look down the barrel of a Johnson-led Hard Brexit, the decline narrative has become self-fulfilling.

Although these tropes represent the three sides of the Corbynite triangle, Jeremy Corbyn the man did not create them. Indeed, they’re part of Labour’s folklore – virtually stitched into the lyrics of ‘The Red Flag’, with its talk of “cowards”, “traitors” and “triumphs past”. Corbyn’s politics have merely fused the three together.

These belief systems have hampered Labour since its inception. But, turbocharged by the wider emergence of populism, they’ve handed the baton since 2015 to a brand of politics which is incapable of pluralism and inadvertently reactionary.

The Corbynsceptic candidates in the leadership race cannot rely on normal social democratic arguments about electability and the need to listen – true though these are. Instead, they must tackle at source the mythology which has enabled Corbynism – arguing that socialism involves telling the truth, and that a non-populist form of redistributive left-wing politics is possible.

Chris Clarke is the author of Warring Fictions: left populism and its defining myths (Policy Network and Rowman and Littlefield). He tweets at @WarringFictions.

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