Corbyn's rise is only the most recent expression of a long term trend towards a more radical and left-wing politics, argues Chris Nineham
Some people are still treating the inspirational rise of Jeremy Corbyn as an unfortunate aberration or an accident. To do so reinforces, no doubt, the belief that he is unelectable. But a series of studies, surveys and polls published in the last few weeks points to the very opposite conclusion. Combined with other evidence of long-term trends, the data suggests that Corbyn’s success and the current turmoil in the Labour Party are the product of seismic shifts capable of destabilising the post-war political order and producing more upsets.
Commentators have been discussing a crisis in British democracy for some time, but on the whole they have put it down to popular political disengagement or even what some have dubbed ‘anti-politics.’ This kind of approach always depended on the view that the possibilities of politics are exhausted by what is normally available in Westminster.
In fact what has been happening is a gathering rejection of the type of politics on offer in the mainstream up to now. In the last ten years, politicians come near the bottom of almost all lists of the trustworthy and the number of people ‘tending to trust’ parliament fell from 50% to 20% between 1997 and 2011. But Corbyn’s rise and the enthusiasm it has generated has exposed a pent up demand for a radical, alternative politics.
This is clearly the case within Labour itself. It is not going to surprise anyone that the recent Guardian survey on opinion in the party found that Labour’s members are overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn and radical, and that ‘both returning members and new ones tend to be mainly left-wing.’ The report is titled ‘How Corbyn has reshaped Labour,’ but it is interesting that it finds that the membership surge started immediately after the 2015 general election result and before Corbyn declared his intention to stand. Notable too is the finding that university cities and towns recorded some of the biggest rises, including many in non-Labour areas. Bath and Colchester, for example, have seen influxes of around 1,000 and 700 into the party respectively.
But the Beckett report, Labour’s internal inquiry into the last election, leaked to the BBC last week, points to a much wider radicalisation in society. It concluded, ‘some of the “left-wing policies” were the most popular [and] individual policies polled well – the issue was the lack of a consistent, cohesive narrative,’ and it cites the mansion tax in particular as a vote winner.
There has in fact been a long-term growth in the number of people who self-define as left wing. According to the World Values Survey this number increased in the UK from 4.7 million in 1981 to 7.3 million in 2006, with a particularly marked upswing amongst young people. More recent surveys suggest that as many as 20% of the population self-define as left wing or very left wing. Other data confirms a swing to the left. Polls show that big majorities now, for example, support nationalisations of key services, increased taxes for the rich and a higher minimum wage. The foreign wars pursued by successive governments have been unpopular and a majority of the population concluded that the biggest war effort – in Iraq – was an oil grab not a humanitarian intervention. By 2014, the Ministry of Defense had concluded that there was a general reluctance to deploy foreign troops abroad and a growing resistance to foreign wars.
Significantly, these trends haven’t just generated a growing left-wing constituency; they have affected people across parties. The danger of the development of a populist right is built into the situation as Ukip’s 2014 surge made clear. The Tories and their supporters in the media are doing their best to stir up the Islamophobic sentiment poisoning parts of Europe. But new academic research shows that for now at least members and supporters of all parties are well to the left of their parties on most actual policy. LSE research titled ‘Ideology is in the eye of the beholder’ released last week looked at responses to a proposition that society is too unequal that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. It found that members and supporters of all parties – excepting the Tories but including UKIP – came up with what could only be regarded as left-wing answers. Even the answers from Tory members and supporters placed them only slightly to the right of centre on average.
This too is not a new finding. As early as 2013, the majority of Tory voters favoured renationalising utilities and the railways. By 2014, 56% of voters thought tackling inequality was more important than generating wealth. This included a striking 33% of Tory voters. At the time YouGov commented that ‘the issue of inequality is now a major political battleground, with the focus not such much on the top 10% versus the bottom 10%, but on the gap between the majority and the increasingly super-rich.’
The radical nature of these shifts is underlined by a second trend, a steep decline in confidence in core capitalist institutions beyond Westminster. The 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey found the percentage who believe banks are well run had dropped from 90% in 1983 to just 19% in 2012. This is a precipitous fall, but perhaps unsurprising given the record. But the same survey shows that the police, the press and the BBC and a raft of other state organisations have seen their credibility drop too, if not so dramatically.
Meanwhile people are turning hostile to big business. The proportion believing that business has too much power doubled from 26% to 50% between 1983 and 2007. The widely quoted Edelman trust barometer for 2015 shows that these trends continue in the UK and globally. Its authors note that in the last year:
“an alarming evaporation of trust across all institutions… in government, business, media and NGOs in the general population is below 50% in two-thirds of countries, including the US, UK, Germany and Japan.”
Taking to the streets
Associated with all this is a third, largely unreported, development crucial to Corbyn’s rise: a mushrooming of the number of people engaged in protest politics. Figures brought together on Counterfire by Adrian Cousins in 2012 showed that there had been a steady increase in the number of people involved in protest politics since the 1970s. The World Values Survey suggested, for example, that the percentage of people who had protested against the government rose from around 8% in the mid-1970s to 16% in 2006.
Research by David Bailey from Birmingham University published two weeks ago shows this trend is continuing. There has been a sharp rise in the amount of protesting since the economic crisis. Bailey’s study shows that after a brief slump in 2013, there were more than three times as many protests in 2015 in Britain as in the years before the crisis. And the number is climbing. In his words, ‘2015 seems to have confirmed the suggestion, made at the beginning of the year, that 2011 was “really only just the beginning.”’
Last year’s huge mobilisations and Corbyn’s success itself show some signs of restoring combativity amongst trade unionists. There has been a spate of rail strikes, tube workers are set to strike again, and the junior doctors’ action has received massive support.
Despite all this, the right of course remains in control and still deeply committed to its neoliberal project. The government is pursuing phase two of their austerity programme with vigour, and largely getting away with it. This puts it on a collision course with the majority of the population. It is this dynamic that explains Corbyn’s popularity. But the danger is that the Labour right is tying Corbyn down.
The sources of discontent run deep. For all its practical successes, the assault on the post-war welfare settlement never won hearts and minds. Despite relentless pro- market propaganda, most working people have stubbornly retained a social democratic vision of society throughout this whole period. As the 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey put it:
'Generally speaking, the last 30 years have not seen a shift to a less collectivist Britain. The public continues to support social welfare for vulnerable groups in society.'
Being determines consciousness, as Marx said, and these attitudes have been reinforced by the lived reality of neoliberalism. The majority of working people – including many regarded as middle class – have experienced a real terms income fall, a dizzying drop in relative wealth, and a barely tolerable increase in insecurity and work pressure. The extraordinary 98% vote for strike action by junior doctors shows how alienated even many professionals have become from the ethos of a more and more isolated and aggressive elite.
The 2008 banking crisis was a tipping point. Greed turned out to be bad, not good, even for the capitalist economy. Worse still for free market ideologues, the perpetrators – the banks – were bailed out by the very state that we had been told for so long was the enemy of progress. And the key players in the British establishment remain committed to the very policies that got us here in the first place.
Don’t just watch
We live in volatile and unpredictable times. This combination of aggressive elites, a clear leftward shift in public opinion, a steep collapse in trust in institutions and growing activism suggests that a period of major struggles lies ahead. The scale of the disillusion with official politics and the questioning going on across the spectrum should be enough to convince that, despite the Tories’ redrawing of the political map, Corbyn has the potential to pull together a majority in a general election.
It also suggests that following his instinct and staying radical is the best way to shape a new majority. Corbyn’s growing and enthusiastic base will need him to keep the left. But the signs are that a potential wider constituency, cynical about Westminster, hostile to big business and foreign wars and committed to welfarism, is also looking for someone who will stand up to vested interests and challenge the consensus that has suffocated politics nearly to death. As the Beckett report suggests, the big problem last time around was that the Labour didn’t provide a clear, coherent, alternative to politics and economics as usual.
But the gathering confrontation between an antagonistic elite and wide swathes of the population calls for a bigger and more urgent strategic response. We can’t wait until 2020. Government attacks are coming thick and fast. In the last months, the government have rolled back union rights, torn up social housing provision and scrapped student grants, all with little public response.
The right in Labour remains resolute. Blairites and others are collaborating with Tories, parts of the media and other sections of the state to destabilise or destroy the Corbyn project. The risk is that the Corbyn leadership is deadlocked by a hostile parliamentary party, giving the Tories a free hand to drive its project though. In this situation Corbyn needs to appeal over the heads of those ignoring his mandate and trying to block him. He needs to keep his base mobilised.
Mass grassroots participation is crucial. The forces behind Corbyn in parliament are far too weak to sustain him. If this becomes a spectator sport – always a danger with reformist politics – the project will run into the ground, the right will be able to re-take the initiative, and we will miss a historic opportunity to reconfigure British politics leftwards. In the next few months we can expect to see a series of flashpoints over the junior doctors, Trident, housing and other issues, not to say further attempts on Corbyn’s political life. The widest possible mobilisations are necessary to push the right back.
The protest movements have helped generate a new politics. They were an important source of the energy and activism that swept Corbyn to the Labour leadership. They are just as crucial now in mobilising public opinion to build resistance against the Tory onslaught and to support Corbyn in the battles to come.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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