Chris Nineham challenges the ‘Corbyn just won’t play in Middle England’ argument
In advance, commentators were predicting disaster for Corbyn at Labours's conference. As soon as it was obvious that Jeremy Corbyn anti-austerity and anti-war message was broadly popular there, a new line of attack emerged.
It's all very well enthusing the party faithful, went the script, but what about Middle England - 'real people' in media minds - and what about the Tory voters he has got to win over? For many in the media, these categories add up to a vast, moderate majority. One that Corbynmania can never touch.
Newsnight’s Evan Davis even put a number on it. He claimed that maybe two or three million people like ‘Corbyn's kind of thing'. The rest clearly wouldn’t be comfortable with nationalisation, challenging inequality and promoting peace aboard.
By rights the commentariat should be showing a bit more humility. They had no inkling that Corbynism was around the corner. If someone had suggested on air six months ago that Corbyn might become Labour leader, they would have been ushered out of the studio. If media experts haven't got a clue about opinion in politicised circles, why should anyone believe they have their fingers on the political pulse of the wider population?
Nevertheless, the ‘Corbyn just won’t play in Middle England’ argument isn’t going away, and it needs to be challenged. The first problem with it is that it is based on a static view of peoples' views. There is no sense that ideas can change over time through experience or through discussion or a combination of the two. But this is what happens in real life, otherwise there would never be a change in government.
The argument also misses one of the notable trends in public life over the last few decades - widespread disengagement with mainstream politics. The Tories only won 24% of the potential vote at the last election. As Corbyn himself said at conference, 53% of young people didn't vote. This alienation from the political process is greatest amongst the people who have suffered most from the last few years of cutbacks, casualisation and economic crisis.
If a strong message of change can reach significant numbers of these people then a Corbyn-led party could tap big reservoirs of support. There is lots of evidence too that it could win back voters from Ukip. Corbyn's ratings are high amongst Ukip voters, confirming the view that for many voting Ukip represented a protest rather than a full buy-in to the Farage programme.
Missing the mood
The biggest issue is that most of the commentariat don't seem to have a handle on the changes going on in British society. Corbynism is definitely a product of the movements and a growing confidence amongst activists and a radicalised minority. But no such large scale upsurge could happen hermetically sealed from broader society. The Corbyn surge is an expression of something bigger.
You only have to look at opinion polls to see this is the case. There is in fact a growing popular rejection of the kind of politics and economics that has dominated and degraded society for the last few decades. Growing majorities favour re-nationalising the railways and utilities for example. Just 7% believe health care should be privatised. Interestingly, according to YouGov, popular support for nationalisation is principled - 'ideological' in their words - rather than pragmatic. You wouldn't know it from the political debate but most polls show the bulk of the population don't want Trident replaced.
The Middle England model of a majority bunched at the centre of the political spectrum with outliers to right and left turns out to be a fantasy. On most social issues the majority is well to the left of the Westminster/media consensus. For a long time for example, most people have been opposed to the record levels of inequality that plague Britain. A 2014 poll found that 56% think closing the inequality gap is more important than increasing wealth, while only 17% thought the opposite. Nearly 70% support increasing taxes for the rich and 48% support a 60% rate, as against 34% who oppose it.
Interestingly, pollsters report a generalised rejection of free market ideas. One recent survey of polling concluded, "when it comes to capitalism, the public is to the left of every mainstream party, including Labour. The views of Conservative MPs on capitalism are far away from any of the public, including their own voters." Populus, for example found big majorities believed “the government needs to be tougher on big business” - this included 50% of Tory voters. They also discovered that “capitalism is more likely to be regarded as a force for ill than for good by the public, while MPs – particularly Conservative MPs – generally regard it as a force for good“.
The right within the ranks
Commentators take note. The extent to which the right ever managed to win society to free market dogma is exaggerated. But now it is the people who cling to free market fundamentalism, favour foreign wars and insist on the importance of mutually assured destruction that are looking out of sync with society.
This is important for the left and Team Corbyn too. Appealing to the middle ground by compromise and tacking right won't bring back the disenchanted. They need to be convinced that something different and radical is on offer or they will sink back into apathy. Nor will fudge help to stimulate and develop the growing radicalisation. There are a host of important arguments still to win, on immigration, on bombing Syria and so forth.
In order to capitalise on the new situation Corbyn needs to continue to articulate a clear, coherent and radical alternative to what has gone before.
This is why Corbyn's most pressing problem is not so called middle England but the right within the ranks, in the parliamentary Labour Party and even his own cabinet. Their constant briefings to the media, threats of revolt and general plotting is deeply undemocratic but also dangerous.
Too many concessions to them and the surge can lose momentum, the message can lose its clarity and chance to forge a new, popular left can recede. If that happens, the right will be able to move decisively against Corbyn. They need to be confronted urgently.
This is also why the protest movements that helped drive the surge in the first place need to stay mobilised. Over the last decade and more mass movements have helped to generate a new radicalism and create networks involving tens of thousands of activists across the country. They have a big impact on opinion. They need to stay organised and active to keep the heat on the Tories, but also to fight off the Labour right’s attempts to neutralise Corbyn and return us to the status quo.
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.
More articles from this author
- At war with the powers that be
- Londoners defy the XR ban to defend the right to protest
- Why we can win: the left and Boris Johnson's crisis
- Boris Johnson is weak: Labour must not give him a Brexit lifeline
- 9/11: we are still living in the world created by Bush and Blair's response
- The biggest attack on democracy since before universal suffrage
- How far will he go? Trump and the limits of populism - book review