Looking at the Corbyn movement beyond the shadow cast by the 'long 1970s' allows us to see it in the light of today's 'new times'.
Concepts in political commentary are often fickle. Is populism a symptom of socio-economic crisis or a corrupting pathology, brought to the West from 'outside'? Democracy, too, typically refers both to a given set of institutions ('Madisonian democracy') and the notion of a 'general will'. And what of economic democracy, currently much discussed but variously understood?
The meaning of Corbynism is likewise contested. The Labour leader has at once been described as a hard left Marxist and at times not radical enough. Corbyn has been accused of putting principles before electability yet, concerning Brexit, criticism from the same quarters is the other way around. Earlier this year, Labour's deputy leader Tom Watson founded the Future Britain caucus to bring together the 'Blairite and Brownite' wings of the party, citing 'the need for those from the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions to give ourselves the strongest voice we can'. (1) But what, if not Corbynism, is social democracy and democratic socialism today?
Unfortunately clarity is also lacking in the green shoots of academic debate on Corbyn's Labour. Steven Fielding has called for Corbyn's critics to 'publicly define themselves as social democrats', by making 'a loud and principled emphasis on equality'. (2) According to Fielding, in 2017 it was the Liberal Democrats who 'had the policies that would have most benefitted the poorest'. Yet his account fails to take seriously Labour's tax and spend proposals, the party's support for trade unions and fairer working contracts, its plans for public ownership and much else besides. Elsewhere, Jake Watts and Tim Bale see Corbynism as a form of 'intraparty populism'; a purely discursive phenomenon that pits party members as 'the authentic people' against 'apparently perfidious' party elites. (3) In their account, Corbyn's values are cynically held, masking motivations that remain unclear. The conflicts between Corbyn-supporting party members and the PLP (backed up by the media) are presented by Watts and Bale as little more than a Corbynist conspiracy theory. The authors thus fail to dig into what the movement actually entails. Likewise, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton's work also fails to seriously consider whether Corbyn's anti-establishment rhetoric arises out of conflict with an actually existing elite. (4) In their book-length critique, the authors proceed from the assumption that Corbynism simply re-animates the outlook of the Labour left from the 1970s, identifying in the movement a protectionist 'populism' that threatens liberal democracy itself.
Earlier Labour Party leaders have often been viewed as responding to broader social and economic dynamics (Tony Blair, for example, successfully presented New Labour's 'modernisation' project as a response to globalisation). This is rarely the case with Corbyn. The current leader's name hangs in the air as a floating signifier. Like Tom Watson and Steven Fielding's idea of social democracy, Corbynism is all things to all analysts. However, now that we have seen nearly four years of his leadership of Labour, a clearer view of the political space carved out by the Corbyn movement should be possible.
This article concentrates on a major source of confusion: the shadow cast over contemporary debate by the 'long 1970s'. This period was one in which trade unionism reached a post-war peak, while inflation, combined with low growth and floating exchange rates, forced Labour to accept an IMF loan, and, in the words of Denis Healy, abandon Keynes. (5) It ended with Thatcher's defeat of the miners in March 1985, following a general election in 1983 in which Labour stood on a left-wing manifesto and lost; both events paved the way for an anti-inflationary economic consensus that became the regulatory norm for subsequent governments and central bankers right up to the present. The long 1970s was also the period in which Tony Benn, a man widely considered to be Corbyn's mentor, became the figurehead for an alternative strategy to austerity and industrial decline, an experience to which Corbyn's early ideological repertoire owes its lineage. In spite of this heritage, however, I argue that actually existing Corbynism is best understood as a modernising agenda, one that is deeply in tune with our 'new times'. (6)
New Left lineages of Corbynism
Winning the Labour leadership election in 2015, standing in front of an audience of which one half were dazed, and the other enthralled, Corbyn announced that 'we go forward now as a movement and a party, bigger than we've ever been for a very, very long time'. Later that afternoon, as if to prove the point, the newly elected leader appeared on the platform for a rally held in central London in support of refugees. From the get-go, Corbyn sought to define his leadership in...