Election 2019 and the newer left.

AuthorBall, Jonny

Every era has its own forms of authoritarianism, reformism, and revolution. We could also say that every period, every era, every sphere has its own forms of alienation and disalienation, which conflict in ways that are unique to themselves. Henri Lefebvre (1) Wildly contradictory accounts of Corbynism as a movement and ideology have been proffered by its detractors. For some, it was a form of 'bourgeois left populism', appealing to the middle classes of the liberal metropole, whilst for others it aimed to return Britain to the 1970s, nostalgic for traditional working-class militancy. But Labour lost in 2019 as it failed to knit together or patch up a long-term fracture in its electoral coalition: between that old working class of post-industrial towns and smaller cities, and liberal, highly-educated, younger, cosmopolitan city voters. At its root, Corbynism was never a coherent body of policies and ideas, but an awkward coalition of New Left libertarian antipathy towards parliamentarism, top-down big-state bureaucratism, and old left class-struggle revanchism. Left social democracy that sought to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism with a dirigiste, corporatist, tax-and-spend approach to the economy sat uncomfortably alongside the emergent, youthful Newer Left--drawing on the twentieth-century New Left but online and networked, post-workerist and tending to look beyond the working class for new agents of revolutionary change. Corbynism was a contradictory hotchpotch of instinctive centralising tendencies, with 'big government' policies on industry, nationalisation, interventionism, planning and wealth redistribution, coupled with calls for a radical devolution of economic and political power, horizontalism, participatory democracy and social movements, along with left populist conceptions of the demos--'the many', 'the 99%'--with added liberal progressivism and identity politics.

Corbyn, the left's talisman, brought everyone from black bloc student rioters to left social democrats under his big tent. But as each form of capitalist development provokes innovative forms of opposition to it, the most dynamic tendency within Corbynism was that of the nascent Newer Left: the networked socialists in the era of the gig economy, big data, automation, machine learning, social media ubiquity, the precariat, the urban creative class, and a highly financialised, globalised, high-tech platform capitalism. This form of capitalism has bred a class of underpaid, underemployed graduates, unable to acquire traditional middle-class hallmarks--property ownership and secure, white-collar employment--and many of them have become articulate critics of it. The Corbyn project is thus a thoroughly modern phenomenon; it derives much of its most vocal support from a young, squeezed middle doomed to delay adulthood until the lucky ones inherit their parental boomer generation's vast residential property wealth.

The problem, for Corbynite Labour, is that this model of socialism--youthful, prone to bouts of techno-utopianism and deeply embedded in online culture wars--has finally ruptured an already fractured Labour coalition of the older working class and more middle-class, university-educated, city-dwelling voters. There is a cultural, linguistic, social and spatial chasm between distinct elements of Labour's old alliance, an unresolved 'contradiction between the "left-behind" working class and the student precariat'. (2) Corbynism attempted to fuse both by pitching 'the people' against the 'elite', borrowing from Podemos's condemnations of la casta with attacks on billionaires and 'cosy cartels'. Chantal Mouffe approvingly described this as 'the drawing of a new political frontier, between an "Us" and a "Them"', aimed at 'rearticulating a new hegemony'. (3)

In 2019, however, this strategy failed. In last year's general election, for every ten years older a voter was, the likelihood that they would support Labour decreased by 8 per cent. (4) Labour led the Conservatives 43 per cent to 29 per cent amongst voters with a degree, but the Tories won 58 per cent of the much larger cohort of voters with no university education. (5) Labour has simultaneously lost C2DE voters (defined as skilled and unskilled manual workers, and the unemployed). (6) Although the National Readership Survey's fifty-year old class categories do not entirely reflect the realignments of contemporary capitalism (leaving low-paid call centre workers, for example, in the C1 'lower middle class' category), the Conservatives won 48 per cent of blue-collar C2DE votes to Labour's 33 per cent. (7)

Part of this is down to the creeping realignment of political debate towards a perpetual culture war. It was reported in 2018 that focus group participants in studies organised by Britain Thinks had, when asked what food best represented Labour, repeatedly mentioned that the party connoted quinoa: 'Labour used to be working class, it used to be a pie and a pint--it's now a protesting student', said the group's director. (8) Dominic Cummings has successfully deployed a northern strategy reminiscent of Nixon's southern strategy, reframing arguments on economic and class categories as arguments based on subjective social identities, moral values and cultural signifiers--hard-working, small-town traditionalism versus elitist, urban cosmopolitanism. Cummings and Boris Johnson aim to stimulate and exploit the divide between relatively prosperous, creative citadels and a declining periphery, often referred to as 'left behind'. (9) Michael Gove feels comfortable quoting Gramsci and talking about 'the revolt against the elites' as voters 'withdraw their support for the economic consensus'. (10)

Meanwhile the government is forging a new kind of...

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