[A version of this article originally appeared in Arena Magazine, Dec 1 2015]
It’s been an interesting year for British politics. On 7 May 2015, the Conservative Party won the UK general election, The Conservatives are our Liberal Party – representing the socially conservative, tax-cutting, state-shrinking New Right. Of course in the special case of the UK, they also represent the aristocracy.
The Conservatives won on a platform of austerity, promising tax breaks for big business and cuts to social spending, all in vital service of the economy. It’s important to note that while they won a majority in parliament, less than a quarter of people voted for them.
After losing the election (on a platform of slightly-less-cuts to social spending and slightly-less-generous tax breaks for big business), the Labour Party held its leadership contest. And for the first time, this was done democratically – by opening it to members and supporters for a small fee.
With fifteen minutes to spare, a handful of Labour politicians begrudgingly consented to throwing a Mr Jeremy Corbyn into the contest. They did so not in the hope that he would win, but in an attempt to broaden the debate. After his nomination, the betting odds of him winning were shortened from 100/1 to 20/1.
Jeremy Corbyn has been a Labour MP since 1983, being elected eight times by his constituents. With a grey beard and aversion to ties, one writer acutely observed of the leadership contest – “every photo of the candidates looks like the staff room of a failing comprehensive, feigning amusement at being photobombed by the janitor”.
In the 1980s Jeremy Corbyn was arrested at an anti-apartheid rally. Meanwhile, the Federation of Conservative Students were circulating posters that read HANG NELSON MANDELA.
Jeremy Corbyn also fought for LGBT rights, while the then incumbent Conservative government outlawed the “promotion” of homosexuality “a pretend family relationship”. These are now accepted wrongs, thanks to people like Jeremy Corbyn.
With his 20/1 odds of becoming the next Labour leader, the grizzled activist took to the stage to set out his bid: renationalise the railways; renationalise energy companies; scrap tuition fees; enforce corporate tax; introduce rent controls; nuclear disarmament; and quantitative easing to fund infrastructure (with advice from Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty).
The message was clear – radically renegotiate economics.
The Expected Reaction and the Unexpected Response
Corbyn’s popularity surged. At the same time, every major newspaper and his own party turned on him. Despite being one of his party’s longest serving members, he was condemned by both previous Labour prime ministers. This, alongside Labour MP after Labour MP saying they would refuse to work with him as leader.
Smear campaigns accused him of antisemitism; being pro-Putin; threatening national security; riding a “Maoist bicycle”; wearing a “proletarian white vest”; being friends with terrorists; causing “his” divorce; eating cold baked beans from the can; and of course mourning the death of Osama bin Laden.
Corbyn’s response was, “I don’t do personal, I don’t do abuse…it devalues the political process.” He rose above it, and in taking the personality out of politics, shone an uncomfortable light on policies. This has unsettled so-called journalists, pushing them to report on politics, as opposed to the ability of a political leader to eat a bacon sandwich (this was headline news, and the event has its own extensive Wikipedia article – “Ed Miliband bacon sandwich photograph“).
In spite of full spectrum smear and sabotage from the very party he was being asked to lead, Jeremy Corbyn was eventually elected leader with 59.5% of the vote. This is the largest mandate ever won by a British party leader.
There are perhaps, a few things the Australian Left can learn from all this.
Do not underestimate the appetite for left-wing politics. You can be effective without pandering to the centre ground or trying to attract votes from the right. As the writers George Monbiot and George Lakoff have explained – you do not win your opponents over. Do not appease people who do not share your values, by becoming them. Project your values, and attract people to them.
To any repressed Labor or Green politician reading this – do not be afraid to upset your party or the news media. We voters are more cynical than you give us credit. We do not listen to them as much as they think we do.
Sticking to the Left
Corbyn was elected clear leader of the Labour party because he stuck to his left-wing principles and policies. But in order to be elected as Prime Minister, he is being advised to do the exact opposite, and accommodate the “middle ground”.
While this might have been a factor in the rise of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997, it doesn’t seem to have worked since, with both Labour votes and membership dwindling from that point onwards. The advice also overlooks the recent extinction of the UK’s staunchly “middle ground” party, the Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dems formed in 1988 after some Labour politicians disaffected from their party, complaining it had moved too far to the Left. After a brief spell in coalition with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems were crushed in this year’s election. Previously a party of 57 MPs, they are now an endangered species of just 8.
Standing on the Left and accommodating those to the Right seems paradoxical, or at least deceitful. Corbyn is being asked to hold one set of values, and simultaneously appeal to those who hold another set of values. At this point, such expert advice starts to smell like a veiled request to “just stop being so left-wing”.
Loudly, Corbyn’s Labour must attract people to its values and policies, not try and stretch itself to the Right to envelope a conceptual “middle England”.
What then, are the implications of a left-wing Labour party? In a nutshell, it creates the space for post-austerity to flower in the UK.
“Post-austerity” is an imperfect, working title for something that has yet to fully form. And to understand what it might look like, we can begin with what was the most Googled question during this year’s election debates…
“What is Austerity?”
Austerity derives from the Greek austeros, meaning bitterness (to singe the tongue), and up until the 1980s referred to extreme strictness and harsh discipline in all aspects of life. To understand its recent economic definition, we need to look back to the 70s.
In 1973 the price of oil quadrupled. This was disastrous for poorer countries, whose economies were built on exporting raw materials to wealthier countries. Expensive oil affected consumption in these wealthy countries, which meant reduced demand for poorer countries’ materials. With these export falling and the cost of imports ballooning with the new price of oil, these countries (predominantly African but also South Asian, Latin American and Caribbean) inescapably ran up national deficits.
Hazardously in debt, these countries turned to the world’s financial institutions for help, and these institutions (the IMF and World Bank) offered them loans accompanied by strict conditions. These conditions were called Structural Adjustment Programmes and demanded the following:
- financial deregulation;
- the removal of subsidies (including basic food subsidies);
- the removal of protective import controls and other “trade barriers”;
- the introduction of fees-for-service in education and healthcare;
- currency devaluation;
- the privatisation of state enterprises such as hospitals, schools, public transport, electricity, power stations, water supply, sanitation, and other essential infrastructure.
Flying in the face of national sovereignty, these poverty-inducing demands were politely referred to as “austerity measures”. The message was clear then, and is clear now – shrink the state and maximise the market.
Structural Adjustment (synonymous with “The Washington Consensus“) was very much a project of its time, an ideological companion to US Reaganomics, British Thatcherism, and Chile’s Chicago Boys. These goliaths, along with today’s Malcolm Turnbulls and David Camerons, are incarnations of the same basic logic, which is that markets and individual profits are sacred and government spending on society is abhorrent. Societies and wild environment are also – certainly in the case of Australia – framed as troublesome obstacles to the “progress” of economic growth and expansion.
This type of thinking has its intellectual origins in people like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand, and is commonly referred to as neoliberalism. It is perhaps the most extreme form of capitalism every realised, only a few philosophical steps away from anarcho-capitalism (wherein courts and the legal system would ideally be privatised). Because it is an ideology, nobody is sure exactly how shrunken the ideal neoliberal state would be. Increasingly a relic of its 19-20th century stateliness, there is the prospect that followed to its logical conclusion, neoliberalism would leave us with some form of privatised feudalism.
It is crucial to note that anti-austerity is not anti-capitalism, because neoliberalism is only one highly ideological form of capitalism. And it is because of this extremism that ideas like Keynesianism, Nordic social democracy and Corbynomics are considered as “hard left” or “Marxist throwbacks”.
Anti-Austerity and Post-Austerity
Jeremy Corbyn it not the messiah, but he is the branch tip of an anti-austerity sapling that has been taking root across Europe. Labour’s new mandate was met with sincere words from Die Linke in Germany, Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in Spain, while back home the Scottish Nationalists and Greens (to whom Labour has been haemorrhaging votes) applauded Labour’s new anti-austerity platform.
“At a time of mass income and wealthy inequality throughout the world, I am delighted to see the British Labour party has elected Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader,” added US presidential contender Bernie Sanders. These two political veterans have provided the most left-wing option available to their countries’ opposition parties, and both have been flooded with support from young people. Sanders will probably lose to Hilary Clinton, but second place is till colossal for a proclaimed socialist in the US.
It is important not to pretend that all this is any indication of the values and inclinations of the majority. In the last British election most votes were for right-wing parties, while Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are busy rekindling fascism.
There is nevertheless, an appetite for left-wing politics. This appetite needs a menu, but the menu cannot be anti-austerity. This would be like a vegetarian restaurant selling not-pork-burgers, or inviting people to an un-boring meeting. Labour needs a post-austerity agenda with a name that embraces markets and individualism while acknowledging the social aspects of human economics. Perhaps they could call it social-ism?
An added challenge for this
socialist post-austerity project, it to change the conversation from “how Labour can win” to “why Labour should win”. As part of this, Labour must not respond to the neoliberal logic by shouting “markets and individuals are bad, the state and society are good”. Post-austerity Labour can celebrate markets and individual profiteering where appropriate, while celebrating the role of government spending and a moral tax system. This would belittle neoliberalism for what it is – a restrained way of thinking about humans in the world.
“Another World is Possible.”
These are the words chosen by John McDonnell in his first speech as shadow chancellor. They are also the words sung by the more than 40,000 alter-globalisation protestors in 1999 Seattle. These words crystallised into the motto of the World Social Forum, a loose coalition of social movements that form a grassroots alternative to the World Economic Forum.
While Tony Blair committed himself to dealing with these disruptive protestors at global economic summits, Jeremy Corbyn has committed himself to dealing with the global economy:
“Time and time again, the people who receive a great deal tell the many to be grateful to be given anything at all. They say that the world cannot be changed and the many must accept the terms n which they are allowed to live in it. These days this attitude is justified by economic theory. The many with little or nothing are told they live in a global economy whose terms cannot be changed. They must accept the place assigned to them by competitive markets…Our Labour Party came into being to fight that attitude.”
There is now room for a conversation outside of neoliberalism, and Corbyn has committed to making this conversation as crowdsourced as possible. Another world it not only possible, but full of possibilities.
Many have highlighted the role of entrepreneurs, small businesses and the self-employed in Labour’s post-austerity project. Under the Conservatives these enterprisers stand to lose from corporate welfare, while under Labour they stand to win from investments in infrastructure.
Perhaps Labour’s post-austerity will also challenge some of the injustices of intellectual property rights, and maybe even push for something that recognises the ecology of human creativity. Labour might carry forward the best of 20th century socialism, in synthesis with something that moves beyond some of the problems of class branding. There are exciting opportunities for distributed energy and food sovereignty. Perhaps they will unveil a revamped Keynesianism funding radical 21st century public services, like a National Education Service. Hopefully they will be able to resuscitate the renewables industry.
Whatever happens, watch this space.
Another world of possibilities awaits voters in 2020, but the immediate challenge is the digested logic of austerity and neoliberalism (this is referred to as “deconstructing hegemony” in academic chambers).
Since the 2008 crash triggered by deregulated finance, the Conservative have stressed the need to reduce the national deficit, and framed government “overspending” as partly, if not entirely, responsible. This of course follows the same structural adjustment argument that, by investing in hospitals and water supply, the Ugandan government was somehow responsible for quadrupling the price of oil in 1973.
It is unfortunately too late for Labour to start pointing out “we didn’t do this”, but it is never too late to start saying “look at what the Conservatives are doing”. The Conservative economy “recovery” is being built on high personal debt and a housing bubble. And if that sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
A chorus of economic institutions (including the IMF, Bank of England, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and Bank for International Settlements) have warned that another financial crash is looming. If this happens before 2020, it will expose austerity for the ideology it is, not the necessity it masquerades as.
Whatever happens, come the next election the UK will have had a decade of austerity. The biggest threat to a Labour-led victory, frustratingly, remains those politicians fiercely loyal to a version of Labour that Britain has been rejecting for well for over a decade. If Labour fumbles in 2020, three rounds of state-shrinking will leave the country irreversibly damaged.
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