Corbyn, the Unlikely Populist

Jeremy Corbyn could use a dose of populist fire. But if that means playing the Right's game, it will be as unconvincing as it is unprincipled.

Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Matthew Kirby / Flickr

In 2017, with Labour’s post-coup polling still in the pits, Team Corbyn is trying something new. They’re going to take a “populist turn,” accentuating an anti-Westminster, anti-establishment politics.

To an extent, this is smart thinking, which seeks to exploit the very crisis of politics that made Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership possible. Prior to winning the leadership, Corbyn pointed out how hollow the political system in Britain had become. He said that thanks to low turnout, the Conservatives were able to govern with less than a quarter of the vote.

There isn’t a vast number of people in political parties in Britain, but that’s not to say we’re living in a totally depoliticized society. Look at the 250,000 that came on the anti-austerity march last weekend . . . I think we need to build a social movement.

The analysis was astute. Everywhere the establishment center breaks down, the same factors are in play. One of the worst ideas, in this context, would be to try to shore up the old “vital center.”

The “center” is such because it represents the consensus of the powerful. But in a Britain which has just undergone a “lost decade” in terms of wage growth, and worse is to come, where a low-productivity economy is facing further stagnation in the Brexit future, no one wants to hear the elite’s consensus any more. Anyone trying to shore up the center would be taken down with it.

Anyway, the Left will never be able to win on the center’s terms. It cannot promise to administer capitalism more effectively because it has to challenge capitalist power. It cannot promise to win the media battle, because it has to attack the consensus over which pundits, journalists, and broadcasters stand guard. If there is hope for the Left, it has to come from elsewhere.

Polling Pressure

But the “social movement” doesn’t just materialize at will. You can practice movement politics, but you can’t wish a movement into existence. And Labour is an electoralist institution, to its marrow. If Corbyn is to keep the leadership, he has to find a way to make the party electorally plausible.

Labour’s electoral weaknesses are serious. The Fabian Society argues in a recent study that Labour could be left with “only 140 to 200 big city and ex-industrial constituencies” based on its current poll ratings of approximately 28 percent. At the heart of this dilemma, the Fabians claim, is Brexit. Labour has lost four times as many “Leave” voters as “Remain” ones. Labour, it says, has to regain Leave voters while holding on to its current strongly Remain base. The first-past-the-post system makes a Labour victory in 2020 “currently unthinkable.”

The trade union leaderships which rallied behind Corbyn expect him to at least to demonstrate that he can improve Labour’s electoral chances. They took a big gamble in supporting him, but now Unite leader Len McCluskey has none-too-subtly warned that Corbyn will have to go if the polling doesn’t improve.

In the absence of any countervailing movement, the overwhelming pressure on Corbyn (or any Labour leader) will always come from the Right. The gravitational pull of the media and the dominant institutions will ensure it. And the common sense of these institutions is that if you have a polling problem, you occupy the center where the majority are supposed to be.

So Corbyn has to formulate an alternative to moving rightward. He has to find a way to add to Labour’s current base, which is the radicalized minority in British society, without compromising on his goals.

The “populist turn” is intended to be this alternative.

The “Establishment”

Left-wing populism makes a certain amount of sense in this context. A populist strategy would involve defining a “them” and “us” — a nefarious elite, and a virtuous people. In principle, that could cut across the divide over Brexit, and be attractive to many who currently won’t vote Labour.

Corbyn has been reluctant to do this, though, focusing his attacks on the traditional Labour enemy, “the Tories,” as if the deepest antagonisms in British society could be mapped onto parliamentary political competition. So his New Year message, in which he attacked “the establishment” for letting down “the people,” was a step forward.

“The establishment” is a distinctly British notion, almost equivalent to what Podemos calls “la casta,” the name for an alliance of politicians and big business playing by different rules from everyone else. In the United Kingdom, however, it has a more antique feel, rather like the use of “the Firm” to refer to the royal family. It describes networks of senior civil servants, judges, aristocrats, Oxbridge-educated intellectuals, media barons, top police officers, and business owners, whose domination is long entrenched.

We have seen “the establishment” at work repeatedly. In the elite debacles of Iraq and the credit crunch, and in the squalid Hackgate scandal in 2011 (disclosing collusion between police and newspapers involved in phone hacking and other misdemeanors) and, from another angle, the various elite child abuse scandals. Collapsing trust in major institutions such as the banks, the press, Parliament, and the European Union, has been accelerated — but not caused — by these scandals. This is the raw material on which, with the Left in utter disarray until recently, right-wing populism has worked to toxic effect by fusing it with nationalist racism.

Like Bernie Sanders, who also used populist strategies and shrugged off media disdain with a certain Brooklyn sangfroid, Corbyn has a certain amount of credibility as an “outsider” having never had, or aspired to, conventional career success. His integrity is doubted by no one, and his worst enemies concede that he has always been a good MP who goes out of his way to help his constituents.

But the idea of Corbyn as a populist leader doesn’t entirely convince. And it’s not just because you don’t quite launch a populist campaign with a series of briefings and press statements saying you’re launching a populist campaign. At the moment, it resembles nothing so much as the class swot trying to be one of the cool kids. Populism depends on character. While all politicians engage in populist tactics sometimes, any politician who wants to undertake a populist strategy has to have a certain charisma. A populist leader should embody, in some way, the superior being that “the people” would like to be. He attracts narcissistic investment in his personality, because he seems to represent the best ideals of “the people.”

But equally importantly, he also gives the people permission to hate. Like it or not, effective populism knowingly and deliberately mobilizes the dark side. This is what is transgressive about it. The British left has always been priggish about this, tending to conflate “the politics of hate” with those of the far right. The far right are certainly gifted at orchestrating and conducting hate toward the usual targets — immigrants, Muslims, “globalists,” and so on.

But as Bernie Sanders demonstrated without conceding an inch to this sort of politics, it is possible to articulate a class hatred sincerely and effectively. One can, in the name of every casualty of capitalism, uncompromisingly revile the “billionaire class” and its political advocates, without giving ground to bigotry.

Corbyn, though, is currently too nice to be a populist: hate is not his metier. If Labour really wants to go down this path, he will either have to draw out the more lupine aspect of his appearance and character, or delegate nastiness to one of his colleagues.

Two Paths

There is also the problem that “populism” in the British context usually means either waving the flag, bashing criminals, or laying into immigrants. These are the easiest, proven ways for a politician to identify with “the people of this country,” and identify an enemy — and of course they are all hobbyhorses of the Right.

Corbyn has been under considerable pressure to adopt a “harder” line on immigration, against his own thus far decent record. Most recently, Andy Burnham MP, who has served as Corbyn’s shadow home secretary, argued that Corbyn cannot defend “the status quo” on immigration. Nor is this pressure just coming from the Labour right. Len McCluskey, one of Corbyn’s key supporters in the trade union movement, claims that free movement has been a “gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers.” Amid preparations for reelection as leader of the Unite union, he claimed that it caused “downward pressure on wages.”

Clive Lewis, a Corbynite touted as a potential future leader, has also weighed in, arguing that free movement of labor within the European Union hasn’t worked for millions of British people. To his credit, Lewis redirected the argument to supporting workers’ rights. But he also conceded a key narrative of the racist right which is that immigration has hurt working-class people, when no such thing is true. This is not to say that there have not some been small, localized negative effects on wages. “Mass immigration” is not a single event, but a complex process which opportunistic employers have tried to exploit. But there is no evidence of a general downward pressure on wages.

And now, under pressure, Corbyn has ceded the “principle” of free movement. Undoubtedly, the idea of a left-wing leadership fighting from a weak polling position also defending “free movement” was daunting. It’s also difficult to fit into a populist strategy, since populism of necessity means reflecting back a “virtuous” image of the people, rather than challenging popular prejudice. But the problem with sounding “tough” notes on immigration without really wanting to reduce immigration, is that people see through it.

You give credit to the agenda of your opponents, but reap none of the rewards: if people want anti-immigrant politics, they will vote Conservative or UKIP. Indeed, the poison of anti-immigration fury is in part a legacy of similar failed attempts at New Labour triangulation on this issue. What is more, all of this is unnecessary. In Scotland, racism is as prevalent as in any other part of British society, but the Scottish National Party simply refused to pander and still won hugely by articulating a popular program.

The desire to sound “tougher” on immigration on some parts of the Left is understandable. They’re sick of being unpopular. And the polls tell them that immigration is unpopular, and that nationalism is very much in vogue. But the self-defeating nature of playing the Right’s game was illustrated in a recent video made by the pro-Corbyn rail union TSSA, and publicized by the pro-Corbyn activist group Momentum.

Advocating renationalization of the railways, the video represents “the people of the Netherlands,” France, and Germany as stereotyped characters jeeringly profiting from Britain’s privatized railways system. Mobilizing the folk clichés of British nationalism, it shows German football fans gloating over a 3-0 win against England. And it concludes by echoing the Brexit slogan, “Take back control.” We are only lucky that it didn’t invoke the football chant, “Two world wars and one world cup.”

This was pointless. Renationalization of the railways is already one of the most consistently popular policies in Britain, and has been since the original privatization. There was no need to rehash cheesy tabloid-style stereotypes to make the point, and it simply angered left-wing supporters while giving Blairites something to attack. But if your idea of being popular is imitating right-wing ideas that seem to be popular, it superficially makes sense.

Were the Corbyn leadership to be pushed in this direction, then its populism will begin to look more dubious than improbable. If populism necessarily involves trading in hate, a politics that authorized resentment against immigrants and foreigners would misdirect that hatred. And ultimately it would be an act of self-hatred, the ultimate terminus of the British left’s neurotic uneasiness with real aggression.

In Britain today, the banks continue to be untouchable, major utilities like rail and energy are still owned by rent-seeking companies making a killing, the press operate largely unscathed after Hackgate, until recently the entire political class was united around a policy of austerity that never achieved its stated aim, and now the same political class is making a pig’s ear of the Brexit vote it achieved in spite of itself.

There is your elite debacle. There is your target for any firebrand left-wing populist. If that is what the “populist turn” is about, it could be a step forward. If “populism” becomes a byword for sleazy flag-waving and unconvincing “toughness” on immigration, as some of Corbyn’s supporters want it to be, it will fail.