The Labour Left’s Fatal Contradictions Are Still Unresolved

In the best moments of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left captured an insurgent, democratizing spirit. Yet two years after the Left’s defeat, the top-down approach that led to the fatal “second referendum” policy continues to hamper its recovery.

Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the Labour Party, at an event during the Labour Party conference in Brighton, UK, 2021. (Hollie Adams / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Minutes after the exit poll, the Labour left’s narrative was set. Brexit, not socialist policies, had cost Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party the 2019 general election. Those within the movement who had counseled against a second referendum on EU membership claimed vindication. Those who took us toward that policy could either — like Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell — plead guilty, or protest fatalistically that while the policy was bad, the Brexit pincer grip would have damned us whatever was done. Left influencers’ former flirtation with anti-Brexit politics evaporated as completely as the dodgy People’s Vote campaign itself.

With Britain finally out of the EU, we’re all Lexiters now (though pollster YouGov reports that 59 percent of Labour members want to rejoin). But there’s a deeper problem: the dynamics within Corbynism that allowed the radical left’s shot at state power to be squandered remain substantially uncorrected.

Short of a politically activated revolutionary working class, taking back the Labour Party remains a component of most socialists’ hope for the future. But failing to address the dynamics that led the Labour left to get Brexit so wrong will lead to structurally similar failings over whatever landmark issues a hypothetical future left electoral project is faced with. Today, the Labour left in defeat seems worryingly uncurious about the regressive influence earlier defeated lefts have sometimes inadvertently had.

We’re seeing similar dynamics play out again, through the Left’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the bandwagon in favor of electoral reform. Of course, there are many plausible stances the Left could take on such fraught questions. But the apparent unanimity of the Left on these issues is itself ominous — not least because of its family resemblance to the capture of crucial parts of the Left by “Remainism” in the run-up to 2019.

Unsolved Weaknesses

It’s worth emphasizing that the obliteration of Corbynism was not inevitable after the 2019 general election. As I wrote the week after polling day, the core political claims of the Left’s “centrist” rivals inside Labour were, if anything, even more humiliated by the result than Corbyn was. The Left’s real defeat came in the Labour leadership election that followed, which revealed the pliability and political shallowness of much of the membership Corbyn had always relied on.

It is easy to represent Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership as a right-wing coup. But the disturbing fact is it couldn’t have happened without substantial support from sincere “leftist” Corbyn supporters, just like the disastrous second referendum position before it. Sir Keir lied to win, but it hardly takes a paid-up Freudian to suspect it was more than just deception that led a Labour membership newly rueful of its Remain-ward drift to eagerly elect the man most associated with this policy.

The motives leading good Corbynistas to both blunders might best be summarized using terms coined by the socialist Hal Draper in the 1960s: leaning toward a technocratic and moralizing “socialism from above,” rather than chaotically democratizing “socialism from below.”

Today, this dynamic tends to take the form of some combination of the following habits: anti-populism (a misanthropic suspicion of “the people” as tendentially reactionary, racist, and ignorant); hyper-partisanship (the reflex to blame “the Tories” and their supporters, rather than the four-decade cross-party consensus on neoliberalism); a revulsion at petit-bourgeois nationalism untempered by an equal dislike of Davos-class globalism (when distance from both is needed to avoid being subsumed by one or other side in an intra-elite conflict); and a “retreat from class” toward liberal bourgeois institutions and procedures.

These are the self-defeating temptations of a political faction that wants the best for people and rarely gets it, and that is increasingly drawn from a class different to the one it sets out to liberate. In its most glorious moments, Corbynism transcended these constraints of vision. But the Left’s mistakes — from the second referendum policy to the election of Sir Keir to the flagship positions taken after — have invariably been coded by them.

A Defeated Left Is a Dangerous Thing

The second danger of this strain of “socialism from above” is that it has the potential to be not merely self-sabotaging, but also actively regressive. The defeat of Corbyn and Bernie Sanders was followed by a carve-up of their policies by the ruling centrists in the United States and the ruling right wing in Britain.

Far from the Left “winning the argument,” as Corbyn himself put it, this has resulted in superficially left-wing ideas around climate, racial justice, anti-fascism, and indeed a new settlement on the role of the state, being stripped of their liberatory, democratizing content, and put in the service of projects — Bidenism and Johnsonism — that are only interested in relegitimizing elite power.

In becoming cheerleaders of such crumbs, defeated leftist rumps can end up advancing the exact opposite political outcomes to those they promised when their projects were still on the rise. If this seems an unduly brutal appraisal of the left-populism of the 2010s, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

As theorists as diverse as Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, Adolph Reed, and Nancy Fraser have argued, the apparent defeat of the 1968 “New Left” was followed by many of its demands, aesthetics, and frames of feeling being embraced by victorious elites as part of neoliberalism’s “new spirit of capitalism.” As Fraser reflects:

Conscripted in the service of a project that was deeply at odds with our larger, holistic vision of a just society . . . utopian desires found a second life as feeling currents that legitimated the transition to a new form of capitalism: post-Fordist, transnational, neoliberal.

It is increasingly voguish to suggest that state responses to COVID-19 augur an “end to neoliberalism.” If this is right, we should remember that the last such transition was to a yet more exploitative form of capitalism, dressed in the clothing of the defeated left.

Proportional Representation

For all the opportunity afforded by the dire Sir Keir, leadership from the Labour left of the movement Corbyn bequeathed them has been nonexistent. From this awful vacuum, two recognizable positions have emerged as the post-Corbyn left’s main raison d’être: replacing Britain’s “first past the post” (FPTP) voting system with proportional representation; and pursuing a “zero COVID” strategy of maximum containment of the virus. Both appear to be highly popular on the Left, but — I claim — can unfortunately trace their lineage back to the same “from above” instincts that brought us to the second referendum position.

This is not the place for a thoroughgoing “Left case against proportional representation” — and I acknowledge there are reasonable arguments for it. What is troubling, however, is the apparently unanimous support electoral reform has in Constituency Labour Parties and within the membership of Momentum, after barely any public discussion.

Momentum even took PR as its number two policy aim for 2021 — easily swatted away by Sir Keir for the irrelevance it was — at a conference where the only issue was the marginalization of the Left through internal party rule changes. This is the spontaneous priority we emerge from the radical liberatory experimentation of the Corbyn project with? Really?

The prospect of campaigning on a complex meta-political issue at one remove from the daily exploitations that govern people’s lives smacks of Corbynism’s nadir: the constitutional nit-picking over a “no deal” exit from the EU and the proroguing of parliament in fall 2019.

When the Conservatives legislate to change electoral boundaries and introduce voter ID, or when the Labour right changes the rules on Labour leadership elections, we know it is because they doubt their ability to win “honestly” under the current systems in future. How, then, can we accuse them over this when our own response to defeat is to beg to move the goalposts?

The best case for PR is the virtual Tory hegemony that FPTP has yielded over the past half-century. But Corbyn’s 2017 performance under FPTP would have won handily in any previous election since the millennium. Do we now join with the Labour right and the entire political class in pretending that never happened? It will never happen again if we adopt a system which has in every other national context made power brokers of centrist liberals.

FPTP, it should be added, was hardly bad for Labour governments in the 1960s and ’70s. If we wanted to argue that something has changed in British democracy that illegitimately makes Tory hegemony structurally insurmountable, a more obvious and direct target would be media ownership. Unlike PR, this is something the Left could meaningfully campaign over without the blessing of the Labour conference or leadership, and — such are the sins of journalists — with the appropriate populist framing, could rightly garner visceral public support.

Anti-populist in its disbelief that a near-majority of the “rainy fascism island” would ever support Corbynite policies again, hyper-partisan in its delusion that “taking the fight to the Tories” with a progressive alliance of Liberal Democrats and Greens is something that animates huge swathes of people, and a retreat from class in its eagerness to make alliances with reactionary liberal factions (inside and outside the party): the campaign for proportional representation is a virtual checklist of the self-defeating pathologies of “socialism from above,” and a mirror image of the campaign for a People’s Vote. Perhaps it’s worse than that. The affiliated organizations listed by the pro-PR group Labour for a New Democracy is a rogue’s gallery of unrepentant professional Remainers.

The Response to COVID-19

If the Labour left’s newfound enthusiasm for PR is likely to be merely self-sabotaging, “Zero COVID” — a monomaniacal insistence on maximal containment until the disease is entirely eradicated — is outright regressive. I am not going to attempt to outline an alternative pandemic strategy to the lockdowns adopted in most major countries. Nor do I make an informed prediction about how the balance sheet on lockdowns is going to look in retrospect for the rich world (the appalling mistake of obliterating the informal economies of poor countries with much younger populations is already clear).

Once again, what is problematic in the first instance is the extraordinary unanimity of the post-Corbyn left in supporting the most “from above” position possible. This suggests another continuity with the drift to the second referendum. But it also risks putting the Left in the service of a dramatically regressive transformation in society, analogous to that the ’68 New Left has been accused of accommodating in the neoliberal revolution.

It is interesting to reflect on the other responses a newly marginalized left could have adopted in the face of an unprecedented suspension of liberties and upward movement of wealth and power. To record in real time the material losses experienced by the working class during lockdown in preparation for a 1945-style reckoning after the crisis? To campaign for not-at-risk furloughed workers to be deployed to pandemic-controlling infrastructure projects (as they were in parts of China)? To at least uphold a culture of enlightened skepticism about the sudden and uniform reversal of almost all public health orthodoxy: not least the World Health Organization’s established commitment to community-specific treatment and holistic assessment of harms, and its explicit ruling out of lockdowns just weeks before the historic volte-face.

Instead, the post-Corbyn left has spent the pandemic urging a strategy that — if pursued — could only entail yet more unquestioning submission to a government it supposedly regards as “far right”; to pharmaceutical companies it had spent the 2019 election representing as vultures circling our most intimate data; to borders it fulminated against whenever they were mentioned by Brexiteers; and to police it was at the time calling to be abolished as agents of racism and gendered violence.

It is true, some have seen lockdowns as a bridge to liberatory policies such as Universal Basic Income. But has the gift of unlimited moral ballast for lockdowns ever been attached to conditions of any kind? Was the Left’s support for undemocratically imposed measures whose implementation it couldn’t influence really likely to result in the spontaneous flowering of Corbynism by other means?

It needs to be reckoned with that the Left has not just been unreflectingly complicit with mainstream liberal opinion in this, as it was sometimes argued to have been over Brexit. It has been the most pro-lockdown of anyone: the UK’s main zero-COVID campaign describes itself as “jointly convened by Diane Abbott MP and the Morning Star.” Meanwhile, the closest thing to the Labour left in government, in the Welsh Assembly, has followed the Scottish National Party in driving through an illiberal regime of vaccine passes — winning on the technicality of an opposition MP failing to join the Zoom vote in time.

Public compliance with lockdowns was formidable, and polling unnervingly suggests support for some lockdown measures becoming permanent, however much the pandemic recedes. Vaccination is very high in Britain, but elsewhere it has already become a focus for new kinds of social control.

In France, we see gendarmes barging through restaurants ensuring vaccine status. In the United States, the withdrawal of medical rights and basic freedoms for the unvaccinated has become acceptable liberal opinion, and, in Colorado, law. Yet in Britain, the Left’s energies of resistance have been reserved for the fight against a barely existent “COVID skepticism.”

We will see who benefits from the Left’s abandoning any critique of anti-COVID measures to the fringe right, when healthy vaccinated people reasonably blanche at the prospect of future lockdowns, indefinite boosters, and vaccines for healthy children, and the probable long-term obesity and mental health disaster set in motion by lockdowns starts to kick in.

To refer to my checklist again: as with the second referendum and PR, the Left’s instinctive reaction to the lockdowns was anti-populist: it anxiously suspected the public of being selfish yahoos, when they were in the main either deeply compliant or sensibly flexible (e.g. defying the ban on seeing loved ones outside or visiting beaches, but in many cases continuing to mask in crowded areas after the mandate to do so expired).

This reaction has also been hyper-partisan: a government of asset strippers led by a celebrity journalist has been unsurprisingly ineffectual. But the Left has been so eager to attribute the country’s poor COVID performance to Boris Johnson’s personal genocidal impulses, that it has missed the opportunity to tell the more important story: that Britain’s poor pandemic response was the outcome of forty years of neoliberal demobilizing of state capacity, which passive lockdowns have done nothing to reverse. Johnson’s popularity is undented by the Left’s histrionic representation of him. So, what was gained?

Finally, the increasing influence over the Left of a downwardly mobile professional class meant it was more likely to see lockdown from the perspective of those who often work from home anyway (or who stood to save a fortune on commuting), than it was to take the perspective of the “essential workers” making deliveries to them in increasingly alienated conditions.

For the Many?

The 2017 election proved that a functional majority in Britain can support radically social democratic and even anti-imperialist policies, even under FPTP. But it comes at the entry price of a performed willingness to show trust in people beyond the Left’s familiar constituencies, and a populist precision about who stands to gain by supporting us. For the Many, Not the Few.

Everything that has happened since has been a journey away from that, and it may be the case — with the Brexit question closed — that it will be a long time before the Left gets such another opportunity to differentiate itself from the neoliberal centrists the Labour Party forces it to fraternize with.

Electoral reform and COVID-19 are — for now — too politically indeterminate in Britain to represent such a test, and the Left’s position on them (in England and Scotland at least) has been broadly ignored. Which is fortunate, because on both issues it has been as anti-populist, hyper-partisan, class-blind, and malignly “from above” as it was on the drift to the second referendum. It’s not too late. Better shape up.