Much has been written about the accidents of Jeremy Corbyn’s astonishing rise to the the Labour leadership in the summer of 2015 (Ed Miliband’s reforms to the party’s leadership election rules, the famous last-second nomination that got him onto the ballot), but perhaps less about the social forces that actively enabled it and explain it. Corbyn was announced as the winner of the leadership ballot in September of that year, taking nearly 60% of the vote, and seeing off three established Labour politicians in Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. More than five years on, and nearly a year since Labour’s disastrous election performance spelled the end of Corbyn’s leadership, it’s now possible (and arguably desirable) to speak of Corbynism in the past tense, notwithstanding the ongoing rows surrounding Corbyn’s own position vis a vis the Labour Party and the EHRC report on anti-semitism.
Labour had lost the 2015 election somewhat unexpectedly, with most polls suggesting a hung parliament. The central dilemma that the party had found itself in over the previous five years was over its fiscal policy, with Neo-Keynesians led by Ed Balls arguing (correctly) in favour of additional stimulus to arrest what turned out to be one of the longest economic slumps on record, but Miliband and others sensing (also correctly) that this was a political trap laid for them by George Osborne, who relished every opportunity to present the economic crisis as the consequence of Labour’s earlier spending and borrowing. Labour were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t, and in the end Osborne’s cynicism won the day, resulting in a Tory majority.
The most significant catalyst for Corbynism was the introduction in July 2015 of a welfare bill, that proposed limiting tax credits to just two children. The timing of this bill was opportunistic, seeking to exploit Labour’s already crushed morale, and unsettle its leadership contest. The interim Leader, Harriet Harman, announced that Labour would “show it was listening” by not voting against the bill. Accepting Osborne’s framing of the previous five years, she said that “We cannot simply say to the public you were wrong at the election”. Corbyn, crucially, was the only one of the four leadership contenders who broke the whip to vote against the bill, and within two months was Leader of the Opposition.
It had become traditional for Labour to welcome a figure from the hard left of the party on to its leadership ballots, to broaden the debate. Diane Abbott had stood in 2010. John McDonnell might have stood in 2015, but suggested Corbyn instead. In that sense, Corbyn might be viewed as just another representative of the Bennite wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But this is to obscure what was so distinctive about Corbyn as a figure, and to misunderstand both his timeliness and eventual failure as a leader. Corbyn was primarily an anti-War activist, whose central vocation was towards the moral denunciation of Western foreign policies, especially in the Middle East. What was distinctive about Corbynism as a phenomenon was how this political mission was wedded to a widespread sense of public fury with the social consequences of George Osborne’s fiscal policy. In sum, Corbynism was a temporary and surprisingly potent alliance between anti-imperialism and anti-austerity.
There has been far, far too much psychological discussion and speculation regarding the moral character and prejudices of Jeremy Corbyn as a person. And yet on one particular matter, his supporters and foes seem to be agreed: he is energised by taking principled opposition to things, but shies away from inter-personal conflict. To put that another way, he is a devoted activist and moralist, but a poor political leader and strategist. He is quick to declare that policies and actions are ‘wrong’, but reluctant to impose his will upon others. It is scarcely surprising that someone of this character would feel more comfortable on the back benches and at protests than in high office.
Yet it is interesting to consider why such a figure was, in many ways, peculiarly well-suited to the conditions of 2015-19. First of all, there is the obvious sense in which an ‘anti-politician’, an outsider, held appeal at a time when professional, mainstream politicians appeared to have become riddled with cynicism. Labour’s inability to defend the interests of poor families in July 2015 looked like evidence of what happened when ‘politics’ trumped basic morality, and made the case for electing a moralist as a leader instead.
But there’s a more general sense in which the time was ripe for Corbyn, which relates back to what I’ve termed the ‘punitive spirit’ of neoliberalism that emerged following 2008. The aftermath of the financial crisis witnessed a resurgent politics of guilt, in which authority derived from its capacity to mete out punishment to those who had allegedly had it too good. As Lazzarato, drawing on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, argues very well in The Making of Indebted Man, debt occasions a brutal morality of unrelenting self-flagellation, that may be unrelated to any utilitarian calculus of efficiency or progress.
So it turned out with austerity. Devastating cuts to the welfare budget and to local government (which is responsible for so much of what holds society together, via social care and children’s services) were notionally justified on a nonsensical macroeconomic pretext that they would generate growth and balanced budgets, but morally and psychologically justified on the basis that someone needed to suffer. George Osborne lost credibility in the eyes of the economics profession, but gained it in the eyes of baby-boomer middle-England, who were happy to hear that allegedly work-shy families in the inner cities and the younger, softer generation, had had it too good. Meanwhile, with all responsibility for macroeconomic stimulus pushed towards the monetary authorities, those same baby-boomers saw their house prices and pensions continue to grow, thanks to an abundance of cheap credit pushing up asset prices ever further.
The point is that, several years before an unlikely figure from the Stop The War coalition became Leader of the Opposition, austerity had already been waged as a moralistic program based around a logic of innocence, guilt and punishment, overlayed on to a financialised economy divided (as Adkins, Cooper & Konings identify) according to a logic of assets and debt. The most egregious manifestations of this were sadistic in nature: benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax and the Work Capability Assessment drove people to despair and beyond. As symptoms of the ‘punitive logic’ of neoliberalism, many of these policies were later found to produce more health problems and costs than they alleviated, just as Osborne’s attempt to eradicate the deficit by cutting public spending frequently had the opposite effect. Public sector pay-freezes contributed to both macroeconomic and psychological depression.
Osborne seized and channeled the moralism of debt-led neoliberalism with gusto, and it won him and Cameron a Parliamentary majority (which they got to enjoy for all of 13 months), but it unleashed a kind of legitimacy crisis that ultimately engulfed them. Whether expressed via Brexit (for which austerity carries not insignificant responsibility) or via Corbynism, political reactions to the new moral economy of punishment were expressed in similarly moralistic and punitive terms. As ever with rage and resentment, the targets were not always the most appropriate ones: Brussels, welfare-claimants, immigrants, universities and Israel are all potential scapegoats under these conditions. Underlying all of this is a break-down of the basic liberal compact of society (accelerated by events such as the 2011 expenses scandal), that reward is vaguely related to effort, and punishment to crime.
There was evident relief for the Left and Labour members in having a leader who was, at the very least, willing to denounce the policies that had visited such pain upon people, purely due to accidents of birth, disability and class. In many ways, the senseless violence of austerity’s sharper edges called precisely for a spokesperson who had spent decades denouncing senseless violence abroad. Osborne encouraged the zero-sum (and ultimately, with Brexit, negative-sum) conditions of British politics over the last decade, in which all parties (with the possible exception of asset-rich Remainers) come to view society as a domain of acute unfairness. British capitalism’s crisis, post-2008, could be measured in terms of slumping productivity, wage and GDP growth; but it was also an acute moral crisis, in how reward was earned (or not) and how punishment was earned (or not). This produced an overwhelming desire for this to be voiced, including amongst the young, whose rent and student debt were escalating.
Whether he meant to or not, Corbyn stole the political limelight in 2015 at a time when society was already being forcefully split into the guilty and the innocent. Corbyn was no more morally divisive a force than the man who sought to divide society into “strivers” and “skivers”, accusing the latter of “sleeping off a life on benefits”. What Corbyn seemed to offer his followers was a chance to draw that line differently, such that the young, the distressed and the weak were no longer deemed responsible for their own fate, meaning that culpability lay elsewhere. We now know that some sought it via terrible conspiracy theories, and that Corbyn lacked the stomach to confront this adequately.
Being more moralist than politician, Corbyn and his most loyal fans have often seemed unable to distinguish between his personal virtues (“kind”, “decent”, “principled”) and the broader consequences of his leadership. An unhelpful aspect of all this is the Christ narrative that has attached to the man himself, in which the more the press and establishment insist on his guilt, the more a section of his fanbase asserts his perfect innocence, whilst any kind of realism between the two becomes impossible. Something about the cocktail of righteousness and weakness that characterised the Corbyn leadership makes it very difficult to draw a line under.
What deserves focusing on now is not an individual backbench MP but the conditions that were already firmly in place in 2015, and have deepened ever since. Had Harman whipped Labour to vote against the welfare bill in 2015, or had McDonnell stood instead of Corbyn, things would have worked out differently, but the background constraints would have been the same. Corbyn’s mild-mannered pacifism, activism and sense of ordinary decency were certainly an especially effective vessel for expressions of deep social injustice, but those sentiments (and their causes) would have existed regardless. Labour cut through effectively as an anti-austerity party in 2017 (the year of Theresa May’s excruciating “there is no magic money tree”), but equally effectively as an anti-imperialist party in 2019, for which read ‘soft on national security’. The unlikely achievement of a pacifist leading a major political party was remarkable (as I discussed here), but ultimately was what did for him, as this account from a Momentum activist attested.
In policy terms, Corbynism offered to abandon the instruments and the decisions that had heaped stress and punishment upon those who deserved neither: tuition fees, public sector pay-freezes and benefit freezes would all be scrapped. Other instruments that caused stress to public sector workers, such as OfSted, would be abolished. In that sense, Corbyn offered a kind of mass ‘pardoning’ of all those on the receiving end of ‘punitive neoliberalism’. But despite the impressive range of economic thinkers that assembled around McDonnell, and the flowering of heterodox economic thinking on the Left during this time, it remained unclear how – if at all – the broader structural problems of rentier capitalism, asset price inflation and private sector wage stagnation could begin to be reversed, other than via a more active public sector. Ed Miliband’s slightly ill-fated 2011 dichotomy of ‘predators vs producers’ remained (and remains) the problem, and – until the furlough scheme was unveiled this year – there is still no mainstream vision of a welfare and labour market policy that provides genuine security to people, without accompanying distress. Many of the policies put forward by economists of inequality, such as Thomas Piketty and Tony Atkinson, are far more radical in terms of weakening the power of inherited wealth and targeting rent-seeking, than anything that appeared in Corbyn’s two proudly socialist manifestos. There is no reason why 2017 should be viewed as the high water-mark for the Left.
Corbynism helped politicise the economy and mobilise people accordingly, raising public consciousness of intergenerational injustices and the extent of unhappiness with the status quo. What Keir Milburn refers to as ‘Generation Left’ outlives Corbynism and continues to expand with each passing year, and the problem of acute poverty will become exacerbated by Brexit and the pandemic. The shape of British capitalism is not morally acceptable. It shouldn’t be like this, and there are more people willing to stand up and say this in mainstream public life than there were five years ago. The Conservatives have grown fearful of appearing like George Osborne, if only as a reputational problem. The question is what, if anything, is to be done next.