Published On: Thu, Dec 19th, 2019

Jeremy Corbyn and the new mainstream

Tweeting earlier in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech, Ed Miliband observed that the centre ground had moved and was being shaped by Labour. Correct. The boasts about Labour being the mainstream have a solid foundation because, to be more exact, our party is one of two mainstreams.

There’s the one we’ve seen Labour pander to for the 20 years pre-JC. The “common sense” centre ground expressed by newspaper editorialising, which has seen a rough consensus around market economics and the role of state, groupthink about cutting social security and immigration, and a unity of purpose in scapegoating powerless minorities. Blair’s genius, if that’s the right phrase, was to constantly adapt to this consensus rather than challenge it. Even redistributive politics that assisted low wage earners were crafted in such a way as not to frighten the horses in the leafy marginals. One problem was once the Tories got their act together under Dave, all it took was Brown to bottle an election for them to cruise to pole position among your YouGovs and Survations. The progressive consensus the later Blair talked about as the timer ticked down lacked substance. For the policy achievements, and there were some, there was no legacy in terms of value and political change. Dog-eat-dog economics reigned and right wing populism and fascism started getting traction during his time. Dave certainly had his problems after ascending to the top job, but overcoming popular affection for New Labour wasn’t one of them. This is the mainstream our Labour First and Progress comrades want to orient toward. The route to power runs through the middle of Britain they say, and this is where it’s at. But they’re entirely wrong, because there is another mainstream. Corbyn’s politics were for years condemned and dismissed as fringe lunacy, but the general election result was a rude wake up for establishment politics of all hues. Just because the anger and frustration accumulating across British society didn’t find expression in elite media outlets, that didn’t mean it was a minority pursuit. Once the general election was called Corbynism became the repository of all that was rebellious and disaffected. Here was a party and a politician who spoke to those excluded from politics, responded to aspirations and interests the establishment conspicuously turned a tin ear to and from an incredibly low base took Labour to within a whisker of power. What Corbynism articulates is a sensibility that the world can be better. There is no need to throw a young generation on the scrap heap of precarity, low pay and frustrated ambition. Or look forward to a future of decaying public and social infrastructure, declining solidarity and atomisation bordering on loneliness. Or older people having their later life blighted by shoddy or non-existent care. Corbynism believes we can aspire to something better than beggar-thy-neighbour and I’m alight Jack selfishness, and 13 million people agreed. If the polls are to be believed – a risky proposition, yes – a consistent plurality of voters now do too.

The mainstreams are increasingly visible because we’re seeing the process of polarisation come out into the open. As British capitalism seizes up and its class relationships undergo a profound transformation, the mainstream or centre ground as Blair and friends understood it ekes out a half-life only in their imaginations. The task of progressive politics now is to ride the wave of the new working class, of drawing the immaterial worker into politics in greater numbers and transform the Labour Party into its vehicle. It’s about not just shaping the new mainstream cohering around left politics, but expanding it outwards. What the Labour Party is starting to grasp is how the centre is where the mass of aspirations are, and the mainstream the direction of political travel of a rising mass of millions of people. Jeremy Corbyn’s speech shows he understands this, while his legion of critics do not. And it is this that will continue commending him to the growing dominance of our mainstream.

Left Futures

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