What do you do with a defeat so overwhelming that there’s no arguing with it? the electoral mutilation from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party a year ago posed this question vividly. After a year of grim pandemic, government debacles and clumsy efforts by new Labor leader Keir Starmer to discipline his left-wing opponents, is the left any closer to responding? No.
Left won the Labor leadership in 2015, in the person of Jeremy Corbyn, despite his inherited weaknesses. His parties were shrinking. His publications were mostly of poor quality and little read. Its intellectuals were isolated in the media and universities. He had some support in the unions, but they too were declining and timid strike rates were at historically low levels. His movements against austerity and tuition fees had been defeated, having barely reached take-off. Yet for the first time in the history of Labor, leadership was won by a radical socialist, with the support of hundreds of thousands of new Labor members, the biggest unions and the curious sympathy of celebrities. This reflected the weakness of the old right-wing party leadership. However, in part because this breakthrough was followed by further leaps – especially when in 2017 Corbyn led the Labor Party to biggest voting swing in its favor since 1945 – the left has become hubristic.
So how did it all happen crumble, and what can the left do with the consequences?
“Defeat,” wrote Perry Anderson, “is a difficult experience to master: the temptation is always to sublimate it. One can avoid facing the brutal reality of defeat by diverting attention to more pleasant thoughts. It can be argued that we ‘won the argument’. This is true as the Conservatives in government have repeatedly scammed and parodied leftist policies like borrowing to spend and a “green industrial revolution”. But it is a sign of strength for a party in power that it can integrate and neutralize the ideas of its opponents. After all, the fact that a Conservative government is committed to spending a lot of money deprives the left of its realm of public support: opposition to austerity.
We can say that if it hadn’t been for Brexit and those Labor Party apparatchiks who always hated Corbyn, the Labor Party would have won last year. It also contains some truth. But Brexit and the hostility of the old Labor leadership were a given. It was the left’s job to bring these conditions under control.
We can sink into a reactive and bitter rebuke from media figures who have treated us unfairly. If anyone expected fair treatment from the media, that indicates inexperience.
We can get sentimental about our fallen leader – sentimentality has long been a weakness of the English left.
It could be wrong that despite the defeat, the left may cling to some ‘influence’, retaining most of Corbyn’s experience, through the new leadership. It was a larger trend in leftist thinking until Starmer took the unprecedented step of to suspend his predecessor on spurious grounds, and his new secretary general David Evans began to suspend members who criticized this.
These illusions bind the left to its existing weaknesses and blind it to new opportunities. Any way forward should be based on a compelling explanation of why Labor under Corbyn, despite his major gains in 2015, have seen only gradual success in Scotland. It should be explained why Corbyn’s leadership hesitated so badly on Brexit that in the 2019 general election, Labor’s actual policy was not announced until a few weeks after the campaign began. It should be explained why the leaders and the grassroots have been paralyzed in the face of often bluntly cynical and grotesquely distorted situations. allegations of pervasive anti-Semitism in the Labor Party. It would have to be explained why a radical leadership in many ways was also deeply cautious on issues such as policing, immigration, nuclear weapons and the direction of foreign policy – even after his political successes, Corbyn was allowed to ensure control of party apparatus.
These problems all seem to be linked. The left’s basic vanity seemed to be that it could win by focusing on “bread and butter” issues like austerity and public services. Whenever he was excluded from this program, his perplexity was evident. Yet the source of Corbyn’s success had been not only a backlash against austerity, but a protest against the deterioration of the state of British democracy.
The left often speaks of “neoliberalism” as if it equates to the “free market”. But neoliberalism has always been a global project to protect markets by limiting the scope of democracy within the state. Without this analysis, the struggle against neoliberalism could be reduced to a demand for increased taxes and spending.
Yet the Scottish independence movement presented a democratic question in constitutional form. It aimed to free Scottish voters from a Westminster parliament dominated by voters whose social attitudes are so different from those in Scotland. Labor has never seriously engaged in this constitutional issue.
Brexit was more complicated, as Brexit voters wrongly blamed immigrants and European Union bureaucrats for the failure of Westminster. It would have been difficult to prove to these voters that an abstraction like neoliberalism was their problem. Yet hardly any attempt has been made to approach the problem in this way. Corbyn leaders have sought to defuse Brexit by offering a vague stance of upholding ‘Brexit through jobs first’, hoping the Tories would split over Europe. The grassroots left deferred – despite its shallow pro-Europeanism – to the rulers. In 2019, as the situation demanded more details, that compromise collapsed.
In another way, the disputes over racism and migration were also about democracy. In particular, who constitutes the demos? Migrants work, pay taxes and contribute, but cannot vote. Minorities can vote, but are brutally controlled and have limited access to employment and public services. For some voters, the solution to this is to retreat to an all-white Britain (even as Britain separates), or at least to get rid of recent immigrants.
The left reacted to these problems either by treating them as a distraction or by reaching high moral standards. High moral standards are a powerful motto on social media, but it turned out to be completely unnecessary when the left was subjected to a smear campaign claiming it was largely anti-Semitic and had made the Labor Party completely anti-Semitic. This required a rigorous response.
The rise of global anti-Semitism may be largely on the right – think lone wolf shooters, for example – but there is a fringe on the left that is clearly drawn to conspiracist and sometimes anti-Semitic thinking. At the same time, much of this attack was motivated by an attempt to disarm left-wing criticism of British foreign policy, especially its alliance with Israel. Here it was necessary for the left to engage with the realities of both anti-Semitism and the State of Israel and its violent ethno-nationalist policies. It was also necessary to defend the party members against a smear campaign. Instead, Corbyn’s management tried to deal with the problem with bureaucratic measures such as investigations and disciplinary proceedings.
The “articulate” left, meanwhile, has sought to demonstrate its worth by promising to “walk and chew gum at the same time” – that is, broadly defend Palestinian rights while opposing it. anti-Semitism – without specifically explaining how. It didn’t convince anyone. It seemed elusive because it was.
In short, the left fought because it misunderstood the nature of the moment. He did not see the situation as a democratic crisis. He now faces radically different terrain shaped by his defeat but also shaped by a terrifying pandemic. “Bread and butter” issues still matter, especially given the looming recession and social crisis stemming from COVID-19.
But if the left is to do better than just endorse social distancing and lockdown restrictions and demand a little more government money for workers, it needs to go beyond bread and butter.
There is one area of genuine creativity in recent years that can help: environmentalism. Pandemics are ecological processes. The zoonotic virus outbreak and its pandemic spread are driven by the same agro-industrial and business practices that help to carbonize the atmosphere, acidify the oceans, strip the web of life and trigger extreme weather conditions.
Powered by the Extinction Rebellion Movement and the school climate is on strike, the left began to work on the idea of a Green New Deal, much more ambitious and internationalist than any other part of its agenda. There is no reason in principle why this idea cannot be adjusted to take into account the preventive measures necessary to prevent future pandemics.
Yet, to make the most of this, the left must also understand environmentalism as a democratic issue. The weak democratic systems that we have are unlikely to survive the hardships and challenges to come without being radically reformed. And no serious climate project, which must protect the survival of the entire species by changing the way we work, travel, consume and recreate – our whole way of life – can work without massive public involvement.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.