Rediscovering social democracy in the post-Corbyn ruins

We have been here before, haven’t we? It’s an ever-present question, but one that really comes to the fore in the wake of a shocking electoral defeat. The choice is presented thus: should Labour be practical or principled, focus on winning elections or on changing the system? In its current form the question reads: Does the party need to move back to the centre, or must Corbynism survive beyond the (eventual…) departure of the man himself?

Framing the debate over Labour’s identity in such binary terms is nothing new — but since Corbyn’s first leadership campaign it has taken an extreme form, and it remains especially regrettable. The dynamics of polarisation have been such that Labour’s intellectual, policy-making energies have been split entirely apart from its pragmatic dimension as a party of government. With that, the actual leadership of the party has become divorced from those with the most substantial ability to fulfil that role.

Three things put this into stark relief. One is the mis-match in quality between those MPs who have distanced themselves from Corbyn’s leadership and the natural born backbenchers who make up his inner circle. A second is the 2019 manifesto, a document that fizzed with ideas (many of them supported by some very smart thinking), but which was assembled without any practical sense — either of presentation during the campaign or of implementation in the event of forming a government. Finally there was the deliberate sidelining during the campaign of the most substantial perfomers left in the Shadow Cabinet.

Labour’s tragedy over these past four years is that the party did need ideological renewal in 2015, but that such renewal has been carried out under a man personally unfit to be leader. Not just that but his success has entrenched the hard left (whose central animus has always been to oppose an electable social democratic party, because of the compromises it has to make along the way) in the administrative structures of the party, top to bottom.

There is every chance that Labour will continue in such tragic mode. There are many who were sincerely inspired by a vision of political morality and intellectual radicalism they saw in the party under Corbyn, who for this reason may swing behind a ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate — and yet the shallow talent pool of such loyalists suggests that this would result in the worst choice as leader. Meanwhile, with the damage inflicted on Corbynism as a brand by a crushing electoral defeat, the way is potentially open — unthinkable since 2015 — for a non-Corbynist candidate to become leader. But even if this were to happen, if the lesson they learn is to reject the entire policy development that occurred under Corbyn and McDonnell they will risk their leadership looking moribund and lacking in purpose.

To break out of this tragic mode some attempt at synthesis will be required. This, in turn, requires a recognition, first, of how ideologically weak the opposition to Corbyn has been; second, how much of the policy platform under the heading of ‘Corbynomics’ is actually a revitalised form of social democracy; and third, how, despite superficial appearances, the approach of ‘centrism’ has many moral (not just pragmatic) advantages over the radical left. Put together such understanding may point the way towards a synthesis, in which an intellectual radicalism fitted to its times can be brought within and articulated through a centrist mentality.

The poverty of centrism

In March 2019 Tom Watson set up a ‘social democratic caucus’ among Labour MPs and peers — the Future Britain Group. Watson likened its purpose to that of the socialist campaign group in those long wilderness years before Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership in 2016. ‘Jeremy, to his credit, kept the voice of his tradition alive through the campaign group during the New Labour years,’ he said. ‘So he understands the need for those from the social democratic and democratic socialist traditions to give ourselves the strongest voice we can.’

What were these social democratic traditions, and how exactly did they stand opposed to Corbyn’s leadership? These questions were posed by Ronan Burtenshaw, in a ‘challenge to Labour’s moderates’ published in May in Tribune — a publication whose revival reflects an upsurge in intellectual energy on the radical left, against which Watson’s caucus seemed to be defining itself. In fact, Burtenshaw mused, such opposition seemed to be the only way in which this tradition were defining themselves. It was unclear, in a positive sense, what they meant by social democracy: ‘To date, policy proposals which might answer this question have been thin on the ground.’

Unsurprisingly given his critique from the socialist left, Burtenshaw’s analysis presented a tin ear to social democracy’s historical strengths. Tellingly, he saw social democracy’s virtues entirely in terms of bolstering the welfare state, and thus overlooked its pragmatic mission to win elections and to make capitalism work better — for the benefit of society. His analysis of its recent weaknesses, however, was spot on. Just what do Labour’s social democrats stand for?

It should be recognised that Labour’s non-Corbynist groups have done a poor job of competing for intellectual leadership of the party. Never mind winning the battle of ideas, they have hardly waged it. This is, of course, how Corbyn ended up leader in the first place: even the PLP despaired at how intellectually uninspiring the 2015 leadership contest was shaping up to be, so much so that several MPs lent their nominations to Corbyn just to give things a little variety. Since then, across a certain spectrum of opinion, various groupings (e.g. Progress, Open Labour, Labour First, Labour Together, the Tribune group of MPs) have spluttered in activity without the feeling that any of them owned the future.

Of these, the times perhaps best suited Open Labour, as a soft left alternative, to create a rival sense of intellectual and policy leadership. But for this to have happened it would have needed to organise itself properly as a faction within the party and union movement, and to see its role as supplanting the hard left: instead it chose the opposite path of embodying an ‘openness’ that ruled out such agonistic competition from the start.

Social democracy within Corbynomics

Despite the internal triumph within the party of hardcore socialists, it has not followed that there has been an intellectual triumph of hardcore socialism. As Corbyn inches out of the door perhaps the conditions will emerge for a greater recognition of the diverse currents that have fed into ‘Corbynomics’. Indeed, an engagement with the policy platform developed under Corbyn and McDonnell finds that, rather than comprising a stock of warmed-over hard left dogma — save for foreign policy, which has more closely reflected Corbyn’s personal beliefs — it actually represents a revitalised body of social democratic ideas.

This is easily overlooked, given the baggage of the hard left that the leadership and its partisans brought with it. It was only in 2015, for instance, that Corbyn and McDonnell were all but rejecting Parliamentary democracy in favour of direct action on the streets; with suggestions made (which he denied) that McDonnell had added his name to calls for the police to be disarmed and MI5 disbanded.

But a review of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos finds, in large part, a range of recognisably social democratic objectives and policy instruments. As Tom Kibasi has written, much of the recent manifesto was aimed at bringing the UK’s economic institutions and public sector more into line with those in several European equivalents: what made it seem especially radical was a combination of Britain being such an outlier in these respects (thus meaning it has so much ground to make up), and the pace at which such progress was supposedly to be achieved. For all the radicalism of policies on renationalising, insourcing, and democratising shares in the ownership of large companies, there was, as Lewis Bassett put it earlier, ‘not a drop of evidence […] that Corbyn’s party seeks to erase private ownership, competition or the profit motive’.

Indeed, while Labour’s rhetoric of support for business was anything but uncritical, it was substantial, as reflected in its recent ’20 pledges to business’. If Labour has been swallowed by the hard left, then it seems the hard left has also to an extent been swallowed by Labour: so much has followed from assuming a position of responsibility, if not of actual power. As a small symbol of such ‘centrification’ one could note the enthusiastic support shown by former Corbyn aide Andrew Fisher for these 20 pledges, having in 2015 tweeted his support for Class War.

What is the reason for such a ‘disjuncture between the ideology and practice of Corbynism’, as Bassett puts it? On one level we might understand it as an example to bear out Geoff Mann’s analysis, that when reaching for applied policies radical socialists invariably seem to turn into (left) Keynesians.

On another, complementary level, we might understand much of what has been assembled under the banner of Corbynomics as not originating with Corbyn or the campaign group. What his leadership has achieved, rather, is to break the Labour Party out of a restrictive set of ideological limits, opening up a space for genuinely new thinking to be given a hearing.[1] Such new thinking has been called for by a set of radical challenges — overridingly, the twin pressures of climate change and secular stagnation. Together these dictate that an approach which is hesitant to intervene in business-as-usual capitalism is no longer an option — for the reason that business-as-usual capitalism is already failing, and risks much worse. These conditions have given rise to an outburst of intellectual creativity — in this country reflected notably by the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice, by the ‘institutional turn’ in political economy, and by the wider contributions of a variety of figures (many featured in Renewal) including Özlem Onaran, Joe Guinan, Martin O’Neill, Christine Berry, Matthew Lawrence, Beth Stratford, Laurie Macfarlane, and Prem Sikka.

The moral groundedness of centrism

It is unsurprising that the nature of Corbynomics is poorly understood; it is incoherent. This is partly a product of the aforementioned centrification of those from the hard left who have spent a political lifetime on the margins, without any thought of or preparation for power. Once in control of the party, to the credit of McDonnell in particular, they have in effect looked outside their own circles to assemble a social democratic economic programme, albeit pushed to its most radical limits. Their political DNA, however, has ensured that this radical-centrist hybrid is not fitted to the environment of power. The 2019 manifesto looked like a programme for government, but it didn’t fool anybody into thinking this was a government in waiting.

One way of understanding this incoherence would be to recognise the influence of a New Left suspicion of power in the radical hinterland of Corbyn’s leadership. The flipside to this suspicion of corrupt establishment-power is a dramatic over-confidence in the potential of those who see themselves as pure of heart: if they can ever get their hands on power they will redeem it with the purity of their purpose, wielding it with ease to make sweeping transformations of society.

In Bolton and Pitts’ analysis, Corbynism’s crude ideation of a uniform people oppressed by the bosses gives rise to an equally crude belief in the ability of a populist government, ruling in their name, to bring about harmony and universal liberation (within national borders). Meanwhile, the justified post-crash growth in the prestige of heterodox economics has, as a by-product, given rise to a certain attitude that invokes MMT or Lexit like a magic rune: such talk has the superficial appearance of a serious economic plan, but what makes it seem unreal is the assumption that it has the answer to every problem. From this perspective Corbynist Labour has shown no understanding let alone respect for Labour leaderships of the past: any limits to their achievements are understood purely to be a result of their own lack of ambition, their own complicity with the establishment.

In short, Labour’s intellectual, policy-making energies need to be reconnected with its pragmatic, party-of-government dimension. Tom Kibasi has got it precisely wrong in arguing that since ‘Only the left has the answers’, then ‘the centre must accept the leadership of the left’: instead, the left-wing intellectual response to our current crises needs to be yoked behind a more centrist leadership.

This is to see centrism not so much in terms of political agenda, occupying a middle space on a spectrum of ideology. Rather it is to recognise centrism as corresponding to a certain mindset or attitude to the world. A better term would perhaps be groundedness. It can be recognised as an outlook that is not wholly in love with its own ideas, that recognises that it does not have a monopoly on truth, that there are more important things in life than the abstract purity of ideology. In this there is not just a convenient pragmatism but a wisdom that allows for an openness to learning from the problems one encounters from trying to implement one’s ideas. Andrew Hindmoor has summed it up well in writing of the down to earth realism of centrism, which strives to transform people’s lives but recognises that politics is a difficult, messy business where you have to make compromises and concessions to achieve anything. There is a moral grandeur in such ordinary, practical work.

Despite the self-advertised goodness of the morally absolutist vision of the hard left, one can see in a centrist outlook a greater sense of humanity. The Corbynist world-view is a Manichean vision of good and evil, with a dualistic idea of humanity: there are only victims and oppressors. It is — as Tanya Gold has skilfully dissected it — full of love for those deemed worthy of it, but this goes along with it a hatred which denies the humanity of those outside the circle. Part of the rejection of Labour at this last election appears to have been down to those behind the ‘Red Wall’ finding the way in which Labour claimed them for its own — as victims to be helped and pitied — to be itself oppressive. As Paul Thompson puts it in his post-election Renewal blog: ‘If you paint a picture in which Britain consists only of rapacious billionaires and bosses and those on the breadline, the danger is that large numbers of people don’t see themselves in that picture.’

Labour’s populist slogan ‘For the many, not the few’ sounded moral, a defence both of fairness and the interests of the people, but it concealed an attitude of dehumanising hatred. It said: whoever ‘the few’ are, they can legitimately be hated. No matter that Corbyn and McDonnell would take pains to define ‘the few’ as ‘the 1%’ or as ‘the bankers’, the ‘top earners’, it remains that their rhetoric was constructed around the demonisation of a group of non-people. This is an outlook which said that if you are not with us then we welcome your hatred — implying equally that if you are not already with us then we hate you. This is not only practically misguided but suggests a shrunken ability to empathise with others. In this way the less flashy morality of centrism can be appreciated for the way in which treats everybody as fully human.

Conclusion: Time for social democracy again

In this analysis the content of Corbynomics has been depicted as more social democratic than hard left. Centrism, meanwhile, has been depicted as a practical groundedness which is capable of articulating a left-wing programme. The opportunity is there for a synthesis — one which can draw on the intellectual development of economic policy over the past four years, while leaving behind an unpopular leader and progressively rooting out the hard left culture which was welcomed in with him.

Richard McNeill Douglas

[1] I would argue (given much of the rhetoric of Owen Smith’s campaign, for instance) that this effect had already largely been achieved by 2016; and that had Corbyn stood down as a result of the PLP ‘coup’ it would have led to a leadership that combined greater ideological ambition with greater electability.

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