The season of looking back with big ideas has come early this year, thanks to Brexit, Donald Trump and now the referendum rout in Italy. And two of these big ideas tend to converge. The first is that populism is on the march, thanks to those “left behind” by free-market orthodoxies. The second is a despairing cry of: “Where, oh where, is the political left when we need it?”
In the UK, those “left behind” are now in the sights of all political persuasions, but most conspicuously from the right and from those experts so derided by the Brexiteers. Theresa May has made social justice a theme of her early months as Prime Minister, while the minuses of globalisation have featured even in a speech by the head of the Bank of England, along with arguments that something – though it is unclear precisely what – should be done.
The difficulty is that the mooted solutions are unpalatable, especially to those who have thrived amid free movement and the free market. More redistributive taxes in the Scandinavian mode; swingeing tariffs on imports of cheap foreign goods; walls, literal and metaphorical, to keep cheaper labour out; incentives for employers to keep jobs at home; subsidies for workers who would otherwise be priced out of their jobs by foreign competition – none of these are seen as desirable or realistic. They fly so much in the face of all the prevailing assumptions of a generation.
If the ideas about populism in the UK and its causes differ little from those swirling around elsewhere, we have our own local personification of the political left’s failure in the figure of the Labour leader. Jeremy Corbyn is seen as inept and divisive; a man who became party leader by a fluke and has no prospect whatsoever of becoming prime minister.
Why not? To his detractors, the reasons are so obvious that they hardly need to be stated. He is in every way a throwback to an age that is long gone. He may have taken the advice about suit-wearing offered vicariously by David Cameron’s mother, he may have learned from Michael Foot about how not to turn up on Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph. But he lauded Fidel Castro after his death, and he still harps on about exploitative employers and profiteering bankers.
He has absorbed nothing from the victories of Tony Blair and what makes a modern Labour party electable; nothing about aspiration from erstwhile Mondeo Man, and nothing about remaining “intensely relaxed” with people getting “filthy rich”. No wonder, Corbyn’s opponents would say Blair is contemplating a comeback.
The fact that Labour’s poll ratings are disastrous, that a party candidate lost their deposit at the last (Richmond Park) by-election, and that one-time safe northern constituencies are haemorrhaging votes via Brexit to Ukip are all reasons why Labour under Corbyn is supposed to be a lost cause. And, of course, to return to appearances, Comrade Jeremy just does not look or sound prime-ministerial, and everyone knows he is a hopeless administrator: not leadership material at all.
This is not, however, anything like the whole truth. Labour’s poll ratings are dismal at least in part because it is presenting itself as a divided party. And whose fault is that? There is an ideological rift between the mainly Blairite MPs and the grassroots who – post-Ed Miliband – were given a vote for leader. Under that system, Jeremy Corbyn has won the leadership convincingly, not once, but twice. So who is perpetuating the division – the majority or the minority? In other contexts, those who don’t accept the rules of the democratic game have been called variously “sore losers”, “Remoaners”. Who, I repeat, are the non-democrats here?
Under Corbyn, Labour’s record in by-elections has been creditable – it has not lost a single seat it previously held – despite the fervent hopes of some that a loss would offer a pretext to oust him. And after the Brexit vote, has Labour’s record been any worse than that of the divided Conservatives? On the contrary, in the former Attorney General, Keir Starmer, the non-managerial Corbyn has somehow found a persuasive spokesman. Emily Thornberry is making a decent job of shadow Foreign Secretary. Labour has been scoring points on benefits and the NHS.
If it were united, it could do much, much better. But it would have to be united on Corbynite, old-Labour terms – the very terms, in fact, which explain Labour’s appeal to a whole new constituency: all those young people allegedly turned off by politics, who thronged the rallies of a bearded 67-year-old. At a time when the great and the good lament the political disengagement of the young, Corbyn has struck a chord with a programme of back-to-basics leftism from which he has barely deviated over decades.
After Iraq, the financial crisis, the spinning away of the super-rich, and the legions “left behind” by late 20th-century capitalism, those basics have a new resonance. This is why one of the big questions of the year has been: where is the left when we need it? But it is also why those who embraced Blairite centrism don’t want to know. It is their model of ideological flexibility and economic compromise that has aged badly, not Corbyn’s attachment to the old verities. It is the old left – of workers’ rights, the social-safety net, redistribution, and equality, of opportunity if not outcome – that has to be the source of Labour’s revival.
These are not my politics, and – according to some – Labour is already up to its old “splittist” tricks, with Trotskyite entryism again a threat. But there is a place for an old British left perspective on the world and its coherent critique of capitalism could yet enjoy electoral appeal. Corbyn is building a passable team; he has scored points at Prime Minister’s Questions, and in tapping into the youth vote, he has done what no other party leader has managed to do.
He may not look, sound or behave as a prime minister-in-waiting and the polls have him doomed – but these are not necessarily counter-indicators in this perverse age.