What happens when populist groundswells translate into electoral politics? And how do apparently contrary movements of right and left converge in an age of populism? In this blog I examine how two recent such ‘groundswells’ exerted unintended consequences on the 2017 UK General Election, and the growing sense that their death knell is already sounding. Apparently different but strangely resonant, they show the janus-faced indeterminacy of populism in an era of democratic crisis. Together, the national populism of UKIP and the Brexit campaign, and the left populism of the anti-austerity and anti-cuts movement that brought Corbyn to power, have helped restructure the parameters of political discourse around a single axiom: in the words of Nigel Farage, that there are ‘some things that matter more than money’.
It was this shift towards a politics of pure sentiment, I argue, that carved the path that, today, sees Corbyn close to power, by dint of having circumvented economic credibility as a topic of public concern. But this is a victory the pyrrhic status of which the left, increasingly content to throw in their lot with whichever ‘Lexit’ they think their leader seeks, seems not to see. Based on an unsteady political compromise the contradictions of which threaten its collapse, I conclude the analysis of what made Corbynism’s success possible is also that of what may prove its undoing.
On one hand, in a topsy-turvy world where subjects act under conditions unchosen, creating objective realities beyond their control, groundswells against the status quo can have unintended consequences. The afterlife of the UK anti-austerity movement, now reincarnated in Corbynism, has unleashed, with Brexit, unpredictable political energies. Can Corbynism contain the implications of a critique of capital launched from the standpoint of a national people?
On the other hand, the revanchist absurdity of what dewy-eyed Brexit sentimentalists desire unravels daily. This portends a backlash against the politics of pure sentimentality that delivered first the Leave vote and then Corbyn’s comparative success in the last general election. What current evidence shows is that in a fickle political environment, the seeds are sown for a swing back to the same logic of economic calculation that dominated pre-Brexit politics. Signs abound in the strengthened hand of the Chancellor Philip Hammond to curtail the apocalyptic urges of the likes of Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom on the basis of sound fiscal management. And, within the Labour Party, Keir Stamer’s side this week won out in internal negotiations defining a more robust and oppositional stance in favour of retaining free movement and the single market.
The cycle of political fads and fashions has been swift lately, and if consensus moves from the politics of sentimentality to this nascent politics of sense, such a swing would bode ill for Corbyn’s political offer- and, possibly, his longer-term position at the helm of the Labour Party.
A Mephistophelean pact
The morning after the EU referendum Jeremy Corbyn popped up on TV screens nationwide to suggest that the EU referendum showed ‘many communities are fed up with cuts’. Reading a national populist backlash as a protest against austerity, the benefit of hindsight shows us that Corbyn was giving an early glimpse of how the two tendencies would come to coincide in his successful 2017 General Election campaign just less than a year later. Corbynism has succeeded so far through an electorally convenient synthesis of two predecessor counter-movements of our time- Brexit and anti-austerity- united around a common perspective that ‘some things matter more than money’. The latter subordinated to the former, the critique of government cuts has had the unintended consequence of burnishing the licentiousness of an economically incredible nationalist politics of sentimentality. Corbynism has momentum because it has most effectively contained within itself the two groundswells in their cresting and falling. Labour’s capacity to escape this unprecedented conjuncture is the crucial question confronting it ahead of a possible second snap election. Their chances rest on the Tories’ navigation of their own electoral coalition, which augmented their wealthy bedrock with working-class ex-Labour Brexiteers- what Nick Cohen bluntly characterises as ‘the alliance of snobs and mobs’. Should they seek to expand their reach among the latter by beating a tactical retreat on austerity part of Labour’s ‘counter-movement’-based appeal will be neutralised. It is a Mephistophelean pact.
The current political conjuncture can be traced to a moment in early January 2014, when Nigel Farage stated in a BBC interview that, where immigration was concerned, ‘there are some things that matter more than money’. Were five million immigrants to make us richer, Farage would sooner be poorer. ‘I do think the social side of this matters more than the pure market economics’, he said. At the same time, the anti-austerity movement had waned somewhat with Ed Miliband its occasional yet obscure party-political medium. The passage of time shows how, unbeknownst to all including himself, Corbyn waited in the wings to clarify the link between these two moments, seemingly opposed on the political spectrum but convergent on one central point. Each express, in the camps of right and left, a different populist attack on the mantra of economic credibility. On one hand, the national populism of UKIP and Brexit. On the other, the left-populism of the anti-austerity movement. The 2017 General Election, I will suggest, is the high-water mark for these spectrum-straddling populisms that each substitute for economic calculation a politics of pure sentiment. Specifically, the anti-austerity movement had an unheralded success subsumed under grave and unintended consequences exhibited in June’s snap poll, in which Corbynism, Mayism and the question of Brexit comingle.
At the time, what Farage said condescended to the centrality of economic calculation in a style rare among UK politicians. Albeit inspired by the racist desire to cleanse Britain of perceived outsiders, the central message suggests a plane of possibility on which left and right coalesce in certain forms of thinking and acting. Through such a coincidence this election was the first where the sentimental politics represented in Farage’s heresy was generalised. Both main parties backed a more-or-less ‘hard’ version of Brexit, by all accounts an act of economic self-sabotage so severe that the scrutiny of economic credibility that undid Labour at previous elections was impossible for the Tories to exert. On the Labour side, the anti-austerity movement finally and circuitously came to pass as a political force with the Corbyn ascendency, doing what Brexit did from the right but from the left: saying that some things matter more than money. Amplified via Corbynism, this anti-austerity agenda unintentionally synergised with the romantic souverainisme of Brexit to place politics purely on the terrain of emotions, values and sentiment. It has been described as the UK’s first ‘values’ election, in economic credibility eschewed for a ‘culture war’. And Labour profited from this, tacking left with targeted policies that hit their selected recipients in the heart as much as the head. The combined effect of Brexit and, less so, the mainstreaming of anti-austerity politics, has sent politics into a space somewhere between fantasy and abyss in which Project Corbyn was perfectly primed to operate precisely because it has a devil-may-care ambivalence about the continuation of the state of things as they are.
There may be something in this of what Paul Mason has described as the ‘Weimar Effect’ latent always on the left: ‘the conviction that our societies are not worth defending anyway’ (for a glimpse of the consequences see the end of this piece by Jon Cruddas). What this bleak assessment undermines is the idea among Corbyn’s supporters that his success in this election marks a resurgence of the left, or of European social democracy. In an age of Trump, the Corbyn surge seems to some like a sign of the side of sense and reason on an upwards bend. But, with both Labour and the Tories subsuming UKIP votes with their promises on Brexit, the politics of national populism over which the election appeared a victory have simply been sublated within the new centre ground of politics, the two parties’ reliance on those votes holding in place a consensus much further to the right on issues like immigration and international affairs than recent electoral offerings from the likes of Brown, Miliband and even Cameron. In spite of Labour’s stepchange this week, the general trend is set in place: a convergence of left and right in respect of the will of a national people seeking a mythic sovereignty.
The election appeared at first glance a defeat for forces of nationalism and national-populism, with UKIP annihilated, authoritarian ‘postliberal’ Mayism pegged back and renegade Remainders emboldened in the wake of the results. But the racism, xenophobia and isolationism propelling Brexit has not gone away but has rather been dialectically sublated within both the Tory and Labour parties. It is harder to read where the wider Brexit vote went, but in many seats in, say, the early-declaring North East one could see a splintering of the UKIP vote left and right. But winning over its supporters is not the victory over nationalism it appears. Rather, residual Brexiteer elements now present themselves as manacles binding the two main parties to an economically disastrous divorce with the EU. It was these votes that put them where they are and to spite them would risk the loss of the seats in which the swing from UKIP to Labour or the Tories was decisive. For instance, UKIP standing aside to allow Tories a free run actually seemed to benefit Labour in most cases- Ilford North one example. As such UKIP and its wider far-right project has not really gone away, but, in a Mephistophelean pact, the two main parties now sup from one source on the main question of our time. Although some of the aspects of social and economic policy that accompany it are different, this represents something like a subterfuge one party state, a convergence around a new centre in which free movement is done for and national sovereignty is prioritised above all else. UKIP has not gone away, but appears in a new dual form split over two parties playing out the former’s internal tensions between co-existing tendencies towards, on one hand, nationalism and, on the other, nationalisation.
This has always been the danger of the referendum. It has unleashed a force that once unbottled cannot be put back in again. The aims the fictional ‘will of the people’ was taken to express- closed borders, communities like they once were, national sovereignty in a global world- are impossible and thus insatiable. In most cases, the sovereignty pursued never existed and cannot exist. And because these aims are insatiable they are all the more dangerous, because they can never be met and never exhausted. This is a vortex into which the Tories and Labour alike are swallowed, perhaps permanently, without escape. The Tories adopted a de facto hard Brexit position; Labour saw the immediate electoral expediency of closing off Tory attacks by dutifully voting, often against the convinced will of MPs and their constituents, for Article 50 and including a commitment to the end of free movement and an unconditional exit from the EU in their manifesto.
This last accommodation is stark. Corbynism has always outwardly emphasised integrity and moral certitude over what its sees as the abstract imperative to ‘win’ elections and thus compromise with the cold, hard requirements of political reality. However, what is interesting is that the calculation on Brexit sprang as much from electoral contingency as Corbyn’s instinctual left-Euroscepticism. As Matt Bolton has astutely pointed out, Corbyn has triangulated, insofar as he can depend on the support of his central constituency, which has turned a blind eye to Labour’s backing under their leader’s watch of the most retrograde and reactionary step in recent British history, in pursuit, apparently, of the kind of calculation they once openly resented: electoral success. Having succeeded in their endeavour they now owe any ability they may have to effect elements of their manifesto to the ongoing support of a group of voters- not the much-lauded youth vote, but the residual Brexit vote shared with the Tories- the continued satisfaction of which relies on the completion of an isolationist step into the unknown that will trash the economy and make any pledges to revolutionise it untenable.
The problem here is that the contradiction of the class coalition formed around the reactionary aims of Brexit has not been resolved or abolished, but merely carried over in another form. To confront it head on is a price no party will now be willing to pay. In this Labour’s success in this election is not so much the sign of an anti-austerity step change but part and parcel of the national-populist wave to which that anti-austerity politics was called into service, another chink in the armour of what was once the centreground of liberal democracy- and not necessarily for the best.
A cruel irony undermines Labour’s attempt to track back on Brexit this week. Whilst resetting relations with the party’s liberal left, it runs the risk of losing the nationalist segment of its temporary electoral coalition. The only hope must be that it reassures enough swing voters dissatisfied with Brexit backwoodsman takeover of the Tory Party to make political hay as the so-called ‘will of the people’ rapidly erodes.
A politics of pure sentiment
In reinstating a politics of sense over one of pure sentimentality by seeking retained membership of the single market and maintained free movement, Labour play with fire on another front, too. Rather than heralding a new world in construction, in a way Labour has benefitted directly from a disintegration of liberal democracy and its forms of doing politics. The sticking point for Labour in the last two elections was economic credibility. But, across a playing field on which both sides back the impending disaster of Brexit, Labour’s bold left platform was subject to scant scrutiny, a concord any shift in the debate towards the benefits of single market membership will surely explode.
The two main parties held something of a conspiracy of silence over Brexit in the final stages of their campaigns and this neutralised any potential threat of being undone on the basis their sums or fiscal rectitude. We have sat for some time irretrievably within the politics of a Brexit-shaped abyss into which all concerned madly throw themselves out of fear or respect for an imaginary working class. The stuff of success in such an abyss is emotions, sentiment, abstract concepts like national sovereignty and the will of a dreamt-up ‘people’ impossible in an island riven with divides. On left and right a kind of optimism prevails, a wishful thinking exemplified both in the credulous Brexiteers who think they can make a success of their blind rush to blissful isolation as well as the Corbynists who, although having been proved half-right in vital respects, hold in their man messianic expectations so high as to never be met. This is the kind of heady mix on which this election has been fought. Farage’s heresy resounds, and with it the dangerous insatiability of the abstract principles and unmeetable goals to which it opposes economic calculation.
On the right these aims and goals have typically circulated around ideas of racial or national superiority to which all other aspects of economic and social life must come second. This much is transparent in Farage’s statement. But on the left the legacy of the anti-austerity movement has been to launch a parallel challenge to economic rationality, suggesting that the economy is not a household budget to which the hated bankers and government hold the purse-strings but something in service to other aims and needs. This has resonated in unintentional- but not entirely unpredictable- ways with the same sentimental shift in political action and discourse in the wake of Brexit. From the left as from the right, the material world of making ends meet or economic management is- rightly or wrongly- subordinated to that of ideas, morality, and ethics. It is its role in sparking this shift that may be the watershed contribution of the anti-austerity movement to British politics. The pyrrhic nature of this victory is largely lost on the left. Corbyn has smuggled in his anti-austerity programme under the cloak of his willing participation in the national myths of sovereignty and the will of a fictional people. In this sense, the rhetoric of the anti-austerity movement has segued with that of the John Bull right in such a way as to disfigure political debate, a disfigurement the parties are helpless to resist inflicting upon themselves owing to their reliance on ex-UKIP voters.
This convergence is concealed under a sharp electoral divergence right and left between Mayism and Corbynism. This split between relative extremes paradoxically united around isolationism and populist national sovereignty is, contrary to the left celebrations of the Corbyn surge, just another sign of disintegration. Things seem, to some, to be coming together at precisely the time they are falling apart. Left populisms are in one sense fully of a piece with the rise of right populisms elsewhere. Here, emotional or irrational urges are unlocked as electoral assets with unpredictable outcomes that risk the liberal democratic certainties within which social democracy for better or for worse moves. Attempts to stem this uncontainable tide from the sensible centre is something some are selling but nobody seems to be buying. Others propose to ride it for different ends than Corbynism. This, after all, is what that groups like Blue Labour reckon with in their vision of renewed ‘post-liberal’ appeals to faith, flag and family, however discordant these appeals are with any left agenda worth its salt.
Beyond the abyss
However, it quickly became apparent in the weeks and months after the election that the current sentimentalist conjuncture that brought the UK out of Europe, and Corbyn within clear shot of largest party, might not last. As Remain voices enjoyed a resurgence with the chaos of Conservative minority rule, and as Labour clarified its position on a so-called ‘jobs-first Brexit’, the ground almost imperceptibly began to shift. The Tories, negotiating their own electoral coalition struck between the ‘snobs’ and ‘mobs’, may compete for more of the latter by rowing back on austerity. The Treasury has begun to reassert hard-headed economic realities over Brexit plans, and with the increased power of the Cabinet against May’s backroom regime, Hammond’s strengthened hand, augmented by the DUP’s profligacy, may result in a less stifling approach to fiscal policy. This could diminish Labour’s capacity to steal a march on an anti-cuts platform. In turn, the anti-austerity argument on which Corbyn’s campaign in part relied will be neutralised. For instance, the Tory-DUP deal shows that the ‘magic money tree’ May once mocked exists after all. Moreover, it seems likely a new leader will replace May in advance of any second snap election. Boris Johnson seems to be shaping himself up as an Anglophone Trump, and should he prevail in his Odyssean lurch toward power, will inevitably unveil the same shiny economic baubles as his cross-Atlantic counterpart, having already positioned, for instance, in favour of removing the cap on public sector pay. Subsuming some of the same anti-austerity sentiment propelling Corbyn, this would mark potential disaster for Labour.
Moreover, as Starmer’s policy coup this week showed, the intensity will be extracted from the debate around Brexit, circulating less around starry-eyed but non-existent sovereignty and more around economic credibility couched in less spendthrift terms. Generalised across the Commons, any specific appeal of a softer jobs-first Brexit under Labour would disappear, especially with the existing cross-Commons convergence on immigration. But, moreover, the fantasy politics induced by Brexit would disappear too. Moving from pie in the sky to the pound in your pocket, questions of economic credibility would re-enter political debate in a way unseen since Ed Miliband’s tilt at Number 10. This would squeeze the extent to which Labour can set out its singular stall on giveaways and stimulus, and reduce its room to make emotional pitches for people’s hearts over their heads. If, as appears the case, Labour’s centre and sensible left have been given the space to define the party’s Brexit policy, the new tenor of political debate this will create around financial good sense and the maintenance of the certainties of contintental political and economic order may make the Corbynist wing’s case on other policy areas much harder to communicate.
This debate about economic credibility would admittedly rest less on who would cut best and more on who would spend best. But the latter is a record which is not Labour’s alone to claim under Corbyn. A concerted Tory end to austerity would outmanoeuvre Labour on the anti-cuts agenda that brought Corbyn to the Labour leadership to begin with, and the raised consciousness of which provided at least some of the context for his relentless poll rise over the short election campaign. Movement on austerity and Brexit are dangerous for Labour insofar as they are both likely and the decision over whether they become reality is a ball squarely in the Tories’ court. This means that there is every reason for debate to ensue at Labour’s Party Conference in September over a more adaptable policy pitch that can soak up more supporters on what might be a changed electoral field come the next election.
There is every chance that the politics of the abyss and pure fantasy remain in vogue well up until and beyond that point. But if Labour remain stuck within them, and the hard Brexit and anti-austerity agenda that propelled this politics slide from view, a Corbyn-led Labour will find itself in a very lonely place indeed, having staked everything on an unsteady synthesis of both. Corbynism has confounded expectations precisely by containing within itself elements of the two leading populisms of the past decade, left and right. But the contradictions this carries over could end up consuming it from inside out- unless a new electoral offer can be crafted. A ‘one-more-heave’ strategy is unlikely to make it across the precipice, whether the abyss awaits beyond it or not. The minor revolt against the ‘will of the people’ announced this week is a hopeful sign. But owing to Labour’s complication within the complex political context of Brexit, it only serves to raise new contradictions the fragile truce at the centre of the party may not be best placed to address.