Review: Why Left Populism Matters, or Towards a Punk Corbynism

Michael Calderbank reviews Corbynism from Below (ed. Mark Perryman), Lawrence & Wishart, 2019

The expectations following Corbyn’s rapid assent from perenially dissenting backbencher to Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition were colossal.    People expected that not only would Labour policy be overhauled – reversing the commitment to austerity-lite, benefit cuts, and tougher controls on immigation – but that Labour could make itself electable on a basis entirely different from the traditiojnal Blairite strategy of telling floating voters in Middle England marginals what they wanted to hear.   Corbynites held out the promise of transforming the party into a mass social movement, fundamentally democratising its structures, and delivering a “new kind of politics” altogether.

People make history, Marx famously observed, but not in conditions of their own choosing.   The key strategic space Labour holds under a First Past the Post electoral system has meant that efforts to form small breakaway alternative left formations have struggled to make sufficient breakthroughs to develop mass support.    Those disenchanted from the Liberal Democrats following their outright embrace of Tory austerity priorities, mainly but not exclusively young people, were joined by Greens, ex-Labour members who left over the Stop the War coalition, and others for whom no party had previously spoken to their concerns.

Of course, the Labour Party was not a competely blank canvas – the institutional forms of Labourism, such as the power and relative autonomy of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the bureuacratically exercised power of the affiliated trade union leaderships, and the managerial conservatism of the party officialdom all remained in place.    Working within the framework of Labour necessarily entails accepting an degree of electoralism,  Parliamentarism, and constitutional conservatism, even if people are consciously trying to move beyond the limits of such a vision.  As early as the 1950s  Ralph Miliband warned that “the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone”.   If Corbyn is to succeed despite the odds, a sufficiently counterveiling force of extra-Parliamentary popular pressure has to be developed (as Lindsay German correctly observes in this volume).

This collection of essays, brought together by Mark Perryman, whose keynote essay asks how far the Corbyn leadership has got in terms of developing a radical political alternative, not primarlily in policy terms, but in terms of the political culture sustaining it.     It’s not enough for power to be concentrated in the office of Coryn as Leader of the Opposition (or LOTO) and imposed on the party from above, by weight of bureaucratic order.    At the same time, strategic coherence and message-discipline can hardly be scattered to the four winds if Labour is to be seen as a credible party of government.     Social movements and political parties have different dynamics and pressures, with different challenges and opportunities.    How can a project for radical social change bring the two into alignment, without prematurely collapsing one into the other?

Some of the contributions included here put the focus on political form before content.   Paul Hilder in particular focuses on the possibility of scaling up digital campaigning techniques, new technologies, and alternative media for social networking in order to communicate to, and ultimately mobilse, a mass audience.    There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course.  But the “clicktivism” of groups like 38 Degrees might be impressive in terms of potential reach, but their political impact is relatively limited.  Sure they are able to successfully amplify broad and politically non-threatening issues of concern to “progressives”, like the plight of the bees.   Yet whilst their petition went viral, it wasn’t even effectively linked to global climate change or industrial farming techniques promoted by profit-hungry Agro-businesses.  It certainly didn’t inspire any direct action.

Founding Momentum members Emma Rees and Adam Klug, fresh from campaigning in the US, are similarly struck by the ambition to organise on a significantly greater scale than is generally thought possible.   But, crucially, they are right to observe that getting the politics right is a necessary pre-condition.   All the tech are techniques are worthless unless people feel that political goals are deserving of all our time and effort.

Similarly, Jess Garland advocates for “multi-speed” party membership, where supporters who can’t commit to being fully-signed up members or activists can still hold a looser affiliation as “supporters”.   Having the ability to sign up as a supporter to vote for the party leadership was crucial in widening the electorate to whom Corbyn was able to appeal beyond those tribally loyal to Labour through the wilderness years.   But people have tended to either translate that interest into full membership, or else stay aloof.   It’s practice it’s not clear that there’s either a demand or a permanent role for “registered supporters” whatever the theoretical benefit or retaining a semi-formal relationship with a wider periphery.

Ultimately, the challenges Corbynism faces will not be solved by formal solutions in methods of party organising online or offline, but by clarifying the nature of the political ambitions at its heart.   Ultimately – like most, if not all, political projects – at the heart of Corbynism lies contending, conflicting and perhaps finally irreconcilable political understandings in operation at one and the same time.

One such tension is that between a radical-sounding “left liberalism” – and a Marxisant “left populism” possessed of a more radical and fundamental critique of the State.   Where one speaks of an inclusive and pluralistic coming together of (self-defining) “progressives”, the other rails at the smug complacency of middle class opinion for whom the actually existing working class are “beyond the pale”.  Are we aiming to restore “good governance” by renewing and reforming political institutions, or to “take back control” directly from the elites?  Ultimately, this is a class divide, now playing itself out in a proxy war over Brexit.

It would be unfair to Jeremy Gilbert’s more nuanced and critical argument, to map this distinction directly onto  that between the blissed-out Campus-based hippies  of the Sixties and their proletarian critics, the punks of the Seventies.   Yet without rejecting altogether the value of “Acid Corbynism” as an attempt to draw on the radical potential of Sixties counter-culture, perhaps Corbynism is now rather more in need of recovering the aggression and destructive – at times nihilistic – energy of Punk.

For example, the racial inclusivity of punk was not at all about making a thin theoretical claim to intersectionality, policed by political correctness.  Rather, it was concrete, the living product of a shared class experience.   Punk was raw, visceral and electric – an insurgent force into British culture.   It met the hate of the conservative cultural and political establishment by mirroring that contempt right back at them.    We live in angry times, and people have a lot to be angry about.   Labour has to be a vehicle for this anger and direct it, like the best of the Punks, at all the right people.


Want to read it for yourself?   Corbynism from Below can be purchased here.