Labour under Corbyn – an interview with Prapimphan Chiengkul

This article originally appeared here at New Multitude

Prapimphan Chiengkul’s book Labour under Corbyn (Palgrave 2021) takes a neo-Gramscian look at the UK Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This approach is rooted in the work of Robert Cox, a theorist who saw that political struggle was always constrained by a somewhat coherent bond of ideas, material forces and institutions. Nevertheless such configurations are not always stable and can be overturned by counter-hegemonic movements. In terms of the State, this means that they are not blunt instruments to be won and wielded, but spaces and institutions whose dominant working logic is and can be shaped by the forces within them.

For Chiengkul, ‘Corbynism’ was an attempt at building a new hegemonic bloc, one that appeared to be concerned with redistribution and a certain amount of democratising the forces of capital. However, Brexit, a major crisis of the UK State, called for a strong narrative of identity and values, something the Corbyn administration were unable to provide and thus the counter-hegemonic project failed. The Conservatives, on the other hand, owing to a favourable constellation of institutions and structures, were able to forge a new bloc, while still being unable to truly solve the systemic conditions that had led to the crisis in the first place.

We spoke with Prapimphan Chiengkul about her book and some of the questions it raises.

NM: First of all, thank you for agreeing to this interview. My first question is about you. What attracted a Thai Academic to studying the UK Labour Party?

I spent four years in the UK as a PhD student. When Labour lost the General Election in 2015, I felt a lot of sympathy with my friends and acquaintances who were upset about the results. After the election, I found it interesting that Corbyn managed to become leader of the Labour Party. There were a lot of discussions about how Corbyn was unelectable. Nevertheless, it was undeniable that his leadership of the Labour Party helped to re-energise and offer hope to the left.

My initial aim (in 2015/2016) was to write a short article about Labour under Corbyn for a Thai audience, partly because I was fed up with the political situation in my own country and I felt the need to look elsewhere for inspiration. As I began to read more, I discovered that I really enjoyed reading the works of past British socialist thinkers and academic writings on British political economy in general. I then began to see how I could use a Gramscian/Coxian framework to analyse Labour under Corbyn in the context of the contemporary British political economy in a novel way, so I eventually turned my research into a book. I did not aim to become an expert on British politics or British political economy generally, but I found this period in the history of the Labour Party (and the policies that were drawn up during this period) very interesting and I wanted to contribute to the discussion.

NM:The Corbyn era has sometimes been characterised by supporters and enemies alike as being radically socialist, but in your book, you describe how both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, while certainly breaking with the neoliberal orthodoxy of the state, was not the radical break that some enemies and supporters believed. Is it fair to say that much of the Corbynist platform was fundamentally rooted in the structures of British capitalism? And does that make sense as far as long term strategy goes?

Labour’s policies during the Corbyn era were, of course, left-of-centre, but Labour was clearly committed to social democracy and the parliamentary process. I wouldn’t say, however, that Labour under Corbyn put forward policies that were “fundamentally rooted in the structures of British capitalism” because their proposals, if implemented, would have been transformative, particularly by challenging the finance-led growth model and by promoting economic democracy. As discussed in the book, I support Erik Olin Wright’s strategy of “eroding capitalism”, which combines progressive strategies by the state (such as the promotion of social democratic policies) and bottom-up practices that challenge capitalist ideas and practices.

NM:While your book is mainly focused on the institution of the Labour Party under Corbyn, you note that the Corbyn era seemed to mobilise many sections of the organised left (for instance anti-austerity campaigners) outside of parliamentary politics. What are the lessons learned from the Corbyn era about the way the Party engaged with socialists and issues outside narrow electoralism and what kind of strategies do you envision being successful in the future?

In the book, I adopted a Coxian/Gramscian framework that points to the importance of building counter-hegemonic configurations of ideas, institutions and material capabilities to challenge the status quo. I argued that, to a certain extent, Labour under Corbyn was able to propagate progressive economic ideas and policies that have the potential to address structural economic problems and tackle contemporary challenges such as inequality and climate change.

Labour focused on appealing to people’s material interests and the importance of structural economic reforms, but unfortunately it failed to construct a compelling political narrative to build broad enough support to win the 2017 and 2019 General Elections. I reflected on structural limitations and other factors that contributed to Labour’s electoral defeats in Chapter 3, and also suggested that ‘winning elections’ and engaging in ‘counter-hegemonic ideological struggle’ should not be seen as binary choices for the Labour Party because both are important and complementary. As I argued in Chapter 2, although New Labour was politically successful in the short-term, it consequently left Labour with no inspiring alternatives to austerity and neoliberal economics to offer voters after the 2008 economic crisis.

NM: While obviously Labour is not a national hegemonic force, it does seem to occupy a central place within the structural and normative mandala of the UK left. In your chapter on Labourism, you quote Ralph Miliband, who at one time referred to Labour as a ‘dead end’, for the way it trapped socialist energy. After 2019, many socialists have left the party; what’s your opinion on this?

I think everyone has the right to pursue what they believe to be the best course of action to bring about a better society. Some people might prefer to work in NGOs, academia, social enterprises, volunteering in their leisure time to make a difference, etc. I think such a diversity of approaches is something to be celebrated. However, I hope that people do not neglect to pay attention to national politics and vote strategically in future elections to bring the least-worst political party into power.

Given the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, I believe the Labour Party remains one of the most important institutions with the potential to advance progressive social agenda and widen space for progressive politics in the UK. Moreover, from a Gramscian perspective, I think it is important for people who identify with the left to help popularise alternative economic ideas and campaign for progressive political reforms in their own capacities, whether they are a member of a political party or not.

Prapimphan Chiengkul’s book Labour Under Corbyn: Constraints on Radical Politics in the UK, is available from Palgrave.

Image: Jeremy Corbyn. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeremycorbyn/49017933408/. Author: Jeremy Corbyn,  made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

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