‘This is hardly revolutionary,’ said John McDonnell, as he summarised what a Corbyn administration might look like at a recent Momentum rally. Student debt reduction, social housing, rent controls, dignity at work (with anti-trade-union legislation repealed) and ending the privatisation of the NHS. If this stuff is deemed to be radical, the question is: just how far have we fallen?
Even by the turn of the ’90s, student debt (as we currently understand it) did not exist. The main battle with Thatcher at the time was over the size of the student grant, and the fact that certain welfare benefits were starting to be restricted. Sure, council housing was being sold off and not replaced (as rent controls were abolished), yet even as trade unions were clamped down on, all manner of battles were fought on the industrial field. As for the NHS, the Tories boasted that the ‘NHS is safe with us’ and that record funding was being ploughed in to it. In other words, the Thatcher administration was merely laying the foundations for a revolution that was to be continued and embedded by every subsequent government. But if Thatcherism was a conservative (radical) attempt to resolve the crisis of the 70s (the end of the so called post-war consensus), might not Corbyn be seen as radical (conservative) attempt to reconstitute society by retrieving many of the things lost, yet that still live in the minds of many?
There are two main reactions to the crisis in neoliberalism outside of what can be called the political mainstream: Corbynism and ‘kipperism’ (the broad appeal of UKIP). In order for Corbyn to be electorally successful, the rising tide of ‘kipperism’ amongst the working class in Labour’s traditional heartlands must be stemmed. This must involve a realistic assessment as to the nature of the elephant-in-the-room: immigration and perception of non-integrated communities. A blasé liberal internationalism whilst shouting ‘refugees welcome here’ with the implicit implication that any objections are merely ‘racist’ will not suffice. Indeed, it was this type of contemptuous attitude which fuelled the Brexit vote. From our own perspective, we must show empathy and understanding towards attitudes we intuitively withdraw from. The concerns echoed in the Brexit vote were longstanding and deep rooted in social despair and alienation. So if part of Corbyn’s plan to end austerity shores up the labour market, this in itself may undermine certain employment practices associated with the ‘mass migration’ from the EU and other places. In other words, deal with the problem from the demand rather than supply side, putting the responsibility for good employment conditions onto employers and away from migrants. Hopefully this will undermine the traction the ‘kipper narrative’ has amongst many vulnerable elements in our society.
Going into the rally, someone proffered that Corbyn could not win a general election because of Labour’s 1983 defeat on a similar left platform. However, this was a different time and Labour were seen (rightly or wrongly) as offering a return to the bad old days of the 70s, and Thatcher’s universal acid had not finished its revolutionary renewal. But now we have now come full circle. The neoliberal experiment has long since run aground and we are living with the consequences. This is one thing that ‘Corbynistas’ and ‘kippers’ (even if many elements of Ukip don’t) agree on. But simply returning to the old ways will not suffice. Momentum talks of a ‘new kind of politics’, which must mean, for example, that a nationalised railway service does not repeat the kind of mistakes which made the case for its privatisation unassailable in the Thatcher period.
The vision of an outward looking, inclusive multi-cultural society is in danger of being lost. It is Corbyn’s job to continue and renew this one aspect of the neoliberal worldview (intended or otherwise) that we actually like and value. The consequences of a socio-cultural victory of ‘kipperism’ are too dire to contemplate.