Labour Beyond Corbyn and the Need for a New Language of the Left

“I believe in peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll but it’s never going to happen!”

It was 2007. Northern Rock had just become the first British bank in 150 years to suffer a bank run. I was staying at the house of an senescent rocker and, as we watched what would be history unfold, we debated from extreme positions. His remark - the idea that one could believe in a concept’s values if not its feasibility - seemed faintly comic at the time. Eight years later I am not laughing.

I have long been sceptical of capitalism. I cannot deny the benefits that it has brought both to individuals and in revolutionising the economy. But its inequities are obvious. Like many I wondered whether the credit crisis would see a shift leftwards towards at least a different model of capitalism. Sceptics came from surprising quarters when they saw grotesque excesses. In the midst of the recession there was a widely-reported meal to celebrate annual bonuses. It sticks in my mind: a £45,000 meal of lobster, Wagyu fillet steak, washed down with Chateau Lafite Rothschild and 40 year-old brandy. When I read about it I felt a felt queasy at the parade. Mine was not a moral judgement but a sense of its banality. Had the sum of human endeavour become the acquisition and status of capital?

For many such tales were cautionary ones of a left which had flown too close to a neoliberal sun and fallen victim to its merciless heat. When Ed Miliband apparently disowned New Labour it was because of this sense that values had been lost. But because the repudiation fell into a vacuum, the public interpreted it as a step backwards; he curiously overlooked that New Labour had used the proceeds of this capitalism to fund its investment in health and education, and to redistribute wealth which had lead to a reduction in inequality. Post-Miliband Jeremy Corbyn enjoys his moment in the sun, though it is not a neoliberal one. I cannot deny the audacity of those who proclaim a political sea-change based on a few opinion polls and rallies; I do question the radicalism of his agenda. What is really radical about reviving variations of totemic left-wing policies and rhetoric? Perhaps I am missing something. To me it looks like a dog returning to its own vomit.

Despite its huge successes in office, Labour has never changed the political fundamentals in its favourTwenty leaders, three of whom won elections to become prime minister; it is a pretty dismal record for Labour. I have yet to see any evidence to suggest Jeremy Corbyn would be anything but one of the many Labour leaders who fails to win an election.

Despite its huge successes in office, Labour has never changed the political fundamentals in its favour. To become more than an occasional alternative to the Conservatives they must stop clinging to a past identity but instead articulate a new agenda. It is time to change the paradigm.

Central to this has to be a coherent idea of the role of the state. Despite their differences Blair, Miliband and Corbyn all merely articulate the redistributive state as an end in itself. While I do not deny its importance, it is ephemeral. The July budget showed the fleeting nature of such legacies. Nor does it answer the question, “What is the left for when there is no money?” Its centrality also speaks to the idea that money is all-important to our lives.

Labour can create a language which displaces the all-consuming importance of capitalI would like to see a left that reimagines the state’s purpose to create a fairer, more fulfilling society; a party which talks about civic ideology. Labour could speak about capitalism’s limits by proposing to create and increase democratic space; that embraces a creative approach to education by ending the divide between state and private; that democratises culture beyond public funding of arts; that revolutionises charity structures so that we can all play a role in their goals. The left can articulate the idea of social equality: no matter what their background or market position every citizen has the ability to pursue a life that is equally fulfilling.

Labour will only win power when people believe it will protect their economic security. To maintain it, it must develop new language. Human nature does not change. Look at poetry. Look at Shakespeare. Consciousness - how we relate to the world around us - does. It is shaped by policies and institutions for good or ill, but most of all it is shaped by language.  Our democratic identities are as much about discourse as facts. Foucault called it the regime of truth.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were successful for their policies but also the language they used. As individuals we build our personal story. We highlight experiences which fit our idea of ourselves. Events in themselves are not important but the language we use about them forces our reaction. Societies are the same. It is why ‘narrative’ is so important in democratic politics. Labour can create a language which displaces the all-consuming importance of capital from our consciousness. In a socially equal commonality money becomes less relevant.

I am not clairvoyant. Maybe we do live in unique times which will bring about the long-awaited workers’ revolution. Maybe Jeremy Corbyn is the future. Yet to believe so is ahistorical. Capitalism did not spring into existence with the Enlightenment; it merely found coherence and ideology. So the question becomes how we humanise it.

Great events of history dazzle us. Sometimes the unremarkable are just as important.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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