Why the Corbyn leadership is still the best hope for Labour

Guest blog by Doreen Massey, Emeritus Professor of Geography at the Open University, founding editor of Soundings and editor of After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto

This blog is a shortened version of the upcoming editorial from Soundings 61 – Catch the tide. The editorial is available to read for free.

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, pundits have been predicting doom for Labour. In fact Labour’s doom is more likely to be sealed if the party does not rally round and work to make his leadership successful.

A key reason for welcoming Corbyn’s leadership is that he is seeking to achieve something that has eluded successive Labour leaders for a very long time – he has begun to challenge the dominant terms of debate and mark out a distinctive territory for the party, instead of accepting that he has to operate on the established political terrain. Labour needs to succeed in this if it is to survive as a party.

Making this kind of break is, of course, to some extent a gamble – as political bravery always is – and, like any gamble, it may not pay off. These are exhilarating times, however, and the terms of political debate are shifting quickly. There are the big things of course, such as clear opposition to austerity, which are fundamental. And there are also small things, which may be equally significant: the use of the word kindness; the insistence that the task is to work for victories not just electorally for Labour, but emotionally in society as well (a counter to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘battle for the soul’?).

Then there is the simple fact that the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ are being uttered in the mainstream media. What is going on here can be understood as putting out feelers towards a way of expressing potential elements of a different common sense – and beginning to delineate a new political frontier.

Achieving this is going to be a considerable political task. To make a real difference we need to shift common sense, change the terms of debate and shape a new political terrain – all of which can only be part of a long and multifaceted political project. Most importantly, any new common sense must be capable of engaging parts of society that are way beyond the self-described left. But seeds are being sown. There is somehow a feeling of possibility.

In recent decades we have seen the long decline of a social democracy in which politics has been reduced to technocratic administration and arguments over detail. There has been little confrontation between contesting political positions. And as a result of all this there has been a crisis of representation, which, in turn has opened up a space for populism (on the left and the right): a different kind of voice has emerged – anti-establishment, grassroots, imbued with passion, producing meaningful talk and action.

So, how, exactly, can seize the moment and begin to subvert the dominant common sense? What elements of ‘good sense’ can be drawn out into the political light and be positively built upon? How can the energy and arguments of the emergent politics filter out into, and give confidence to, wider sections of society?

Jeremy Corbyn is frequently characterised as a conduit, a focus, a canvas upon which a host of different strands have painted their discontents and desires – a lightning rod. This characterisation is correct in many ways. Corbyn has burst into power on a wave of pent-up frustration with the way that neoliberalism systematically hurts the non-rich, and particularly the poor, the sick, and the young.

There is no doubt that Corbyn’s support draws together many flows. It draws together young and old, long histories and new initiatives. And among these new constituencies there are also connections with some of the most innovative moments in socialist democracy over the past fifty years: the anti-racist, feminist and peace movements; the great experiments in popular democracy by the metropolitan counties of the urban left and the Greater London Council; and later waves of experimental activism, from alter-globalisation to Occupy.

This support is multifarious, possibly inchoate. Can it be given a shape that can channel into a more focused energy, and a coherent – even while open – set of political purposes?

Here Corbyn is already playing a role as someone who in some way stands for that range of diverse demands. But in these early moments, neither the full nature of the diversity that has been brought together, or the precise way in which the demands can be related to each other and embodied is at all clear. There are, therefore, political tasks. How can different groups be brought into alliance? Are there common enemies that might form the basis for such an alliance? In other words, is there any way in which – without in any way abandoning the particularity of different demands (housing, environment, trade union rights …) an identifiable commonality can be found among them? The question then becomes whether or not Corbyn can ‘represent’ the commonality of these demands. And this is a question of process – a two-way process, and one which is ongoing. Here Corbyn’s commitment to democratic engagement and openness, and to doing politics in a different way, as well as his rejection of individual celebrity status, is a real strength.

These kinds of tough analytical and political engagement are necessary to the creation of a successful movement, and for the construction of a political frontier. There is a real question in the UK today of exactly how we would characterise this frontier and who/what is ‘the enemy’. ‘Capitalism’ is too general and has little immediate popular purchase, while to focus on, for example, ‘housing landlords’ is too specific. How about something that captures the dominance of finance and financialisation in our lives and society? If the experience of Podemos is anything to go by, this will be a long-debated issue. They decided on ‘la casta’ versus ‘el pueblo’. But the identification of a political frontier needs to be a product of a response to the specificity of time and place. This is a task that should now be addressed.

It may be that Jeremy Corbyn will somehow be hounded out. If he is, and if the party returns to the comfort zone of pale imitation of the Tories – in a context whereby the centre will inevitably move yet further to the right – the Labour Party may well face extinction as any kind of progressive force. We must do everything we can to keep this initiative growing and to play our part in the wider movement that keeps on bubbling up.