Cor­byn is be­ing driven by the ‘left-be­hind’ mid­dle class

The Observer - - COMMENT - Nick Co­hen @Nick­Co­hen4

Any­one who knows the far left will have snorted when they heard that it was ban­ning the most suc­cess­ful Labour politicians in Eng­land from ad­dress­ing the Labour party con­fer­ence. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of Lon­don, and Andy Burn­ham, his coun­ter­part in Manch­ester, may have won ac­tual elec­tions on mod­er­ate plat­forms. No mat­ter. They must step aside so that “or­di­nary” party mem­bers can speak in their place.

Who, I hear you ask­ing, might these com­mon folk be. Crit­ics? In­de­pen­dent ac­tivists with chal­leng­ing ar­gu­ments? My bet – and I re­alise I’m out on a limb here – is that they will be syco­phants who will en­dorse what­ever the lead­er­ship wants them to en­dorse.

This is the way it al­ways goes on the far left. When he warned in 1904 about the Bol­she­viks’ claim that they and they alone rep­re­sented the work­ing class, Leon Trot­sky saw that “the or­gan­i­sa­tion of the party sub­sti­tutes it­self for the party as a whole; then the cen­tral com­mit­tee sub­sti­tutes it­self for the or­gan­i­sa­tion; and fi­nally the ‘dic­ta­tor’ sub­sti­tutes him­self for the cen­tral com­mit­tee”.

Lit­tle has changed. The lead­er­wor­ship of Labour mem­bers is a sign that they do not want and will not be granted in­de­pen­dent thought. Just be­fore Mo­men­tum won all the elec­tions in Hornsey and Wood Green, one of the largest Labour par­ties in Bri­tain, a devo­tee read a poem in praise of Jeremy Cor­byn to inspire the as­sem­bled ac­tivists. It was as if they were in North Korea rather than north Lon­don. This was not some pa­thetic aber­ra­tion. The aptly named Shoestring Press found 50 au­thors will­ing to fill an en­tire book with po­ems for Jeremy.

Writ­ing Labour mem­bers off as ini­ti­ates in a per­son­al­ity cult, how­ever, is a lit­tle too easy. There are deep so­cial rea­sons why men with dis­gust­ing views, which go back into the dark heart of com­mu­nism, now con­trol the op­po­si­tion. If Trump and the Brexit cam­paign tri­umphed be­cause they won the left-be­hind work­ing class, Cor­bynism tri­umphed be­cause it won the left-be­hind mid­dle class. The Eco­nomic and So­cial Re­search Coun­cil re­ported that 56% of Cor­byn’s Labour party mem­bers are grad­u­ates and 70% pro­fes­sion­als – ABC1s in the jar­gon of mar­ket­ing de­part­ments.

It is small won­der that Bri­tain leaves for­eign­ers baf­fled. Pub­lic dis­course is suf­fused with pro­lier-than-thou sneers about the posh­ness and elitism of which­ever en­emy the speaker has in the crosshairs. Naive visi­tors must think that a bloody rev­o­lu­tion had oc­curred. Un­til they look around and see the same old, priv­i­lege-rid­dled coun­try and re­alise that in Bri­tain the lan­guage of class war is only for show.

True to form, the fact that Labour is now as mid­dle class as the Tories only pro­vokes sneers about “cham­pagne so­cial­ists” and lit­tle se­ri­ous thought about why a sig­nif­i­cant slice of the Bri­tish bour­geoisie has em­braced the far left. El­derly rad­i­cals may have “turned to Cor­byn as the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of buy­ing a Har­ley”, as Pro­fes­sor Colin Tal­bot nicely put it.

But they were do­ing a lit­tle more than re­liv­ing their ado­les­cence. Over­whelm­ingly, they work in a pub­lic sec­tor Mar­garet Thatcher de­spised, Tony Blair re­or­gan­ised and David Cameron cut to un­sus­tain­able lev­els. They may have bought valu­able homes on the cheap 40 years ago but they do not feel priv­i­leged, par­tic­u­larly when they have seen con­tem­po­raries en­joy the un­jus­ti­fi­able re­wards of a man­ager­takes-all econ­omy. (A sight that was harder to bear when their man­agers in the NHS, uni­ver­si­ties, lo­cal gov­ern­ment and civil ser­vice were wel­comed aboard the gravy train, while they were left on the wrong side of the tracks.)

Mean­while, the bur­dens piled on grad­u­ates and the ex­clu­sion of the Cor­byn-vot­ing young from the hous­ing mar­ket mean you can­not call them “cham­pagne so­cial­ists”. But you can­not call them cham­pagne so­cial­ists when they are in debt from the mo­ment they go to col­lege. Nor can mar­ket­ing de­part­ments brand them as mem­bers of the pro­fes­sional mid­dle class, when they are un­able to meet the ba­sic mid­dle-class mem­ber­ship re­quire­ment: the abil­ity to buy a home.

Bri­tain and Amer­ica have cre­ated the ideal con­di­tions for po­lit­i­cal up­heaval. Stag­nant or fall­ing wages and mass im­mi­gra­tion have alien­ated the na­tive work­ing class. Hence Brexit and Trump. Fierce com­pe­ti­tion for the few elite jobs that al­low their hold­ers to ac­quire sta­tus – even the lim­ited sta­tus of be­com­ing a home­owner – has alien­ated young mid­dle-class “losers”. Hence Cor­byn and Bernie San­ders.

“Peo­ple who have stake in their so­ci­ety pro­tect that so­ci­ety, but when they don’t have it, they un­con­sciously want to de­stroy it,” said Martin Luther King. He was speak­ing of blacks in the seg­re­gated south of the 1960s. But his words ap­ply as well to­day. A coun­try that al­lows a mi­nor­ity of aspir­ing mem­bers of the elite to ac­quire run­away re­wards, while leav­ing their mid­dle­class con­tem­po­raries frus­trated and hu­mil­i­ated, is beg­ging for trou­ble.

Less un­der­stand­able or for­giv­able is the na­ture of to­day’s mid­dle-class back­lash against a sta­tus quo that is rigged against them. The ac­cep­tance of the heirs to the Stal­in­ists Trot­sky warned against at the top of Labour, the rig­ging of de­bates, the cen­sor­ing of thought and the in­fan­tile cult of the per­son­al­ity around Cor­byn are block­ing out se­ri­ous pol­i­tics. Liv­ing po­lit­i­cal move­ments ar­gue. The Labour left has the look of a morgue about it. The left is only re­ally alive when it de­nounces “Blairites”. When you want an­swers to the ques­tions it and the coun­try faces, you meet only si­lence.

For how will Labour’s promised wel­fare ben­e­fits to its mid­dle-class vot­ers be fi­nanced? Eas­ing or abol­ish­ing grad­u­ate debt, a de­ter­mined house­build­ing pro­gramme and main­tain­ing a triple lock on pen­sions will not just hap­pen be­cause Labour wishes it, af­ter all. What if the elec­tion of a rad­i­cal left gov­ern­ment pro­vokes cap­i­tal flight? What should Labour do then?

You can’t ask these ques­tions with­out run­ning into the great ques­tion of Europe, which Cor­byn has ducked with a cow­ardice the like of which I have never seen in a leader of the op­po­si­tion. Un­der the in­flu­ence of Keir Starmer and the unions, Labour’s sup­port for a hard Brexit has soft­ened. But if Bri­tain ends up weak­en­ing its econ­omy by leav­ing the sin­gle mar­ket, where will the money come from to end aus­ter­ity? If it aban­dons free­dom of move­ment, where will the builders come from to build the new homes or the nurses to staff the NHS?

I’m sure a party stuffed with grad­u­ates must be able to think of a few hard ques­tions. The thing to watch for at the Labour con­fer­ence will be whether they find the courage to ask them.

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