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