We Lost Because We Weren’t Big Enough (the Left in the UK and the US)
By Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory, and a writer, researcher and activist based at the University of East London. Originally published at Open Democracy.
In the UK, the book-length post-mortems of the Corbyn moment are starting to be trailed. My own analysis was published online in January. In the US, the analytical dissection of the Bernie Sanders movement is well under way.
No doubt everyone who was even tangentially involved in the Corbyn and Sanders projects has their own account of what went wrong; and why it wouldn’t have gone wrong, if only they had been listened to. My account of Corbynism was certainly relentless in this regard.
But at moments like these, it’s important not to blame events that are shaped by broad forces on details of history. Of course, it matters if the people running a campaign are good at their jobs. Of course, it matters if a candidate is charismatic, and has the ‘common touch’. Of course, no historical outcome is ever entirely pre-determined. Of course, to a certain extent, anything could happen, and anything could have.
But the profound similarities between the trajectories of the Corbyn and Sanders movements, and the similar situations that their failure has given rise to, suggest that something broader is going on.
For example, many of us on the UK Left were frustrated by Corbyn’s inability to match Sanders’ rhetoric. It seems likely that the establishment had to stop Sanders before he got the Democratic nomination rather than after, because if he’d got it, it would have been too late: he would have won. But stop him they did, just as they stopped Corbyn. Which suggests that whatever tactical mistakes their teams did or didn’t make, there were bigger things going on that made their tasks almost impossible.
On either side of the Atlantic, a remarkably similar situation now faces the democratic left. In each case, between 2015 and 2020, a mass movement was mobilised behind the leadership of a previously obscure politician who had been a young adult in the 1960s. In each case, the core of the movement was made up of disillusioned millennial graduates. Both movements met with apparently terminal defeat between December 2019 and April 2020.
The forces ranged against these movements were almost identical: an entrenched centrist political class on the one hand, an upsurge of Right-wing nativism on the other.
This combination of forces ultimately made it impossible for either movement to build a broad enough coalition to win. In each context, the politics of race and class are central to the dynamics of the situation. And for both the British and American Lefts, a bizarre and unrepresentative electoral system only makes their task much more difficult at every stage.
In the UK, Dawn Butler, a Black, female Left-leaning Labour MP – was recently stopped and questioned by the London Metropolitan Police. While the police have claimed this incident was entirely the result of human error, the fact is that being randomly stopped and questioned by police is a daily fact of life for Black Londoners. Butler herself certainly didn’t believe that the episode was an innocent random mistake.
Twenty-fours hours later, Labour leader Keir Starmer had yet to comment on the incident, to the astonishment of members on the party’s Left. Rightly or wrongly, this was widely interpreted as a snub to the Corbynite wing of the party, and to Black voters and party members. This followed on from the treatment of another Corbynite Labour MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, just weeks earlier: fired from the shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with her constituent, the actress Maxine Peake, that contained one line of anti-Israel propaganda. It also followed Starmer’s clumsy attempts to row back from an apparent public dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement a few weeks earlier.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the first Black woman was nominated as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate. But this was not perceived as any kind of victory by Left-wing Democrats: instead, the selection of Kamala Harris was understood as a final defeat for the Bernie Sanders movement. Like Joe Biden, Harris is not seen as being on the Left of the party or of American public opinion. She was associated with a highly punitive judiciary regime during her tenure as Attorney General for California, and generally advocates for a policy agenda that is continuous with the Clintons and Obama.
This all follows directly from the Democratic platform committee having rejected the signature policy of the pro-Sanders movement – ‘medicare for all’ just a couple of weeks earlier – despite Biden’s promise to include Sanders and some of his advisers in developing his programme for this November’s election. For those of us in the UK, this all feels very familiar.
Firstly, the established professional political class, and the interests that it represents (primarily, finance capital and Big Tech) have successfully defended their institutional privileges against a democratic assault.
They have done so mainly by convincing a layer of affluent, middle-aged professionals that the Left ultimately represents a threat to their most cherished social values: meritocratic, individualistic, cosmopolitan liberalism. In the US, this perceived threat has mainly taken the form of a repeated insistence (against absolutely all psephological evidence) that a Sanders candidacy would inevitably lose to Trump, thereby extending the life of his cartoonishly villainous regime. This same threat was used to convince older Black Democratic voters in the South that the defence of centrist liberalism was the only alternative to a perpetuation of Trumpian white supremacism. In the UK, the same effect was achieved by convincing a small but strategically crucial section of middle-class voters that Jeremy Corbyn was an advocate for Brexit and an antisemite, and that voters should instead lend support to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or abstain).
Secondly, again in each case, a nationalist, and increasingly irrationalist, populism on the Right has attracted enough support from some of the social constituencies who we might have hoped would unite around a radical social democratic agenda to make it impossible for that programme to win a majority. In the UK this was the constituency which voted for Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’. In the US, Trump’s economic nationalism and nativist populism mobilised lots of his base.
His failure to deliver on any of his promises (either to build a wall on the Mexican border or to bring jobs back to the rust belt) has undermined much of his credibility with that section, which is partly why increasingly deranged conspiracy theories are circulating among his die-hard supporters. There isn’t much reason left to vote for Trump, if you didn’t benefit from his tax cuts, or don’t believe he’s engaged in a secret war with the ‘deep state’.
The Biden Plan
Trump didn’t win in 2016 because of any significant surge in support for White supremacy or the Republicans, but because millions of Democrat-leaning voters would not vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s these people that Biden must excite.
At the same time, if he is to overcome Trump’s resources and his own limitations, he will need money from the financial and business interests that traditionally bankroll Democratic campaigns. Harris’ nomination is as much about securing their support as enthusing Black and women voters. Presumably this will free Biden somewhat to woo those older, white, mainly working-class voters who were attracted to Trump by his economic populism but often expressed enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders.
We don’t know if the campaign will feel much need to appeal to the young urban Left that was Sanders’ core base. In many places, that constituency faces exactly the same problem as its British counterpart: it tends to be concentrated in urban areas in ‘blue’ states where there is little doubt about the electoral outcome, however they vote. Much like the UK system, the electoral college discounts everyone except swing voters in swing states. But the presence of both urban and rural areas in most states means that in those which do swing, the enthusiasm of young urban voters is as important as anyone’s in influencing national outcomes.
Biden himself, in his rare moments of lucidity, sometimes gives the impression of being a figure that we really haven’t seen before in either country: a fully paid-up member of the neoliberal political class who actually realises that the historical moment has changed, demanding a radical divergence from the policy norms of the past quarter-century (Macron, perhaps, could also be characterised in these terms). There’s no reason why a cynical and pragmatic politician couldn’t draw that conclusion for themselves without any ideological conversion, and it’s a remarkable testimony to the power of ideology that so few seem to have done so, in the face of the obvious historical reality on either side of the Atlantic.
As if to illustrate that power, the one minute’s speaking time accorded to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez at the Democratic National Convention this year – compared with the 4+ minutes accorded to Republican former Governor of Ohio, John Kasich – suggests that the party establishment itself is still stuck in exactly the same mindset that lost them the 2016 election: chasing the ‘moderate Republican’ vote that so dramatically failed to materialise in that year.
It’s hard to say how real this constituency is. A significant tendency of recent American Left commentary has been to assume that it isn’t. From this perspective, the ritual evocation of a ‘moderate Republican’ constituency can best be understood as an expression of class solidarity amongst members of the professional and managerial elite. To say ‘moderate Republicans’ exist and declare them natural allies is, in effect, to argue for a unity and ideological coherence among members of the suburban upper-middle class that would transcend mere partisan identification. But it was always doomed to fail as an electoral strategy.
But while there was little evidence of this constituency coming out to vote for Clinton in 2016, recent research by Matt Karp suggests that affluent suburban ex-Republicans have in fact swarmed into the Democratic selectorate in key districts over the past four years, playing a decisive role in denying the nomination to Sanders. Solidarity works, it would seem. Karp’s important article also demonstrates the extent to which the hostility of Democratic party officials to the Sanders movements played a key role in blocking the possibility of his nomination campaign achieving its goals. Once again, the parallels between the UK and US situations is more than striking. One of the most contentious issues inside the Labour Party this year has been a leaked internal report demonstrating the extent to which powerful networks of party officials were actively hostile to any prospect of a Labour victory under Corbyn in 2017. Not that this should have come as any surprise. Anyone who had been active in the Labour Party for any length of time prior to 2015 knew that the Right-wing of the party was deeply embedded in its bureaucratic structures and power-networks, while remaining ruthlessly contemptuous of any kind of socialist politics, and any idea of respect for party democracy.
This all leaves socialists in a difficult position, as lots of anguished commentary has acknowledged. The strategic question is: how best, and how far, can the Left leverage its limited but significant popularity and organisational capacity, in order to put genuine pressure on a Biden presidency (and the congressional Democrats)? By loyally campaigning for him, or refusing to do so? By contesting primaries or running independent socialist candidates? By organising in communities and workplaces only? By returning to the dream of an American Labor Party? It’s hard to see any of the answers being proffered as definitive. If anything, radicals need to organise in ways that keep all of these options open.
Despite the gulf between the radical Left and Kamala Harris, it’s notable that the convergence of pressure from Black Lives Matter and the expectations of a self-consciously cosmopolitan professional class created a situation in which Biden had to nominate a woman of colour. The Labour leadership is subject to very similar pressures, but the professional class in the UK has different priorities, having little sustained interest in the problem of anti-Black racism. Starmer’s treatment of Butler and Long-Bailey has led to charges of seeming to recognise a ‘hierarchy of racisms’: prioritising zero-tolerance for antisemitism (which appears to include much criticism of Israel) over any serious political critique of anti-Black (or anti-Traveller) racism.
This understanding of the situation is contested. Starmer’s supporters insist he was wise to avoid commenting on Dawn Butler’s case and alienating socially authoritarian older voters; while Long-Bailey breached the party’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on antisemitism. Few on the Left are convinced. Starmer’s apparent reluctance to endorse Black Lives Matter earlier this summer lingers.
I don’t think Starmer is a racist, or entirely indifferent to the institutionalised anti-Black racism in the UK. But there seems little doubt that his statements on all of these issues are being calibrated according to a specific political strategy, responding to the specific issues raised by Labour’s defeat in December. That strategy seems, understandably enough, to be focussed on winning back the two key sets of voters Labour lost between 2017 and 2019.
I’ve already mentioned the first such constituency: middle-class centrists, who were put off Labour by relentless portrayal of Corbyn as somehow contravening cosmopolitan liberal values, with his supposed tacit endorsements for Brexit and for antisemitism. These are mostly middle class, middle-aged ‘generation X’ voters who, since the 1990s, have largely been protected from most of the things that other sets of voters have become very angry about. They haven’t suffered the sense of cultural displacement and political disempowerment experienced by older voters everywhere, and by all age groups in the post-industrial regions. They haven’t experienced the frustration and permanent economic insecurity that has become the norm for so many millennials. Consequently, they don’t understand why the golden age of Blairism ever had to end, and they blame everyone except Blair and themselves for the fact that it did.
For them, the 2008 crisis and its aftermath was largely something that happened to other people: primarily because historically low interest rates ensured that the majority of them who are homeowners never experienced much interruption in their perpetual capacity to consume. In the US, their equivalent cohort are highly likely to have voted in Democratic primaries, and highly unlikely to have voted for Bernie Sanders.
Back in the UK, Corbyn and his supporters always made these people uncomfortable, with their old-fashioned language of ‘socialism’ and apparent insistence that things weren’t going great for many people. So these middle-aged voters have been only too happy to be told that the reason the Corbynites irritated them wasn’t because the things they said were true, but because they were racists and xenophobes.
Starmer already has huge credibility with this cohort, being, in effect, their ideal image of a professional politician, and being closely associated with Labour’s most aggressively pro-Remain wing . But to retain their support, he must signal strongly that he endorses the narrative according to which Corbyn’s Labour was institutionally antisemitic: which became the key story this constituency used to justify to themselves their alienation from Corbyn and his supporters.
But while the loss of these centrist votes was numerically significant in December 2019, it didn’t decide the result. The UK, it can never be forgotten, has an absurdly unrepresentative electoral system. First-past-the-post, combined with the fact that younger, non-White and more highly educated voters all tend to be more concentrated in urban centres, results in a situation whereby a tiny number of swing voters in marginal constituencies determine every election. Those voters are disproportionately suburban and middle-aged. There are very clear parallels with the US electoral college.
There is a widespread assumption among party members that Starmer calibrates every single public statement, intervention and policy announcement entirely to pander to the perceived prejudices of this group. This may or may not be true. What is true is that his head of policy, Claire Ainsley, published a book a couple of years ago called The New Working Class. Despite its title, this really isn’t an attempt at a sociological analysis of the identity or class composition of contemporary workers. It is a precise and careful analysis of recent data on social attitudes, particularly as that data appears to tell us something about the opinions, prejudices and preferences of low-income voters, and specifically with reference to what policies a political party might offer that would directly reflect those preferences and prejudices.
The book makes an honest and serious argument that by offering such policies, a party would actually be helping to restore trust in democracy, by giving the people what they actually want. Of course, at no point does the book address the question of why people – especially older people with little education and a high level of trust in the print media – might want what they want. It’s not that kind of book.
In fact this is very close to the justifications given by early New Labour ideologues for their reliance on focus-groups and opinion polls to make policy. This was notably the attitude of Blair’s strategist Philip Gould, himself an acolyte of Bill Clinton’s strategy team. But in the 1990s, the voters that Labour were chasing were quite different: they were southern, aspirational, and upwardly-mobile (although ironically they belonged to more-or-less the same generation as many of the northern voters that Starmer is chasing now). Ainsley’s method may be entirely New Labour, but her conclusions are decidedly ‘Blue Labour’: arguing for a policy agenda that is partially redistributive, but also authoritarian and socially-conservative, taking an entirely instrumental attitude to education and a relatively punitive approach to welfare.
If these are to be the major coordinates of the Starmer project, then he and his advisors can hardly be blamed. This is, after all, the most rational response to the realities of Labour’s electoral situation. Any such course is likely to provoke a mass defection of the younger voters and supporters who flocked to Corbyn’s Labour after 2015 (as well as a significant portion of Ainsley’s ‘new working class: those ‘emerging service workers’ that Ainsley and her sources all identify as having very different attitudes to the rest of that putative social grouping).
Unfortunately, under First Past the Post, this hardly matters at all: most of those voters live in urban constituencies where Labour already enjoys enormous majorities. At least, that is very likely to be the calculation made by Starmer and his team. Whether that assumption survives the next couple of years – which are very likely to see significant increases in support for the Greens and the Liberal Democrats amidst growing panic about climate change amongst the younger middle classes – we will have to see. The fact that Scotland is already a lost cause for Labour, and will probably leave the UK within the foreseeable future, doesn’t seem to figure in Starmer’s calculations one way or another.
The problem with such an approach, even if it proves to be electorally viable, is that it will not address any of the fundamental social problems facing the country or the world. Let’s take the problem exemplified by Dawn Butler’s harassment by the police.
What possible solution can be imagined to institutionalised racism that would avoid challenging the prejudices and assumptions of both of these key constituencies to whom Starmer is apparently orienting his project? The whole point of the Black Lives Matter movement is to highlight a precise set of issues that both the liberal ideology of the ‘centrist dads’ and the social conservatism of Ainsley’s ‘new working class’ simply cannot allow themselves even to perceive clearly: never mind propose realistic solutions to them.
It’s worth considering these two ideologies and the different ways in which they cannot admit to any serious analysis of structural racism. It’s also worth noting that the two exist in quite different institutional spaces, although between them, the institutions in question cover almost the entirety of the mainstream media, both in the US and in the UK.
On the one hand, the ideology of liberal cosmopolitanism to which middle-class centrist voters remain so attached is still the default common-sense of the managerial class in both countries, including senior managers of public institutions, large and medium-sized businesses, and most broadcast media professionals. On the other hand, all evidence suggests that the world-view of older voters with low-education is heavily shaped by the power of the tabloid press and its ideological allies online in the UK; by the media constellation organised around Fox News in the US. On either side of the Atlantic, both of these sets of institutions, and the ideologies that they propagate, remain major obstacles for any project that would seek to actually address the fundamental social questions raised by the fight against structural racism (or against rampant economic inequality, or against climate catastrophe). Let’s think about the limits of liberal anti-racism first.
An Age of Progress?
Anglo-American liberalism likes to tell itself a story. According to that story, the years since the 1950s have encompassed a great era of progress. Despite the inconvenient intercession of events like the Iraq war, or conservative attempts to suppress LGBTQ equality, the past few decades are generally seen in a positive light: a steady march from the darkness of post-war social conformity, into the light of a diverse and tolerant twenty-first century culture.
None of this is simply untrue. Many people now inhabit societies that tolerate a diversity of lifestyles, beliefs, identities and customs that has no historic precedent in the history of human civilisation. For some of us, opportunities for self-expression and self-fulfilment have expanded almost beyond the most utopian dreams of earlier generations. But these opportunities have not been widely shared. In fact they have been denied to growing numbers of the poorest people, with ever-more appalling flagrancy, as the institutions of post-war social-democracy have retreated.
That is why the greatest uprising against racial injustice of recent times has come just three and a half years after the first Black President of the USA left office. The same history that made possible the emergence and consolidation of a Black middle class, that made a Black head of state seem possible in America, did nothing to weaken the tendency for municipal police forces to treat Black communities like subjugated people under military occupation. In fact that history only made the situation worse.
Several things are simultaneously true. Today, if you have a degree and a professional salary, then your chances of being held back because of your gender, your sexual orientation or the colour of your skin have never been lower. That doesn’t mean you won’t be held back at all, or that you won’t continue to suffer indignity and harassment in many quarters. At the same time, if you don’t enjoy those economic advantages, then the freedoms apparently granted to you by this brave new liberal world are of very little use: and this is more true every year, as inequality intensifies, as real wages stagnate, as the power of unions and local urban communities continues its 40-year decline.
The twentieth-century labour movement and the institutions of the welfare state were notoriously racist and misogynistic, at their worst. But they also afforded a degree of basic economic protection for the poorest workers that has been systematically stripped away since the 1970s. For poor white workers, especially straight men, the decline in the value accorded to their cultural status as straight white men has coincided with a decline in their economic and political power. In some, this provokes intense resentment of an increasingly cosmopolitan political elite that drives support for a far-Right agenda.
The Nationalist Right
It’s these resentments that push so many voters – alienated from the culture of the cosmopolitan elite – into the arms of the nationalist Right. In the UK as in the US, the second most powerful section of the mass media after the neoliberal technocrats who still control the BBC and other major broadcasters – is committed to a clear ideology of authoritarian nationalism. In fact this has been the case since the early 1970s, and throughout that time has posed a major strategic dilemma that the labour movement and its allies has simply failed to address. It’s crucial to note here that the real core of support for that nationalist Right in both countries is not ‘the white working class’: it is, in fact, as it has always been, the classic ‘petit-bourgeoisie’: affluent, ageing property-owners, employers in long-established economic sectors, landlords and senior private-sector managers. But when it is confined to that social base, the nationalist Right never gets anywhere and never causes problems for anybody. The problems arise when they manage to recruit enough of the working class to their cause to leave any potential progressive or socialist coalition too weak to succeed. The mechanisms by which they achieve this are not hard to identify.
In the UK, notably, an influential section of the English press remains committed to an extremely Right-wing, authoritarian and nationalist/imperialist politics. This isn’t a new situation, and has obtained to some degree for as long as there has been a British popular press. But this tendency was at its weakest in the 40s, 50s and 60s when the Sun (launched in 1964) was Labour, the Daily Mirror the most popular paper in the world and even the communist Daily Worker enjoyed mass circulation. It’s no accident that this was Labour’s period of greatest political success. Similarly in the US, the extent and reach of the Right-wing media ecology has never been greater than it is today, and nor has the willingness of Right-wing spokespeople to disseminate narratives without the slightest connection to objective reality.
Nationalist authoritarianism has always played a powerful role in popular politics. Philosophers from Plato to Hobbes to Freud, not to mention many contemporary theorists of ‘populism’, have seen the desire of crowds to follow leaders while excluding foreigners as direct expressions of the most basic psychic impulses informing all social life. Indeed, at a philosophical level, one of the key objectives of radical, democratic and socialist theory has always been to show that this is not the only basis upon which social life can be organised: that people in large numbers can also express tendencies towards solidarity, egalitarianism and a genuine love of shared freedom.
Perhaps because it is, ultimately, the expression of inchoate and malleable emotional forces, nationalism can become attached to various political projects and tendencies. Its most extreme manifestation may have been in the murderous modernity of mid-twentieth century fascism, but the New Right of Thatcher and Reagan also managed to convince xenophobes and nationalists that they were on their side, willing to endorse racist and militarist projects as long as they also got to sell off public utilities and slash taxes for the rich. So the discourse of nationalist authoritarianism has proven remarkably flexible over the years, being used to justify everything from imperialist war to the destruction of the British coal industry. But the purpose that conservative nationalism always serves is to provide alternative explanations for historical events to those that would inform a progressive response: blaming unemployment on immigration; blaming union unrest on unpatriotic militant workers; blaming crime on the supposed moral degeneracy of ethnic minorities.
In the UK, the most recent and powerful iteration of this narrative was the Right-wing argument for Brexit. The Brexit story offers a compelling and plausible account of almost all of the cultural, social, political and economic changes of recent decades that many UK citizens have cause to regret, while promising an easy remedy to them. The weakening of our democratic institutions, the collapse of manufacturing industry and the consequent loss of secure employment in many places, the changing cultural composition of our cities and other communities: all could be laid at the door of EU membership. Of course a few of the people who voted Leave did so out of a hard-headed Left-wing understanding of the EU as an institution committed to the implementation of neoliberalism. Of course almost everyone who took such a view was a committed supporter of lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn. But absolutely every relevant survey suggests that the proportion of leavers who were motivated by this view, free from any nationalist fantasies of ‘recovering sovereignty’ or restoring cultural purity, was statistically negligible. A certain section of the American Left loves the idea that Brexit was in fact a vote against neoliberal policy rather than the reactionary form taken by dismay at some of its effect. The truth is, for most of its supporters and opponents, a vote for or against Brexit was the precise symbolic equivalent of a vote for or against Trump’s border wall.