The defection of The Independence Group (TIG) from Labour in Britain has opened up a debate about the future of the Corbyn project. Duncan Thomas gives his view.
The Independent Group (TIG) are out to #changepolitics. They are doing things differently, more responsibly, more modernly. And they want you and Andrew Marr to smash your “twentieth-century prisms” and join them.
What things will look like through a twenty-first century prism, we don’t yet know. Perhaps we will just have to wait and see. After all, TIG is only a few days old, and it’s not as if several of its members have spent the last three and half years obsessively preparing for this very moment. Please, give them some time and stop being such a dinosaur.
Yet these are serious people with a serious project. They are “excited to be on this journey with you and with each other”. And can’t you just tell; nothing screams excitement like the TIG website’s colour scheme of dark grey text on a light grey background. Thoroughly attuned to the modern economy and its tastes, this is graphic design as AirBnB décor; optimally inoffensive and bland, with tackily framed, meaningless motivational aphorisms on the walls and half the rooms inaccessible.
But it would be a cheap – and extremely easy – shot to simply repeat the many criticisms of TIG’s vacuousness; to catalogue the many ways in which its members (ex-Labour no less than ex-Tory) have enthusiastically supported austerity and toyed with racism when it suits; to list Chuka Umunna’s well known flips and flops between completely opposite positions in his quest to have his personal brilliance acknowledged and secure a place in the centrist pantheon.
Instead, by treating the new platform with just a little more intellectual seriousness than its own members do, we should ask what it seems singularly unable to answer about itself; what does all this vapid waffle actually mean?
Return of the Centre?
The major conclusion that we are supposed to draw, naturally, is that TIG will spell the end of Corbyn’s plan to turn Britain into a revolutionary Marxist state that does unspeakable things like build public housing and not bomb Arabs. John McDonnell’s lifelong dream (according to Chris Leslie) of deciding how many tractors Britain should produce lies in ruins. Perhaps. But, while problematic for Corbyn, the major political tendency whose crisis is exposed by TIG is in fact the very centrism – or, more precisely, the social neoliberalism – that they seek to revive.
After all, as readers may have noticed, in 2007 global capitalism entered a major crisis; the main job of politicians in these circumstances is to manage the economic, political, and social fallout, and restore normality – that is, to once again guarantee capital accumulation at an acceptable level of profitability, with a sufficient degree (perhaps after a few initial scuffles) of at least passive consent amongst the population. Following this pattern, previous economic crises of the systemic magnitude of 2007 – 1873, 1929, 1973 – eventually led to the emergence of new regimes of accumulation, the latest of which is the neoliberalism that we continue to live under in its creaking and curmudgeonly post-crash form.
More than a decade on from the collapse of 2007-8, there is no sign of any similarly ambitious or potentially stable reorganisation of world capitalism along new lines. Instead, we are left with what Neil Davidson terms “crisis neoliberalism”, capable only of short-term emergency measures (bailing out the banks), an intensification of already-existing tendencies (austerity), and increasingly reactionary attempts to manage the social consequences of these policies (greater authoritarianism and more frequent and extreme resource to racism, producing a radicalising dynamic between itself and the previously marginal far right).
The members of TIG are not (mostly, or at least not only) stupid or incompetent, and probably – to damn them with extremely faint praise – constitute the political centre’s most serious and high-stakes attempt to respond to the new terrain. They register, albeit in distorted form, the multi-faceted inadequacies of the political class of which they are an integral part. They recognise that Brexit is a disaster for British capital; that Corbyn’s Labour is at the very least deeply problematic; and that the Tories’ inability to take on their own reactionary and strongly pro-Brexit base means that they (for probably the first time in their long history) cannot reliably represent ruling-class interests.
Yet they lack the self-awareness to grasp that, in different ways, these problems all stem from the very recent history of their own tradition, its assault on people’s living standards, its hollowing out of substantive democracy, and its increasingly open courting of the racist right. As a result, TIG offer nothing in response but a luke-warm re-hashing of the politics which produced the very thing which they have putatively been founded to avoid; Brexit. That they seem to genuinely mistake this for offering “change” is a sad indictment of the limitations of their political imagination and, apparently, basic memory.
Indeed, the fact that TIG do not even pretend to have anything resembling a plan of how British capitalism might be revived on a popular basis (and have in fact mostly left the only party even attempting to articulate such a thing) – and that they present this stunning lack of ambition as a virtue, or at least a “value” – signals nothing less than the total ideological exhaustion of the political centre.
This, of course, has been clear for some time; even here, they offer nothing new, but merely emphatic confirmation. It’s 2019, the world is burning, and TIG MP Chris Leslie probably still thinks reaching out to readers of Which? magazine is a bold proposal. Where Thatcher’s neoliberalism sought to revive the “sick man of Europe” with “hard medicine”, TIG’s neoliberalism proposes to “fix politics” through the alternative therapy of homeopathy. With apparent earnestness, they seem to believe that the less they offer of any active element, the stronger they will be, killing off the disease of “ideology” through a lethal centrist underdose.
Does anyone really get out of bed for this? The meekness of TIG’s platform should give the left the courage to meet their challenge head-on. Their vapidness is a strong sign that the political field remains open, that no new ideas are emerging from the former rulers of what Peter Mair termed “the void”, and that there is consequently potential for the current contestation and polarisation to continue.
Challenges for Labour
This is not to say that TIG are incapable of damaging Corbyn’s Labour, both electorally and more fundamentally; indeed, they may well have already done so. The most immediate risk is that they are better able to shift Labour to the right as an external opposition than they were as internal wreckers. If the threat of more MPs leaving – lots more, if rumours are to be believed – is real, then pressure will increase on the leadership to stem the tide. The first visible public expression of this strategy was Tom Watson’s call “to broaden” the Shadow Cabinet; John McDonnell has also sounded a conciliatory tone. Labour’s move on Monday evening (25 February) to back some form of a second EU vote – although we do not yet know the exact proposed terms – has shown that this pressure has had an almost immediate effect.
It’s unwise to bet on anything these days, but it’s hard to see how a parliamentary majority can be assembled for another referendum. Even in the event that one does take place, I suspect the evidently hoped-for Remain landslide – the only outcome which could decisively settle the issue, while at least temporarily extricating the British ruling class from a severe crisis – will fail to materialise. No matter how shambolic the Brexit process, the loudest voices still pushing Remain have learned nothing and are incapable of learning anything about why they lost in the first place. They are unlikely to convince anyone to change their mind. TIG is Exhibit A in this regard, and it is probably the best that the social neoliberal supporters of Europe can do. Worse, and as has been long argued by some on the left, Corbyn’s backing for a second vote presents an open goal to the far right, who would very easily be able to present Labour as part of the backstabbing “establishment”.
Whatever your view on Brexit and Labour’s new position itself, given the timing of the announcement, it is hard to read the shift towards a second vote as anything other than weakness. Corbyn’s opponents surely know this, and will give him little credit for doing precisely what they have been so volubly demanding. And while, formally, this is simply enacting the next stage of the motion agreed at Labour conference, it is in effect an admission that forcing a new election has proven beyond Corbyn and his supporters. This, again, is hardly an indication of strength. Nor – not incidentally – is their failure to make a strong socialist argument for freedom of movement including and exceeding all existing rights, whether in or out of the EU. This negligence on a matter of principle is far less forgivable than any tactical error over Brexit made under difficult circumstances. Surrendering even an inch of this ground to the right will be extremely damaging for how the party might position itself in any second vote, let alone contribute to building an actual antiracist movement rooted in working class politics.
More generally, the challenges for both a Labour Party genuinely committed to transformative politics and the broader left within and beyond it remain largely the same as they have been since Corbyn took office. They are unrelated to TIG, and yet the response to their defection will tell us something about how far progress has truly been made.
Were Corbyn to become Prime Minister at the head of a left government, he would do so on what remains a weak social base, which internal struggles in the Labour Party – while important – can only do a limited amount to revive. Strike rates, despite some encouraging recent examples and the proviso that this is far from the only index of class struggle, remain historically low. Trade union membership has likewise continued to decline since Corbyn became leader of the party. Unless the labour movement can be revived, and some kind of two-way radicalising dynamic emerges between workplace struggles and social movements on climate change, housing, and other issues in the realm of social reproduction, it is difficult to see where the resilience and independent power base necessary for any serious left-reformist government – let alone anything more ambitious – is going to come from.
This situation, of course, is not set in stone; we may still hope that Corbynism, whether in opposition or government, may help to revive the extra-parliamentary left in a truly significant manner; certainly, a party of over half a million members with a radical and socialist leadership should be uniquely placed to do so. Unfortunately, the Labour Party as a whole remains rather ill-suited as a vehicle to revive that dynamic, although it (or, at least, the activists that it has brought together) will undoubtedly play some role in any upsurge of this kind. Social movements – as recent mobilisations around housing, such as the Save Latin Village campaign well illustrate – are often in direct confrontation with Labour councils, even “Corbynite” ones; more generally, this layer of the party remains a bastion of the right. While the presence of Labour members under Labour banners on demos and picket lines has increased in recent times, there is little sense in which the excitement of Corbynism is spilling over into extra-parliamentary politics to anything like the degree which may have been hoped for. As long as this is the case, regardless of its internal progress within the party, Corbynism will remain isolated and vulnerable to parliamentary manoeuvres and the immediate pressures of short-term electoral arithmetic.
If that is to change, then the departure of TIG, with the possibility of more to follow, must be seen not only as an opportunity to further cement Labour’s left-wing policies and formal programme for government, but to both push on in routing the right and to take an outward turn towards the extra-parliamentary arena. From that vantage point, while it may not be the case that every split makes us stronger, it is hard to see how this one can make the left significantly weaker. It was, in any case, inevitable sooner or later, given that the politics of TIG are irreconcilable with anything remotely resembling a socialist agenda. Corbyn supporters should take it as a sign of their relative success at marginalising the Labour right, and not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by retreating into the supine traditions of broad-church Labourism. Such a move, following the defeat over the IHRA antisemitism code and the failure to stem a rightward drift over migration, would seriously undermine Corbynism as a left project.
How the Labour leadership and members respond to the split, and the degree to which any kind of anti-racist and independent position is staked out in a potential second vote, will therefore be important indicators of whether or not the high watermark of Corbynism has already been reached. If they are prepared to wash their hands of the right, then this would show a hard-headedness, confidence, and courage that is conspicuous in its absence from the tradition of the labour left. And while the party itself retains the potential to act as both a vector for and a drag on radicalisation, any defeat for the Corbyn project at the hands of the right would have a demoralising and disconcerting effect on what is still a fairly new political force. Such a defeat would then deal a significant blow to any hopes of a renewed and confident left that is not only able to support a progressive government, but to act independently, under its own motion, as a motor of working-class power and radicalisation.
Truly turning the party outwards in order to build this kind of force is, along with a willingness to call the right’s bluff and let them walk if they want, anathema to Labourism as a political tradition even in its most left-wing variety. While we should not simply wait for Corbynism to overstep either of those sacred bounds, should it do so, it would truly be taking a leap into the unknown. If it does not, then a historic opportunity will have been squandered.