The Strange Undeath of Labourism
From Centrist Dads to Zombie Politics
Conservative MP wins Hartlepool by-election, the news this May’s Friday 7th. Like all political news in a period of calcified hegemony (in this instance, a Tory electoral dictatorship), it is met with stifled yawns from anyone without a keen interest. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the failure of the Corbyn project will not give way to some return of the centrists. That neither the Keynesian left nor the Blairite right can succeed on their own terms. The simple, undeniable fact of this makes most commentary on it, and the dull playing out of an inevitable decline, difficult to meet with much passion.
The Labour Party was squeezed to its right by the Tories, offering carefully delineated financial incentives to key voting demographics in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ and elsewhere. This is often done along lines of property ownership, as sometimes indicated by generational identity. Into all of this a more and more confused understanding of class looms, robbed of any sense of class as a category of agency. The question of who is a worker becomes settled by income, regional and cultural markers, and reductive ones at that. This can be so simplistic as to allow the commentariat to present an urban, university educated Deliveroo driver as a part of some fictional cosmopolitan elite, while a wealthy retiree landlord ex-miner is an eternal prole. As if by magic, the Tories are the worker’s party.
The Labour Party was also squeezed to its left, by the Greens and simple apathy draining huge numbers of younger votes, an increasingly proletarianized and socially progressive group who see no offer from Keir Starmer’s leadership of an undead Labour Party. And it is this pincer that defines the hopelessness of the Labour project. With the exception of 1997 and 2017, Labour has been on a long decline. Many of its recent catastrophes are not new, but the culmination of processes readily apparent during Gordan Brown’s defeat, and certainly during Ed Miliband’s. Now we can see full pasokification take hold, as a centre-left grouping has nothing to communicate during a polarising global crisis. And a crisis seemingly without end, one to which the capitalist order has no solution. (The thesis of a book I co-authored with comrades from the Anti*Capitalist Resistance [A*CR] titled System Crash.)
Lately, because of the very predictability already mentioned, I have not been too focussed on the travails of party politics myself. It offers almost nothing, and a farce London Mayoral election has proved an apt microcosm for British politics in its entirety: it was one with more comedians than serious candidates, and many of the aforementioned ‘serious’ candidates hardly distinguishable from the comedians.
My own interest has been more in the struggles around Black Lives Matter (BLM); Gypsy, Roma, and Travellers (GRT); trans rights; Sister’s Uncut, the assault on the disabled and elderly, etc. In the Kill the Bill protests, in the upsurge of anger expressing itself in flash points. These represent a solitary domain of politics that does not feel scripted and predetermined. Such struggles take place often at the level of the right’s culture war, which also encompasses the redefinition of class as a reactionary identity. The Tories now deftly wield both economic policies and a reactionary campaign of oppression and authoritarianism, although their political control of the UK says nothing about the UK’s greater structural and geopolitical weaknesses. And it is such weaknesses that the theatre of culture war chiefly help obscure.
Tory economics does not operate in addition to its culture war, that wages against groups of the oppressed and perceived liberal and left organisation. Tory spending and the culture war take place in tandem. Money goes to groups who bolster the Tory electoral coalition, while it is withdrawn from those who oppose it. The point of the culture war is to shore up class collaboration by appealing to pre-existing or new prejudices, but this is done through spending as much as propaganda. The left, often mechanically believing in a neat separation between the economic fight and the fight against the prejudices that divide workers, has frequently refused to fight on the so-called culture front (or worse, as harbingers of prejudices, worked with reactionaries).
To focus on the Tories and Labour Party is to circle around whether there has been a vaccine boost for the Tories, to be pitted against the mass social murder (tens of thousands of deaths) this ruling party has overseen in their mismanagement of a pandemic. The tragedies and atrocities involved in Covid-19 (DNRs used against the disabled, importing Covid into care homes and the resulting slaughter of working-class elderly people, the implicit eugenicist rhetoric of herd immunity) are fast forgotten when analysis is reduced to building our own ‘progressive’ electoral coalitions. In this framing, it becomes about perceptions; not even the shaping of perceptions, but an unchangeable, inert fact of them.
Putting aside self-justificatory speels, the reality of Keir Starmer’s loss is not too far from the reality of Corbyn’s. The Imperial Mode of Living, Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen’s excellent book and concept, aptly explains why the left (in every guise, progressive centrist or Keynesian renewal) fail in places such as the UK. It describes in abstraction why such particular failures keep occurring, why Labour would be devastated in a sweep of local elections and an important by-election. During a crisis it is too easy for reactionaries here (and similar places) to create a viable coalition based on preserving medium-term privileges of association with an imperial core country.
Class collaborationism can be presented, not entirely dishonestly, as an alternative to being reduced to the state of much of the rest of the world. The advantages of even an increasingly pressurised top-layer of the working-class, not to mention landlord pensioners and so on, can be best retained by increasing loyalty to a nationalist authoritarianism. This ignores looming catastrophes in the shape of pandemics, climate change, but also mass species extinction, resource scarcity, local pollution and the continued economic decline, but such concerns can be deferred. The ideology that facilitates this is not merely imposed from above, but emerges from everyday life, the assumptions built into our whole mode of social life and the productive and geopolitical order that sustains it.
The Tories are effective at targeting the dwindling resources left at their disposal to key groupings in their coalition, safe in the knowledge that, electorally, the Keynesian left and centrist liberals cannot offer a viable alternative, and that these forces cannot operate together because they have irreconcilable positions under the prevailing conditions. Prejudice, in any case directed at those who are a threat to the preservation of such advantages, do the rest of the heavy lifting, and when the left actively help cultivate many of these (anti-Black, anti-GRT, and anti-Trans sentiment, for example, are all common amongst British ‘progressives’) the culture war is an easy sell.
Jeremy Corbyn came closest in the UK to breaking from the deadlock (albeit, significantly, without a coherent ‘what next?’), but he depended finally on an impossible coalition with centre-right forces. Increasingly it would appear a strict adherence to electoralism offers no way beyond our impasse, even reinforcing it. The most progressive imaginable face of Labour becomes a mere trap for radical ambitions, not a viable vehicle to express them.
But it is a constant temptation for a left to turn to peddling ‘new’ electoral strategies in the wake of such failure. Socialist organisations have not recovered from the historic defeats of the 80s, and often see no way beyond a tight association with Labour. Otherwise, the left too often just lands in a desperate, sometimes cultish routinism. Without sticking to the husks of social democracy, much of the left can only adopt a method no better than that of electoralism, forming into conspiratorial grouplets with a detached elitism about the social world in which they should be participants. Either way, their ideas are often based more on wishful thinking than an honest appraisal of the situation.
For example, it is simply not true, as many continuity Corbynites now insist, that the Labour right or ‘soft left’ has no ideology. This is a convenient nonsense because it carries with it the idea that after a sufficient number of defeats the Blairites and Starmers will see sense and align with a Labour-left politics. The absence of constructive ideas is not the absence of an ideological allegiance. For the centre, the victory of the left represents as great (if not greater) a catastrophe as the victory of the far right.
They will not, in reality, adopt a Corbyn strategy even if it could be victorious, since they are ideologically opposed to so much as mild reformism. And they are so because they represent different segments of society than Corbyn does. No number of losses will convert either big faction of an unsustainable Labour Party. It is an illusion that maintains this party, and the terror of trying anything without precedent.
What of Starmer’s electoral strategy itself? It is hard to get beyond the second-hand embarrassment to give a proper analysis. Starmer wearing boxing gloves, ‘fighting for every vote’. The Labour Party imitating the opening monologue of the 90s satire Trainspotting without apparent irony. Electoral adds featuring bad dad rock riffs to affect a superficial coolness. The point of this is not to cackhandedly appeal to the young, but to appeal to an aging conception of youth. It is an archetype of youthfulness that appeals uniquely to the middle aged, middle-class 90s nostalgics; it makes the Starmer core, the catchment of centrist dads for whom Starmer represents a profound messiah-figure, feel more in their element. The only problem is that this core hardly represents a social force outside of the Labour Party itself, and even outside of the party hardly needs persuading.
More meaningfully, the problem is that the Labour Party depend on an alternative centre of ideas to that of the Tories, but their entrenchment in the establishment and their electoralism attitude of chasing after the pull of existing ideas hampers them from ever being able to construct such an alternative. Corbyn’s project, which rested heavily on its own post-war nostalgia coupled with youth discontent, did not go far enough, probably could not have in its context. Starmer’s project cannot even go that far. The party then is an opportunistic parasite on outside developments, which it can only take credit for, never create. Labour is irrelevant to the real world of politics.
Without a major upset, there is no viable First Past the Post route to anything on the left of the parliamentary spectrum. Neither centrist dads nor their Corbynite children are a coherent electoral faction. Even assuming an election can bring about a meaningful left government during this crisis, there is no plan on how to tackle the hostile capitalist class with much power outside of parliament and in other arenas of the British state. There is unlikely to be any route back to some kind of British Keynesian progressivism this side of a climate apocalypse (even imagining Starmer pulling a Biden-style upset, itself requiring far more savvy than he has shown). And if your vision of politics does not extend beyond electoral visions, this is all a cause not for any kind of action but despair.
We need such a vision-beyond now. We need the energy manifested in BLM and Sister’s Uncut, but with the organisation that can cohere such energy over time into political power and then strategy. The group to which I currently belong, A*CR, has taken steps in this direction. Other, emerging organisations are showing similar insights. But it is not enough. We need to rethink the terrain entirely, to devise new approaches, to seize struggle as, crucially, self-transformative. (In contrast, the business of bringing out the vote is truly stultifying!)
The left should abandon its teacherly attitude and learn again how to learn. All the enthusiasm invested in the zombie of labourism needs to be redirected to developing the struggles that emerge spontaneously from the lived experiences of exploited and oppressed people. These are ongoing, they do not need some bureaucratic intervention to bring into the world.
It is such people, the agents of socialism, who in the merciless grind of their daily life resist the system, one now bent ultimately on species collapse. It is therefore the lessons of their struggle that we must heed. Not in polling and focus groups targeted at ‘important’ demographics in key constituencies, always conceived in reified and static terms, but the living resistance of those fighting for their survival and, beyond, the shared emancipation of everyone. All of our survival.
As for Starmer and the Labour Party? Let the dead bury the dead.
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