Something extraordinary has been happening below the surface of British politics. The ground is shifting beneath an exhausted political and economic model. The resulting shocks—from Jeremy Corbyn’s two leadership campaigns to the stunning outcomes of the 2016 EU referendum vote for Brexit and the 2017 general election—have shaken our politics to the point where it now feels as if anything could happen.
It is a moment both of great promise and of great peril. A decades-long political ice age appears finally to be coming to an end. Many hitherto fixed and long-established certainties are giving way to a world turned upside down. It is a terrifying but also an exhilarating prospect.
In a widely quoted observation that has become something of an epigraph for our times, the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, writing from one of Mussolini’s prisons, famously warned of the dangers of crisis periods like the present in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. In such an “interregnum”, Gramsci wrote, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. This has been the experience of the past several years. The country has been caught in the wreckage of the Great Financial Crisis, which destroyed the legitimacy of the reigning economic paradigm without dethroning it. A decade on, politics—as Corbyn himself has noted—may finally be catching up.
In Forging Democracy, his epic history of the European left, Geoff Eley has written compellingly of such moments, when the elusive prospect of transformative change suddenly heaves into view, and hope and history collide:
Very occasionally, usually in the midst of a wider societal crisis, the apparently unbudgeable structures of normal political life become shaken. The expectations of a slow and unfolding habitual future get unlocked. Still more occasionally, collective agency materializes, sometimes explosively and with violent results … The present begins to move. These are times of extraordinary possibility and hope. New horizons shimmer. History’s continuum shatters.
The pundits have proven peculiarly ill equipped for the challenges of interpreting this surprising new era of flux and change, in which the recent past has become a poor predictor of future outcomes. The journalist Gary Younge, himself one of a small handful of honourable exceptions, has observed of his fellow commentators that they have largely spent their time “dismissing or lampooning one of the most interesting periods in recent political history, rather than trying to understand it”. As a result, they are continually wrong-footed by events, their monopoly on political wisdom increasingly called into question. This goes a long way to explaining the petulant tones of grievance and condescension with which the Corbyn phenomenon is most often discussed in the traditional media.
A New Era of Politics
We are living through an “Age of Anger”. It is a time of “machine-breaking” politically, of boiling resentment amongst citizens and voters at an out-of-touch political class and an economic system they know is rotten to the core. Those who fixate on how to protect a rhetorical “centre ground” from the bogey of populism are asking the wrong question. The old centre ground is already gone, having disappeared with the cratering of the economic model on which it rested. The real question is how to redirect the new mass popular anger into a force for change, for better or worse: who will break the machines of neoliberal extraction, and with what will they seek to replace them?
Already, across the world, terrifying answers to this question are being offered. A resurgent far right is everywhere on the march, from Poland to India, Italy to Brazil. In Germany, neo-Nazis once again rally openly in the streets. In the United States, the President orders immigrant children taken from their parents to be locked in cages. In the UK, racist attacks are on the rise. The emerging neo-fascist politics is even playing out on breakfast television: one day, millions of viewers can witness Piers Morgan shouting down a Muslim woman for being anti-Trump, the next they can watch a soft-pedal interview with Steve Bannon. Meanwhile, with the Conservative Party tearing itself apart, a new hard right shock doctrine is emerging that seeks to shape a Brexit that would clamp down ruthlessly on workers’ rights and put immigrants and people of colour in real physical danger—a renewal of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”.
In the face of such popular anger, leafing through the centrist playbook to cycle in some new empty suit with a soundbite simply will not work. Clinging to the status quo for fear of something worse is a guaranteed losing strategy. After Brexit, after Trump, this much at least should be obvious.
Yet the left, and particularly the centre left, has an unfortunate tendency to be far too conservative in the face of unexpected and unstoppable change. Ed Miliband, reflecting on his time as Labour leader, seemingly now understands this. He openly admits that his leadership was too cautious, and that it is time his political generation, hidebound by their own increasingly out-of-date experience, learned to listen to a younger generation who know instinctively that things are changing and that the old ways no longer work. Intriguingly, this generational gulf has echoes in the experience of the 1930s, when an older cohort of senior left leaders, convinced that only they understood the political rulebook, clashed with younger activists—people shaped by the experience of war and depression, who understood that the rulebook needed to be ripped up in favour of a new politics more in step with the troubled times.
Then, as now, attempts to preserve the status quo were doomed to failure, an invitation to catastrophe. We can and should be under no illusions: the challenge of a resurgent, racist far right will not be met by a bloodless centrism now firmly beached by history. Instead, it will fall to the radical left to forge a way out of this mess—one that transforms our economic model and addresses our social and environmental calamities without giving quarter to the dark forces of xenophobic nationalism to which they are giving rise. Our times require a response in tune with the spirit of the age: a politics whose boldness and radicalism matches the scale of the growing crisis. Developing such a politics is not merely our opportunity but our responsibility.
Corbyn’s Labour is the only existing political force capable of channeling the rising energy for transformative change into formal politics in Britain. Within three years, the Labour Party’s membership has tripled, making it the largest left wing mass party in Europe. The chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”, heard at football matches and music festivals around the country, are an indication of Corbyn’s appeal beyond his base to previously out-of-reach sections of the population—as is the spontaneous emergence of Grime4Corbyn. “Corbyn gets what the ethnic minorities are going through”, as Stormzy puts it—suggesting new possibilities around race and class for the new politics. It is an extraordinary turn of events—but one that has rarely been recognized by the mainstream media and political establishment, ever inclined to dismiss young Corbyn activists as hard left entryists, cultish fanatics, or naïve dreamers.
In reality, what Corbynism has harnessed is the restless energy of a rising generation of activists deeply alienated from the status quo. This was most evident in the 2017 general election campaign, an event that shifted a whole generation’s relationship with electoral politics. On canvassing outings, people who had never campaigned for a political party before rubbed shoulders with seasoned Labour activists and even supporters of other left parties, in a surge of grassroots mobilisation unlike anything else in our political lifetimes. Many experienced for the first time the euphoria, long absent from our official politics, that comes from collective agency and the democratic power of people in motion.
For many of these activists, gathered nervously on that June election night in 2017 to watch the results come in, the release of the shock exit poll was an extraordinary and unforgettable moment of vindication and hope. A left that had spent decades cultivating the habit of losing, that had been told repeatedly that it was headed for its most catastrophic defeat yet, suddenly dared to believe it could actually win. The movement’s default setting switched almost overnight from a customary left wing melancholy to one of determination, even of optimism. Of course, this level of energy could not be sustained beyond the whirlwind of the snap election—and it has not. But, like the packed rooms and vibrant debates at the annual The World Transformed festival, it is a glimpse of the possibilities inherent in Corbynism, the most encouraging development in British politics in decades.
Across the world, the dynamic new political energy—evident in repeated outbursts from the Arab Spring and Occupy to the indignados, Syriza, and the Bernie Sanders campaign—has been searching for an outlet, attempting to find a path to the surface. In the UK, it has erupted (against all expectations) into the Labour Party, which now finds itself at the forefront of a global left urgently seeking answers and forging alternatives to a crisis-ridden but still aggressively destructive economic order increasingly on its deathbed. “It’s been like being in a dark tunnel for a long period of time, and people are staggering into the light”, as John McDonnell has put it. “There’s been a constraint on hope and optimism, and what Jeremy Corbyn has brought is an optimism and a confidence that these policies can transform the world”. How fitting it would be if Britain, the first advanced industrial economy to provide a testing ground for neoliberal policies, were to be the first to fully re-emerge and seek to implement an alternative.
What holds a dying political-economic system in place, often, is a failure of imagination that things can fundamentally change—that there are real, viable alternatives for organizing something different and better. In such circumstances, an unapologetic left, one that is willing to advocate for a radical break with our failing system, might just be able to find a democratic exit from the Age of Anger—leading to a new, more equitable, inclusive, and ecologically sustainable politics. This is Corbynism’s historic task.
Strategy and Programme
The big question facing the UK left today, then, is this: are we ready? What would it take, truly, to meet this challenge? Certainly, it will require massive grassroots mobilisations and effective election strategies. We do not underestimate the difficulties of achieving a Labour general election victory, particularly in the context of relentless media onslaughts and establishment smears, right wing MPs threatening to split and form a new centrist party, and the unpredictable, divisive, and often toxic politics of Brexit.
But what follows is addressed to a different question: what happens if and when we get there? As the left is just now beginning to realise, this achievement would be the start and not the end of the story. Relatively speaking, getting elected may prove the easy part. The task of transforming the UK economy beyond neoliberalism, in the teeth of powerful vested interests in what the historian R. H. Tawney once called “the oldest and toughest plutocracy in the world”, will have only just begun.
Since 2008, there has been a revival of interest on the left in political-economic change and in how big systemic shifts happen. In the aftermath of the financial crash, many were left feeling bruised and blindsided. How had a crisis of neoliberalism been turned into a pretext for intensifying existing economic arrangements, rather than an opening for change? How had the left allowed this to happen? What did we get wrong? Searching for answers, many looked to the last two crises that had occasioned major shifts in the political landscape: the Great Depression of the 1930s, which ultimately triggered the shift from laissez-faire liberalism to post-war Keynesianism, and the slow-burn economic crisis of the 1970s, which triggered the collapse of the post-war consensus and its replacement by neoliberalism.
A key lesson that was drawn from this history—one that has become something of a touchstone of left debate—was the way neoliberals had organised to keep their politics alive during their long stint in the political wilderness. The Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) has become a byword for the painstaking groundwork that was laid, allowing neoliberals to seize upon the 1970s crisis and control what happened next—and also for the UK left’s failure to do the same during the long winter of Thatcherism. A powerful network of right-wing intellectuals, the MPS was convened by Friedrich von Hayek, one of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, at a secretive ten-day summit at the Hôtel du Parc in the Swiss Alps near Lake Geneva in April 1947. It became the centre of a web of well-funded think tanks—from the Atlas Foundation and American Enterprise Institute in the United States to the Centre for Policy Studies and Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain—able to reach influential business and political elites spanning the globe. The “basic function” of this infrastructure, as Milton Friedman famously put it, was “to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”.
Five years ago, it seemed clear that this was the crux of the left’s problem. Since the 1980s, the centre left had embraced neoliberalism, while the radical left had largely abandoned the terrain of big picture thinking and formal politics altogether. When the crisis hit, it found us trapped in an oppositional corner. We might rail against the banks’ irresponsibility, or march against austerity, but we did not have a positive alternative vision—and still less a political vehicle capable of bringing it about. As a result, moments of political upheaval, like the 2010 student protests or the Occupy movement in 2011, could not be sustained.
But a lot has happened in the past five years, and we need to update our understanding of the task we face accordingly. The sea change we were holding out for in 2008 is now happening all around us. In Britain, we have a radical left political party with a real chance of taking power. An agenda for transformative change is taking shape, one that has been building up in social movements for some time and is now being embraced and further developed by the current Labour leadership.
Contrary to the claims often made by its opponents that it simply wants to revive a stale model of statist socialism, Corbynism is in fact embracing a new model: one that transforms ownership, but that eschews simply transferring economic control from private to public elites. Instead, this agenda is about putting power and resources in the hands of everyday people, through new forms of democratic public and community ownership at the national, regional, and local level. In doing so, it directly challenges the extractive economy built by neoliberalism—that is, an economy in which elites extract and monopolise wealth and power through their ownership of resources that should serve the common good, be they land, energy, or the money supply itself. Ultimately, the emerging democratic economy challenges the pre-eminence of the City of London, the engine of today’s extractive economy.
Of course, much still needs to be done to fill out the details of this vision. The Labour Party is effectively trying to bridge a generational deficit in radical left thinking, with neither time nor—at least until recently—material resources on its side. It remains the case that only limited support is available from traditional think tanks and academia for Labour’s policy development process. But the biggest danger facing the left today is no longer a shortage of ideas or a lack of positive vision. The biggest danger is lack of preparedness—that we are not yet ready for the hard work of turning that vision into reality. If the left has been unused to being propositional, it has been even less used to holding and wielding power. If we are serious about fundamentally transforming our economy, we must rapidly build our understanding of the scale of the challenge ahead. We must develop a clear strategy for carrying through this agenda for change. And we must build the social forces that can give it real power, buttressing it against the inevitable backlash from vested interests.
To do this, we will need four things. First, we need a clear understanding of the nature of the transformation we are trying to achieve, a power analysis of the political forces for and against it, and the levers we have available to tip that balance. Just as Thatcher’s Conservatives drew up tough-minded battle plans for privatisation—identifying the industries where they were strong and those where they were weak, anticipating where they could press home their advantage and where they would need to make compromises in the service of their longer-term vision—so we must do the same for the democratisation of ownership and creation of a new economy. As part of this we must identify flagship measures—our own equivalents of Thatcher’s “Right To Buy” policy of mass council house sales—that both carry a new story about ownership and give millions of people a stake in that new story.
Second, we must be ready for reaction from those who stand to lose from our political programme. A radical redistribution of ownership to the many and away from the few is unlikely to pass without challenge from the current owners, whose prosperity rests on their control of assets. And history tells us that global financial markets can and often do sink radical left governments. Capital flight, investment strikes, foreign exchange crises, trade retaliation—all are possible, whether as market reactions or deliberately administered punishment beatings.
Of course, there are aspects of Labour’s agenda that are appealing to some of these interests—such as its commitment to public investment in infrastructure or a proactive industrial strategy to create new jobs and sectors. As we shall argue below, an unstated gamble at the heart of Labour’s current approach is that this will be enough to secure tacit acceptance, or at least acquiescence, from the forces of capital. But it is essential to have contingency plans should this gamble fail. Some form of control on the cross-border movement of capital may well be necessary if we are to put the genie of footloose finance and hot money flows back into its bottle. And ultimately, new forms of international co-operation may well be needed to protect left governments at the national level from the genie’s overwhelming global reach and power.
Thirdly, we must be ready to transform the institutions of government themselves so they are fit to deliver the project. The civil service is specifically designed to ensure continuity between governments. At times of radical discontinuity, when the new government is committed precisely to overturning the assumptions and orthodoxies that have shaped previous governments, this can become a major problem. An incoming Labour government will need to exorcise the “ghost in the machine” in Whitehall, or it will be operating with a set of tools that is simply not designed to serve a new agenda. This will require some bureaucratic changes, but it is not simply a matter of replacing a neoliberal technocracy with a progressive technocracy. The real prize is radical decentralisation and democratisation, breaking up the power relations of the old ways whilst also building the foundations for a new politics.
Finally, we must build a strong ecosystem of social movements and “organic intellectuals”—Gramsci’s term for the thinkers who emerge from social movements and excluded classes and groups, and are capable of articulating their politics, culture, and concerns—both within and outside the Labour Party. Radical governments cannot succeed without a strong mass base of support—not just for their government but, crucially, for their ideas. This support must be independent, capable not only of defending the government when its agenda comes under attack, but also of keeping it on course when the pressures of governing push it away from radical change.
The institutional base of the UK left is not yet strong enough to sustain the kind of project we have outlined. It is therefore critical that we invest now. We must build collective popular power and agency through social movements and politically informed community organising. At the same time, we must build the practical economic alternatives from the ground up that will help form the backbone of the new economy, from public banks to worker co-operatives and community land trusts. We must also build new narratives, including by raising our game in media and communications, and new ideas, through new think tanks and popular education programmes. And, through all these things, we must begin to build the next cohorts of progressive political, intellectual, and community leaders.
People Get Ready is not about providing detailed blueprints, either for a future Labour government or for the social movements that will underpin it. It is about sketching the shape of the task ahead. More than anything, it is an invitation and a challenge to everyone supportive of the Corbyn project to play their part—and to recognise that our job extends much, much further than simply getting a radical Labour government elected and installed at Westminster and in Whitehall.
We cannot simply replicate the neoliberals’ tactics. For all its attempts to don the rhetorical garb of democracy and popular freedom, neoliberalism was an elite political project in service of an elite economic project. In similar fashion, a truly democratic economic project can only be birthed by a democratic political project. Our methods must match our aims. This is about much more than one leader, one party, or even one government. It is about building a self-conscious, strong, and independent social movement, capable of achieving transformative economic change. Ultimately, the key question—the one to which this book hopes to make a contribution—is not how the movement behind Corbyn can help him succeed. Rather, it is about the far more radical question of how Corbyn’s programme can help bring forth and empower a mass movement in Britain aimed at democratising our politics and economy—and how a transformative Labour government can help such a movement succeed.