As the 2019 election campaign moves into its final hours, we are told yet again by many pundits that the choice on offer is between two rival forms of populism: the right-wing populism of Boris Johnson, and the left-wing populism of Jeremy Corbyn. Squeezed between these populisms, we are told, is a ‘liberal’, ‘moderate’ centrism, cruelly abandoned by the major parties’ capture by extremists. Who will defend liberal values against this rising tide of illiberal, authoritarian fanaticism?
Voters who are worried about this question are in luck. We can place our vote on Thursday December 12th, secure in the knowledge that one candidate for PM represents much of the best of the liberal tradition. That candidate is Jeremy Corbyn. And if this suggestion seems counter-intuitive, one reason may be that much contemporary ‘moderate’, ‘liberal’ centrism itself represents an attack on liberal values and institutions.
Take the fundamental liberal principle of equality before the law. Under the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition government, the legal aid budget was slashed, leaving many people without any access to legal representation, a situation that has led one judge to question whether the defendant’s “human rights are irrevocably impinged”. A civil lawyer told BuzzFeed’s Emily Duggan, “I’d say about half the cases I’ve worked on, the outcome would have been different if the other side had a lawyer.” Labour’s Bach Commission has proposed a large number of reforms to the legal aid and courts system, to “restore access to justice as a fundamental public entitlement”.
Or take the basic status of citizenship, and the rights that flow from it. Reactionary populism enthusiastically strips citizenship from those taken to fall outside the ‘legitimate’ body politic: the use of these government powers has recently skyrocketed. Corbyn’s Labour has taken the unpopular (not ‘populist’) and entirely correct liberal position that British citizens like Shamima Begum have every right to return to the UK and, if accused of crimes, to be tried in British courts, with adequate legal representation. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary has specifically intervened to block the repatriation of British orphans and unaccompanied minors from Syria, leaving children born overseas to British ISIS members to die in refugee camps.
Or take Labour’s economic programme. Much ink has been spilled over the supposed illiberalism of Labour’s economic plans: as if expanding the number of cooperatives in the economy, investing in infrastructure, subsidising higher education, and nationalising key public utilities, are Stalinist plots to institute command-and-control authoritarian communism. In fact, of course, Labour’s proposals are in line with mainstream social-democratic mixed economy state structures: Labour’s economic programme can easily be defended on the basic economic principles of Keynesian investment, and correcting ‘market failures’ via state intervention around positive or negative ‘externalities’. Pundits who have managed to confuse “defending unusually low levels of corporation tax” for “defending liberal economic institutions” do not deserve to be taken seriously.
Or take the fundamental social-democratic principles that animate Labour’s redistributive policies. Under the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition austerity programme, spending constraints on health and social care have, per academics writing in the British Medical Journal, resulted in many tens of thousands of excess deaths. Office for National Statistics figures show that under the coalition and Tory governments, life expectancy has fallen by almost 100 days among women living in the most deprived areas of the UK. The UN Special Rapporteur on poverty characterised the rise in poverty under austerity as “a social calamity”. Rough sleeping has, per the Crisis homelessness monitor, increased by 165% since 2010. Labour’s anti-austerity policy programme would begin to reverse the terrible human cost of those austerity years. This is not a specifically socialist agenda: it is a policy programme that any progressive liberal keen to inhabit a civilised society should embrace.
Or take the enactment and enforcement of the ‘hostile environment’ policy by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. ‘Centrist’ ministers who oversaw the deportation of long term British residents by right, sometimes to their deaths, the denial of medical care, the refusal of housing – these ‘centrist’ ministers now somehow attack a Labour Party committed to undoing these policies as ‘illiberal’. Amelia Gentleman has documented the lives and deaths of dozens of hostile environment victims at The Guardian, though many more will have gone unrecorded. Gentleman writes: “I wanted to cry at my desk when I opened a letter from the mother of a young woman who had arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1974, aged one. In 2015, after being classified as an illegal immigrant and sent to Yarl’s Wood detention centre, she had taken an overdose and died.” This is one story among many.
Finally, take the role of international diplomatic institutions. Corbyn has a longstanding liberal (not ‘two campist’) commitment to international institutions’ capacity to constrain military conflict: a position that contrasts starkly with many so-called liberal centrists’ eagerness to unilaterally bomb, invade, occupy and devastate entire countries and regions on the flimsiest of geopolitical pretexts. Most urgently, British arms sales and on-the-ground military support are currently critical to the ongoing prosecution of the military conflict in Yemen, the consequences of which are described by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Tens of thousands of children under five have died from starvation or disease in Yemen; about a hundred thousand people have been killed in the conflict itself; millions are at risk of famine. As David Wearing writes in The Guardian, UK on-the-ground involvement is essential to the war: “A former Saudi Air Force officer stated flatly that his compatriots “can’t keep the Typhoon in the air without the British””. Labour’s manifesto commits to “immediately suspend the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen”.
There is much more that could be said. Coalition and Conservative policies have often been inhumane, sometimes to a degree that is difficult to understand or to bear. But the narrow and perhaps pedantic point I want to emphasise is that these policies have also, very often, been profoundly illiberal. At the same time, many of Corbyn’s Labour’s most reviled and criticised stances are reviled precisely for their progressive liberalism: their emphasis on civil libertarian constraints on power; their insistence that human rights derive not from our supposedly praiseworthy membership of the national body politic, or from individual virtues, but from our humanity.
Of course, liberalism has many facets. There is no one ‘liberalism’. Rather, there are many rival liberalisms – including both reactionary and emancipatory forms. Moreover, we should not be naive about the likely shortcomings of a Corbyn government: Labour and the left contain their illiberal elements, in addition to the potentially serious failures of nerve, capacity, and competence that would inevitably afflict a Labour government.
Nevertheless, the centrist pundits are correct when they argue that this election is at base a contest between liberalism and illiberalism. They are correct when they say that liberalism is in danger. They are simply wrong in their diagnosis of the risks. In fact, despite the anti-leftist phantasmagoria that dominates our media ecosystem, Corbyn’s Labour offers exactly the moderate, mixed economy, politically liberal alternative to reactionary populism that ‘centrist’ liberals claim to desire. Ironically, our best hope for a progressive political liberalism now rests in the electoral victory of a Corbynist movement that has been relentlessly attacked in the name of progressive liberalism. Defend liberalism against its nominal defenders: vote Labour on December 12th.