It’s been just over a year since the British people finally squashed a hard-left push for power under the dismal but unyieldingly dangerous leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. On 12 December 2019 we dodged a collective bullet. But Corbynism lasted almost half a decade; it reshaped the national conversation. As we enter 2021 it’s worth considering what it has taught us about our politics and what its legacy might be for Britain.
First off, Corbynism provided something much-needed: a reminder that the left does not have a monopoly on virtue, or even on that vague but actually pretty important political quality – niceness. The dangers of an unfettered right are a staple of western politics. When I was growing up it was Nick Griffin who, without ever being an electoral threat, haunted the political margins: an ugly reminder of what was out there. More recently (and more mainstream) we have Nigel Farage. By contrast, even when the left lost (which was often) it retained the moral high ground. Lefties were misguided but cuddly; hapless but helpful. Even the tantrums of the brooding and snarling Gordon Brown were seen as evidence of his essential decency, his authenticity in an age of spin.
Corbyn burnt through this moral capital like an arsonist torching a cot. He oversaw an explosion of political nastiness on the left. Corbyn’s mentor, Tony Benn, spent his 1980s political heyday as a far-left loon, but eventually evolved into an affable, pipe-smoking elder statesman. No such metamorphosis is possible for his bloodless epigone. The Corbyn project has banished from the popular imagination the clear moral divide that once existed between right and left
And this loss cannot be divorced from the anti-Semitism scandal. For the average voter, if the left was good it was because it was, above all, anti-racist. When we needed societal evolution, it was the left that powered the change; when racism had to be fought it was the left that led the charge. This is why when the charges of anti-Semitism could no longer be credibly denied, they damaged Labour so much. It’s one thing for a port-swilling Tory landowner from Wiltshire to be exposed as a racist, another entirely for a leaf-munching Labour leader from Islington. If the left isn’t anti-racist, what is it?
But Corbynism did something else, too. It was in key regards a regression to the hard-leftism of and crypto-Communism of the 1970s and 80s, but it also moved our politics forward. Not enough people admit this, but it’s true. Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015 in a landslide largely because of £3 entryism, but also because people were sick of technocratic politicians who all basically seemed alike. Brown, Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, and May weren’t exactly identikit, but they didn’t offer a huge amount of variety either.
By 2017, Britain had been through seven years of often cruel and stupid austerity. It was in the midst of a housing crisis; its public services were becoming dysfunctional and wages had stagnated. During the New Labour boom years if you wanted to sound politically hip you’d announce – grandly – to people that you were ‘fiscally conservative but socially liberal.’ If Theresa May wasn’t the latter, she was proudly the former; into the election she marched, promising to ‘balance the budget’ by 2025. Labour promised to increase taxes on the rich. We all know what happened.
Corbynism offered voters an avowedly non-technocratic leader who believed in the sort of left-wing economic policies the people now wanted. That in 2019 it so comprehensively failed to win them over shows the depth of Labour incompetence. Instead, it was Boris Johnson, aided by the compulsive focus-grouper Dominic Cummings, who understood what to do. Boris did Boris and sounded like no other frontline politician; and then went north and offered to pour billions into public infrastructure, while ignoring the abstruse culture wars that most people neither understand nor care about. He shattered Labour’s red wall and make no mistake, he did this because he stole Labour’s left-wing economic ideas – flagrantly and wholesale.
This is Britain as 2021 dawns. An electorate strafed by a virus that wants more public spending and more state intervention; and Brexit done so it can finally move on without bother from either Brussels or online moralists. This is one legacy of Corbynism.
Another is more subtle. The anti-Semitism accusations enraged the hard-left, which saw them as the usual Likud/Rothschilds/Board of Deputies attacks on their Leader. But beyond the nutters there are many more who remained silent, and while they disavow the overtly conspiratorial, they feel fundamentally the same. Shortly before the election I wrote an anti-Corbyn Facebook post. I woke the next day to one of the responses:
‘David, are you English or Jewish?’
They will not forget. Neither must we.