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For the British left, social justice is electability

Across Europe, established centre-left parties are actively administering policies that made things worse.

Jeremy Corbyn

by Rachel Shabi 

It is bewildering, isn't it, that Jeremy Corbyn's supporters still insist on supporting him?

Not only has the United Kingdom Labour Party leader suffered mass resignations from his shadow cabinet and a resounding vote of no confidence from his MPs, he has been comprehensively depicted as "unelectable".

What could be worse, for a party leader?

Corbyn, standing on an anti-austerity platform, took Labour's helm in a landslide leadership election victory last September.

At a time of political disengagement, he has inspired a surge in Labour's membership figures, so that it is now the largest party in Europe.

Really 'unelectable'?

But in the shocked, confused aftermath of Britain's June referendum vote to leave the EU, he now faces another leadership contest, triggered by rebel Labour MPs who have rallied behind a "unity" challenger, Owen Smith.

The trouble for Smith and his backers is that Corbyn looks set to win - again. But if, as many media commentators insist, Corbyn is unelectable and an incompetent leader to boot, why would Labour members continue to support him?

Do his supporters want Labour to lose elections, thus consigning the UK to endless, punishing years of Conservative Party rule?

Are they refusing to clock Corbyn's terrible poll ratings, more interested in the purity of politics than having Labour in power, or even just halfway effective in opposition?

For the resurgent left across Europe and in the United States, these will be familiar charges.

Attempts to reach voters from a supposedly 'electable' and yet increasingly distant centre that sticks to triangulation, spin and neoliberalism, have yet to grasp that politics has shifted, that something has broken, that there has been an erosion of trust in what this centre represents.
The self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, who persuaded Hillary Clinton to adopt some of his progressive platform policies when he dropped out of the Democratic leadership race last month, was routinely dismissed as unelectable - it was a big theme, for months, during the leadership race.

Ditto Greece's anti-austerity party, Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras - now in government, but previously portrayed by that country's media as unrealistic and inexperienced.

Regardless of respective electoral fortunes, this revived left has met with the same flavour of derision along the way.

No more centre

Partly, such disparagement is a straightforward underestimation of the appeal, the hopeful pull of genuinely progressive politics for people facing acute economic hardship and serially let down by the traditional left - which in reality has moved ever-rightwards.

Across Europe, established centre-left parties are viewed as not just failing to alleviate financial devastation, injustice and inequality, but actively administering policies that made things worse.

OPINION: Politics of the disenchanted

This is why, in a social landscape ruptured by the 2008 economic crash and the cruel austerity measures that followed, politicians capable of mobilising support aren't the ones coming from the middle ground - this cohort has lost credibility.

Attempts to reach voters from a supposedly "electable" and yet increasingly distant centre that sticks to triangulation, spin and neoliberalism, have yet to grasp that politics has shifted, that something has broken, that there has been an erosion of trust in what this centre represents.

In the UK this should have been one of the takeaways of the EU referendum - in part an anti-establishment protest vote - but centrism still yearns for its own significance.

A different type of politics

Meanwhile, leftists - the unelectable, the incompetent, the naive - have gained support by talking about participatory politics, and with policies geared towards ending austerity, tackling inequality, introducing fairer taxation, free education and bolstering the welfare state.

This doesn't mean that masses of people have suddenly swung towards socialism - or even that they need to, for the left to gain power.

The self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, who persuaded Hillary Clinton to adopt some of his progressive platform policies when he dropped out of the Democratic leadership race last month, was routinely dismissed as unelectable - it was a big theme, for months, during the leadership race.

Ditto Greece's anti-austerity party, Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras - now in government, but previously portrayed by that country's media as unrealistic and inexperienced.

Regardless of respective electoral fortunes, this revived left has met with the same flavour of derision along the way.

No more centre

Partly, such disparagement is a straightforward underestimation of the appeal, the hopeful pull of genuinely progressive politics for people facing acute economic hardship and serially let down by the traditional left - which in reality has moved ever-rightwards.

Across Europe, established centre-left parties are viewed as not just failing to alleviate financial devastation, injustice and inequality, but actively administering policies that made things worse.


OPINION: Politics of the disenchanted 


This is why, in a social landscape ruptured by the 2008 economic crash and the cruel austerity measures that followed, politicians capable of mobilising support aren't the ones coming from the middle ground - this cohort has lost credibility.

Attempts to reach voters from a supposedly "electable" and yet increasingly distant centre that sticks to triangulation, spin and neoliberalism, have yet to grasp that politics has shifted, that something has broken, that there has been an erosion of trust in what this centre represents.

In the UK this should have been one of the takeaways of the EU referendum - in part an anti-establishment protest vote - but centrism still yearns for its own significance.

A different type of politics

Meanwhile, leftists - the unelectable, the incompetent, the naive - have gained support by talking about participatory politics, and with policies geared towards ending austerity, tackling inequality, introducing fairer taxation, free education and bolstering the welfare state.

This doesn't mean that masses of people have suddenly swung towards socialism - or even that they need to, for the left to gain power.

One British newspaper broke this down as people signing up to the party at "the remarkable rate of one a second" - netting the party some $5.9m in fees.

Labour now has some 600,000 members and supporters, who can potentially mobilise to campaign, canvas and win votes - precisely the action now required to grow support beyond the grassroots and into communities.

It's an unprecedented opportunity for the left in Britain - but you can expect it to be met with plenty more derision and bewilderment.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.


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