What does Jeremy Corbyn think of capitalism?
UK: How Labor Could Be Successful Again
The British Labor Party is one of the largest and most stable social democratic parties in Western Europe. Their fate has preoccupied social democrats across the continent for a long time, even if they have at times viewed their programmatic orientation critically. This was particularly the case in the 1990s with the turn to the "Third Way" and again after the Tony Blair administration's support for the United States' "war on terror" and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Ed Miliband and "New Labor"
Certainly Labor does not offer a “model” that other left parties in Europe could emulate. Still, important lessons can be learned from her torturous experience in opposition and in power since 1979. The past decade was particularly significant as the party sought to respond to the 2008 financial crisis while addressing the long-term causes of its 2010 election defeat.
After that defeat, Labor elected young and energetic Ed Miliband as its new chairman. Miliband had been a prominent advisor and minister in the Labor governments from 1997 to 2010. Nevertheless, he promised to turn the tide decisively for “New” Labor.
Miliband criticized that New Labor had failed to make a plausible criticism of global capitalism and had come to terms with unregulated markets. Blair and his Treasury Secretary and successor, Gordon Brown, had welcomed the financialization and deregulation of the City of London, the direct cause of the 2008 crash. In addition, New Labor had been driving inequality in Britain sharply for 13 years. The rewards that went to the top of the income distribution had grown astronomically, while middle-income workers had suffered unprecedented slumps in wages, along with increasing uncertainty resulting from technological change.
Higher minimum wages, stricter company regulation
Under Miliband, the party tried to focus on the “bruised middle” whose living standards had come under pressure from the great recession. Miliband attacked predatory capitalism and called for a revised program with a higher national minimum wage, strict regulation of large companies, greater protection of the labor market and a cap on energy prices to help households in need.
No matter how convincing this economic analysis was, the bruised center soon became an alibi for a “core voter” strategy in which Miliband's party attempted to hold a parliamentary election under the “First Past The Post” system in Westminster win by mostly focusing on 35 percent of the electorate. The result: Labor suffered a heavy defeat in 2015 and even lost votes that it had won in 2010.
The party's overall stake rose only because of the disastrous performance of the Liberal Democrats, who were punished for making a Conservative-led coalition possible. Labor lost all but one seats in Scotland. More fundamentally, the gulf between the party and the wishes of the British electorate seemed to be widening.
Jeremy Corbyn becomes party leader
One consequence was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new party chairman. Corbyn had never held high office before, either in the party or in government. Yet it offered the radical break with centrist social democracy that Miliband could not offer.
Corbyn expressly rejected global capitalism and professed a policy of social justice. He pledged to restore the Labor Party's traditional ties to the working class by strengthening the party's links with the unions and promising to repeal labor relations legislation imposed by Margaret Thatcher's governments in the 1980s.
At the same time, Corbyn mobilized a new generation of university graduates on the left. He pledged to combat economic precariousness by reducing student debt and building more social housing, while advocating progressive causes, especially against racism and anti-imperialism.
Almost victory in the general election
In the 2017 general election, Corbyn came close to claiming a staggering victory. Although Labor lagged behind much of the election campaign in the polls, the party won more than 40 percent of the vote in the election as it mobilized the unique political coalition that Corbyn had built behind the banner of transformational socialism.
When Theresa May's government fell apart over Brexit, Labor seemed to have victory within reach. But two years later, the party suffered another devastating defeat and received the lowest share of the vote since 1935.
Labor's problem was that the party was more divided than ever in its history. Particularly striking was the rift between the parliamentary Labor Party, which largely opposed its own leader, and grassroots activists who idolized Corbyn. The gap between principle and power became extremely apparent.
Hardly any findings since 2010
As a result, in the ten years after the 2010 defeat, Labor failed to make any significant electoral or strategic progress. Corbyn undoubtedly attracted a new generation of millennial precariat activists and sparked an unprecedented mobilization. Yet the party's understanding of why it lost successive elections remained underdeveloped.
In addition, Labor now has a mountain to climb in terms of the elections. To win a parliamentary majority next time, it would take a bigger upswing than was the case in 1945 under Clement Attlee or 1997 under Tony Blair. And the party has never been weaker in Scotland, a key element of Labor's electoral base in the past.
More ominously, the aftermath of Brexit leaves the UK's future itself in the balance. Should it fall apart in the coming years, Labor could be forced to secure a majority with only English votes.
But the party's vulnerability to voting reflects a deeper malaise - the lack of convincing political ideas. New Labor neoliberalism and fiscal austerity have been vehemently rejected. Still, it is hard to feel that the party is in a position to develop a government agenda that will convincingly address the UK today.
Like other social democratic parties across Europe, Labor has yet to determine what it will stand for after the major structural changes in society and the economy. The policy of Brexit remains devilishly difficult: Labor is still an avowedly pro-European party, but many of its core supporters have supported the exit from the EU.
The intellectual permafrost is thawing
Still, there are tentative signs that the intellectual permafrost that enveloped the party after 2019 may finally thaw. Many in the Labor Party are increasingly wondering whether the party, which has historically been a constitutionally conservative force, should maintain its support for the FPTP system, which condemns it to long periods of opposition. There is growing enthusiasm for the formation of a “progressive alliance” of the center-left that includes liberals, greens, social democrats and other leftists.
The left in Britain has historically looked to Sweden and the US Democrats as sources of ideological inspiration, but leaders are showing a growing interest in the revised programs of other European parties.
The upcoming elections in Germany are being watched closely as the SPD tries to forge a robust response to the inequalities created by globalization and automation and exacerbated by the corona pandemic. There is a growing understanding among social democrats that the relationship between politics and capitalism should be rebalanced through stronger social protection, a return to the welfare state and sustainable public investment.
As always, there will be no tactical shortcut to power for the left. Like other center-left parties across Europe, Labor will only win in Britain if it is able to face the difficult strategic choices that will inevitably result in the politics of the new tough times.
The original text was published in English on socialeurope.eu.
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