In response to the political events of this bleak week, the editors at the Everyday Analysis Collective will be offering their reflections, putting their individual viewpoints into conversation within this serialised report. Here, Alfie Bown reflects.
In the week running up to the election, I spent around forty hours knocking on doors for Corbyn’s Labour, and there were many more hours before that spent canvassing locally through my CLP and in marginals through Momentum, and also in writing – or trying to write – over a period of over a year – as much as I could to support the Labour manifesto and its values – the first and only political manifesto I have believed in. I’ve barely been able to speak of any of this since last Thursday, which I experienced as a devastating personal defeat and palpable individual loss. As such, this is probably the most personal piece I’ve tried to write in a decade of journalism and academic writing.
With the exception of work, parenting and family life (aspects of my life which were themselves hugely infiltrated and affected by politics), all of my time seemed in some way to go toward the project of getting Jeremy elected. I don’t mean that I became a canvassing machine and put myself second to the job of serving the greater political good – absolutely not, in fact I am generally quite selfish and spend a disproportionately long time on myself compared to others. I mean that instead of scrolling BBC Sport, or getting out my Nintendo on the train, it became habitual for me to turn to my phone or laptop in any free moment to scroll political news, the December 12th Social Shitposting Club, the official Labour.org site, Jeremy or John’s Twitter feeds, or something of the sort – to make notes or think of things to say or do that might help. The point here is that my identity became connected to an event – like the name of the laudable shitposting club itself – an event which never happened. Of course, I wasn’t on my own in this structuring of my identity around the Corbyn project, and around this election in particular.
Putting aside the complex reasons for the defeat, notably the floating signifier of Brexit and the media’s reluctance to accept the Left’s positions (many mainstream publications who had published me stopped replying to emails when the subject was Red Labour, and save for a lucky break at New Statesman and the fantastic Tribune Magazine I wouldn’t have had any outlets), the danger now is that the non-event of a possible Corbyn government might have the effect of forcing those who – like me – built a part of their identity around that possibility to re-orient themselves around a new object-event-cause of some kind – to direct their attention, energy, focus and time along another path. I was tempted to do that, certainly.
If we were to od that, it would be an even greater disaster than the devastating loss last Thursday. The insurmountable project of building a socialist Left in the UK has very much begun, and has reached the kind of strength that in 2015 seemed almost unimaginable. While the Tories received more votes and 203 seats doesn’t seem anywhere near enough, it’s still – given how far to the Left we managed to edge since 2017 – the most seats that any party that could legitimately call themselves seriously socialist has won in my lifetime. The momentum, looked at this way, is still with us.
An odd counterpart to this non-event of a Corbyn-government is the desire to repeat – among the American Left – the idea that ‘Bernie would have won’ the 2016 election. In that case, an event-that-would-have-been becomes the locus of an identity – a missed opportunity that lives on, at least as long as the Bernie project lives on (though there is also an oddly successful bulletproofing in the act of building a movement on the missed event of the past). The point is not to think about whether Bernie would have won, or whether Jeremy should have won – but to continue this movement of bringing a genuine Left – or simply socialist values themselves – into mainstream party politics. We need to do this without compromising our values and principles simply in order to be ‘electable’.
There will be – as my colleagues have noted in this discussion – an immense pressure on the Labour party to return to Blairite centrism (though that is now a movement falsely defining itself in opposition to Blair’s recent madness). A lot of those making this claim will argue that Corbyn wasn’t ‘electable,’ wasn’t a ‘leader,’ or wasn’t ‘viable.’ These are things I heard often enough on the doorsteps in recent weeks. This campaign will be used by those wanting the return of Blue Labour – including Jess Phillips, even Kier Starmer, who should be rejected outright as part of a different tradition to the one we have built – as the example of why we can’t have a party leader who simply has or represents fair or just ideas.
In other words, there are two narratives here that operate side-by-side and in opposition to each other. There is the narrative that Corbyn and his manifesto cost the Labour party its greatest defeat since ’87 and that it must therefore turn back on the path it has taken. That is the narrative which only sees things from the perspective of the party. Then there is the narrative which is able to see the change from the perspective of socialism. From here, this movement is still a great success – or a success that is still in progress – from which we would not want to turn away but which needs us more than ever to continue its momentum. Now at least, socialism is in the mainstream discourse, and this is a great opportunity.
All this makes it seem that we need to change the relationship between politicians, elections, events and our own identities. We can’t continue to be like I was, orienting myself around the possible event – the revolution-to-come – because in so doing we are experiencing what was in fact the continuing progress of socialism in the form of devastating defeat. With that we perhaps risk giving up on the project when it needs us most and when we are in fact in the position of the greatest opportunity to date. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the December 12th Social Shitposting Club is that it used to be the June 8th Social Shitposting Club. That’s the kind of relationship to the event that our socialism needs and with it we will – eventually – win.
Alfie Bown is editor of Everyday Analysis.