Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his cohorts did all they could to destroy British social democracy. However, the beauty of democracy is that nothing is irreversible. But democracy needs a strong opposition. The sooner Corbyn and the Corbynista bow out, the better for British democracy. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
The British Conservative Party’s victory at last week’s general election has been described variously as “an earthquake” and “a triumph.” Because the party won it biggest parliamentary majority since the 1980s, the election may look like a triumph for its leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. However, if applied to the opposition Labour Party’s performance, the label “earthquake” may also appear to be in order.
A closer examination of the results, additionally, may provide a more nuanced picture or at least a less pixelated one. One key feature commentators have focused on was the massive switch of many traditional Labour-supporting constituencies to the Conservatives. Pundits ask: How did people who had never voted Conservative decide to do so after generations of attachment to socialism?
What the pundits ignore is that all those constituencies had already voted Conservative in 2016 when they voted for Brexit. In other words, by voting Tory in the general elections they were just confirming their previous transfer of loyalty. The Labour Party lost just one constituency that had voted against Brexit, Kensington in London, to the Conservatives. However, it won another constituency, Putney, also in London, which had voted Remain.
So was last week’s election a re-run of the referendum on Brexit? Not quite. The pro-Brexit vote, headed by the Conservative Party, collected around 46 percent of the votes compared to 52 percent in the original referendum on the subject. In other words, if we keep the focus solely on Brexit, fewer voters supported leaving the European Union this time.
Looking beyond Brexit, one key feature of the election may well be the dramatic rejection by voters of the Labour Party and its current leader Jeremy Corbyn. The party’s performance was the worst since the 1930s and, if opinion polls are to be trusted, its leader the most disliked since James Ramsay MacDonald, who headed a Labour government for nine months in 1924 before transforming himself into a turncoat.
However, blaming all on Corbyn, a rather mediocre politician stuck in the student politics of the 1960s, may also be unjustified.
Corbyn’s ambivalent response to anti-Semitic shenanigans in his party, his past flirtations with the IRA, his “brotherly relations” with Hezbollah and Hamas, his decade-long career as commentator for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s English-language TV, his visceral anti-Americanism and opposition to NATO, and his pathological hatred of Israel, have all been highlighted as reasons why he could not be trusted as prime minister of a major western democracy.
Even then, blaming Corbyn as the sole cause of the collapse of Labour’s support base may not give us the full picture.
The British version of social democracy, represented by the Labour Party, has been a key player in that country’s politics since the 1930s. Under Corbyn, however, the party seemed to be redefining itself as a radical movement suffering from what Lenin in 1918 dismissed as “an infantile disorder”. In the new discourse promoted by the Corbynista, a new version of class struggle, this time in the form of a war of generations, genders and levels of income replaced the traditional reformist, or as critics might say, managerial, approach of the party to politics. Corbyn supporters divided society into three categories: the mass of the poor, the tiny minority of the rich, vilified as “billionaires”, and themselves in the middle as savior of the former and punishers of the latter.
They did not realize that their “poor” may not see themselves as indigents in need of neo-Stalinists saviors and that many middle-income former Labour voters may resent being classed with “the evil rich” simply because they lived a comfortable life. Moreover, that categorization missed a large chunk of the population now known as those who “just about managing” or JAM for short.
Despite his denunciation of the “infantile disorder”, Lenin himself may have been the father of a generic form of leftism that treats society as a blank page on which small elite of revolutionaries could draw their vision of an ideal society. Before seizing power in 1917, Lenin had penned many articles and leaflets against reformist social democrats, notably the Austrian Karl Kautsky and the Prussian Ferdinand Lassalle, accusing them of sabotaging the chances of working people ever to win political power and change society.
With his celebrated, though infantile, dictum “better fewer but better”, Lenin put the emphasis on “class loyalty” and “ideological purity” even if that meant fewer people were attracted to the party.
The century that followed showed Lenin to be wrong, and Kautsky and Lassalle to be right. Since then not a single Leninist party has won a democratic election in any country while social democratic parties have shared power in almost all Western democracies and some nations beyond. Even the US Democrat Party, though certainly not socialistic, has adopted aspects of Kautskyan socialism, at least on occasions. In Britain itself, the Labour Party, in its social democratic version, has been in power for almost a quarter of the century in question.
Social democracy has been a key feature of Western life since the 1848 series of revolutions that, despite their short-term failure to secure power, transformed the political landscape of Europe. Kautsky and Lassalle insisted that the aim of social democracy should be to win the political argument by convincing enough of the voters to choose that option at the ballot boxes. Later, Antonio Gramsci, an Italian neo-Marxist denounced some Corbynista as a class traitor, developed that belief into a method of political work.
Successive British Labour governments understood that treating voters as mere objects of a grand messianic design would never bring the party to power. By adopting a pragmatic approach, successive Labour governments succeeded in introducing reforms that none of the Leninist parties across the globe achieved.
The creation of the National Health Service, now turned into a secular religion for the Brits, the founding of NATO based on the Atlantic Charter, the start of decolonization and the formation of the British Commonwealth were among the earliest achievements of British social democracy in the post-World War II period. In the 1960s followed the democratization of higher education by creating dozens of new universities, the abolition of capital punishment, and the removal of residual colonial encumbrances. Between 1997 and 2010, the longest spell of government by Labour, came the introduction of a minimum wage, the end of Irish “troubles”, devolved government for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, legal equal rights for gays and lesbians, and the independence of the Bank of England ensuring greater fiscal responsibility.
Corbyn and his cohorts did all they could to destroy British social democracy. However, I doubt if they have succeeded. In 1997, the Conservatives suffered a bigger defeat, winning 165 seats compared to the 203 seats the Labour won last week.
The beauty of democracy is that nothing is irreversible. However, democracy needs a strong opposition. The sooner Corbyn and the Corbynista bow out, the better for British democracy.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.