Corbyn’s success: centrists’ failure

September 19, 2017

For months the Times has been running a series of columns on how centrists are befuddled by Corbynism. The often-admirable Nick Cohen has joined this trend.

His piece contains a big grain of truth – that Corbyn “won the left-behind middle class.” Not only are Labour members disproportionately professionals, but also Corbyn’s Labour polled well among the AB social group.

What Nick doesn’t say, however, is that this happened in large part because, as Rick said, the middle-class isn’t as posh as it used to be. Younger professionals especially have become proletarianized. They have high debt, no hope of buying a house and stressful and oppressive working conditions.

I fear Nick is looking at class the wrong way – as a social gradient rather than a property relation. A lot of Corbyn’s support derives from the propertyless – those who are the victims of capitalist stagnation and oppression and not its beneficiaries.

From this perspective, Nick is missing the big question: if Corbyn is as deplorable as he thinks, why are so many decent intelligent people supporting him so enthusiastically?

It’s not because they are fucking fools. It’s because centrists contributed to the economic trends which have given us cheesed-off professionals. They did so in several ways:

 – New Labour’s endorsement of managerialism has created a proletarianized professional cadre who lack autonomy at work – and this managerialism might also have contributed to the stagnation in productivity that has given us a decade of flat real wages. (To his credit, Nick has attacked this trend; he just hasn’t connected it to the popularity of Corbyn).

 – In acquiescing in the increased income, wealth and power of the 1%, centrists tolerated inequality between the ultra-rich and “middle class” sorts in the 10th-20th percentiles. As Tim says, this bred a resentment among the latter. (Personally, I think the resentment justified, but that’s by-the-by).

 – Centrists have offered little solution to the unaffordability of housing, which has given us a propertyless “middle class”.

 – The Lib Dems’ acquiescence in austerity, and the Labour right’s failed attempt to triangulate it, meant that centrists are associated with the squeeze on living standards, especially in the public sector. They are, of course, also responsible for high student debt.

Moralizing about Corbyn misses the point – that his support has definite economic roots in stagnation; the pulling away of the 1% (or 0.1%) from other professionals; the rise of immaterial labour; unaffordable house prices; and degradation of erstwhile good jobs. It also misses the point that centrists contributed to these trends, or at least acquiesced in them. Support for Corbyn is a reaction against all this. 

Worse still, attacks upon Corbyn distract liberal centre-leftists from what should be their biggest job – of redefining centrism to make it appeal again. It’s difficult to sell capitalism to people who have no capital and little hope of getting it. Until centrists grasp this fact and correct the errors that led us to this mess, Corbyn might well remain popular, for all his faults.

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