No leader, no ideology can come to power — and stay in power — alone. Who are the key thinkers, organisers and behind-the-scenes players shaping Corbynism, what does its future hold, and what does this mean for civil society?
Thinking too hard about British politics at the moment is liable to induce a serious case of political whiplash. After Jeremy Corbyn came to the brink of winning an election almost everyone expected him to lose catastrophically, it was disorientating to think back to 2015, when Ed Miliband lost an election almost everyone expected him to win. After Theresa May’s implausibly disastrous conference speech, with the FT publishing headlines like “Tories are being swept away by Labour’s intellectual revolution”, it was dizzying to recall the same time two years ago, when Labour seemed mired in civil war and the Conservatives confidently set the political agenda.
Whatever you think about Corbyn, it’s hard to deny that something big is happening in British politics. The dominant consensus about how the economy and society should be organised – a consensus that has endured for forty years and that seemed to have survived the global financial crisis – is falling apart. As Nick Pearce puts it, again in the FT: “Conservatives rally to the tattered banner of the free market, but precious little life is left in their political project.” Such a comment would have been almost unthinkable just a few short years ago.
Meanwhile, a Labour manifesto built on ideas that had become political taboos – like bringing energy and transport back into public ownership – proved wildly popular with the public. Far from the longest suicide note in history, it may yet turn out to have been the death warrant of British neoliberalism.
So what are the contours of this “intellectual revolution”, and what does it mean for UK civil society? What is the infrastructure surrounding and informing it? And what would it take to transform this political moment into a real and lasting shift in the ‘common sense’ of UK politics, of the kind last seen in the 1970s when Thatcherism replaced Keynesianism as the dominant paradigm? These are the questions I’ve been investigating for the past few months, and which I plan to delve into further as part of my doctoral research.
Looking back at the 1970s is a good place to start. For if we are witnessing an intellectual revolution, it’s one that has managed to bloom in extremely poor soil. The Thatcherite revolution was the culmination of decades of groundwork deliberately laid by conservative intellectuals and influencers – from the first summit of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 to the creation of a well-funded network of think tanks like the Atlas Foundation and the Institute of Economic Affairs. As Milton Friedman famously said, the “basic function” of this infrastructure was “to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
By contrast, precious few institutions on the left have been playing this long game during the prolonged hegemony of neoliberalism. Corbynism has mushroomed, seemingly almost overnight, precisely out of the frustrations of many on the left who have not seen a post-neoliberal project being put forward anywhere else. Indeed, this is part of the reason why young people – who have been told their entire political lifetimes that ‘there is no alternative’ – are flocking to Corbynism like an oasis in a desert.
Those who point out that Corbynism’s policy platform is patchy and thin beneath the bold headline commitments, or that it has so far failed to comprehensively reinvent social democracy for the 21st century, are therefore right but are somewhat missing the point. Indeed, it would be astonishing if it were otherwise. Corbynism has no ready-made intellectual infrastructure to draw on. (By ‘intellectual infrastructure’ I mean a strong network of organisations and individuals that are developing new ideas within a common framework and connecting them to policy makers.) It has had to try and build one as it goes along – and its chaotic genesis, dogged by Labour’s internecine warfare, has hardly been an auspicious environment in which to do so.
The real question, then, is how these critical gaps are being plugged at the moment – and what would be needed to turn these stopgaps into a powerful enough intellectual infrastructure to underpin lasting transformation. To explore this, I’ve been reading Labour policy documents and tracing the genesis of the key ideas. I’ve also drawn on conversations with people inside and outside the Corbyn camp.
It’s clear from this that the Corbyn project lacks sister organisations or support structures that are vital for its continued success. This leads to a number of interconnected problems: a lack of resource to draw on for policy development; a heavy reliance on a relatively small number of staff who are often quite new to this world; a dearth of heavyweight supporters to defend policies from attacks in the media or from political opponents. Three areas in particular are ripe for new thinking and new structures: the intellectual (think tanks and academics), the movement-based (campaigners and grassroots organisers) and the internal (policy staff themselves). Let’s take them each in turn.
1. Intellectual infrastructure: New networks of think tanks and academics
It’s striking that only one of the Corbyn leadership’s key staffers came from a think tank – James Meadway, formerly Chief Economist at the New Economics Foundation. (Full disclosure: I worked with James at NEF over the same period.) The others are mostly drawn from the union movement, the organised far left, or academia – people like Andrew Fisher, widely credited with the success of Labour’s 2017 manifesto, or Mary Robertson, Corbyn’s head of economic policy. References to think tanks in Labour’s policy documents are sporadic: the only ones directly referenced appear to be IPPR and the Fabian Society, although NEF’s influence is also apparent in some policy commitments, such as the idea of breaking up RBS into a network of local banks.
In some areas, the leadership seems to be taking its cues directly from academics – see for example the clear influence of heterodox economists such as Mariana Mazzucato and Ha Joon Chang on the party’s industrial strategy. This perhaps explains the lack of detail in some policy areas: the think-tank infrastructure simply isn’t there to translate this cutting-edge academic work into practical policy proposals (though see the recent report of SPERI’s Industrial Strategy Commission for an attempt to address this).
John McDonnell’s Council of Economic Advisors, set up during the first days of the leadership, was a valiant effort to give the party’s economic policy some heavyweight academic backing. But many of its members were not natural Corbyn supporters, and ran alarmed from the public ridicule heaped on the leadership in the early days – resulting in the Council being largely disbanded. Academic input now seems to be ad hoc rather than systematised.
In other areas, thought leadership is being drawn from within Labour’s own extended networks – see for example the increasingly high-profile ‘Preston Model’ championed by Labour councillor Matthew Brown, which focusses on using public procurement by ‘anchor institutions’ to strengthen local economies and boost co-operative ownership. Indeed, the ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ report – co-authored by Brown and other members of the Labour Co-op movement, along with supportive academics – is one of the most interesting and innovative things to come out of the Corbyn leadership so far. (The fact that the Preston Model was originally inspired by a US-based think tank, The Democracy Collaborative, is another indicator of the dearth of innovative thinking coming from within the UK.) Again, this helps to explain why policy development is so uneven, skewed as it is to those areas where Labour’s networks are strong.
It seems likely that new institutions will be needed to turn these currents of thinking into a vibrant intellectual ecosystem. Some existing think tanks are entering the fray: the union-sponsored CLASS, well connected with the Corbyn leadership and led by rising star Faiza Shaheen, will certainly be one to watch. NEF, the only UK think tank that has consistently championed radical economic thinking, has recently distanced itself from policy development at precisely the time its ideas were finally gaining currency; whether this will change under new CEO Miatta Fahnbulleh remains to be seen. IPPR has been moving into the same territory with its Commission on Economic Justice, but its previous political baggage may limit its influence. Ultimately, the establishment of one or more new think tanks to meet the needs of these new times seems unavoidable – and is widely regarded as essential within the Corbyn movement.
2. Movement infrastructure: New ways of connecting the grassroots to policy
A second key plank of the policy making ecosystem is the role of NGOs and campaign groups. Here, it is possible that Corbynism could result in a more radical reconfiguration of the landscape. Opposition parties – particularly on the left – always rely to an extent on the expertise of trusted civil society organisations to flesh out their policy positions and to scrutinise government policy effectively. But what this looks like in practice for Corbyn is likely to be very different from the norms of the past.
The groups whose influence on the 2017 manifesto is recognisable are, to put it mildly, not the usual suspects. The Robin Hood Tax campaign’s proposal for stamp duty reform was directly adopted as a headline policy. Platform’s work on energy democracy has also been extremely influential in shaping Labour’s energy policy. These groups tend to be those who had strong relationships and strong alignment with Corbyn and McDonnell before the leadership election, and have been smart at leveraging them since. Unions, too, have perhaps more ability to set the agenda than at any time in the last few decades. They were responsible for many of the more fine-grained commitments in the manifesto, such as the pledge to toughen the law against assault for staff enforcing age restrictions – the result of USDAW’s Freedom from Fear campaign.
Big NGOs, on the other hand, have been largely absent – or even actively hostile. This situation is partly of their own making. Most NGOs’ campaign strategies are focussed on short-term battles that can be won within the current neoliberal framework, rather than on changing that framework. Like the rest of civil society, most simply do not have the kind of policy Corbyn wants in their back pockets. Swayed by the establishment consensus that Corbyn was an unelectable joke, many also expected his leadership to be short-lived or saw its support as more of a liability than an asset. As a result, some deliberately sat on their hands rather than investing in relationships with the shadow teams. They may well now be regretting that decision.
On the other hand, even civil society organisations who do want to engage with Labour haven’t always found it easy to do so. The constant reshuffles caused by party in-fighting have at times been difficult to keep up with, especially with ever more inexperienced policy staff having to constantly master new briefs and build up new networks of contacts. The circle of trusted outsiders is quite small, and suspicions often run high. There are some welcome signs that this may be changing now that the leadership is more secure: having the confidence to reach out beyond the fortress walls is a sign of strength, and it’s to be hoped that this continues.
Still, exactly who will be invited in remains an open question. At this year’s conference a staffer at a large environmental organisation complained that the Labour frontbench regard the organisation as ‘sell-outs’ and are reluctant to take on policy positions they see as incremental rather than transformational. Is there any way back for a civil society establishment which consciously distanced itself from Corbyn in the early days? If so, that path must surely involve a shift in gear towards a bolder and more visionary approach to policy. Having said that, the task of scrutinising existing government policy is distinct from that of putting forward a transformative new agenda – and it does require a different, more forensic, more pragmatic approach. The Shadow Cabinet faces an unenviable juggling act in trying to do both at once, and it needs all the expert help it can get.
The bigger question, though, is whether Corbyn’s now more stable leadership team can develop a new way of doing civil society engagement – one less reliant on the expertise of paid staff at big NGOs, and more organically connected to grassroots social movements. What’s needed here are structures to systematise their input and link it directly to senior policymakers. Making this process less haphazard would help to ensure that the full diversity of grassroots voices are heard – particularly, for example, those working on issues of race and migration – rather than simply those who are well connected and well resourced.
It’s no accident that The World Transformed – the parallel to party conference run by a Momentum spin-off – has been described approvingly by commentators across the spectrum as the beating heart of Corbynism. The energy at this year’s conference was palpable: as one friend with whom I shared a panel commented, “I never expected to pack a room by talking about industrial strategy and democratic ownership. Left-wing economics is the new cool.” If there is anywhere it really feels like a new agenda for a Labour government is being built, it’s here. Extending these spaces – and the democratic, hopeful, intellectually curious spirit they embody – could be a key strategy for building the depth and vibrancy of the Corbyn project, as well as keeping it accountable to members and social movements.
Meanwhile, some of the most exciting civil society initiatives are those being run by capacity building outfits like the New Economy Organisers’ Network and Campaign Bootcamp – giving a generation of grassroots activists and campaigners the skills to build effective organisations capable of consistently setting the agenda. As this cohort starts to come up through the ranks, it could further transform the landscape.
3. Internal infrastructure: Bridging the skills gap
Finally, there’s a very prosaic practical issue arising from the fact that the UK left has been confined to the sidelines for a generation. The lack of institutions dedicated to challenging economic orthodoxy hasn’t just left a policy vacuum, but also a skills vacuum. Radical left thinkers in the UK have simply not been learning how to run things: they’ve had very few places to cut their teeth. Conversely, talented people looking for a good career move that also allows them to get real things done have tended not to be drawn to the left.
There’s no doubt that Corbyn has some incredibly smart people around him – but smarts do not always go with the skills needed to run a tight ship, still less to reach out and collaborate. And the pool from which such people can be drawn is not deep. The team is also having to shift gears rapidly from a lifetime of highly oppositional politics to a situation where government is within reach, and developing implementable policy – fast – is suddenly the order of the day. This demands a completely new, and for many on the left an unfamiliar, skill set. Direct experience of government is a still rarer commodity.
Claims of internal sabotage are not just paranoia, either: I have heard stories of new Shadow Ministers having to start from scratch on complex bills after their predecessors erased files rather than pass them on. This shifting ground and fragile grip on the party’s machinery and resources has severely hampered both the leadership’s capacity to do policy and the ability of new staff and Shadow Ministers to learn to do policy.
By all accounts, the leadership is well aware of this problem and is already holding internal workshops to begin addressing it – but it’s a big project which will not be done and dusted overnight. Some trade unions have also begun organising training for staff and MPs to build their skills and knowledge for government. Such programmes will need to be rapidly scaled up if the Labour party is serious about the formidable task ahead.
The Corbyn leadership has needed to do more with less than any political leadership in living memory. It is effectively trying to bridge a generational deficit in new progressive thinking, with neither time nor the party machine on its side. But in the wake of this year’s shock election results, and with the ship seemingly steadied, its task now is to build an effective policy infrastructure to match the scale of its ambition. Meanwhile, the energetic, optimistic young movement surrounding it will surely begin generating its own ecosystem from the grassroots up. For the first time in my political lifetime, there’s a sense of confidence on the left. The challenge now is to build this into a solid platform for government.