Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at East London University and the author of, among other titles, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism, published by Pluto Press in 2013. He spoke with il manifesto about the state of British politics.
Professor, what do you think of the outcome of the referendum?
Among working class voters, there has been a populist, anti-elitist and pro-right trend visible for a long time, so it was not much of a surprise. I think many were convinced that Remain would win, or that otherwise there would be a head to head. Overall, a disappointing outcome. Like many in the radical left, I had a reluctant position to remain. It was clear that the right would lead the vote to leave. In recent decades a publicly critical position from a theoretical and leftist point of view toward the E.U. has been lacking. Actually maybe that’s a simplistic reading of the actual result, since the right was already in crisis: In a way, it did not expect to win. It wanted to almost win so it would not have to assume responsibility for the consequences of a Brexit and could continue to blame the usual uncontrollable factors.
In other words: They don’t know what to do with what they have unexpectedly gained by pretending to want it?
It’s quite accurate to say that they did not want it. Johnson wanted to be the populist right prime minister who could prove to do his best with the Brussels powers by blaming them for not being able to control immigration. But then this strategy dissolved … not to mention that the districts that voted leave are completely divided as to the reasons why they did it. Most media analysts emphasized the working class voted to leave in the north. I think it is totally exaggerated. Leave would have never won without the substantial contribution of the middle-class conservative vote in southern England as well as the post-industrial vote in the north. They are two quite different situations.
The privileged white right, the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois tend to believe in a libertarian fantasy of a soft tax regime; they consider immigration a burden on the taxpayer, they want an expansion of the neoliberal project and see the E.U. as an obstacle. Conversely, the working class of the north, but not only them — many in the South voted Leave in solidarity with the post-industrial north — seems to have voted for a protectionist industrial economic structure and the promise of a renewal of the manufacturing sector, things they were convinced of by Ukip. Which, though it did not reveal what it might gain by troubling its rich donors, promised the working electorate a radical Keynesian program of the kind Tony Benn and the Labour Party proposed in the ‘80s.
As you can see, the districts that voted Leave were divided on what to vote for. Instead, they united on what to vote against: mass immigration. But they are divided on the reasons why they voted against it: the first group because it drives up the taxes, the other because it lowers their wages. What each of these sectors want from the government in the Brexit context are two entirely different things — opposed even. The Tory and Ukip leadership are well aware of this, which is why they left the scene: They know that is a terribly uncomfortable position.
Why now this desperate attempt to overpower Corbyn? Perhaps his relentlessly critical position of Tony Blair now that the Chilcot Inquiry will be public [the report was released Wednesday]?
It is certainly one of the reasons why people like Alastair Campbell [Blair’s former spin doctor] have lobbied for them to act now. About the putsch, I would say that not even they were convinced it would work, but they had nothing else to try. In the wider context, the Parliamentary Labour Party is in a lose-lose situation. It is comprised of a generation selected by those like Peter Mandelson, people who come from the world of public corporate relations, used to a kind of lobbyist politics that has collapsed and lost any legitimacy in the rest of Europe.
What should Labour put into practice to make up ground in the north, almost entirely now in Ukip’s hands?
In a sense, neither the right nor the soft left of the Labour Party are wrong to see a problem in Corbyn, because we need a leader who can take a markedly populist path toward a radical leftist agenda. Deep down, it is simple: It needs someone who can persuade the northern working class that immigration is not what swindles them, but the financial sector of the city. But Corbyn does not have that language. Although there is some Marxist element in his analysis, he is more of a Socialist Christian who sees primarily the moral aspect of the matter.
Corbyn has little or nothing of the continental Marxist DNA.
Definitely. And his position would suffice to develop a convincing argument with social resentment, especially in the north. Moreover, his other major tactical error was to open the discussion on nuclear disarmament in the party. For one who for years has always voted against nuclear power, it is an incredible tactical error. He doesn’t care. He has a moral mission. But above all, he should try a new approach on the impact that immigration has on the working class, because the left has lost several decades ago and does not know whether the information and education process can still be the traditional national approach that starts from within the community. It is a huge challenge, not only for the left. Since the end of the ‘60s and the beginning of de-industrialization, there is a part of the working class in this country that has gravitated toward a form of national socialism without, of course, the racist eugenics kit. It wants the Keynesian protectionist welfare state, strong in military defense and a love for order.
Shouldn’t Corbyn unite the party?
I think it’s a tactical mistake, like holding together a PLP that would never be reconciled to the leadership. I say this a year after being in constant contact with influential members of his team. They grossly underestimated how irreconcilable the split in the party was since Corbyn himself and his circle were at the extreme peripheries of that environment. They live in their own world of radical left. Plus, many of the assumptions of his staff did not come from Labour but from other groups to its left, including the SWP.
The much-denounced Trotskyist entryism of the Labour Party in the 1980s?
There is no trace of it at a general level in the party, and I do not think there was, although they called people with that background. Certainly they did not want to plot an inside putsch in the party and yet they thought they would, through concessions, keep the right. A big mistake of tactical judgment. Very serious.
What will happen to Corbyn?
It is very difficult for him to lose a leadership election, although you can never say never. In view of all the mediation efforts of Andy Burnham and John McDonnell, there might be a temporary settlement of differences, but I think that in the end a split is inevitable. The fundamental problem is that many people, left and right, recognize that our model of parliamentary democracy is completely inadequate for 21st century self-government. It takes something more sophisticated, engaging and forward-looking. At the PLP, they are ideologically convinced they are the professional elite of autonomous policy. It is unlikely that an agreement can heal the rift, unless there is some closed clause to govern some transition. Paul Mason said it recently, and I agree: The PLP is the biggest obstacle on the road to political progress in this country, even from the point of view of weak social democracy, not militantly Bennist. And until we replace them with at least 100 representatives with a different political background, nothing will change.