Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected rise as the Leader of the Opposition in the U.K. is just another example of a broader phenomenon taking place across the world: the leftward shift of the masses. His triumph provides some useful lessons for the Left in India
Old age and socialism are both supposed to be uncool, and therefore best avoided. Yet, strangely, the most talked about man in Britain now is an ageing socialist: Jeremy Corbyn. And he’s the new Leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament.
A Corbyn-led Labour Party was not supposed to have happened. The 66-year-old veteran was allowed into the leadership race on the assumption that he would not win. His job was only to showcase the space for political diversity within the Labour Party. The odds of his winning, at the start of his campaign, were 100-1.
But defying the odds and the conventional wisdom spouted by pro-Labour pundits, most of whom held that Mr. Corbyn was ‘unelectable’ on account of his ‘hard left’ politics, an overwhelming number of Labour supporters voted for him.
The reactions to his victory are revealing. The British Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Conservative Party, David Cameron, tweeted, “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.”
The response of the Labour MPs was scarcely more enthusiastic. More than half a dozen resigned from the shadow cabinet, making it clear they will not serve under Mr. Corbyn. Most of the 232 Labour MPs are hostile to Mr. Corbyn, and it is widely acknowledged that they will try everything to oust him. But for now, the momentum is with Mr. Corbyn.
Part of a wider trend
Mr. Corbyn’s victory needs to be viewed in the context of a broader phenomenon — the leftward shift of the masses that is happening across the world, especially in Europe. The powerful showing of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the recent U.K. elections, the rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and the surging popularity of Bernard Sanders in the U.S. are all part of this wider trend.
The immediate trigger for this shift in Europe is, of course, the austerity imposed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The other factor is the widespread disenchantment with the choices offered by the political mainstream.
The centre ground of democratic politics in western Europe in the post-war period has been social democracy. But following the global ascendancy of neo-liberal economics — ‘austerity’ is merely its European brand name — political parties that were nominally social democratic embraced neo-liberal agendas. In doing so, they acted against the very constituencies whose interests they were supposed to protect.
In Greece, for instance, the socialist party, Pasok, was decimated in the last two elections after it implemented severe austerity measures. In the U.K. elections this year, faced with a choice between a Tory party that was fully Tory, and a Labour party that was Tory in all but name, the undecided among the British electorate settled for the real thing, with the result that Labour lost the 2015 Parliamentary election, one that it was expected to win.
Something similar happened in India, too. The Congress in United Progressive Alliance-I executed a broadly social democratic agenda, mostly thanks to the Left parties, which served as enforcers of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP). In UPA-II, with no one to play the role that the Left Front did in UPA-I, the Congress lost its social democratic moorings (though not its pretensions).
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, presented with a choice between an economically rightwing Hindutva party and an economically ‘can’t-openly-say-so’ rightwing Hindutva-lite party, the Indian electorate settled for the real thing.
Coming back to Mr. Corbyn, his success is thus directly linked to the voters’ frustration over the lack of real political alternatives in the mainstream. It is the space vacated by erstwhile social democrats that is being filled by the likes of Mr. Corbyn, Syriza, and Podemos. They may be painted as “hard left” by a corporate-owned media. But their agendas propose nothing more than mild Keynesianism.
Mr. Corbyn, for instance, is not talking about abolishing private property and instituting a dictatorship of the proletariat — as the ‘far Left’ tag might suggest. Rather, his mantra has been ‘people’s quantitative easing’— printing money for public investment to generate jobs. Indeed, only someone with ‘far Right’ blinkers on could term this as ‘far Left’.
Lessons for the Left in India
Mr. Corbyn’s triumph, seen in the context of the broader shift noted above, has some useful lessons for the democratic/Parliamentary Left in other parts of the world, not least in India.
For starters, it blows a big hole in the so-called neo-liberal consensus, which holds that people everywhere have turned ‘aspirational’ and therefore don’t have time for the politics of equality, which is basically what socialism is. On the contrary, the politics of equality can trump the politics of aspiration.
Second, in the course of his campaign, Mr. Corbyn repeatedly stressed the importance of turning the Labour Party into a social movement — he mentioned it even in his victory speech. This is a major strategic insight that the Indian Left would do well to pick up on. Merely issuing statements of condemnation, conducting protest marches, and calling for bandhs won’t get them very far — not unless these actions form a part of a movement tied to a programme or an issue that connects with people’s needs. In fact, this is precisely what Arvind Kejriwal (along with others) did successfully — he launched a social movement on the issue of corruption.
By doing so, the progenitors of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) could tap into the Left’s core constituency — the urban poor, and a broad swathe of the working and salaried classes increasingly feeling the pain under a neo-liberal regime. And they did so without indulging in highfalutin rhetoric against neo-liberalism.
Not surprisingly, the one Indian politician Mr. Corbyn brings to mind is Mr. Kejriwal. Imagine a Kejriwal sprouting within the Congress and becoming its leader instead of starting a separate party, and you have a rough Indian version of the Corbyn phenomenon. But there the similarity ends — for unlike Mr. Corbyn, Mr. Kejriwal has shown little commitment to a political programme that goes beyond the single-point agenda of anti-corruption. This is both his strength and his weakness.
It is his strength because it enabled him to build a movement around a people’s issue — something India’s parliamentary Left has failed to do for some time. It is his weakness because the vacuum created by the absence of a political programme is being rapidly filled up by a personality cult. As of today, whatever Mr. Kejriwal decides, is the agenda of the AAP. This is not sustainable if the idea of the AAP is to provide political representation to those denied it by the mainstream parties.
In other words, if the Corbyn phenomenon is proof that the Left can break the neo-liberal consensus and counter the so-called politics of aspiration, then Mr. Kejriwal, with his opportunistic leftwing populism, has shown how it can be done. All that the Left needs to do now is to get its act together, for the current political landscape presents a tremendous opportunity.
The government in power is a sitting duck when it comes to the two elements the Left is pre-programmed to mobilise against: neo-liberalism and religious sectarianism. Plus, there is a clear political ‘need gap’ at the national level following the exit of the Congress and the secular-socialist parties from the spaces of both socialism and secularism.It was this space that Mr. Kejriwal sought to fill, though on a very limited scale. It worked for him, too, not once but twice. But it worked only because the AAP could serve as a platform to represent the interests of those neglected by the mainstream.
The Indian Left, on the other hand, has been doing the exact opposite: hanging on to doctrine but not doing enough to amplify the concerns of the deprived.
There really is no getting away from the most important lesson that the Corbyn phenomenon has to offer: India’s parliamentary Left needs to rediscover mass politics. The starting point for the articulation of its politics should be representing the unrepresented — not doctrine, not ideological purity. If it cannot undertake this course correction, it might as well wither away.