Which of the following two statements do you believe to be true?
- Centrism and social democracy are now dead. They have failed miserably in Europe and North America and people are crying out for a radical alternative. The rise of Corbynism is a living demonstration of this.
- Corbynism is the new centre ground. People claim that Labour’s ideas are radical, but actually they’re not. They’d just be mainstream social democracy in continental Europe and Scandinavia.
If you’re scratching your head, there’s a pretty simple reason. These two notions are mutually exclusive and entirely contradictory, but I hear both of them advanced by those who back Jeremy Corbyn. They tend to dig out the one that suits them best at the time.
The Corbynites rail against social democrats in Europe, who have supposedly embraced neo-liberal ideology. But they want to copy all the good things these misguided neo-liberals have done, like… err… keeping transport and utilities in public ownership and funding a generous welfare state.
We’re confronted by the kind of intellectual knots that would give Harry Houdini a headache. And we could laugh them off, except for the fact that ‘centrism’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ are ideas and terms of abuse that are absolutely critical to the Corbynite Weltanschauung. They are, in many respects, the glue that binds his leftist coalition together.
In the Momentum history book, there are two periods of study: real social democracy (which started in 1945 and ended circa 1975 under a Labour government) and neo-liberalism (1975 – 2017 RIP).
If you accept this model, things become very confusing very quickly.
Real neo-liberals such as Thatcher and Reagan, who were influenced by Hayek, are lumped together with everyone from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown through to Emanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.
So if you erode workers’ rights and declare war on welfarism, you’re a neo-liberal. Fair enough. But if you introduce the minimum wage, expand parental leave and massively increase the funding of state nurseries, you’re also a neo-liberal.
Neo-liberalism has, according to the left, been the dominant, hegemonic ideology over four decades. Its aim is to erode the state, reduce public spending and transfer wealth and power to the rich. Yet last year, 42% of GDP in the UK was allocated to public spending – a figure which is down from its peak at the end of the Brown government, but still above the level in the early years of Blair.
After four decades of relentless neo-liberalism, we are redistributing hundreds of billions of pounds every year to provide free healthcare, free education, old age pensions and welfare provision. Around 90% of NHS spending remains within the public sector. Academy schools are funded directly by the government.
If you accept that the neo-liberals have been in charge since the 1970s, their record of achievement seems pretty dismal, doesn’t it? Or, alternatively, you might argue that many of the social democratic achievements of the past have proved incredibly difficult to dismantle.
Neo-liberalism is supposedly a global phenomenon too, casting its ugly shadow over the world and leading us towards an inexorable crisis. It therefore seems somewhat inexplicable that there has been an impressive decline in the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide since the 1980s, along with dramatic reduction in child mortality.
Corbyn’s crusade is against an enemy that is ill-defined, elusive and perhaps something of a myth, as political scientist Colin Talbot suggests. That’s pretty worrying. His is a movement that fights against a mirage.
So let’s come back to ‘centrism’, that other much-loved term of abuse. Centrists, in the Jezuit creed, are wrongdoers who have embraced neo-liberalism and have failed to move with the times. They are seen as floundering in a world where people have apparently moved decidedly to the left. But there’s actually no evidence that this is the case.
A poll for The Times in the past month or two asked voters to place themselves on a political spectrum alongside the major political parties and the parties’ leaders. The response made grim reading for the Corbynistas.
People define themselves, by and large, as being near the centre of British politics. They see Theresa May as being well to the right of them and the Conservative Party perhaps even a little further removed. The Labour Party is viewed as being well to the left. Corbyn, unsurprisingly, is further left still.
So neither the Tories nor Labour match most people’s perceptions of their own political leanings. But in elections, they are being offered a polarised choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. The latest ICM poll shows the two parties neck and neck on 42%. So when faced with an unpalatable choice, we split reluctantly and fairly evenly right now.