Jeremy Corbyn’s Followers Are Stuck in the 1970s

After a devastating election loss, the U.K. Labour Party has maintained the delusion that it won the argument, while dismissing those who voted against it as morally inferior.

Jeremy Corbyn, left, with Les Silverstone, holds a copy of the Labour Party's Programme 1973, a radical social and political work drawn up by left-wing members of the Labour Party, in September 1975.
Jeremy Corbyn, left, with Les Silverstone, holds a copy of the Labour Party's Programme 1973, a radical social and political work drawn up by left-wing members of the Labour Party, in September 1975. Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The catastrophic defeat of party leader Jeremy Corbyn has shattered the British Labour Party, leaving it in no condition to fight the Conservatives anytime soon, so its members are now turning their anger and hatred on one another. The party and its base were already deeply split about Brexit and unable in the end to come to a decision about the referendum result. Their election loss on Dec. 12 has only made this worse. 

Historically, the success of the U.K. labor movement (which was once more than just a party) lay in binding the interests and the imaginations of the working class with sections of the metropolitan middle classes. Socialism, while it worked, was simultaneously a theory and a communal practice, as any religion must be. 

After Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party breached the so-called red wall of industrial and semi-rural seats across England’s North and Midlands, which had been safe Labour territory since the 1930s, the British left has been searching for answers about what broke that alliance.

Corbyn is part of the answer. But his personal failings can’t account for all of the problem. After all, even the most enthusiastic Corbynistas I know would agree in private that he wasn’t the messiah. They just couldn’t see that his weakness as a leader mattered because the cause, and the style of politics that he represented, was to his followers so transcendentally attractive that they felt it must seem the same to everyone else. 

Even before they lost, the reverence with which Labour activists spoke of “the manifesto”—the promises the party made before and during the campaign—was astonishing. By Election Day, the party was promising not just to rescue the National Health Service and to renationalize the railways but also free tuition, free broadband, and a four-day week for everyone. They talked as if there were no difference—no distance—between having a good idea and implementing it. But the chasm between desire and action is where all real politics takes place and all the real choices must be made. 

Yet it wasn’t until after the election that the real extent of this blindness—even to the leadership—became clear. As the dust settled on the rubble of the red wall, Corbyn announced that he had “won the arguments,” as if this delusion constituted a moral victory.

Listening to Labour before the election, I was haunted by a tune I couldn’t for weeks identify, and then I remembered: It was “Hijack” from Jefferson Starship’s 1970 album, when the group sings, “Come on! Free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music—the day is on its way and the day is ours.” 

It was the dream of fully automated luxury communism more than 40 years before the phrase was coined. This is politics for people who have never really had a problem of scarcity but who think they understand the people who do. They’ve never actually governed, and so they’ve never had to choose between equally dreadful alternatives. For them, all shopping is recreational.

But the voters who do have to make those terrible choices, and who live every day with what you might call old-fashioned scarcity, can suss this fallacy out. They will always reject politicians who claim that no one will have to pay for anything. Successful demagogues make their pitch by promising it is outsiders who will pay (Brexit will bring 350 million pounds a week for the NHS, Mexico will pay for the wall)—but at least they are explicit about the cost. 

The Corbynist left could be divided in two age groups: those too young to remember the 1970s at all and those too fossilized to forget them. So neither group learned anything from the history that actually happened. The dream of a world of abundance and kindness never really recovered from the oil shocks and the breakdown of the Keynesian economic orthodoxy.

By the end of the 1970s, the Labour Party seemed intellectually and politically exhausted, unable to control the country or to keep the currency stable. In 1979, the Conservative Party’s Margaret Thatcher won a majority; in 1983, she won a much bigger one running against the kind of socialism that Jeremy Corbyn still believes in. The people, it turned out, did not concede to socialism the moral authority that socialists thought self-evident. Capitalism seemed more likely to deliver what it promised.

The four freedoms of Jefferson Starship were narrowed down to two: free minds and free bodies. This understanding of freedom as individual autonomy gave us today’s immense inequalities, the moral monstrosity of Silicon Valley, and once more uncontrollable economies.

Communal solutions are often much better than individual ones. But they come at a price, and this isn’t honestly admitted by the contemporary left. The painful price of communal solutions is not really the money or the taxation that must pay for them: Often, as with the NHS compared to the U.S. health care system, they are much cheaper than the alternatives even in the short term.

What keeps them going, though, is not just their comparative efficiency but their moral authority. When people say that the NHS could not keep going without the idealism of the staff, this is not fluff but the sober truth. If people stop believing in the BBC, they will no longer willingly pay the license fees that all British TV viewers are required to pay, as its enemies have grasped.

For communal solutions to work, the minority must sometimes concede that the majority is right, and this is very hard for progressives to understand. Progressives are by definition an elitist minority: They think they have reached the future before everyone else and that the majority will have to follow them. But sometimes the majority just won’t. And when that happens, the majority can’t, in a democracy, be coerced. This is the lesson the old Corbynists failed to learn in the 1980s and the new ones refuse to learn today.

The temptation for Labour, at a time when it seems to have nothing else left, is to cling to its moral authority harder than ever. But the defining characteristic of moral authority is that it’s not yours; it’s granted by other people. It’s not free, and no one is entitled to it. The word for people who only think they have it is not “moral” but “self-righteous.”

The Labour Party is now doomed unless its politicians concede that most of the people who did not vote for them are not in fact morally disgusting. Only then will the party itself cease to appear so repellent to so many of its former voters.

Andrew Brown is a British journalist and former Guardian editorial writer. He won the 2009 Orwell Prize for political writing for Fishing in Utopia, his book about Sweden in the high noon of Social Democracy. Twitter: @seatrout