Jeremy Corbyn is simply a symptom of social democracy’s worldwide decline due to identity politics and a rejection of patriotism. Can, and should, anything be done to save it?
Much is made of the state of the Labour Party in 2017: shambolic, out of touch, and with its voting coalition disintegrating. But this is not unique and should not be treated as such. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn is not even the underlying problem, but rather a symptom of the deep malaise of the Labour Party and the Left as a whole.
A trend of social democratic parties on the wane, coupled with right wing parties surging, is apparent across most developed economies over the past few years. The less said about Corbyn’s Labour the better, also widely expected to crash out of the Presidential election later this year. The Democratic Party in the US has just suffered a humiliating defeat at every level of government to a man whose candidacy was first considered a joke, or a publicity stunt. In the Netherlands, the contest is between the Establishment’s conservative Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and the populist Geert Wilders, with any kind of left-wing opposition nowhere to be seen.
There is a clear downward trend for social democratic parties across the developed world, and for good reason. Particularly in the US, the Left is adept at identity politics, speaking in demographic voting blocs. Hillary Clinton was so pre-occupied with “the black vote” and “the female vote”, she forgot that other demographics vote too: demographics deeply hostile to her. This left-wing use of identity politics has spawned a mirror image in President Trump’s election campaign, dependent on “the white vote” and “the working class vote” to make it to the White House. Crucially, however, if you are going to play identity politics, you best make sure your demographic is big enough to win.
This is, of course, compounded by the fact that the Left’s traditional base of middle-class metropolitans and the socially conservative working classes has been fractured irreversibly, sometimes by seismic events, such as Brexit, and other times simply by economic transformation as the Western world moves towards post-industrial economies.
Nevertheless, whilst this problem was unavoidable, the Lefts response to it has been weak. At the heart of their troubles is a rejection of any notion of patriotism or civic pride. George Orwell claimed decades ago that “almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box”, and it seems little has changed. When Jeremy Corbyn refuses to stand for the anthem, this sends a clear signal to the largely patriotic working class: “your values are not my values”. The same can be said of many of the left’s support for the IRA during the 1980s; try selling that line around the Labour heartland of Birmingham, where people living still remember the day of the pub bombings, and see how popular it is. At a time when patriotism and English identity , being unable to see the Cross of Saint George on campaign literature without reacting angrily is not a good place to be.
Orwell was right then and still is now. Leftists like Corbyn can rouse their patriotism for a unified Ireland, for a defiant Cuba or an independent Palestine but cannot bring themselves to accept British rule of the Falkland Islands, for example. They are nationalists for every country other than their own, seeing every struggle through Marxist goggles of the oppressor and the oppressed, with no grey areas or room for compromise.
Until the global left manages to come to terms with patriotism and identity without stooping to identity politics, it will not win again. Indeed, its overuse of this kind of politics is spawning an ugly alternative on the right that should never have occurred but begins to as the largest demographics begin to feel threatened. Much of the base of the left does not see itself as a “global citizens”, or even as internationalist or socially progressive. Until the Left can square the circle of patriotism and identity its slow but steady decline will only continue.