The Blairite Roots of Corbynism
7 January 2020
Labour’s loss of working-class support under Corbyn reflects its continuity with Blairism: its neglect of class politics, its disrespect for national and party democracy, and its dishonesty on the crucial issue of Brexit.
Were Corbynism and Blairism “two cheeks of the same arse”, as one commentator pithily put it? Jeremy Corbyn was supposed to be very different, the first left-wing Labour leader since the inter-war years.The residual leftist instincts of Corbyn and his allies inspired policies which Blair and his entourage would strongly oppose, such as the extension of public ownership in the public utilities, the policy of in-sourcing all NHS activities, the promise to end rough sleeping, and changes in foreign policy. Unfortunately, this distinctiveness was largely eroded by what Corbynism and Blairism have in common.
Capitalism, the Working Class and the Politics of Negation
Their fundamental similarity relates to class and capitalism. Sociologically, the Corbyn-era Labour Party members were more Blairite than Blair, reflecting a middle class, southern/metropolitan narrowness. Consciously or otherwise, this imbued party members with middle class self-interest. Bereft of a working class base, most Corbynistas have rejected the traditional Labour Left view that Labour should become the unwaveringly partisan supporter of working-class people (see Analysis #25 - The EU, Corbyn and the “Hollowing Out” of Labour’s Left Wing). In its place Corbynistas have largely preferred to promote identity politics and “intersectionality”, whereby a rainbow coalition of the vulnerable demand protection not only from the capitalists but from each other (see Analysis #44 - The Limits of Populism). As a result, virtue-signalling and scattergun leftism largely replaced class politics.This problem lay not simply with Jeremy Corbyn but with the Party’s entire composition: shadow cabinet, MPs, members. All promoted the political marginalisation of the working class. Evans and Tilley have shown that this marginalisation has reduced the ideological range in policy positions between the major parties, has excluded working class representation (so that politicians including Labour ones are more than ever drawn from a similar pool of highly educated, upper middle class people) and has erased social class as something that politicians even talk about.
Labour’s weakened commitment to the working class has therefore propelled the party, and its supposed left wing, towards economic conservatism. Until the 1980s, the Labour left distinguished itself from the Labour right through its desire to replace capitalism with comprehensive economic planning enforced by public ownership. Decades of neoliberal rule, however, led the Labour left to give up entirely on any socialist analysis of capitalism. It adopted instead a moralistic, distinctly left-liberal ideology, tacitly driven by the fundamental assumption that capitalism is to be retained. Corbynism therefore offered no rupture from a politics in which there is no imaginable alternative to capitalism. 
Instead of seeking to replace capitalism, Labour under Corbyn settled for a more interventionist version of it, centred around the party’s “Green Industrial Revolution” and a limited extension of public ownership. Yet even these modest proposals were impossible to implement within the EU Single Market in which Labour wished either to remain or to keep close to. Any nationalisation which introduces a public monopoly is presumptively unlawful under EU law (see Analysis #33 - Nationalisation and the fraud of “Remain and Reform”). Had the Green Industrial Revolution amounted to something really significant, funding it through increased taxation would prompt investment strikes and capital flight on the part of corporations and wealthy individuals. But, since EU law enshrines the free movement of capital, a Corbyn government would have been powerless to stop the economic elite taking their money out of the country. Furthermore the EU’s free movement of labour provisions mean that a massive programme of public works would suck in workers from poorer EU member states, massively diluting the benefit to British workers, who alone have the votes to re-elect a Labour government. Labour’s EU stance neutralised its other policies – a capitulation in advance. In all likelihood, legal advice from civil servants would have prevented many of the policies even being attempted.
With no serious will on the part of Corbynistas to transform the national economy there was less resistance to the Blairites’ demand for a second EU referendum. Caving in to this demand represented a severe distancing from the working-class electorate, almost two-thirds of whom had voted Leave. New empirical research by Telford and Wistow has shown that the working class Leave vote was driven by the effects of neoliberalism on working class life over the last 40 years, along with their dissatisfaction with Labour’s abandonment of the working class and with the country’s entire social, cultural and political elite (see Analysis #16 - Understanding Leave Voters’ Motivation in Northeast England).
Labour’s flip – from respecting the referendum result to demanding a second poll – involved deep complicity between Corbynistas and New Labour with appalling consequences at the polls, as well-analysed in The Full Brexit (see Analysis #42 - Labour Lost Because It Failed to Grasp The Democratic Opportunity of Brexit, Analysis #43 - The Workers’ Revolt Against Labour and blog post More On Why Labour Lost: A Failure of Leadership). Not only was it profoundly insulting to electors to be made to vote again but the detailed proposals for the second vote reeked of chicanery. The referendum question would have been virtually a choice between Remain and Remain, and teenagers and foreign residents were to be added to the franchise in the hope of fixing the outcome in the establishment’s favour. Corbynistas, having been for years on the receiving-end of Blairite contempt for Party members and the manipulation of rules, came mistakenly to believe that they could treat the electorate in the same shabby manner.
Party Democracy and National Democracy
If the Corbynistas showed little respect for national democracy, party democracy did not fare much better. When Corbyn was elected, he promised “a revolution in party democracy”. This was sorely needed in order to break with Blairism. As prime minister, Blair recognised that sustaining Labour’s novel commitment to neoliberalism would require a clampdown on party democracy. Sooner or later, affiliated trade unions and party members were bound to press a Labour government to turn away from neoliberalism and to adopt more pro-working-class policies. The leadership therefore introduced constitutional changes. Labour Party Conference ceased to act as the party’s supreme policy-making body, being restricted to debating just a few rank-and-file motions each year. Whenever these motions were passed and were unacceptable to the leadership (rail nationalisation, for example) government ministers would simply announce to the media that the new policy would not be implemented. There was no real resistance to this assumed veto power. For good measure, a National Policy Forum was established, ostensibly to take over Conference’s policymaking role, but in reality to mask the leadership’s monopoly of power. The National Executive Committee was refashioned into a “stakeholders’ NEC” in which representatives of the party’s rank and file were diluted by a large number of its members being chosen by elites - the government, parliamentary party and Labour councillors. Mandatory reselection of Labour MPs was deemed entirely off-limits. Even the changes to the process by which the party leader is elected, which accidentally permitted Corbyn’s surprise victory, were intended to further dilute trade union votes.
Much therefore needed to change. Yet Corbyn’s “revolution in party democracy” went off at half-cock. Save for a modest increase in the number of resolutions which Conference may debate, the Blairite model was substantially maintained. The “stakeholder” NEC was not transformed; mandatory reselection was rejected; the National Policy Forum remains in existence. The Left was hobbled by its self-denying ordinance that rule changes should for some reason normally reflect compromise between Left and Right.
The Labour left leadership’s desire to avoid too much democracy also translated into insistence that left activists should know their place vis-à-vis the Party’s left leadership. The pressure group Momentum came into existence early in Corbyn’s leadership to defend his position and promote the Left’s forward march. Within months it fell victim to a coup whereby its potential to influence Left policy was obliterated and it was downgraded to a fan club to provide Labour with donkeywork. Corbyn publicly supported this demotion. The differences between Blairism and Corbynism on party democracy were therefore quite minimal. And disdain for party democracy bled into disdain for national democracy over Brexit.
Finally, the Corbyn current came to resemble the Blairites in terms of trust. Corbyn’s slogan when seeking election as Labour leader was “honest politics”. This was understandable: Labour was haunted by Tony Blair leading Britain into the invasion of Iraq on the false claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. This, according to Peter Oborne, was just one instance of a creeping invasion of falsehood which came to imbue the British body politic during the Major and Blair years. Labour saw in Corbyn the prospect of a Labour leader who would be straighter with public and party alike. Yet Corbyn was unable to sustain this difference, thanks to his capitulation over Brexit. Corbyn was a lifelong opponent of the EU who had voted against EEC membership in the 1975 referendum, against the Single European Act, against Maastricht, against Nice and against Lisbon. Why did he switch to Remain? And why, post-referendum, did he switch again – from respecting the referendum result to demanding that the public vote again?
Almost certainly Corbyn’s initial switch was driven by the threat of a coup against him on the part of the Parliamentary Labour Party (one which eventually took place despite his capitulation). But Corbyn did not say this. Instead he explained his new fondness of the EU with twaddle about a bonfire of workers’ rights and dangers to jobs of disrupting just-in-time supply chains (see Analysis #13 - The Chimera of Workers’ Rights in the EU). Corbyn’s Damascene conversion to a second referendum further undermined his ability to present himself as a politician who tells it like it is. Party members and the media may have been happy to overlook this flip: voters in Labour’s heartlands were not.
The Blairites lost four million Labour votes during New Labour’s time in office and gifted some 50 seats in the party’s former Scottish heartlands to the Scottish National Party. This time round, the Corbynistas lost two and a half million Labour votes and gifted a similar number of seats to the Tories in Labour’s erstwhile Welsh, Midlands and Northern heartlands. These collapses in Labour support are not coincidental but represent a continuum. The common thread is Labour’s abandonment of its working-class base. By ceasing to respect the referendum result, Corbynism further distanced Labour from working-class voters, turning itself into “continuity Blair” on the single issue that meant the most to the electorate in the party’s most crucial seats. Yet Labour in 2019 could so easily have been the beneficiary of the working-class rebellion against the establishment. By siding with the establishment against the working class over Brexit, Labour ensured that it became the victim of that rebellion. The electorate revolted against the status quo just as the Labour left was standing up for that status quo. When Labour desperately needed to make a clean break with Blairism on Brexit to win, Corbynism failed to provide one.
About the Author
Danny Nicol is Professor of Public Law at the University of Westminster and author of EC Membership and the Judicialisation of British Politics (2001) and The Constitutional Protection of Capitalism (2010).
 Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 192.
 See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009); Jeremy Gilbert, “What Kind of Thing is Neoliberalism?” in Jeremy Gilbert (ed.) Neoliberal Cultures (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006), pp. 10-32.
 Luke Telford and Jonathan Wistow, “Brexit and the Working Class on Teeside: Moving Beyond Reductionism”, Capital and Class (early online, 16 September 2019), 1-20.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.