There seems to be a paradox about Corbynism. On the one hand, I feel the force of claims that Labour’s manifesto was quite right-wing. Matt Bolton says that it’s immigration policy was “well to the right of the 2015 manifesto”, and John Rentoul has complained that Labour offered little to low-paid workers facing benefit cuts. But on the other hand, I sympathize with Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna’s claim that Corbynism “contains the seeds of a radical transformation beyond social democracy.”
So, what’s going on?
For one thing, Corbyn (rightly) reduced the salience of immigration as an issue: unlike Ed Miliband, he didn’t put any promise to cut migration onto mugs. And for another, there was an element of Nixon going to China or McGuinness bringing peace to Northern Ireland about Labour. As Matt says, Corbyn was so well-trusted on the left that his rightist policies on welfare and migration were tolerated as good triangulation rather than as a sell-out.
But perhaps there’s something else. Maybe the ideological climate is changing. The collapse of Ukip as an electoral threat meant that Corbyn was more fortunate than Miliband in not having to dwell on immigration, whilst voters’ weariness with austerity played to Labour’s strengths.
My perhaps forlorn hope is that the climate will continue to change. The ongoing stagnation of real wages might highlight capitalism’s inadequacies: the Ashcroft polls already show only mild support for the system among working-age people (Table 31 of this pdf). The Grenfell disaster has shown that deregulation and unequal bargaining power are a horrible combination. The contrast between the self-help of residents with the chaos of the official response to the catastrophe should highlight the case for economic democracy over hierarchy. And the Barclays fraud trial might shed light upon some of the murkier aspects of finance.
What I hope we’re seeing, therefore, is an example of what Janan Ganesh says:
We have all seen ideas pass from the unthinkable to the inevitable — and vice versa — without any political design from above.
To understand what’s going on here, it might help to change our mental model of politics. Rather than think of politicians as deliberately choosing policies and attitudes that sell to voters, with talented ones doing well and poor ones not, we should think instead of politics as being like natural selection or market selection. Species, or companies, or politicians, adopt strategies more or less blindly (because the world is unknowable) and the environment then selects among those strategies – not necessarily optimally.
Maybe the political environment is changing to select in favour of Corbynism and against Toryism. It’s not that Corbyn is a genius, but that – if we’re lucky - he’s the right(ish) man at the right time.