Jeremy Corbyn has achieved the unimaginable. His campaign has already enchanted the public in a way seemingly incongruous with the reality, of an age where disillusionment with politics is basically universal. In Kings Cross, hundreds queued round the block to vie for the chance to hear Corbyn speak on the London leg of his nationwide campaign rally. His second speech of the evening was conveyed atop a fire engine in the streets, because the building was too packed and the over spill thronged outside. Twitter reported that teenagers were even scaling walls to catch a glimpse of the action. The sterile echoes of Blair may boom hollow warnings about a Corbyn victory off the chamber walls of the parliamentary Labour party, but a rebellion has crackled and coruscated through the grassroots, picking up enough momentum to explode the cozy post-Thatcher consensus.
Since his nomination rocked the ballot, the politics and thinking of Corbyn have been the subject of much debate. Clearly the politics of an avowed social democrat. That is, the principles and policies he holds dear are firmly rooted in the post-war Keynesian consensus. At that moment in economic history, current thinking embraced nationalization of key industries and regulation of finance, coupled with progressive taxation, as the foundation of good policy. The received wisdom, supported by experience, held that spending stimulates the economy out of a recession (the left loves to remind us that the NHS, our imperiled system of universal healthcare, was conceived during an eye-watering recession and deficit).
Corbyn has been an audacious candidate and one of the first in Labour to have enough insight to declare their biggest failure was hardly over-spending, but clearly one of under-regulating the financial sector. In so doing he is penetrating beneath the deceptive narrative of recession and austerity deliberately spun by the Conservatives, according to whom the economic crisis was a product of government spending on public goods, rather than the outcome of the collective greed and incompetence of the banking sector. The financial crisis has plunged the world around in to a recession and elites have used their political purchasing power to push for policies which are making ordinary people bear the brunt of a crisis they simply did not create. In openly defying the received wisdom of the austerity consensus, Corbyn is a potent symbol of a festering dissent, and he brings interesting nuance and diversity to debates about policy which frustratingly tend to be dominated by neo-liberal platitudes.
What his vocal and trenchant critics in Labour fail to perceive is that he appeals to the sensibility of low and middle income supporters who make up the majority of the party’s grassroots and are the main conduit of its activism. In line with his voting record in the House of Commons, he is seen as an earnest and relatively innocent politician. It is as if the grassroots like the idea of decreasing inequality, lifting more children out of poverty and safeguarding vital public services. It’s as if a popular opposition to Tory rule consists in actually opposing what they are doing rather than dithering in their shadow and abstaining on reprehensible policies like the Welfare Bill which demonize and attack the most vulnerable people in society. Labour’s values, and its voice, ought to change with each generation, and the preceding generation has clearly lost its way by pandering to right-wing fear-mongering on immigration and the recession.
The upper echelons of Labour would rather see Corbyn destroyed than ever be elected on his platform. The only real hearing for Corbyn in the media seems to come from the prolific researcher and commentator Owen Jones. In his 2014 book, The Establishment, he set out to describe and explain the ascendancy of the neo-liberal consensus. To do so he employed the concept of the Overton window, which describes the range of policies which seem acceptable to voters:
This ‘window’ is relentlessly policed. So,when Ed Miliband proposes a temporary energy price freeze – a welcome, albeit pretty unremarkable policy – it is portrayed by media and right-wing politicians as crypto-Marxism, even though most voters support a far more radical option: re-nationalising the energy industry lock, stock and barrel.
Policing the ‘window’ helps ensure that neo-liberal ideas generally favoured by the Establishment are deemed moderate and common sense; anything that even slightly deviates is written off as beyond the pale.
Thatcher’s greatest success as a free-market outrider was to forever change which ideas are accepted as legitimate, sensible policy. The Overton window is the deception through which hard-right ideology presents itself as dispassionate realism. And the reason why the establishment fears Corbyn so much is because he could effectively smash the window, in the cathedral of capitalism, and awaken an agenda for something genuinely different from the unrelenting claw of cuts.
If the Labour establishment focused just half of the energy it has spent attacking Corbyn on the Conservatives instead, if it invested just half that energy in creating a coherent alternative which yields to the vision of its grassroots, and not its wealthiest donors, it might just become electable.