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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Labour Hegemonic? by Alex Williams

As the 2017 party conference season draws to a close, increasing rhetorical heat is developing around the idea that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has begun to decisively set the political agenda. Going further, more eager commentators have suggested that Labour are on the brink of an incipient political hegemony within the UK, enabling the creation of a new political-economic settlement akin to the epochal transformations of 1945 and 1979.

We can observe this in the increasingly confident discourse of the leadership (and indeed membership) of Labour. Corbyn’s conference speech, for example, made explicit mention of “winning the arguments for a new common sense about the direction our country should take.” This was not, for once taken as a statement of idle ambition. A week later, we could observe a new mood of fear animating the Conservative Party conference, with numerous fringe events focused on the ominous threat of the new socialism, of Momentum, and of Corbyn in particular. Combined with Theresa May’s lamentable performance and undercurrents of rebellion, (as well as the shock surprise of the 2017 general election), a shift in the balance of forces seems to be underway.

In a sense, these are all signs of the global terminal decline of the ruling set of ideas of the last thirty-five years, commonly termed neoliberalism. From the election of Trump to the Brexit result, the grip of the old certainties is wavering. If hegemonic power consisted simply of the domain of thoughts and beliefs, then we might legitimately expect Corbyn’s new socialist Labour to not just be on the brink of electoral success, but rather a lasting and decisive power. Neoliberalism may have entered what appears to be an incurable phase of crisis, but does this necessarily mean the imminent predominance of new socialism?

The average of current polling, and the ongoing travails of the Conservative Party do indeed point to a Labour election victory in the future, but at that very moment there will emerge serious impediments to much of their programme and their political vision for the country. This is all in the nature of political hegemony: the most visible parts of a system of power are relatively flimsy, and can be transformed fairly rapidly under the correct conditions, like the taking of executive power in parliament, or achieving a stronger voice within the media. Other elements, however, are deeply embedded in the material fabric of the basic infrastructures of the country, from housing to finance, and could take decades to transform fundamentally. Though the political energy is certainly with the new socialism, it would be a critical error to underestimate the scale of the task at hand. 

Within the British media, though there are a number of new players on the far left, (some of which proved surprisingly influential at the last general election) the majority of bandwidth remains firmly in the hands of the centre-right. There are possible measures which might address this, from changing regulations on media ownership to democratising state owned portions of the media, such as the BBC. But the agenda presented by Labour remains alien to many of the leading commentators in our media ecology.

The financial sector, operating within the City of London one of the major hubs of global finance, would be unlikely to respond well to a new socialist agenda. The threat of a run on Sterling and a difficulty in selling government bonds both appear likely outcomes of a Labour election victory. Encouragingly, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is apparently more than aware of the potential difficulties facing an ambitious Labour government, and has set up groups to wargame potential financial threats. That said, the wiring of our society has become highly financialised, as well as intimately linked into global systems and flows, and transforming this will be a difficult and lengthy mission.

Beyond this, we find deeply entrenched neoliberal systems of administration across much of the public sector. Within the management of schools, universities, hospitals, and local government, a managerialist form of neoliberalism is firmly implanted within structures and processes, as well as operating as a worldview for managers. There is also the matter of the British ‘deep state’: the civil service and the security services, each of which may well seek to disrupt the smooth rolling out of Corbyn’s new socialist project, (as has occurred to prior socialist inhabitants of Downing Street in different forms).

All this is before we factor in the chaotic impacts of many Brexit scenarios, the future/present threats of automation and climate change, as well as demographic shifts in the UK population. The politics that will emerge supreme from this maelstrom will in part be that which is able to master these currents and turn them towards a relatively stable state that enfranchises enough segments of society to create a workable hegemonic formation. A project to achieve a new socialism within Britain must therefore navigate a pathway through all of these obstacles, putting to work those fields and domains which it has already come to transform as tools to engage in a broader process of social, political, and economic re-engineering. It is a task of this scale which is presented to Labour now.

Alex Williams is a Lecturer in Digital Media & Society at the University of East Anglia. He tweets @Lemonbloodycola and is the co-author of  'Inventing the Future', 'Hegemony Now' (Verso, 2018), and 'Hegemony & Complexity'.