Bernie Sanders’ socialism is the New Deal, re-booted. The New Deal was important, and needs to be re-booted, but it was socialist only to its detractors. In an American political context that doesn’t matter, because socialism is such an exotic term that Bernie can use it as a brand. Maybe it helps him, maybe it limits him, but beyond that the label doesn’t matter.
In the UK context socialism means public ownership. Or, in the sacred words of what was until 1995 Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution, “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”. That was a dead letter long before it was repealed – there was no serious thought in 1995 to bringing the whole economy into “common ownership” or “popular administration”. But back in the day, support for Clause Four was a way of delineating who was on Labour’s left, and who was not. More recently, Corbyn’s people have felt the need to distinguish themselves as socialists, but the vital and substantive things in their manifesto – raising taxes in order to rebuild public services, the Green New Deal, cracking down on tax havens, and so on – were not about ownership. The role, rhetorically, of establishing socialist bona fides was left to the nationalization of old network monopolies like rail and water.
This was sad, for three reasons.
One is that saying you’re a socialist because you’re going to nationalize the water company is like saying you’re a socialist because you support public ownership of streets. Publicly owned network monopolies are common in capitalist economies.
Second, if you want a 21st century political program dealing with network monopolies it should focus on the ones that lock down parts of the Web (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and a thousand mini-me companies in their niches,) or lock down software user communities (e.g. Microsoft and those who use word processing). They’ve killed journalism and they, in effect, tax every small business, every consumer, in the world. Banks take money from businesses in other sectors and pump it into wanna-be monopoly startups. All that means taking money from Newcastle and investing it in London and the Silicon Valley. It’s a big factor in our world of high wages for a few and low ones for the many. This is a hard problem to deal with – and, notably, won’t be dealt with at the UK level, you really need Brussels to crack it – and it is hard to explain. Water, railroads? We need them, they’re easy to understand, but radical? Meh. (In America, Warren does the best job of bringing people along on the problem of modern monopoly, without needing the S-word.)
Third, and saddest, is that the Corbyn tendency’s need to distinguish itself as socialist has a fundamentally sectarian purpose. In their hands, at the Parliamentary level at least, that identity has been bound up with an unwillingness to work with others – either within Labour or in other parties – to develop a common program for government or for Europe. Corbyn’s presence as leader has a similar function – he hasn’t done much leading, but his evident inflexibility serves the purpose of declaring no compromise.
The troubling thing about political triangulators like Bill Clinton or Tony Blair is that it always looks, from here on the outside, as if they’ve given away the store before negotiations begin (and, indeed, with both of them, the world of finance had first and last say). The trouble with those like Corbyn, who demonstrate their principles by not forming coalitions, is that they never govern at all. Our Scylla and Charybdis.
We could have had an interim government with Labour’s Margaret Beckett as prime minister, sorting out a second Brexit referendum and clearing the air about the legality of the first, in preparation for a general election next year. But an interim government would have required developing cooperative working relationships across parties and across Labour’s own tendencies. Any such relationships would have been a threat to Corbyn’s coterie; and, in the light shed by a functioning interim government, the uselessness of Corbyn as leader would have been clear. So the interim government was vetoed (rather, made conditional on its being headed by Corbyn who, both because of his leadership style and as one aspiring to keep the job, was obviously not an acceptable choice for the interim role). Instead we got a winter election, and now look forward to five years of Johnson, with what damage to the planet, to Europe, and to the people of Britain it is too easy to imagine. But (was this the inevitable endpoint of any course of action?) the uselessness of Corbyn as leader has been made clear.