It Was a Fantasy: Centrist Political Commentators in the Age of Corbynism

A small group of handsomely paid political commentators convinced themselves that they understood the governing laws of electoral politics.

This is an article about a small group of well connected, highly educated and handsomely paid political commentators who convinced themselves that they understood the governing laws of electoral politics.

But this was a fantasy. What they had in fact done was to parrot the operating assumptions of the neoliberal faction of the Labour Party, which whilst electorally successful for a time, proved to be ruinous in the medium term.

But this did not matter. They had discovered that since the platforms for respected left-wing political commentary in the UK are so few, as long as they adopted a sagacious tone, they could write whatever they wanted, no matter how incoherent.

Their editors simply went along with it.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’ve no great fondness for Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Martin Kettle, John Rentoul - and the rest. But I do think there’s something interesting, as well as infuriating, about Britain’s Blairite and centrist political commentators. How has this elitist clique been able to maintain its eminence within British public life, despite having so little political insight and understanding, let alone foresight?

There’s no great mystery as to why ‘third way’ politics appealed to these people. They are all from the cohort that experienced the demoralising electoral defeats of the long 1980s; from the class – capitalists aside – that most benefited materially from its policies; and from the narrower class strata that was in the driving seat politically and culturally during the Blair-Brown era. But why were they not able to come to terms with the implosion of that political project almost a decade ago? Why were they not able to get to grips with the political realignments that followed, or to anticipate the remarkable successes of the Corbyn project?

Building on the Marxist theory of ideology, the sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote that ‘diverse interpretations of the world’, if examined sociologically, will ‘reveal themselves as the intellectual expressions of conflicting groups struggling for power’. For Mannheim this included not just classes, ‘but also generations, status groups, sects, occupational groups, schools, etc.’ 1 In the case of the centrist and Blairite political commentators, their interpretation of the world is aligned with the interests and operating assumptions of a particular subset of the political class with whom they are networked politically and socially. Ed Griffiths has sketched out the ideology of what he calls ‘Moderate Labourism’ here. But in narrower electoral terms, the central assumption shared by these political actors, and the commentators aligned to them, is that the only viable route to power for the left is a mix of a savvy communication strategy, strategic targeting of middle-class voters in marginal constituencies and ‘triangulation’ in response to the forces of reaction.

This was, to be fair, a fairly convincing argument for a short period. Whilst the centrist commentariats’ elite constituency was able to deliver on these terms, the ideas they propagated seemed to have some cogency. But as the ‘third way’ political project collapsed in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007-08, its ideologues have found themselves increasingly unable to make sense of the world. Why? Because their supposed expertise was based on contingent political conditions that no longer exist. What they have offered in the pages and webpages of the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman never represented a genuine understanding of politics and society. Rather; it was a kind of embedded expertise which, in changed political conditions, no longer has any analytical purchase.

Tony Blair had not, as his supporters like to imagine, mastered the art of politics through communicative acumen and a savvy electoral strategy – the two central qualities said to be lacking in Corbyn and his team. Rather, he and his coterie of ‘modernisers’ had enthusiastically adapted to the defeats of the left and the organised working class, and the prevailing balance of forces that crystallised within the political sphere in the wake of these defeats. Whilst they certainly developed expertise in navigating this terrain, these skills were neither transferable nor politically neutral. Unsurprisingly given the circumstances of their political ascendency, the Blairites did not seek to reverse those defeats by attempting to revive the institutions of social democracy, or by strengthening a social base that might shift back the balance of power within the political sphere. Their power and prominence, after all, relied on these very conditions. Instead, New Labour built up a constituency largely beyond the labour movement and Labour’s natural support base. Blair, Brown and Mandelson assiduously courted the financial elites and built up a secretive network of super rich donors  to sidestep the financial power of the trade unions. They fostered networks of policy expertise in corporate funded think tanks, as well as a coterie of advisers and consultants which would serve as an alternative to the more democratic policy procedures of the party.

In the medium term this was suicidal for the Labour Party and was more than a capitulation to the forces of capital – which had long characterised the politics of mainstream Labourism. It was a political project built on the exhausted infrastructure of social democracy and the corporate networks that had been strengthened and reconstituted by Thatcherism. The latter included financial capital, of course, but most of all the professional influencers – the advertisers, lobbyists, PRs and political consultants who thrived in the post-democratic milieu of neoliberal Britain. It was within these networks that the Blairite ‘common sense’ at the heart of the contemporary British centrist myth was formed. The involvement of Portland Communications in the ‘chicken coup’, dismissed by some on the left as conspiracism, was indicative of this grouping at the heart of the Blairite project. Moderate Labourism, or at least the Blairism at its core, should therefore not be understood merely as an ideology in the sense of being a worldview. It is also the habitus of a group of political professionals and intermediaries in the increasingly incestuous worlds of business, media and politics, and reflects a particular set of interests around which they cohere.

The centrist political pundits, whose lack of insight has been so starkly exposed by this General Election, are an adjunct to this grouping. They operate within the same social circles and have formed a symbiotic relationship with this group and the broader professional political classes - exchanging ideas and trading legitimacy. In doing so, they mistook a strategic adaptation to the balance of forces in the political field in a particular moment, for a timeless formula for left-wing politics, and an acquaintance with this strategy, and its strategists, for political insight. This is why their response to Corbynism has been such a curious mix of belligerence and condescension. Its radicalism threatens not only the political status quo, but the purveyors of political wisdom who have built their reputation around it.

  1. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia; An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966, pp.241, 248.