Jeremy Corbyn understands the new open-v-closed politics. Other leaders should catch up.

The categories 'left' and 'right' are no longer fit for purpose


People on both the left and the right like to put others into safe little boxes — Tory, Corbynite, Leaver, Remainer, racist, elite — that reaffirm their own beliefs about people they don’t understand. But the labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are becoming ever more blurred in society, and their utility as labels is declining.

It seems obvious now, for instance, that the Brexit vote wasn’t about left-right divides; of course, it was partly about shoving a couple of fingers up to the establishment, but Leave also won because of genuine working-class concerns regarding livelihoods and immigration. No more so is this evidenced than by considering the way Wales voted in both the election and the referendum.

Last June, Wales voted to Leave the European Union by a margin of 2.5 per cent. Last Thursday, they voted decisively Labour, with Corbyn winning 28 constituencies (+3) and the Conservatives winning eight (-3). UKIP won none at all, and their vote share dropped 10.8% across the UK.

Most importantly, looking at the map of the general election compared to the map of the EU referendum, these votes occurred in similar places (though interestingly, the Vale of Glamorgan was both Conservative and Remain). For all the talk of Corbyn being a secret Leaver, he campaigned to stay in the EU, and has consistently argued for the need for a good deal. Theresa May’s Hard Brexit stands at odds with this.

These numbers are indicative of a current widespread trend of people voting with their middle finger. Coupled with this, any perceived divide between the out-of-touch liberal elite (read: Remain voter) and the poor, helpless racist (read: Leave voter) has become void. Rather, this election, and the EU referendum that came before it, and the vote for Donald Trump in the US, has more to do with class and nationalism; less to do with left and right, and more to do with, as Tony Blair said in 2006, ‘open vs closed’.

Jeremy Corbyn has managed, in some ways, to bridge this new divide and do away with the old one. His whipping of his MPs to vote in favour of Article 50 was a way of appealing to voters who wanted to leave the EU; his manifesto, too, appeals to both the members of the white working-class who voted Leave and the young, liberal lefties who believe him when he says he will make society fairer and more equitable.

Corbyn’s unpolished, ‘real’ persona appeals to both: those totally disillusioned with the establishment and the raw deal they’ve been given due to globalisation and cheap immigrant labour, and those disillusioned with middle-of-the-road, soundbite politicians (though Corbyn demonstrated that he could sound like one of them during his banal interview with Jeremy Paxman).

It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, with their mechanism to block anyone who dissents from one’s opinion at the click of a button, turn into echo chambers. Our debates turn into debates with ourselves in which we inevitably win because the people on these platforms (unless we make a concerted effort to follow those whose views we disagree with, and I would bet most don’t) broadly agree with everything we say.

Both the left and the right turn into awful caricatures of themselves: the former, high-and-mighty and self-righteous, denouncing anyone who has any qualms with immigration or votes UKIP as a racist; the latter suggesting that those who have benefited from globalisation and immigration are out-of-touch, elitist, and just don’t care.

These divides have been partially remedied by Corbyn’s semi-success in the election, but we’re a long way from any kind of resolution. The old left-right divides have become inoperative. A new language, and a new way of thinking about those lifestyles we don’t understand at all, is needed, if we are to bridge the lengthy chasms between us.

Real debate is needed, rather than meaningless insults being hurled from both sides. If we are to make progress, we on the ‘open’ side must understand that being working-class and voting against immigration doesn’t make a racist (indeed, high immigration may drive down wages for British workers).

Meanwhile, those on the ‘closed’ side of the spectrum must work hard to make sure their nationalism doesn’t descend into the hate-filled rhetoric of parties like UKIP or worse. Nationalism can work — just look at the SNP (though their track record in actually governing is sketchy at best) – but it needs a healthy, progressive outlet.

These two sides can be reconciled, but it will take time. Jeremy Corbyn has started the project and it’s time for the rest of us to get on board.

James Alston is a graduate of Cardiff University and blogs at  Read his blog here

See: Labour’s ‘new deal’ for housing recognises the scale of the crisis

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3 Responses to “Jeremy Corbyn understands the new open-v-closed politics. Other leaders should catch up.”

  1. John

    One big assumption here is that Brexit was the predominant election issue. It is likely that it was for many just one among many – the economy, wages, housing, the NHS, education, etc – where the old left V right divide does still have some traction.

  2. Jay Smith

    This is to assume that Corbyn doesn’t collapse. Corbyn did terribly at local election. This was the worst Tory election campaign in living memory. And Corbyn still didn’t win. He would have another 2200 to have enough MPs to rule by slim coalition. He’d need another 100,000 votes in right places for a majority. Whereas Tories only needed 730 in the right places to win a majority. Tories will be back with a better campaign next time. Corbyn also promised everything to everyone, people didn’t know his true brexit stances so was able to soak up remainers. Look at Richmond the protest and shift to Labour didn’t last. Zac is back. I think that will be telling for the country don’t jump to conclusions.

  3. Anjela kewell

    A good summing up of how the country is moving. But yet again you show your own ignorance in calling UKIP a hate filled party. Most UKIP members are not nationalists in the way you portray us. We are hard working, small business owners, farmers, parents, grandparents and in many cases under 25s who have chosen to join the workplace instead of going to University at an horrendous cost. UKIP has proven to be right on so many areas, hence the Tories have taken up most of our policies and even the Labour Party have started to address the issues in their heartlands. I think it is high time politicians, commentators and journalists start to acknowledge that this country is utterly fed up with Londoncentric people calling the shots and assuming those of us in the rest of the UK are beneath their lofty rhetoric. It is an irony that 85% of the country still want full monty Brexit and yet London wants to keep us all in a failing, increasingly dangerous EU. I wonder who the really intelligent people are? I wonder who those people throughout the UK will vote for in five years time. Because I think it just may not be any of the parties currently holding sway in Westminster. We may have a strong movement from outside London to refocus the important issues away from the Centre and devolve them out to the country.

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