The Corbyn Leap
Mass movements outside the Labour Party brought Jeremy Corbyn to power within it. What will it now take to transform British society?
Lenin’s excitement at his rediscovery of Hegel as he grappled for meaning at the great turning point in international socialist politics in the autumn of 1914 finds its echo on the left of the British labor movement in the extraordinary summer 101 years later.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing socialist and consistent anti-imperialist in the House of Commons, as leader of the Labour Party and therefore of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, is a break in gradualness on a grand scale. Despite having the support of fewer than 10 percent of the party’s members of parliament, he secured a quarter of a million votes (nearly 60 percent) in the election, winning nearly half of the first preferences of the party’s individual membership in the transferrable-vote ballot.
That party membership is now nearly twice the size it was at the general election in May, with around sixty thousand people joining in the week following Corbyn’s victory on a platform of opposition to austerity economics, foreign wars, welfare cuts, and nuclear weaponry.
Leaps, indeed. This may not be quite as weighty in the scales of history as the betrayal of international socialism by the German Social-Democratic Party, the event which sent Lenin off to the library and the renewed study of dialectics, a landmark in the development of Bolshevik political thought. But it is still a development of huge import, occurring as it has in the first party of social imperialism worldwide, the home of Ernie Bevin and Tony Blair, the pioneer of neoliberalism as a powerful trend in the international working-class movement.
Only two years ago it was still possible to retail the old saw on the British left that “the only thing harder than trying to transform the Labour Party is setting up a new party in opposition to it.” The Corbyn leap has put an end to that opposition for the present and for a long time to come. The primacy of the Labour Party as a site of struggle for social advance, as opposed to the construction of electoral alternatives to it, is as established as any outcome of the dialectical process can be.
Even were the much-bruited coup against the new leader to be effected by the Labour right in short order, the fact that the movement which produced this staggering upturning of the conventional political order could not have occurred in a party political context other than the Labour Party will still stand.
As one debate perishes, new ones arise; or to cite the Grateful Dead as an authority for the familiar predicament of the Left:
New ones coming as the old ones go,
Everything’s moving here, but much too slowly,
A little bit quicker and we might have time,
To say “How do you do?” before we’re left behind
The new questions are, happily, more interesting than, “Shall we form (another) new workers party/party of the Left?” — the question which had seemed in immediate prospect in the wake of Labour’s election defeat and the anticipated return of the Blairites to the posts of command in the party, ending the stuttering quasi-hiatus of the Ed Miliband leadership.
Now we can instead discuss: can this movement of hundreds of thousands be consolidated? Can Corbyn’s leadership stabilize and secure wider support? Can a Labour Party of the Left win office in 2020 (or earlier)? Could Labour then win power and break with the capitalist system?
Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves here. The road from the Corbyn moment is of course a new extension of the several roads which led to it. We will have to cast the net far and wide to encompass all the interrelated elements, nuances, movements and challenges which made the hitherto obscure (if loved by his comrades and friends) MP for Islington North Labour leader.
General Election 2015
So let’s start with the British general election result of May 2015. At first blush, this appeared to be more likely to serve as notice of Labour’s obituary than a summons to its renewal. Up against a government that was held in no great esteem or affection it secured a shadow over 30 percent of the vote, a very modest improvement on the previous election in 2010, which brought to an end thirteen years of New Labour government.
Still worse, the widely trailed collapse in the third-party Liberal Democrat vote did indeed occur (two-thirds of its 2010 voters absconded), but with the result that the Tory-Liberal Coalition was replaced not by a Labour minority administration or a Labour-led coalition, but by the first majority Conservative government since 1997 — albeit one resting on just 37 percent of voters and 24 percent of the total electorate. Despite the slight uptick in Labour’s overall vote, the party actually lost parliamentary seats.
The reason for this mélange of setbacks (one disaster seen from several angles) was that for the first time Labour bled votes from all elements of its electoral bloc in almost every conceivable direction.
The Green Party, running on Labour’s left and strong among the progressive middle-class youth, secured 3.8 percent of the vote. The UK Independence Party’s 12.6 percent was a vote to Labour’s right – but its anti-immigrant and anti–European Union pulled away thousands of former Labour votes in working-class communities. And above all, the Scottish National Party swept the board in Scotland, taking forty of Labour’s forty-one seats, in the process overturning Labour majorities that were as large as they were time-honored.
These losses all but outweighed the gains Miliband’s party secured from the Liberal Democrats and, on a much smaller scale, the Tories. And they all speak to the same phenomena — the attenuation of class politics, at least as it has long been understood and expressed in Britain.
In fact, the only challengers who did not mount a successful appeal to Labour’s electorate were the self-proclaimed alternatives to the left — Left Unity and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). More than 130 candidates from the two organizations (mostly TUSC) aggregated around 36,000 votes.
By way of contrast, Jeremy Corbyn secured just under 30,000 votes in his Islington constituency alone. It did not take the subsequent eruption of Corbyn-mania to establish the futility of the voluntarist efforts of these parts of the Left to suck an alternative to the mass party of labor out of their collective thumb. Let no more be said of them.
This defeat for Labour was itself long in the making. The atrophying of the party’s vote had proceeded in stages, from its highpoint in 1997, when Tony Blair entered Downing Street on the back of a landslide for his New Labour operation.
First, two million votes went missing between his triumphal procession down Downing Street in 1997 and the subsequent election in 2001. They were mainly martyrs to apathy – the turnout plummeted to below 60 percent for the first time since 1918. Blair’s parliamentary majority was almost unchanged, but the enthusiasm was gone, nowhere more so than in working-class communities, which saw little to choose between the major parties any longer.
Stage two of the New Labour vote loss was in 2005, when a further two million votes exited the Labour column. This time there was a more definite reason — Blair’s pioneer role in the Iraq War in defiance of mass public opinion; and there was very often a destination — the antiwar Liberal Democrats.
So the back of the New Labour coalition was broken under the stewardship of its progenitor. His successor, Gordon Brown, merely delivered the coup de grace in 2010 when another million votes were lost after a mighty economic crash that swept away the neoliberal economic assumptions of the whole New Labour project and three years of a premiership for which the term “hapless” scarcely does justice.
Miliband actually effected a slight reversal of this relentless downward trend in 2015 in terms of votes. In fact he secured more votes in England than Blair, who supposedly had a direct line to the hearts of the “middle England” masses, did in his final election as leader. This, however, was far too little to gain the victory which would have finally secured his hesitant and unpopular leadership. In fact, it was that leadership which was most often cited as a reason for not voting Labour.
A man of modestly radical convictions, he consistently lacked the courage of them. He never sought to impose his outlook — tentatively post–New Labour — on his shadow cabinet, he filled his private office with advisers well to the right of him, and he disastrously sub-contracted control of the election campaign and the leadership of the party in Scotland to Blairites as contemptuous of him as they were of the values of core Labour voters.
The post-election Blairite narrative also laid emphasis on the supposedly unacceptable radicalism of Labour’s economic policies. The evidence for this is scant. Undoubtedly, the fact that Labour was holding the neoliberal parcel when the music stopped in 2008 was remembered, and neither Miliband nor Gordon Brown had ever tried to counter the Tory/media narrative to the effect that Labour had spent too much public money in the good times. These factors counted against it.
But the offer cooked up by Miliband and his chancellor, Ed Balls, was scarcely left-wing. Balls was intent on shrinking the offer made by Labour to reduce the target the Tories would have to aim at. His program essentially harked back to the recent past — with no vision of economic transformation, he simply wanted to get the roulette wheel spinning again in the City of London, taxing the proceeds to invest in hospitals, schools, and more police officers. He also foregrounded the need to cut the deficit and balance the budget as rapidly as possible — key City demands.
Miliband went somewhat further, proposing interventions in the housing and energy markets, as well as increased tax rates on the wealthy, the notorious “non-doms” in particular. But he shied away from popular ideas like renationalizing the railway network, and his proposal to gradually raise the minimum wage — by little more than the anticipated inflation rate — over five years has since been easily trumped by Chancellor George Osborne’s “living wage” pledge.
So Miliband’s legacy to Labour is scarcely one of unbridled economic interventionism, even if the Daily Mail treated his policies as the greatest threat to private property since Stalin targeted the kulaks.
But he did make a lasting difference in three ways: firstly, by admitting that the Iraq War had been wrong and by obstructing the proposed bombing of Syria in 2013 (albeit with an element of accident), he distanced Labour from the worst single aspect of its last term in office and tiptoed the party away from neoconservatism; second, by denying the right of the party their accustomed patronage by the leader’s office, he made possible the selection of a politically more diverse range of Labour candidates in winnable parliamentary seats than would otherwise be the case; and third, by blundering into an entirely avoidable confrontation with Unite, the country’s biggest trade union, over the parliamentary selection in the Scottish seat of Falkirk, he triggered a change in many of Labour’s rules and procedures — including the procedure for electing the party leadership.
This was designed to reduce trade union influence over the process, alongside what looked like an inconsequential diminution of the share of the vote held by Labour MPs. That was the system which elected Corbyn. Seldom has the law of unintended consequences been on more luxuriant display.
Had the old system — which no one was otherwise particularly looking to change — been still in place this summer, Andy Burnham would now be facing David Cameron across the Commons dispatch box. Business as usual.
The Bankruptcy of the Labour Right
Even absent the dramatic candidacy of Corbyn, the Labour leadership contest would have revealed the political impoverishment of the New Labour project. Indeed, had the other three candidates not been so obviously the detritus of a shipwrecked outlook and political method, then Corbyn might well have not stood in the first place, or at any event not gained the traction he did.
So a brief recap on the rise and fall of New Labour is a necessary part of the background to the emergence of the Corbyn leadership. In a way, the seizure of the Labour Party in 1994 by the clique around Brown and Blair was as dramatic as the return of the Left this year, although the former involved very considerably fewer people – perhaps no more than three.
As with the Corbyn insurgency, there was an element of change — the sudden death of incumbent Labour leader John Smith, a popular man of the Old Labour right wing, of a heart attack. The two principals, guided by arch-schemer Peter Mandelson, launched an audacious campaign first to win the leadership — once the order of precedence had been decided in Blair’s favor over a legendary meal in an Islington restaurant — and then to entirely reshape the Labour Party.
In its essence, this project was to transform Labour into a bourgeois party. Its class basis in the trade unions was marginalized, its residual commitment to reformist socialism was explicitly discarded (the famous Clause Four of the party’s constitution), and its policies were adapted to conform to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.
This coup was conditioned, of course, both by Thatcher’s defeat of the British labor movement in the 1980s (which included not just the crushing of militant trade unionism and the break up of much of its social base but also four consecutive Labour election defeats), and the collapse of Soviet socialism as the only systemic alternative to world capitalism.
Under Blair Labour embraced the deregulated free market, low personal and corporate taxation, privatization of state assets, tight controls on trade unions’ basic functioning, and Britain’s privileged place in the imperial world order. The progressive payoff got no further than a determination to invest, as resources permitted, in health and education and a relaxed social liberalism concerning gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. A combination of Blair’s initial popularity and the strong party management controls he imposed effectively reduced the Labour left, so ascendant fifteen years previously, to a rump.
In office, things went still further. Blair became an enthusiast for wars and US neoconservatism generally, culminating in the Iraq War, disastrous for Blair’s popularity in the party, which lost around half its membership as a consequence. Secondly, he extended his commitment to privatization into what he euphemistically called “public-sector reform,” deregulating education and health and increasingly introducing private capital and membership throughout the remaining state sector.
While Brown appeared to regard the wars with indifference, as an indulgence Blair could be permitted, he was more reserved about the public-sector reform agenda (although his madcap scheme to privatize the running of London Underground, a plan which failed in its entirety, was an exception). This became the sole point of substantive difference between the “Blairite” and “Brownite” wings of New Labour.
For the rest, the monumental Blair/Brown rows were matters of personality and ego, or at most cultural preferences, with Brown more comfortable with labor movement traditions which Blair for the most part despised. But they agreed on essentials — private ownership of the commanding heights, the free market, support for the City, alignment with US world policy, and an increasingly authoritarian approach to the resolution of social problems.
Resistance to this agenda within the party really reached critical mass only on the issue of the Iraq War, opposed by 143 Labour MPs. Negative Labour conference votes on, for example, railway nationalization, ending private finance involvement in the NHS, or permitting unions to take solidarity action were simply ignored by the government.
However, at a subterranean level New Labour was already declining. The fall-off in electoral support has been noted. Blair was driven from office earlier than he wished, largely as a consequence of his uncompromisingly neoconservative foreign policy, seen in his support for Israeli regional aggression.
The coup de grace was the 2008 crash, which left New Labour bereft of an economic strategy. Brown, who boasted that his economic management had suspended the laws of capitalist economy, expressed in the phrase “no more boom and bust,” suddenly had to cope with an epic bust. With the tax take from the City in free fall (indeed, funds were now flowing in the other direction, from the Exchequer to the bailed-out banks), New Labour stood indicted not just for its regime of light regulation, which had given the green light to many of the excesses of the financial sector, but for the clear absence of any Plan B to fund public services when the bankers’ cow stopped giving.
Since then, New Labour has been running on empty. It resembles one of those cartoon characters who have sped off a precipice but hang suspended, legs in motion, before gravity does its work. The vacuity of the post-2008 New Labour project was on full display during the leadership contest. Almost as staggering as Jeremy Corbyn’s 59 percent of the vote was the 4.5 percent gained by the official Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall.
Backed by the once-mighty Progress faction, itself bankrolled by Lord Sainsbury’s millions, and endorsed by the usual media voices, Kendall was straight out of the traps with policy proposals that were less Tory-lite than Tory (support welfare curbs, back free schools, raise military spending to meet NATO demands). If there is an audience for this, it is no longer to be found in the Labour Party. Her crushing defeat does indeed mark the end of an era.
Almost as striking was the uselessness of the two candidates representing the Brownite strand of New Labour, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. They wandered listlessly through a landscape no longer familiar, their cautious platitudes and technocratic minimalism serving the sole purpose of reminding masses of people just why they find conventional politics so uninteresting and disengaging.
The differences of nuance between the three candidates — naturally dubbed “mainstream” by the mainstream media — were an unintended masterclass in the aridity of orthodox twenty-first century social democracy. None had really grappled with the post-2008 economic situation, and were additionally hamstrung between the need to say something interesting enough to stimulate Labour’s membership and the requirement to avoid saying anything interesting enough for the Tories and the Daily Mail to store up for future attacks.
If Kendall was channeling undiluted Tony Blair straight from the boardroom of JP Morgan and the anterooms of sundry oligarchs and despots; Cooper represented conventional Brownism, with its emphasis on prudence; and Burnham stood for a sort of continuity Miliband.
The biggest loser — since he was the clear frontrunner at the outset — was Burnham, who veered right initially, anticipating no challenge on his left flank, going so far as to launch his campaign in the offices of a City institution and foreswearing any trade union support. “In my Labour Party, the entrepreneur will be as much our hero as the nurse,” he announced. “Labour must always champion wealth creation, and show we understand that if we want high-skill, high-wage jobs, then we have to support the businesses that create them.”
Marooned by this self-imposed maneuver, his subsequent efforts at repositioning dwelt mostly on his affability, liking for soccer, and the love of his parents. Alas, he resembled nothing so much as one of the bears reputedly doped to the eyeballs to make an easy target for Leonid Brezhnev on the latter’s hunting excursions, lurching helplessly towards destruction.
Thus perished New Labour. Easy to say now, but this was unexpected. The general assumption on the Left had been that a Labour defeat in May, under a leader who represented the left edge of New Labour, would be inevitably succeeded by a return of full-on Blairism.
Perhaps taking the latter too much at its own strutting valuation, we overlooked the hollowing out of the Blairite wing of the party in particular. Many of its leading figures — none of them any great age — have thrown up politics in the last years of the Labour government.
Goodbye, Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt, John Hutton, Alan Milburn, James Purnell, John Reid. Politics was for them simply the intervening stage between student radicalism (even Trotskyism!) and business fortunes. Their longtime prince over the water, David Miliband, who had repeatedly flirted with deposing the hapless Brown but had always flinched from striking, literally moved over the water, decamping to a New York-based charity once he lost the 2010 leadership election to his brother.
The mantle of Blairite pretender then devolved on the shoulders of Chuka Umunna, who, when the moment finally arrived this May decided he didn’t really fancy it after all. Tristram Hunt had a sniff, but couldn’t get enough support even in a right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). This was a faction in which all the talent had basically given up, reflecting the harsh fact that Blairism was a project for easy times of capitalist growth, and had really nothing left to say, even had there been plausible people willing to say it.
Let the last word on New Labour be given to one of its true believers, Ivan Lewis, only recently departed from the shadow cabinet. He told a fringe meeting at Labour’s Brighton conference that it was time “moderates and modernisers” confronted their own failings. His litany was a comprehensive one:
The spectre of Iraq. Being too starry-eyed about the private sector’s role in reforming public services…our approach to business and the market. On the one hand coming too late to the need for an active industrial strategy. On the other, refusing to embrace the need for serious dialogue with business about ethics as well as profits…Insufficient concern and not having serious answers to widening inequality in the UK and across the world…the self-indulgent divide between ‘Blairites’ and ‘Brownites’…the belief that only those who belong to a small elite usually connected to Tony and Gordon have a right to lead the Labour Party.
That would just about cover it for now.
A Changed Left
No sooner had Corbyn’s campaign to be Labour leader started to gather some traction than he was branded a 1980s throwback. “The 1980s” has long become a buzzword to terrify the Mail-reading classes of Britain. It invokes of course the last time any sort of left was ascendant in the Labour Party, and more besides.
It was also the last time there was a mass movement of industrial action by trade unions (all of it defensive); and a period of significant radical influence over local government in many parts of the country, including the Ken Livingstone–led Greater London Council. All of this was in the first half of the decade, and this did include the 1983 general election, which Labour lost heavily but which first saw Corbyn elected to parliament.
In fact, the left insurgency of 2015 could hardly be more different than that of the early 1980s, save perhaps in its ultimate aspiration (and even then it would be idle to suppose that most people invest as much political weight in the notion of socialism today as they did thirty years ago).
The left movement of thirty years ago was overwhelmingly rooted in the labor movement and ran through its established grooves in the unions and the party itself. Then, Labour conferences were dominated by trade unions of manual workers for the most part, which were a power in the land in their own right and were themselves influenced by a residually strong Communist Party.
The stronger position of the Left in the PLP, on Labour’s national executive, and in councils was the product of more than ten years of accumulating advance which had progressively dislodged but not defeated the traditional right wing. While that Left was open to new developments around gender and race (particularly in London), it still largely bore the stamp of older traditions. A significant number of Labour MPs were not ashamed to align themselves in international affairs, partially or wholeheartedly, with the Soviet Union. One or two of them I recall scorning the Communist Party’s dreams of a peaceful road to socialism and insisting that only force would unseat the British ruling class.
That is not the world of Corbynista 2015. The movement which poured into the vacuum left by the demise of New Labour of course shares values (and some personalities) with the earlier struggles. But to a far greater extent it is shaped by what has happened since, and by the less structured mass movements of the twenty-first century.
The differences are considerable: trade unions are far weaker both in society and in the party, the support some (most notably Unite) offered Corbyn was important but not decisive. Indeed, some of the unions keenest on the new leader are either no longer affiliated with the Labour Party or never have been.
Corbyn’s support in the PLP was extremely small (many fewer than the thirty-six who for one reason or another nominated him), and the leading tradition in Labour councils today is an embrace of the Tories’ plans for managerial devolution of the functions of the shrinking state. Defiance and illegal budgets are echoes of a past to be avoided rather than repeated. So the sources of Corbynism must be found elsewhere.
Some have been eager to locate them within a Europe-wide (and beyond) resurgence of “left populism” which has seen the rise of Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the campaign of Bernie Sanders in the US for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
Clearly, that is not wrong. Frustration with endless austerity as the elite response to the global economic slump, and the acquiescence of the elite left in that response, has certainly powered support for alternatives.
Britain has not been entirely immune — the votes won by the Green Party in England and Wales in May were a limited reflection of that mood, and to some extent the much stronger support secured by the Scottish National Party was too. Populist parties of the Right have also generally grown in strength across Europe for similar reasons – disenchantment with the powers that be and misery caused by austerity, with the aggravating twist of fears over migration. Certainly, in the more benign economic times of ten years ago, a Corbyn victory would have been very hard to envisage.
But nor is that the whole story. The Corbyn victory was also rooted in movements and methods which were developing long before the crisis broke and had already made a significant impact on British politics. The largest and most enduring of these was the antiwar movement which developed against the “war on terror” after 2001, and against the invasion and occupation of Iraq in particular. This was a worldwide movement, but it assumed greater dimensions in Britain than in any other of the aggressor powers. Corbyn was associated with the Stop the War Coalition from the beginning, and served as chair of the coalition for several years until his election as Labour leader.
The antiwar movement, like the campaign to secure the Labour leadership, originated in sections of the Old Left (Communist, far left, Labour left), but swiftly assumed dimensions well beyond the normal reach of such organizations. Both developed essentially outside the normal, formal structures of progressive politics and drew on high levels of youth engagement and self-created rather than inherited structures.
A nationwide program of rallies provided a skeleton for the campaign. The tactical focus in the Corbyn campaign was the organized targeting of the hundreds of thousands of people who had a vote in the Labour election, including signing people up as registered supporters of the party, a category which carried the right to vote in the election, rather than mobilizing for street activity and mass demonstrations as in the anti-war campaign.
Nevertheless both drew their initial energy in the main from outside conventional politics, including traditional labor movement structures. They were radical and class-oriented, but by no means class-based.
The campaign against austerity, led by the People’s Assembly (drawing for its leadership on similar forces to those who led the Stop the War Coalition) carried forward this campaigning model more recently.
Just as Corbyn sprung his first real surprise by getting on the ballot to be Labour leader, the People’s Assembly was organizing a demonstration in London of 250,000 people against Tory economic and social policies. They cheered Corbyn to the echo. At that moment, probably only a fairly small number were members of the Labour Party. But it was a movement that had now found a crack in the wall of ordinary political life, and was preparing to pour through it — which is what happened over the following ten weeks or so.
However, this presents only one side of the picture. In contradistinction to the left movements in continental Europe which have attracted so much attention (Syriza, Podemos) this political insurgency, once arisen, found its channel within one of the oldest, established, barnacle-encrusted parties of international social democracy.
In that respect, the Corbynization of Labour is closer in its essence to the development of the Lefts Bloc in France, which stands on the foundation of the well-dug-in French Communist Party (PCF). The difference here, of course, is that the Labour Party is a far better supported organization electorally. Only twice in its postwar history has it polled less than 30 percent of the popular vote, and it has formed four governments in that period, totaling thirty years in office between them. The PCF cannot make such claims.
So this particular union of a mass movement, significantly spontaneous and arising outside the established institutions of the working class and the Left in Britain, with the most historically weighty of those institutions constitutes the novelty of the Corbyn campaign and its victory.
That is a junction which unites a track leading from the new left movements of the twenty-first century with one leading from the historic vehicle for working-class political advance, a Labour Party which for all the depredations of the Blair years (and earlier) still rests in some measure on the mass class organizations of the working class. Thus united, they must advance together or fail by separating.
Socialist Politics in the Age of Corbyn
One extraordinary consequence of the summer’s politics has been an effective doubling of the membership of the Labour Party, to about 360,000 and counting. This is now more than the combined membership of all other parties in the country, even including the massive 100,000-plus who have joined the Scottish National Party (within a much smaller electoral pool, to be sure). By way of contrast, one could estimate the total membership of all the left-of-Labour parties and alliances as around 6,000 — and certainly well under 10,000. The average age of Labour members has also plummeted in the process.
So it would seem that there can be little continuing controversy over the main arena of struggle for socialists. This does not resolve all questions, naturally. How Marxists should best unite and organize themselves is not a matter which can be determined by this sudden inflation of the mass social-democratic organization, although the related issue of how they should relate to it is sharply and unavoidably posed. But anyone still dreaming of building a mass electoral alternative to Labour is … asleep.
There is a serious struggle going on between Corbyn and his supporters, on the one hand, and the recalcitrant and still-powerful right wing in the Labour Party. The Right holds controlling positions in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the traditional locus of real power in a constitutional workers party.
Already they are struggling to reassert domination over policy, as if Corbyn’s landslide win had been a mandate merely for the victor to be heard in debate, and was dissociated from the clear policy proposals he advanced throughout his campaign. Already this pushback has had some success, notably by reversing a sensible position by Corbyn not to commit to supporting an “in” vote on the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s European Union membership until the results of David Cameron’s renegotiation, including a drive to dilute EU social provisions’ impact on Britain, become clear.
While the Right has grudgingly given the leader limited latitude on refashioning economic policy away from Miliband’s unappealing austerity-lite, on matters relating to the vital interests of British imperialism — nuclear weapons, NATO membership, the right to intervene militarily wherever and at will (Syria, most imminently) — they have been volubly intransigent.
Swollen by their sense of entitlement, egged on by a hate-filled media, and doubtless funded by the usual sources, it can be assumed that the Labour right will attempt to depose Corbyn sometime before the next general election and restore politics to something more like “normal.”
This is no small matter for the ruling class. Even if they are sincere in their trumpeted view that a Corbyn-led Labour Party has no chance of winning a general election, having a Labour Party this far out of line with the Davos consensus is alarming in itself.
Take it from Allister Heath, the Hayekian deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph and currently one of the bourgeoisie’s more thoughtful pundits. “Britain needs as many pro-capitalist parties as it can get,” he wrote in July 2015, as Corbynmania started to sweep the country. He bemoaned the passing of the 1990s, when all three large parties conformed to his specifications. “It seemed as if the free-market counter-revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union…had finally killed off socialism. The choice from now on would be between a particular brand of capitalism.”
It would therefore be a disaster for Britain were Jeremy Corbyn to become leader of the Labour Party…an early 1980s-style Labour Party would have a disastrous effect on opinion, even if Mr. Corbyn himself never even got close to winning an election. It would become acceptable again to call for nationalising vast swathes of industry, for massively hiking tax and for demonising business. The centre ground would move inexorably towards a more statist position…It would also become far harder for them to reform trade unions: instead of being opposed by a relatively sensible centre-left party, a Corbynite Labour Party would herald a return to the ultra-confrontational 1980s. Class war, extreme language and nonsensical positions would all be back. Mr. Corbyn may help the Tories win the next election — but he would poison the political debate and ensure that rabid, economically illiterate ideas dominate the airwaves. A Corbyn-led Labour Party would be a disaster for the pro-capitalist cause.
So, a disaster for capitalism. Heath’s rhetoric has been echoed by cabinet members like Jeremy Hunt, who bemoaned on the first day of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that they would now have to fight arguments over ideological territory his side had long since regarded as secured for good.
In their world, argument may perhaps be permitted over how many hedge fund managers can be taxed on a pinhead, or whether trade unions should be rendered toothless or simply declared an illegal restraint on trade. But the fundamentals of the profit system and the sanctity of private property were beyond discussion. No more.
This is an unexpected setback for, inter alia, Dominic Rossi, chief investment officer for Fidelity Worldwide, one of Britain’s top fund managers. He told the Financial Times immediately after the May general election that
what the election result has removed, not just for five years but ten or more, is the risk of a left-wing economic experiment being played out in the UK. Not only do we have a Conservative majority government for the next five years, [but] whichever Labour leader wins the leadership election is going to distance themselves from the leftwing economic agenda.
You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.
The elite clearly do not feel secure. The Great Recession has lit a long fuse of anticapitalist anger that would be burning the faster were there any confidence in a viable alternative way of running the economy and society as a whole.
Corbyn and his team now have a chance to elaborate that. As the media storm that broke over Miliband’s much milder flirtation with the politics of intervention in the market showed, even discussing such possibilities is unacceptable to the unhumbled masters of the universe, since it could lead to — who knows what?
That is an uncertainty big money will not willingly live with. For them the headline on a Financial Times article cited earlier — “Labour hopefuls compete to embrace business” — represents politics as it ought to be. It is not an exaggeration therefore to say that the struggle to keep the New Labour leadership in the saddle is a class struggle, just as the success of the 1994 New Labour coup was a victory for Heath and his kind, for whom Toblerone pieces can be dark, milk, or white, as long as they are all chocolate pyramids.
Naturally, the class struggle argument within Labour is not carried on in a vacuum. The Tories have their own plans for the labor movement; largely it seems drawn from the repertoire of Otto von Bismarck. The Iron Chancellor’s twin-track strategy for dealing with the German working class in the later nineteenth century was, on the one hand, to ameliorate conditions somewhat through the introduction of social insurance schemes and, on the other, to ban the emerging social-democratic party entirely.
George Osborne, our own tin man at the Treasury, is the master strategist of a twenty-first century Bismarckism. He proposes the institution of a “living wage” rather bolder than the one on offer from Miliband (supposedly one of his vote-losing policies!) at the general election. He talks up a “northern powerhouse” package of municipal devolution to revive the old industrial strongholds of twentieth century Labour. He brands the Tories as the party of working people and entices former Blairite ministers like Andrew Adonis on board to manage his schemes.
Meanwhile: trade unions are hit by a new package of intrusive regulation, designed to make lawful strike action almost impossible through the imposition of thresholds generally unreachable under the archaic postal ballot procedures long imposed by law, to criminalize picketing infringements, to restrict free speech in industrial disputes, and more.
Agency workers are to be allowed to be used as strike-breakers for the first time in more than forty years. All public bodies are to be barred by law from deducting union dues at the payroll source (the check-off system), a move designed to starve unions of funds and break public-sector trade unionism generally.
And on top of all this, union members are to be required to opt-in once every five years in writing to agree to have some of their union subscriptions paid into the union’s political fund, already subject to mandatory ballots every ten years to permit its existence in the first place; hitherto members have had the right to opt out if they do not agree to such payments.
The brazen intention here is to bankrupt the Labour Party, founded by trade unions as it was and long largely funded by them, or at any event render it at a still more chronic disadvantage when it comes to fighting elections against the party of unbridled private wealth. This is a clear plan for completing the destruction of organized labour as a social, economic, and political force in British society, the work begun by Thatcher in the 1980s. And it is a plan drawn up before a Corbyn leadership was more than a glint in the eye.
It is allied to other measures which likewise bear down hard on democracy — the intimidation of the BBC, as if it were not pliant enough, and the attempt to rig the new parliamentary constituency boundaries by redrawing them on the basis of an electoral register missing millions of the young and the poor, to take two examples. Where the ideas of nineteenth century German conservatism are insufficient, those of twenty-first century US conservatism supply the deficiency — “voter suppression” included.
And no scenario for the next year or three is complete without reference to the gathering signs of a further recession, or even a full-blown crisis, across the capitalist world. Accumulating difficulties in China and the overt multilateral struggle for control of the Middle East are the leading indicators of a deteriorating international environment. Who could plan for 2020 with assurance under these circumstances, even if not surrounded by political enemies without and within? In this whirlwind, Team Corbyn must find its bearings.
So how can this unanticipated leap forward for the Left be consolidated, defended, and advanced? Or to reformulate the question: is there a strategy for recomposing the labor movement as a cohesive political and social force in Britain, and then that movement securing a transition to a socialist system?
There are any number of international experiences to draw on in answering those questions of late, almost all of them negative.
Political leadership of the Left is split three ways in Greece, for example. Pasok, the traditional mainstream social-democratic party, which polled more than 40 percent of the national vote not too long ago now struggles to get in sight of a quarter of that. It has no future amidst an electorate in revolt against a corrupt, self-serving, and oligarch-serving elite, since it was for decades an integral part of that same elite, wrapping its service to the bourgeoisie of Europe in the language of reformism.
The Communist Party (KKE), while undoubtedly authentically working-class and socialist, has used the crisis of the last five years to present a study in blustering immobilism, in which all questions are reduced to the need to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat — but there is no serious plan to give effect to this intent, because the working class remains clogged with illusions, and all potential allies are simply as-yet-unmasked traitors. In five years of chronic crisis, it has seen its popular support (measured by votes at any event) decline by about 40 percent, a rather remarkable situation for a revolutionary party if you think about it.
As for Syriza, it has retained its popularity as an alternative to the parties of the Greek elite, but its bluff as an agent of change has been well and truly called. It will spend the next few years administering Greece on behalf of Angela Merkel and the European Central Bank. The overheated expectations which saw the ascent of Alexis Tsipras to office as the formation of a workers government are heard no more.
The difficulties in finding a plausible line of advance in Greece even in the midst of great crisis have been replicated elsewhere. “Stare into the abyss, and the abyss stares into you,” as Nietzsche said. And the abyss has been staring right back at the Left.
The problems of perspective, agency, and strategy, all well-rehearsed by now, have acquired a fresh urgency in times of crisis. As things stand, world imperialism is led by an elite whose rule has lost much of its plausibility and acceptability as a governing agency, but which cannot apparently be overthrown. Plenty of scope for the growth of those pathologies Gramsci envisaged long ago.
In fact, the prospects of avoiding any of the Greek roads to nowhere are somewhat better for Corbyn’s Labour, although obviously far from guaranteed. The salient issue now is whether a Corbynized Labour Party can map out that path forward that has eluded the post-crisis left to date (and the pre-crisis left for decades, come to that). That means first consolidating the new leadership, leading Labour to victory in a general election expected in 2020, and then using government power to create an opening for socialism.
One key in dealing with all these challenges is finding the means to maintain the mobilization of summer 2015 on an enduring basis. Already, the Corbyn campaign has set up a new body — Momentum — to help address this. It aims to bring together the traditional — and for a long time, not especially effective — Labour left together with sympathetic trade unions, social movements, and the core of 17,000 volunteers who worked on Corbyn’s campaign in order to both help transform the Labour Party and campaign in the communities on the main policy issues raised during the leadership contest.
Momentum will be open to those not members of the Labour Party as well as those many who have just joined it, and longer-standing members. This hybrid nature may prove to be a strength in that it reflects the new dialectic of movement and organization which has been brewing (if dialectics can ferment) all century.
The future will not belong solely to the comrade who has been branch secretary for twenty years and served as local councilor for fifteen. Nor will it drop like ripe fruit into the lap of the virgin phone banker and Facebook polemicist. On the other hand, “hybrid” may turn out to mean unfocussed, duplicating work done by other movements already while neglecting the necessary transformation of the Labour Party itself. Engage, puis decider, to put it Napoleonically.
Trade unions, for so long the repository of most of the hopes and frustrations of left campaigners — frequently innocent of the actual dynamics of industrial life — can still play a substantial part, but no longer the dominant one.
Truth is, they never could. I remember my shock at seeing an advertisement in the Morning Star thirty years or more ago for a Communist Party branch meeting to discuss “the leading role of trade unions in the struggle for Socialism” and thinking what a striking departure from Leninism this was from comrades who were trying to assert their class-consciousness in opposition to Eurocommunism.
Nevertheless, the hunt for an actual revolutionary vanguard able to transcend sectionalism and give unity and purpose to a class in a prolonged crisis of structural recomposition and political decomposition has hardly been crowned with success. It is out of actual struggles, particularly successful ones like the Corbyn campaign, that the future can be dimly discerned.
The traditional institutions of the labor movement remain critical, even pending the arrival of organized socialists in some serviceable form. Without the much-storied and much-abused “trade union link,” it is hardly conceivable that the Labour Party would have survived as any sort of putative vehicle for advance. The Blairite-business takeover would have been completed during the high years of New Labour governance.
More than anyone else, the trade unions kept the door ajar for the explosion of anti-elite politics to run through the Labour Party as an expression which carried the possibility of making a meaningful political intervention, a distinction with the various “new party” projects. Labour retained social weight — the question of who was to be its leader was universally understood to be consequential in a way that the leadership of, say, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition is not.
More immediately, Corbyn’s early nomination by Unite, the country’s biggest union and the dominant one across most of the unionized private sector, got him over the credibility threshold at a critical stage. Unite funding for his campaign helped too.
Looking ahead, union support will be critical to stabilizing Corbyn’s leadership in the teeth of parliamentary hostility or indifference, and to giving it strong connections in working-class communities. If wider groups of socialists can be integrated — a big if as things stand — then the possibility of a real transformation of the Labour Party, bearing some modernized resemblance to the federal principles of its creation, would be a possibility.
Of course, trade union support is not going to be friction-free, as early arguments over the renewal of Britain’s nominally independent nuclear deterrent, Trident, have already shown. But there is no short cut to reaching and mobilizing working-class people on a sustained basis which bypasses the unions.
Restoring a greater measure of democracy to the party, empowering all those new members, and opening up its deliberately arcane — indeed, for the uninitiated, all-but-impenetrable — policymaking procedures can also help make the changes already wrought by the summer insurgency irreversible.
Blair constructed a monarchical system of leadership in which power over policy and over parliamentary candidate selection was concentrated in the leader’s office to an unprecedented degree. The new occupant of the office will have to balance reversing that over-centralization and authoritarian set-up while still using it to secure changes in policy and personnel while he still has the wind of his hurricane mandate full in his sails.
The two processes need not be in conflict — the new members (and many of the old too) who would be the beneficiaries of greater democracy in the party would only use those powers to advance the agenda and candidates of the dawning dispensation.
Taking this refreshed party to electoral victory will be the next challenge. Amidst all the excitement, this issue was under-examined at Labour’s Brighton conference this autumn. As the election result showed, Labour has to strive to mobilize the large number of working-class electoral abstainers, arrest any hemorrhage to UKIP in England and Wales, seek to at least partially reverse the party’s collapse in Scotland, win back many of those who have succumbed to the Green temptation — as well as look to peel off votes from a Conservative Party that is going to utilize means both foul and fair to make that as difficult as possible.
Fairly obviously, this is not going to be achievable through a sliced-and-diced package of special offers to different groups. It needs to be cast in terms of a vision for society as a whole, society as it should be (socialism) that overcomes the fragmented, to some extent post-class, politics of culture and identity, through transcending them rather than berating them — the latter tactic long a favorite of Labour in Scotland, for example.
Above all, a measured and radical approach to economic transformation, of a sort that John McDonnell as shadow chancellor has started to outline, will be critical, and will become more so if a renewed global recession bites, as is being forecast.
The main pressure for a retreat on policy, both within and without the party, will come on Corbyn’s foreign policy positions. Some of these — opposition to the twenty-first century wars of intervention, skepticism about the European Union, opposition to Trident renewal — are fairly or very popular. But they strike at the heart of the British imperial state in a way far less negotiable than degrees of austerity.
Here too a clear perspective on Britain’s place in the world, which can contextualize the specific policies, is needed. There is nothing to fear on this front electorally — Corbyn’s announcement that he would apologize for Labour taking Britain into the Iraq War was probably the most resonant single declaration of his campaign.
As a generalization, it is certainly true that Labour has won elections most convincingly when it has presented broad themes in bold colors, able to capture a popular desire for change. That desire has been latent in politics for the last few years as disillusionment with elite misconduct, selfishness, and bungling has grown.
Miliband’s failure was to believe that could be expressed in a timorous, tightly targeted fashion, aiming to appeal to small but assumed-to-be decisive sections of the public; ending with an offer shrunk almost to irrelevance. It availed naught — the conservative media found target enough anyway. It would avail a Corbyn-led Labour in 2020 still less. It has to be bold or bust.
And what then? The pressures on a Corbyn-led government would be as immense, but different in kind, to those which have dramatically humbled Syriza in Greece. The British state and economy are considerably more powerful than the Greek. Non-membership of the euro reduces opportunities for economic dictation from outside. However, Britain is far from immune to external financial pressure — the IMF humiliation imposed on Denis Healey in 1976 was sufficient proof of that.
Nevertheless, the main pressures on a left Labour government in Britain would be internal. Where Tsipras scrupulously avoided antagonizing the coercive arms of the Greek state (maintaining bloated military spending, reversing plans to disband the riot police), Corbyn has already missed his chance, should he even wished to have taken it, to make nice to their British opposite numbers.
He was barely elected when an anonymous general in the army was quoted in the Sunday Times as warning that the military would mobilize against a Corbyn government — straight out of the pages of Chris Mullin’s 1980s novel A Very British Coup, which posited the overthrow of a left Labour administration by the security services and the army.
Certainly Corbyn is no Tsipras, in that a man who has clearly had power thrust upon him differs from one who has avidly sought it and will do almost anything to retain it. He does have the courage of his convictions. That, however, is not the main issue — it rests too much on the shoulders of an individual. A Corbyn Labour Party is by no means the alchemist’s stone which turns the base metal of parliamentary reformism into the gold of socialist revolution.
But there is no doubt that it creates the opportunity to rebuild the confidence and fighting strength of the Labour Party. Imagine a Labour leader who applauds striking workers — as he did at his TUC Congress speech three days after his election — rather than one who snipes at them? Who appears at demonstrations of solidarity with refugees rather than cowering at the advice of spin doctors?
These are baby steps. But they are steps that can consolidate and strengthen a mass popular movement of struggle which can weigh in the balance alongside a Labour majority in 2020, and against the elite and their military associates. There seems to be no other prospect of a strategy for overturning the capitalist system. It is uncertain, of course, but such is the way of leaps.