Jeremy Corbyn Showed the Way. But We Must Learn the Right Lessons.

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party ends this weekend. We need to defend his legacy and carry on his noble democratic-socialist program, while being honest about where and why he fell short.

Jeremy Corbyn leaves Trafalgar Square after speaking at a rally on January 11, 2020 in London, England. Hollie Adams / Getty

Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism became a standard reference point for debates about the British Labour Party as soon as it first appeared in the early 1960s.

When Miliband published a new edition of the book in 1972, he rejected the idea that Labour might one day become “a party seriously concerned with socialist change.” There was, he acknowledged, no other left-wing organization capable of challenging Labour’s dominant position. But that was “no reason for resigned acceptance or for the perpetuation of hopes which have no basis in political reality.” The first step toward building an alternative force would be “the dissipation of paralysing illusions about the true purpose and role of the Labour Party.”

While Parliamentary Socialism was a hugely influential book, its political conclusions went firmly against the grain. In a response to Miliband, Ken Coates insisted that the future of the British left would have to pass through the Labour Party, one way or another: “Once the workers’ movement in any country has developed its organizations, these bodies will always stand between the articulation of any new ideas and their realization. Unless the mass organizations can be won over, or seriously divided in the course of an attempt to win them over, they will effectively bar the way to the emergence of any alternative.”

That was the perspective that guided the vast majority of socialists in Britain for the next decade, as the Labour left grouped around Tony Benn launched an unprecedented challenge to the party establishment. By 1983, even Ralph Miliband was starting to wonder if his earlier judgment had been too hasty: “They have a long way to go, with many large obstacles on the way. But it is obvious that I underestimated how great was the challenge which the new activists would be able to pose to their leaders.” For Miliband, the question of Labour’s future development was now “more open than I had believed.”

Yet by the time he composed that essay, the tide had already started to turn against the Labour left. Scapegoated for the party’s heavy defeat in the 1983 election, Benn and his supporters could only watch as the new Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, marched steadily rightward. Kinnock paved the way for Tony Blair’s long stint in government as Margaret Thatcher’s self-proclaimed heir. Ken Coates, who had become a Labour MEP in 1989, was forced out by the party leadership nine years later — a fate that Coates shared with many other nonconformists.

The Wrong Road

Reflecting on the passage from Benn to Blair in their book The End of Parliamentary Socialism, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys concluded that Miliband had been right after all: “The route to socialism does not lie through transforming the Labour Party. This does not mean that progressive elements in it should not be supported, but supporting them should not be confused with the main task.”

For those who agreed with that judgment, there was a clear lesson to be drawn from the experience of the 1980s. On the one hand, there was no point adopting a left-wing program unless Labour’s parliamentary wing was determined to carry it out. Harold Wilson had done away with Labour’s radical 1974 manifesto as soon as he formed a government, and his successor, James Callaghan, went on to launch the first proto-Thatcherite attacks on Keynesian social democracy at the behest of the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Motions at party conferences would remain a dead letter as long as Labour’s right wing occupied the commanding heights of parliamentary power.

On the other hand, the inner-party convulsions sure to ensue if sitting Labour MPs faced deselection would make it impossible for Labour to win a general election. In response to the Bennite insurgency, one section of the Labour right had broken away to form the Social Democratic Party, running candidates against Labour and denouncing its leftward lurch. Others had stayed behind to wage a war of attrition against the new party program. Labour went into the 1983 general election hopelessly divided and incapable of running an effective campaign. The price of “unity” was submission to the Labour right, who would otherwise work tirelessly to sabotage the party’s prospects.

In 2010, John McDonnell published an appreciation of Parliamentary Socialism, just as Ed and David Miliband were about to contest the Labour leadership election on platforms that set them miles apart from their father’s political legacy. McDonnell insisted that Ralph Miliband was mistaken about the Labour Party, but he put more stress on the negative side of the equation — “all attempts to create a party to the left of Labour have failed” — than on any prospects for a socialist revival inside the party’s structures.

Five years later, McDonnell’s comrade Jeremy Corbyn unexpectedly won the contest to replace Ed Miliband, and he went on to lead his party through one of the most turbulent periods British politics has known for at least a generation. The Corbyn experiment posed a challenge to everyone’s preconceptions about the British Labour Party. It’s now clear that Labour will not be forming a government under Corbyn’s leadership, even if the left-wing project carries on in a different form. What lessons might be drawn from the record of the last four years, and what new light does it shine on these old debates?

Failing Better

Before addressing the question of why Corbyn failed, we need to set out a benchmark for what it would have meant to succeed. Winning an election might not have been enough, as the Syriza experience in Greece shows only too well. Let’s define “success” in the following terms: a Labour Party led by Corbyn forming a majority government and going on to implement the greater part of its 2017 and 2019 election manifestos. That wouldn’t have meant the end of capitalism in Britain, or anything like it, but it would certainly have been a decisive rupture with the consensus of the past generation — a reforming administration on par with Clement Attlee’s government after 1945.

The first explanation for Corbyn’s failure would be that the skeptics were right — transforming the Labour Party so that it could transform Britain was always bound to prove a hopeless task. The new system for electing the party leader had made it possible for a left-wing candidate to do an end run around Labour’s parliamentary caucus for the first time. But the strain of trying to lead the party from the left against the will of its MPs was ultimately too great for any politician to bear.

The first eighteen months of Corbyn’s leadership certainly seemed to vindicate such pessimism. Facing relentless sabotage from his backbench MPs — and even from within Labour’s shadow cabinet — Corbyn was unable to cut through with his hastily improvised campaigning platform. When Theresa May called a snap general election for June 2017, Labour looked to be heading for an even heavier defeat than it had suffered in 1983.

Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance that year opened up a new horizon of possibility for the Corbyn project. A modest electoral swing from the Conservative Party to Labour would be enough to put Corbyn in 10 Downing Street at the next time of asking.

It’s possible that this vision of a successful left-wing government was always a mirage. Perhaps Corbyn’s great leap forward simply postponed his day of reckoning with entrenched resistance from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), as Labour’s right faction would pull out all the stops next time to ensure he never became prime minister. Even if Corbyn had managed to clear that hurdle by winning an election, he might still have been unable to carry out the party program in government because so many Labour MPs remained hostile to a serious left-wing agenda.

But there are also more contingent explanations for Corbyn’s failure that can be suggested. One stresses the political choices made by the Labour leadership, especially after the 2017 general election; the other puts the emphasis on Brexit, an issue like no other in modern British politics.

Revolution by Half

The 2017 election result had a paradoxical effect on Corbyn and his inner circle. Their position was now incomparably stronger than it had been when May called the election, but they often seemed to be paralyzed by caution over the next two years, afraid to rock the boat when victory lay within touching distance. That risk-adverse mentality affected their handling of two issues in particular: organizational reform, and the ongoing controversy about “Labour antisemitism.”

The organizational fruits of Corbynism have been very limited, above all where it really counts: at Westminster and in other representative bodies, from local councils to the Scottish and Welsh assemblies. The PLP’s center of gravity is somewhat further to the left than it was five years ago, but the socialist candidate Richard Burgon faced an uphill struggle to secure enough nominations from his fellow MPs to get on the ballot for the deputy-leadership contest. Burgon’s rival, Ian Murray, a typically malign product of the Scottish Labour right, sailed through the nomination process without having to break a sweat.

Corbyn’s implacable opponents still have a stronger base in the PLP than those who want to carry on his legacy. For all the talk of deselections in the British media, there wasn’t a single Labour MP removed from their post under Corbyn’s watch — although some did leave voluntarily because they expected their constituency parties to choose another candidate.

If any moment summed up this reluctance to confront Labour’s old guard head-on, it was the 2018 Labour conference, when party and trade-union leaderships drew back from implementing open selection of parliamentary candidates. That reform would have obliged all Labour MPs to seek a fresh nomination from their constituency parties before standing for reelection. Instead, there was a reform to the trigger-ballot process, which made it easier to mount a challenge to incumbents, but still obliged party activists to run a negative campaign against them. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, there were just a handful of trigger ballots, none of which resulted in the deselection of an MP.

The full story of what happened at the 2018 conference has yet to be told. An insider account would shed more light on the balance of forces and opinion that produced this unsatisfactory outcome (in particular, the role played by the trade unions). But its effect was to hobble any effort to equip Labour with the kind of parliamentary team that would be needed to carry through a program of radical reform. If the Labour right regains control of the party machine, it will certainly purge its opponents with a single-minded ruthlessness and contempt for “broad church” platitudes that Corbyn never displayed.

Wrong Turning

The false narrative about the prevalence of “Labour antisemitism” reached its apogee during the 2019 election campaign, when preposterous claims about the likely fate of Britain’s Jewish population under a Corbyn government dominated the news agenda. But that deceitful frenzy built upon foundations that had been laid down over several years. Once again, we can identify a decisive turning point in the autumn of 2018, when Labour’s national executive bowed to pressure and adopted the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism. That decision came after a summer of intense political controversy that had derailed Labour’s efforts to put forward a constructive agenda.

As that controversy was gathering steam, Corbyn’s ally Jon Lansman published an article in which he set out the rationale behind Labour’s own code of conduct on antisemitism, which departed from the IHRA definition in a number of ways. Lansman correctly noted that some of the examples attached to the IHRA text could be used to stifle criticism of Israel. He also questioned the authority of groups like the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who insisted that the IHRA text must not be altered in any way: “I don’t think these organizations, many of which failed to come out against the Blackshirts marching through Cable Street, or those that welcomed the presidency of Donald Trump have the credibility to criticise a political party’s robust, thorough and far-reaching code of conduct.”

However, no leading figure on the Labour left made such arguments with the necessary force over the next two months, as Corbyn’s opponents piled slander upon slander. (The intervention from Len McCluskey of the Unite trade union was an isolated exception to the rule.) It was as if they expected the story being told about Corbyn to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. If so, they severely underestimated the capacity of the British media to build castles in the sky.

There’s an obvious explanation for such timidity: the Labour leadership was reluctant to get into a fight with the party’s right wing, believing that Theresa May’s government would soon disintegrate in the face of the Brexit crisis. John McDonnell even called for disciplinary action against the Labour MP Margaret Hodge to be dropped, after Hodge screamed abuse at Jeremy Corbyn — calling him a “fucking antisemite and a racist” — in a meticulously planned rhetorical escalation.

This was a huge miscalculation. By the time the party’s national executive caved in and adopted all the IHRA examples, “Labour antisemitism” had become a self-perpetuating meta-controversy, liberated from any empirical constraints, which Corbyn’s opponents could turn on and off at will. Labour’s right-wing faction found it especially valuable, as it allowed them to cloak their hostility to Corbyn’s platform beneath a superficially righteous veneer.

It’s unclear how much of a direct impact the false narrative had upon Labour’s popularity. Self-assessment shouldn’t be taken at face value: many right-wing voters clearly saw the term “antisemitic” as an acceptable euphemism for “pro-Muslim” or “anti-white,” while liberals who had really abandoned Labour because of its Brexit policy often used the antisemitism controversy as a fig leaf for their own reluctance to campaign against Boris Johnson. But even if there wasn’t a single person for whom genuine concerns about “Labour antisemitism” were a motivating factor, the indirect costs for Corbyn’s project were enormous.

The meta-controversy swallowed up time and space that Labour badly needed for political advocacy. During the 2019 election campaign, it gave public-service broadcasters like the BBC a perfect excuse to disregard rules about impartiality and campaign hard against Labour. And it reinforced damaging perceptions of Corbyn as an incompetent leader who could not get on top of problems in his own party, never mind the country as a whole.

The Brexit Conundrum

That perception of Corbyn as an ineffectual ditherer stemmed above all from his approach to the Brexit crisis. The issue of Brexit proved to be so important for Labour, and for British politics, that it deserves an article in its own right. But there are a few obvious points to be made. First of all, it’s clear that Brexit cut through the heart of Labour’s electoral base in the most challenging way imaginable, while giving the Conservatives a boost they could never have anticipated before 2016.

There may have been no viable path to electoral success for any Labour leadership, from any section of the party, as long as Brexit remained the central issue in British politics.

Second, the fact that Labour had a left-wing leadership team considered profoundly illegitimate by those on the right and center of British politics had a clear impact on the way that the Brexit crisis unfolded. The anti-Brexit wing of British capital — by far the most important fraction of that class before the referendum of 2016 — proved to be the dog that didn’t bark, as the Conservatives radicalized their policy under pressure from the tabloids and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Would they have been so timid if the main opposition party hadn’t promised to break with the long-established economic consensus?

Hostility to Corbyn also conditioned the approach of the liberal center: centrist politicians and media outlets insisted on a maximalist line, rejecting any soft-Brexit compromise, precisely because they knew it would drive a wedge into Labour’s electoral constituency. Boris Johnson’s triumph in December 2019 was the predictable outcome of such opportunistic purity politics.

It’s still possible to argue that Labour could have weathered the storm better with a different line. There are at least two counterfactual scenarios worth mentioning here, although they point in opposite directions. Should Corbyn have committed irrevocably to membership of the European Economic Area — the Norway model — before the end of 2017, depriving the People’s Vote campaign of the opportunity to sabotage his policy? Or should Labour have embraced the idea of a second referendum after parliament rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal, but before the European elections of May 2019, shoring up its flank against the hard-Remain parties?

Such debates have their value, as long as we recognize that hindsight was not available to any of the protagonists when they had to make the necessary calls. Perhaps the outcome of a different approach would simply have been a different kind of failure, in view of the objective problems noted above.

After Corbyn

Politics is not an experiment that can be staged and restaged under laboratory conditions, allowing us to adjust one variable at a time. There are three plausible explanations for Corbyn’s failure: his project was sure to fail sooner or later in any political context, because of the nature of the Labour Party; his project could have succeeded, if the party leadership had pursued a different strategy after the 2017 election; or his project could have succeeded, if not for the once-in-a-generation challenge of Brexit. By their nature, none of these arguments can be proven definitively wrong.

Most of Corbyn’s supporters have tacitly rejected the first explanation, for now at least, by staying in the Labour Party and joining the battle to choose his successor. If they lose that battle, as expected, the space for left-wing activism inside the party may become very limited indeed, obliging them to pursue a different organizational path.

Supporters of Keir Starmer on the Labour right clearly expect him to play the same role as Neil Kinnock, marginalizing the pro-Corbyn left and paving the way for a more right-wing successor. They’re not interested in winning the argument: a purge of the Labour membership on trumped-up disciplinary charges is what they have in mind.

However, that inner-party struggle will play out in a very different context. The Labour left of the 1980s entered the stage as neoliberalism was gathering strength: it was the decade of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, François Mitterrand’s retreat and the debt crisis in the global South. The collapse of the eastern bloc proved to be another blow, even for those socialists who had always rejected the Soviet model of a one-party state, since conservatives had managed to taint the whole idea of public ownership and state planning by association with the USSR. The so-called Great Moderation then supplied a material base for New Labour’s formula of “Thatcherism with a human face,” while storing up the problems that led to the global crash of 2008.

Neoliberalism survived that crash, thanks to herculean efforts by politicians and central bankers who wanted to restore the status quo ante. But its promise of improved living standards for the majority no longer carries much conviction, least of all in Britain, which has just experienced the worst decade for wage growth since the days of Napoleon.

With the climate crisis sure to worsen over the years to come, the program developed by Corbyn and his allies since 2015 is the very least the situation demands, if drastic social regression is to be avoided. The next generation of British socialists will have to find a way to carry that program forward, in or out of the Labour Party.