Labour’s Left Needs to Regain the Insurgent Spirit That Made Jeremy Corbyn Leader

Keir Starmer has pulled Labour far from his campaign pledges while silencing his left-wing critics. The Left’s situation isn’t hopeless, but it needs to regain the radicalism it showed during Jeremy Corbyn’s first insurgency against the party establishment.

Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally outside King’s Cross station in London over planned ticket office closures, July 13, 2023. (Jonathan Brady / PA Images via Getty Images)

One of the intellectual mentors of Corbynism, the late Leo Panitch, concluded his final book with the hopeful observation that the 2019 election defeat concealed a substantial rejuvenation of socialism in Britain: the fruit of a unique generational collaboration between the Labour left formed in the 1970s, and a new one that would carry the project forward.

How’s that going? Obituaries for the Labour left, whether its boomer or millennial strands, are, sadly, low-hanging fruit at this point. No match for the former director of public prosecutions Sir Keir Starmer and his right-wing coup, veteran leftist figureheads Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott are suspended from the party, sitting left-wing officials at all levels of government are routinely vanished from their candidacies on any formal pretext, and the Labour Party machinery has been reconfigured to make further growth of the Labour left — let alone a left-wing leader — impossible.

Worse, as I have complained before in Jacobin and beyond, what political propositions the Labour left and broader “Corbyn” ecosystem have managed to come up with in defeat have tended toward anti-political technocracy and are — to put it kindly — far from equal to the times. Things seem impossible. Yet recent events should act as a reminder that we’ve done impossible things before. Two such impossibilities occurred within the first year of “Corbynism,” and I propose that returning to their lessons presents a way out of the current deadlock.

Younger readers may not recall that the turning point in the 2015 Labour leadership election that allowed Corbyn to wholly distinguish himself from his New Labour rivals was the party’s edict that Labour MPs show their toughness by abstaining on (rather than opposing) the Welfare Bill proposed by David Cameron’s Tory government. As John McDonnell remarked at the time, the bill’s sadistic and arbitrary cuts to household income for the poorest was something one should “swim through vomit” to oppose, but Corbyn alone among the leadership candidates did so. This simple presentation of the moral difference between Corbyn and his mainstream Labour rivals was an important turn in the fortunes of the Corbyn candidacy, which had previously been assumed to be impossible.

Apart from overcoming the impossibility of being elected from the Left at all, the second impossibility of the Corbyn project was its survival of the “Chicken Coup” of June 2016, when forty-four shadow cabinet ministers (Starmer among them) resigned in an attempt to force the end of Corbyn’s leadership. It is difficult to mentally reconstruct how utterly extraordinary Corbyn’s refusal to resign in that situation was. That impossible act proved the resilience of the generational compact on the UK left that Panitch described; it gave the pretext for Corbyn to elevate young left-wing allies into senior shadow cabinet roles; and, crucially, it contributed to the clear water between Corbyn personally and the establishment Labour brand: a “populist” advantage in the snap general election that followed a year later in June 2017. It was also a reminder that every advance of socialism in Britain requires the humiliation of the ordinary decorum of the Labour Party.

These are stories that should be kept in the Left’s collective memory, but what good are they right now? To the first: the 2015 Welfare Bill that sealed Corbyn’s victory contained among the earliest formal references to a two-child cap on benefits in Britain (i.e., withholding tax credits and other benefits after recipients parent a third child), which the Conservatives brought into effect in 2017. By some historical quirk, the two-child cap is again driving the political conversation in Britain this month, after Starmer announced that an incoming Labour government would not abolish it, despite this policy directly keeping hundreds of thousands of children in poverty. To those who remember, the dynamic is 2015 all over again, not least when Corbyn’s current media appearances condemning the cap coincide with surprise polls that place him as the most popular current or former Labour leader, while the media salivates over the prospect of the circus of him running against Labour for either London mayor or his own current parliamentary seat of Islington North next year.

To the second: the memory of Corbyn and the Left’s negotiation of the 2016 Chicken Coup presents a lesson for responding to the affair surrounding Jamie Driscoll. The Labour metro mayor for the North of Tyne is one of the most conspicuous promoters of “Corbynite” industrial policies in local government, and last month was barred from standing as the Labour mayoral candidate at the next election. He was targeted with the kind of preposterous and sordid charges of proximity to antisemitism (simply for speaking alongside filmmaker Ken Loach) that have become routine in Starmer’s Labour. Driscoll has announced that he will run as an independent, and has immediately attracted well over £100,000 in small donations. Starmer will recall the humiliation of then prime minister Tony Blair in 2000, when left-winger Ken Livingstone was elected London mayor as an independent, after the Labour Party machine was deployed to stop him running under its banner.

Where is the Chicken Coup in this? It has been a long time since a Labour-left MP was in a position to resign from anything in protest, even if they wanted to. But the Driscoll moment presents a far better alternative. A concerted series of appearances by Labour-left MPs alongside their comrade Driscoll would force Starmer’s hand in one of two directions. Either he overlooks the misdemeanor, and the Left claws back some autonomy for the first time since 2020. Or — more likely — he withdraws the whip from them all, presenting a galvanizing moment for the wider left structurally similar to (even if inverted from) the coup of 2016. And further, with independent runs by Driscoll and Corbyn as its prize, this energy would be in the service of a project free — for now — of the albatross of the Labour Party.

One of the most frustrating things about the Labour left’s timidity and inertia since 2020 is how unnecessary it has been. Back then, as one of a tiny number of writers in the mainstream press making the case for the leadership candidacy of Rebecca Long-Bailey — formerly Corbyn’s business secretary and MP for Salford North — I argued that the innovative “Community Wealth Building” industrial policies that were her portfolio had been underutilized in the 2019 election and are still the main card the Left still had to play in Britain.

This would mean awarding government contracts to small and medium local businesses while offering state support to help them pay a living wage and to secure their green credentials; ending Britain’s addiction to outsourcing to globalized companies; and turning back the Thatcherite/New Labour market revolution from the local level up. This is a program that can be pursued both at national and — as Driscoll shows — local level, in good electoral times and bad, within the Labour Party and without. It is also a program with something to offer precisely the small businesspeople and disgruntled, economically nationalist Brexit supporters who most needlessly feared Corbyn, and whom many of us have argued would be more productive coalition partners than the fair-weather liberal professionals whom Corbynism prioritized post-2017.

This policy platform for a political reset on the Left has sat preserved in amber since 2020. Today’s uncanny repetitions of the opportunities of the Welfare Bill and Chicken Coup that launched Corbynism in its first year finally offer the chance to break it out again, if only what remains of the Labour left can recover its ability to take chances.