The future after Corbyn
By Frieda Park
What is most notable about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was that it actually happened at all and even more astonishingly that it was sustained for nearly 5 years. In and of itself this was a huge success. It created and enabled the continued development of a left movement in Britain and moved the whole of politics to the left. Not only has the Labour right had to shift leftwards, but even the Tories have been forced to ditch the grim austerity message which nearly lost them the 2017 general election – albeit neither of them is embracing this with great sincerity. All of this remains a huge legacy of the Corbyn period. But obviously there were weaknesses as well which came home to roost in the 2019 election.
NOT OF OUR CHOOSING
The central problems that Corbyn faced, and which did most to undermine his leadership, were objective, and they were problems which we could do little to change:
1) He was catapulted to the leadership of the Party from virtually nowhere. There was no long-term campaign that built support, infrastructure and llike-minded people gaining positions in the Party and as elected representatives.
2) Class struggle, with some honourable exceptions, was at a low ebb with unions taking a beating from the Thatcher era onwards. Socialist organisations and ideas had been marginalised.
3) The movement around Corbyn involved a lot of people new to politics. Though radical many did not have much political education or experience of struggle. Many also bought into identity politics and were uncritically pro-EU. The movement did not have strong working class roots.
4) Initially Corbyn did not have the wholehearted support of the trade unions.
5) Well to the left and with a particularly strong record on peace and international issues Corbyn was then leader of a Party one of whose roles has been to be an acceptable alternative government to the Tories for British capitalism.
6) This earned him the contempt and loathing of the right of the Party and,
7) the enmity of the British state and the media.
These objective problems made it tough for Corbyn to advance his politics when he was being undermined and attacked on all fronts. At points it seemed impossible that he could hold on to power. From the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) there were resignations, coup attempts and nasty attacks in the media. At one point he did not have enough people willing to be in his shadow cabinet and some jobs had to be doubled up.
Against all the odds he survived, and having won a second leadership election actually began to gain ground in the Party. He led the party into the 2017 general election where, rather than May winning a resounding victory, she lost her majority and Labour increased its vote share by 30.4%. It was the first time it had gained seats since 1997. This was a huge triumph for Corbyn and the team running the election campaign, with radical policies, including nationalisation of the railways and an end to austerity, under the slogan – For the Many not the Few.
Corbyn consolidated support in the party and the unions, but that did not make the problems go away. The right-wing and the British establishment realised they had underestimated Corbyn, his anti-austerity message and the loyal support he had in the Party. They changed tack. Many were less overtly confrontational in the PLP, they were digging in for the long haul. The attacks shifted to the relentless campaign over alleged anti-semitism in the Party.
Although at one level Corbyn consolidated his position, at another level subjective problems arising from the objective conditions in which he became leader began to emerge. The handling of Brexit, alleged anti-semitism and the 2019 election campaign demonstrated these. The lack of political depth and experience of class struggle and connection to the working class became evident. Although severely constrained by the objective circumstances and less than solid support on the left there were areas where things could have been done better.
1) Led by the liberal media and Sir Keir Starmer the party moved inexorably towards a Remain position, ditching the pledge to respect the outcome of the EU referendum which played an important part in Labour’s success in the 2017 general election. Most of the left, Momentum and leading figures such as John McDonnell were part of the problem. Attempts to prevent the Party adopting an out and out Remain position represented continued retreats and eventually the Party ended up going into the election with a scarcely credible position on the key issue it was fought on. The voices of those on the left who saw the folly of this were not loud enough and were not listened to.
2) The media and right wing campaign round allegations anti-semitism was never adequately addressed. There was never any evidence that anti-semitism was a wide-spread or institutional problem. There was only a small proportion of members who had allegations made against them and there was never any evidence that Labour had a bigger problem than other political parties or society as a whole. In fact the reverse was the case, the evidence that did exist seemed to suggest that the problem was less. Under its new General Secretary, Jennie Formby, Labour speeded up dealing with anti-semitism allegations. Yet false narratives were not adequately countered. On the other hand members were suspended who had not made overtly anti-semitic comments and the International Holocaust Remebrance Alliance Definition was adopted which conflates criticism of Israel with anti-semitism. Though Corbyn had tried to take a stand on this at the EC he was undermined by some in the trade unions and by Jon Lansman, founder and chair of Momentum.
3) The constraints imposed by the weak understanding of the issues around anti-semitism and the EU made it very difficult for people to speak out – but it would have helped enormously if they had. Indeed a toxic political environment developed where to criticise the Party’s handling of the anti-semitism issue risked individuals being branded anti-semitic and being expelled. And opponents of the EU were branded as racist and anti-worker, so attempts to hold the policy of respecting the outcome of the referendum foundered.
4) Progress was difficult on bringing together and educating activists in consistent socialist politics and focusing on building the Party in working class communities. The domination of Momentum was a barrier to this. While it did great work mobilising activists and winning internal elections, its politics were weak.
5) The lack of political maturity and direction began to be apparent at the 2019 Party conference. Motions were passed making the abolition of private schools and complete free movement of people Party policy. A classic coming together of liberal and ultra-leftist ideas. This continued into the general election where more and more policies, over and above what was in the manifesto, were announced daily.
6) There was little appreciation or preparedness for the fact that a Corbyn government, even with the more modest manifesto of 2017, would be taking on the vested interest of capital and the British state, never mind the extensive further policies in the 2019 one.
A POSITIVE BALANCE
Whilst all that is frustrating the positives gained from the Corbyn period are enormous.
1) The entire political landscape has shifted to the left. The British public have demonstrated that they are tired of austerity and want something different. No candidates for the Labour leadership felt emboldened to turn the clock back on policies like re-nationalisation of the railways. The Tory chancellor, Rishi Sunak, made a flurry of spending announcements in his budget – austerity is a dirty word. Whilst the sincerity of much of this is in doubt, the argument is with those challenging austerity and seeking a better deal for working people.
2) The left is stronger throughout the party, even in the PLP where a new cohort of left MPs was elected at the last election.
3) Masses of committed activists, many young and from diverse communities, have joined the Party. Their work rate in the general election was incredible.
4) Out of that new generation of activists is emerging many who have learned some of the hard lessons from the successes and failures of the Corbyn period. There are academics and intellectuals arguing for social democratic and socialist polices. Not so long ago words like capitalism, socialism, the working class, imperialism and exploitation were rarely used and seemed an anachronism – now they are the currency of debate on the left. There is the potential for a serious left to be built from this experience.
Keir Starmer’s victory in the leadership election was a result of the historic trends within Labour and the more recent weakness of the left. It rested largely on his pro-EU credentials and a tremendous ability not to say anything much of any significance about anything else. Although he said he would continue with Corbyn’s most popular policies. He appealed to a desire for “electability” and enough people on the left bought this package, along with a big number of right wingers who re-joined Labour to support him, to give him a resounding victory.
Momentum foisted the Long-Bailey/Rayner ticket on the left and Jon Lansman managed Long-Bailey’s campaign. Though good on a number of economic issues and the Green New Deal which she pioneered, Long-Bailey seemed bland on other issues. It was dismaying to hear her say that she would be prepared to launch Trident nuclear missiles and commit mass murder. She also signed up to the pledges pushed by the Jewish Labour Movement designed to further persecute critics of Israel in the Party and the pledges on trans-rights which committed her to expelling people who take a critical view of gender self-identification. It was a campaign which failed to enthuse.
Fortunately Richard Burgon stuck to his guns and stood for the deputy leader post on a consistent left platform, so that voice was heard in the campaign. He received strong support from Momentum groups around the country and from the Campaign for Socialism in Scotland. In the final round of voting he came third receiving 21.3% of the vote, despite not having the backing of Momentum. (Long-Bailly secured 27.6% with Momentum’s backing.)
The most overtly Blairite candidate standing was Ian Murray for the deputy leadership who was knocked out in the second round.
Remember that Corbyn only managed to get on the ballot for Labour leader by securing the mis-guided support of some on the right, so it is a measure of how far we have come that both Long-Bailly and Burgon were able to secure support in their own right to get on the ballot from within the PLP.
Starmer’s victory is a big setback, but there is still much that has been achieved and more importantly can be achieved.
There is a burning need to root the left in the working class and to develop and support class struggles in workplaces and communities. There needs to be greater clarity about policies, tactics and strategy to take the working class forward.
There also requires to be clarity about the nature of the British state and the challenges of taking on the vested interests of capital. We have to develop principled internationalism and campaigning for peace.
People need to have the courage of their convictions and stand up and be counted over controversial issues.
All this points to the need for better left organisation and political education.
There is now a basis to do this work – before Corbyn that would have been a fantasy.