Richard Seymour: Where Next for Corbyn and Labour?


Without winning the vote, Jeremy Corbyn won the election. Raising Labour’s vote by the biggest margin since 1945, to 40 per cent, he added thirty-three seats to Labour’s total, when almost all pundits expected a Tory landslide.

There are a few who say, this isn’t good enough. Chris Leslie MP claims that with such a weak Tory government, Labour should have been able to win. But it is telling that such examples are isolated, and disregarded by even the Labour’s right-wing apparatchiks. Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell, Dan Hodges and John McTernan, all creatures of the now defunct New Labour machine, have each acknowledged the surprising popularity of Corbyn’s politics. Stephen Kinnock and Chuka Umuna, both veteran anti-Corbynites who played a leading role in the attempted coup last year, are now shamelessly bidding for shadow cabinet posts. Even Jess Phillips, whose parliamentary career at this point consists of a series of insults aimed at Diane Abbott, whose majority is now over 35,000, is eating “humble pie”.

Pundits who wrote Corbyn off as an electoral disaster are lining up their mea culpas: some, like Polly Toynbee – who once helped split the Labour Party to stop people like Jeremy Corbyn having influence – delightedly; some, like the jaded and dilapidated Nick Cohen, darkly and begrudgingly. Owen Jones, who had previously gone dyspeptic about the Corbyn project and urged him to quit, was caught up in the infectious enthusiasm of the campaign, and is now vowing “never again” to go along with the pack mentality of the media class. John Rentoul, on the other hand, bitterly complains that “the median voter was pretty fed up with capitalism and didn’t mind a bit of anti-establishment rhetoric.”

The Conservative Party, meanwhile, is in crisis management. Struggling to agree an informal pact with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, a hard-right party up to its neck in a history of paramilitarism, it is also struggling to have a point. Senior Tories are furious with Theresa May, privately briefing that they “fucking hate her,” but can’t see any way to get rid of her right away. One thing they have decided to kill immediately, however, is the manifesto. Despite the formal break with austerity when Philip Hammond took over the Treasury, their manifesto projected spending cuts. Conservative Home expects, instead, a spending spree:

“May and her team mocked Corbyn’s magic money tree.  The result plants it smack in the middle of Westminster and Whitehall.  Tory Ministers are now in charge of distributing its fruits to all comers.”

Why is this? The Tories didn’t get a majority of seats, but they increased their vote, and won more seats and more votes than anyone else. In part, it is because of the practicalities of coalition with the DUP, who campaigned against the abolition of the pension triple-lock and the means-testing of winter fuel allowances. In part, it is because policies like the dementia tax died on the campaign trail.

But in large part, it is because of their fear of Jeremy Corbyn and the social forces he now represents. During May’s meeting with the 1922 Committee, representing Tory backbenchers, MPs raised austerity, public sector pay freezes and school budget cuts as election losers. Current polling has Corbyn even with May in approval stakes, the first time that has happened to a Labour leader since 2008, and Labour on 45 per cent of the vote, which would be far greater than the 2 per cent swing the party would need to win a fresh election. Tories desperately need to take the heat out of these issues, and deflate the anger that they see as driving Corbyn’s success.

And so, May is, in her rival George Osborne’s words, a “dead woman walking,” hanging onto the job for just as long as is necessary to prevent an unsightly bloodbath and prepare a viable successor; and the manifesto is dead. We have a Conservative government that dare not be too Conservative.

What has Labour achieved, and what are its limits? Talking about limitations is difficult because of the sheer unexpected scale of what Corbyn’s national campaign was able to achieve in such a short time. It’s also difficult because the tremendous condescension and arrogance faced by Corbyn’s supporters on the part of most journalists, most pundits, most experts, and most politicians – utterly contemptuous of their values, and their supposed naiveté – lends itself to a tinge of angry triumphalism in victory. Nonetheless, while acknowledging the sudden, dramatic expansion of possibilities, a failure to feel out the limits of the situation would be politically derelict. 

To begin with the achievements, as even smart Tories are recognising, the Lynton Crosby smear machine is severely, perhaps mortally, wounded. The “politics of personal destruction,” as Diane Abbott called it, met its match in a politician whose worst enemies have always grudgingly conceded was a “good constituency MP” and a “thoroughly decent person”. But this is only because of a related gain: the downfall of the British press, from its reactionary wing to its much smaller liberal-realist wing. Only a minority of people under the age of 65 read a newspaper regularly, and the year-on-year losses of readers and revenue for all the papers from The Guardian to The Sun tell the same story. With the rise of online media, they have lost their ideological monopoly, they have lost their old relationship to their readers, and their old prestige is fading. This is far from the country in which The Sun could claim – however wrongly and grandiosely – to have “won it,” and The Guardian’s Westminster columnists could play a critical role as the organic intellectuals of New Labour.

To be absolutely clear, insofar as people were paying attention, the machine worked as it should. The uniformity of the Tory press in reciting Conservative Party spin about Corbyn’s “IRA links” was matched by the ovine docility with which broadcasters took these talking points as their own. It is not even a question of ‘bias’: television journalists certainly evince a lot of unacknowledged ideology in their reporting, but they also know that careers can be made by putting politicians on the spot, and Corbyn must have looked like such a tempting target. Meanwhile, liberal-realism stuck to its positions: a campaign such as Corbyn’s, led by such a figure, could not possibly win, and would destroy the basis for gradual, sensible, humane reformism for a generation. Corbyn’s supporters, these newspapers maintained, were either unhinged brocialists, antisemites, or cuckoo idealists: a brave stance given that their readers tended to support Corbyn. For the young who rallied to Labour – 67% of 18-24 year olds, 58% of 25-34 year olds, according to Ashcroft polls – this was just part of the political and media class, compromised by several elite debacles from the war on terror to the credit crunch to Hackgate, ganging up on one of the few consistently decent, principled politicians.

That Labour achieved this by defending left-wing positions, which appealed to exactly the voters whom Corbyn said when he ran for the leadership could be reached, is another huge achievement. Labour’s manifesto, it is widely acknowledged, was a game-changer, in a campaign which until that point had been dominated by personalised smears. The policies addressed the pain and aspirations of almost 13 million people. On a whole series of issues now, the agenda is being shaped by the Left in a way that it hasn’t been for decades. It was Corbyn who turned anti-austerity politics into a common sense in the Labour Party. But now, what are in today’s context radical reforms – taxing wealth and corporate profits, free education from cradle-to-grave, nationalised utilities and rail, full union rights – are part of the common sense of the country.

And there is another achievement, even more surprising than these, which is that right-wing nationalism no longer exerts the terrifying hold it once did. It is still there, of course, and powerful. The national question, the status of the Union, the question of Northern Ireland’s future, and Britain’s global role post-Brexit, are all there, and all still wrapped up in racialized, post-colonial fantasies. But by speaking so directly about class, about the wants of a popular majority, Labour changed the political map. And it did so, even more impressively, while refusing to play a defensive game on immigration and foreign policy, and preventing Theresa May from making the election a re-run of the Brexit referendum. Corbyn, in particular, deserves tremendous credit for intervening in a tense situation, after the massacre of young people in Manchester, with Theresa May talking up the security rhetoric and putting troops on the streets, with a well-pitched critique of the ‘war on terror’ and Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. In doing so, he tapped into what had already become a common sense, changed the national conversation, and won credit as the substantial politician that he is.

Finally, Labour’s campaign was appropriately – but far from exclusively – focused on the youth, who needed to be given reasons to turn out and vote. They needed, in other words, to be offered a future worth fighting for. Corbyn’s various cultural interventions could have come off as patronising. His supporters are organically rooted, their memes-and-banter online tendencies reflective of the cultures they inhabit, but Corbyn’s ‘straight man’ participation could have looked like a politician panhandling for unearned credibility. But his surprise appearance at a Libertines concert was ecstatically received, giving birth to a now famous meme in which people chant Corbyn’s name to the tune of The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’. His interview with the grime artist JME was part of what gave rise to a wider trend of #grime4Corbyn. What some consider Corbyn’s authenticity, is in fact an attribute of his politics. He wasn’t trying to patronise the youth; he took them seriously as political actors, never believed that they were apathetic, and had a serious analysis of how their lives could be improved. People took him seriously, because he took them seriously.

The limits of Labour’s achievement are mostly organic to the situation. That is, they are structurally given limitations which need to be addressed, and could hardly have been reversed in a single campaign. These include the fact that, organisationally, the Left and the labour movement are still very weak. Without that organisation, the political and ideological advances made over the last couple of years are far more fragile. Supposing a Labour government were elected, as seems far more likely now than before, they are likely to face tremendous opposition and obstruction, from those on their own benches as much as from the civil service, the press and the military and security establishment. They would potentially face attacks on the currency, and falling corporate investment, and there would be constant pressure to relent on their agenda, and demonstrate ‘responsibility’ by offering business a tax break. And their only possibly bulwark of support and counter-pressure would come from those whom Jeremy Corbyn trusted to defend his leadership: the Labour membership, the wider Left, and the trade union grassroots. 

So, this weakness has huge consequences. Indeed, it may be overstating matters to speak of a labour movement at all. There are big trade unions in Britain, but they are very inactive at an industrial level, and their density relative to the working population continues to decline each year. Labour’s policies aim to address that, but if they are elected and can force these measures through, their efficacy depends on activists exploiting the new freedoms to organise.

That raises the stakes in terms of the left’s organisation. Labour is now arguably the largest social-democratic party in Europe, and the biggest of all parties in the UK by far. But we are coming out of a long period in which party organisation has been alien to the majority of the politicised. The link to old cultures of left-wing organisation is almost entirely broken, and it would not necessarily be healthy to try to re-enact the old days anyway. But this means that, outside of periods of electoral campaigning, the majority of Labour’s members are either not active in the party, not active outside the party, or not active in either. At present, there is little means by which a collective policy can be agreed and then implemented in community and workplace organisation. And it is in those areas, in the organisation of the working class in all areas of its struggles for survival – whether against low pay, casualisation, gentrification, or the local hospital closure – that this large new membership could make a real difference, building a left-wing culture of solidarity and activism into growing areas of everyday life, and developing popular capacities to defend and win their interests. Without this kind of organising, passivity tends to dominate, and the major beneficiaries of passivity have always been the Right.

But this brings back the whole question of the kind of organisation Labour wants to be. It’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn has, for now, won the argument against his opponents in the party. He has answered the backbench backstabbers convincingly, rebuffed the managerial elite, and won over a lot of worried waverers. Any tendencies toward demoralisation in the membership have been abruptly reversed.

But it remains the case that there is a fairly large, powerful and organised right-wing at the top of the Labour Party that, though they must remain quiet for now, are quite opposed to the idea that the Labour Party should be led from the Left, or that it should be the kind of activist-led, movement-based party that they fear it is becoming. They have demonstrated considerable ruthlessness, to the point of being ruinously self-destructive. It is quite likely that, unable to have their own way, they would find a way to split at the worst possible moment, just as they embarked on a selfish and mindless coup attempt amid a post-Brexit Tory crisis – perhaps some of them would cross the floor in the event that Corbyn won a small majority. The fact that the Labour Party has not been significantly democratised thus far is a major problem in this respect. Changes to the rules, such as mandatory re-selection, would be a democratic step forward and also allow members to replace consistently sabotaging MPs.

Beyond sabotage, there are legitimately other tendencies within Labour, who have pursued a different line from the Corbyn leadership. The Stoke by-election campaign was fought on a Blue Labour nostalgia ticket (Bring Back the Potteries, Make England Great Again) for example. Scottish Labour is moving ever faster into a conservative, nationalist sump, spending all their time berating the SNP rather than championing Labour policies or fighting the Tories. And even if MPs, councillors and local Labour notables are more wary in future of simply insulting the leadership in their campaigning literature, there will continue to be huge differences within the party – perhaps more so the more the party is democratised. That doesn’t mean that Corbyn and his allies can’t fight for, and win, hegemony for a series of left-wing positions within the party, as they have already done. It does mean that Labour is likely to continue to host a truculent right-wing with power and influence in the party’s apparatuses, and a degree of support within the trade union bureaucracy.

It is also important to recognise that there is a sense in which ‘Corbynism’ is quite diverse. There are those who are economically populist, but want to maintain a traditional bipartisanship on security issues and home affairs, or would like to take a ‘tougher’ line on immigration. There are those in the unions, upon whose support Corbyn depends, who will defend the arms industry to the hilt, and those who want some sort of line defending British workers from migrant competition. Corbyn himself is a lifelong socialist, opponent of British militarism and weapons industries, and defender of immigrants and refugees. But he is – as he insists – the leader, not the dictator of his party. And this was reflected in the election campaign which, though in broad balance it was radical and left-wing, was also committed to keeping Trident, staying in NATO, ending ‘free movement’ and raising ten thousand police. Most of this wasn’t particularly prominent in the campaign, until the police commitment became a focus in the last days, to counter May’s demands for more authoritarian state powers. Frankly, the idea that ten thousand more police on the streets would make a bit of difference to the burglary rate, let alone the manifestation of jihadist terror, was a far-fetched concession to the Police Federation, and to Labour’s traditionally pro-police line – even if it was articulated in an anti-austerian language.

The point here is not to condemn these compromises. They are perfectly understandable, reflecting both real differences within the leadership bloc, and the real balance of power in Labour. And of course, while Europe is suddenly once more a problem for the Tories, rather than Labour – Tory Remainers urgently leveraging May’s weakness to try and force a retreat from ‘hard Brexit’ – there was a moment where the leadership’s caution on the central question of Brexit caused a shadow cabinet split and a period of seeming aimlessness. There will be shocks in the future which force Labour out of its comfort zone, and accentuate the differences even in the Corbynite side of the party. This is only to state the consequences of the obvious: Jeremy Corbyn represents a very young, and still quite new political movement, notwithstanding the networks of hard-bitten socialists who withstood the Blair years to get to this point. Far from being the Trotskyist plot that some Labour Rightists fantasised, it is a genuinely open-ended movement, forced to learn as it goes, and thus far from uniform. The shadow cabinet mostly comprises people who haven’t been prepared for leadership through induction in the acclimatising, homogenising Oxford-to-Spad pipeline, and orient differently to Labour’s history and traditions. This means that, while Corbyn is very clearly anchored in one set of radical socialists positions in the party, the leadership group and the wider movement could go in any number of other directions. The Left, of course, has a say in this.

What has been achieved for now, and this is considerable, is a radical common sense on a series of issues from the economy to education to foreign policy. Class has been brought back as an organising principle. Socialism is a respectable political tendency. The national language on welfare and poverty has been civilised, purged of at least some of its filthy social sadism. There is a definite and now vocal constituency which opposes the nuclear death-drive, is unimpressed by Britain’s traditional militarism, and fails to be hypnotised by the mantras about how awful immigration is. Britain is changing, long-term, and Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party he leads, have harnessed the forward-moving aspects of that change to a project for radical transformation.

And if the first sign of that genuine leap forward is Tory panic and turmoil, let the next sign of it be the buoyancy and confidence of the Left, and the shedding of embattled defensiveness and triumphalism. A Left that is on the side of the forward-moving elements of popular culture, focused on campaigning rather than social media arguments, and working in the streets and the workplaces to turn manifesto policies into demands backed up by organised power