As Labour elects its new leader, we are launching a series of essays on political possibilities of the new decade. Read more here. Until April 8 (23:59 EST), we have 80% off all our ebooks, and 40% off all our print books.
“There is no such thing as Corbynism. There is socialism. There is social justice.” – Jeremy Corbyn, 13 December 2019
As a distinct body of theory or practice, Corbynism may not exist. Neither reading groups nor revolutionary parties will bear that name. But what was this distinct and vertiginous period of socialist advance and eventual electoral defeat? And more importantly, what now for the half-orphaned movement that rode a great, exhilarating wave of possibility?
All the participants in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign will admit that the surge in support took them by surprise. In May 2015, the leader of the Labour left and later Corbyn’s campaign chair, John McDonnell, proclaimed that moment “the darkest hour that socialists in Britain had faced since the Attlee government fell in 1951.” Three weeks later, Jeremy Corbyn was on stage with the three continuity New Labour candidates at Newsnight’s televised hustings visibly winning over an audience of former Labour voters in Tory-held Nuneaton with his unpolished message of peace, public ownership and democracy.
The mechanics of how Corbyn catapulted from 200-1 outsider to leader of a semi-hollowed out party have been well covered, most notably by Alex Nunns in his excellent book The Candidate. Suffice to say the campaign wasn’t won because the Labour left was well organised and used to winning. Rather, a wave from below powered the campaign, and Corbyn rode it to the finish line. Crucially, that wave wasn’t an expression of the power of the UK’s organised progressive forces – the labour, peace, anti-racist, feminist, anti-austerity, ecological and tenants’ movements, along with critical culture, media, class consciousness and social solidarity – although Corbyn’s campaign was an expression of their interests, talents and energy. It instead demonstrated the fragility of their opponents: the ruling class and its witting and unwitting agents of control.
While the basic coordinates of the economic and political system were unchanged following the 2008 financial crisis, the status quo was at its most open to challenge in a generation. The 2015 British Social Attitudes survey found that over half of the British public thought the government does not care much what “people like me think.” The 2016 survey showed close to half the population supported higher levels of spending on health, education and social security. Dissatisfaction with the status quo, though inchoate, was all around.
But the political-media class looked at the majority won by David Cameron’s Conservatives in the 2015 general election – 11.3 million votes, 37 percent of the total – and saw an endorsement of the status quo. The columnists and focus group peddlers weren’t looking at what was hiding in plain sight. UKIP’s 4 million votes, the SNP’s near clean sweep in Scotland, support for Scottish Independence, the Green Party’s rapid pre-election membership growth, and the expansion and vitality of the anti-austerity and student movements, all showed the potential energy for change, bouncing off in many directions. It awaited an effective vehicle to cohere and unlock it.
“We don't have to be unequal. It doesn’t have to be unfair,” Corbyn proclaimed in his acceptance speech. “Things can, and they will, change.” This powerful statement of possibility filled the lungs of socialists and progressives across the country. It also revealed a weakness: who would do the changing?
The expression typified the central challenge for the Corbyn project. Yes, the system was struggling to reproduce itself, but no, we were not the cause. Between the possibility created by systemic fragility and the relative weakness of progressive social forces opened a gap – which Corbynism occupied.
The Corbyn project’s task was to occupy that gap for as long as possible while closing it by building up progressive social forces. This task was enormous: forty years of defeat for the left had fundamentally reshaped society. The Labour Party was cartelised, local government hollowed out and Westminster insulated from pressure from below. Tenants were stripped of protections and a voice. The peace, anti-racist, feminist and ecological movements advanced, but struggled to join forces. And the once-powerful organised working class was reduced to a residue, as the wage share of national income fell from almost two thirds to just over half. The balance of forces was decidedly unfavourable.
Corbyn’s leadership offered an opportunity to arrest this historic decline and lead a new advance. But to spur on a movement while desperately hanging onto office was a colossal task.
Corbyn’s allies were few: three fellow members of the shadow cabinet, less than a tenth of Labour MPs, an understaffed office, a new organisation, Momentum, which had no money, governance structures or agreed strategy and a relatively weak organised trade union and social movement left. The mass of the membership and the weight of Unite, at least, was on his side. The scale of hostility he faced from the media and Labour’s anti-socialists, on the other hand, was extreme and unprecedented. John McDonnell liked to reference the Gramscian concept of struggle “in and against the state.” Before Corbyn got close to Downing Street, he would have to struggle “in and against the party.”
In the summer of 2016, the anti-socialists committed a great mistake: by orchestrating an attempted coup, they allowed the unorganised forces supporting Corbyn to join forces with Unite and Momentum. The 2016 leadership campaign didn’t just increase Corbyn’s mandate, securing the project’s continued occupation of the gap, it reduced it by further strengthening, educating and organising progressive forces around a common project for power.
A similar pattern repeated itself in the following year’s general election. Corbyn’s campaigning skill, the party’s popular policies and the quirks of British electoral broadcasting rules, which focus attention on parties’ top leaderships, drew a new, defining antagonism: Corbyn’s Labour against austerity Conservatives. That allowed Corbyn to be heard on issue after issue advocating popular social democratic policies. Just two years before, such policies – scrapping tuition fees, ending austerity, taking utilities into public ownership, taxing the rich more – had been politically marginal. In 2017 they re-entered the mainstream.
Labour's 13 million votes didn’t secure victory, but the largest vote share increase since 1945, kept Corbyn in office and dramatically shifted political discourse. The campaign organised, educated and empowered the movement, which began to properly contemplate government for the first time. The gap between possibility and power closed substantially.
At Labour’s September 2019 conference, the membership moved to the left of the leadership, pressuring progressive policy change from below. But such grassroots power was felt unevenly across the party. MPs remained hostile, but a socialist majority had taken the National Executive Committee and appointed a socialist, Jennie Formby, to head up the party bureaucracy. Several socialist cadres were hired and Momentum’s staffing numbers grew on the back of its 40,000-strong membership, swelling experience and capacity on the left.
Change came slowly in most regional offices and in the party’s elections department, which fiercely resisted the formation of a new Community Organising Unit that was central to a long term socialist strategy. More Labour councils were trying to deliver municipal social democracy by 2019 but local government was still far from a site of socialist hope and resistance.
Reforms to how MPs are selected by local parties were a flop, and the Democracy Review democratised little. But Momentum, Unite and the CWU successfully won the selection of left candidates in about half of Labour’s target seats. However, the “preparing for government” exercise was, while detailed, fatally flawed. It tended to treat Corbyn’s programme as something that could be implemented by existing state machinery, without mass mobilisations and face little establishment backlash.
If party reform tended to be top-down, political education would have to come from below: neither the party nor Momentum nor Unite put together a substantial programme. Proposals for turning Young Labour into a ‘university of the working class’ never got off the ground. But The World Transformed had become the most vibrant part of the conference each year and spawned a number of local festivals across the country. The horizon of state power turbocharged the Corbynite intellectual space: several important books were published in 2018 and 2019, Tribune and Novara expanded their output, and a boom in left-friendly think tanks developed.
In the economic realm, the Corbyn period saw a limited advance for progressive forces. After decades of decline, trade union membership stopped falling and then began to rise – although overall membership still skews towards public sector, better-paid and older workers - and trade unions have been substantially relegitimised in public discourse. But, while organisations like Acorn, Generation Rent and the London Renters Union have made progress, we are still a long way off a national tenants’ movement.
No new working-class social institutions have replaced the past’s dense lattice of everyday solidarity. But while media hostility remained intense, often to the point of absurdity, more socialist voices and perspectives were included in current affairs programming. Public discourse and political common sense as a whole shifted, though critical mass culture on television and radio is much rarer than in the 1970s. Grime, whose artists and fans broadly backed the change that Corbyn offered, is one bright spot, providing anti-establishment messages – “Fuck the government and fuck Boris,” as Stormzy says in chart-topping “Vossi Bop” – for mass audiences.
The peace, anti-racist and feminist movements all remained energetic, even as a number of their activists were drawn into Labour-focused work. The ecological movement advanced dramatically during Corbyn’s leadership, although, despite his sincere and long-standing environmentalism, not because of it. Labour was quiet on environmental issues until 2019, when, under tremendous pressure from below by the youth climate strikers, Extinction Rebellion and Labour for a Green New Deal, it took an impressive leadership role, developing and championing ambitious policies. This striking shift in direction and tempo revealed the possibilities of a party porous to movement demands.
All considered, the progressive movement inside and outside the party was substantially more developed on the eve of the 2019 general election than it had been in 2017 or 2015. This capacity was evident in the campaign, where the elements of the party machine that weren’t hostile to the members and Momentum, mobilised an impressive number of campaigners. At the moment of electoral mobilisation, the movement was strong, but the leadership had run out of steam, worn down and fractured by Brexit.
In two and a half years of battles on the issue, Corbyn never found ground he could hold. Usually on the retreat, he was left arguing for compromise for its own sake with the Brexit policy defined by neither socialist principle nor strategic electoral viability.
Brexit gave the establishment a wedge to drive into the heart of the Corbyn project - and it did so with glee. Its repertoire – round-the-clock attacks, accusations of idiocy, performative confusion – need not be rehearsed. Within the party, those who both wished Corbyn well and to overturn the referendum result acted in large part as the establishment’s unwilling dupes. They wanted Corbyn to make the anti-democratic, Europhiliac argument that he never convincingly could. By the 2019 general election, Corbyn had lost his room for manoeuvre and his team was fundamentally divided on how to play an extremely challenging hand. The burnish of 2017, when Corbyn had appeared a politician apart, authentically himself, had been painfully wiped off.
In 2017, by centring a class antagonism and offering a set of popular policies, Corbyn’s Labour controlled the left half of politics, sweeping aside the social reformers and liberals. In 2019, Labour won 10.3 million votes, more than in five of the last ten general elections, but fewer seats than in any since 1935. The discrepancy can be explained primarily by the semi-floating signifier of Brexit. Johnson’s Conservatives brutally and effectively dominated the right side of politics by purging and otherwise sidelining Conservatives squeamish about the government’s Brexit strategy and cajoling the Brexit Party to stand down in every Tory-held seat. Brexit was the defining issue, and the Conservatives’ “Get Brexit Done” slogan brought together diverse voter groups – pro-Leave, anti-politics and those weary of the Brexit debate. Labour was left promising that substantial change could come through the ballot box, just not the change a majority voted for in 2016.
With Corbyn’s tenure over, Labour will not immediately return to offering tepid social reform, but nor will its leadership fight for socialism. Keir Starmer is not a ghoulish neoliberal, reactionary authoritarian, or a lover of war, but he isn’t a socialist. Hard to place, he appears to be on the progressive end of social reformism, the nicest possible part of the establishment. He has no strong allergy to being near socialist ideas, but they aren’t to his taste or style.
The situation should not cause socialists to despair. Labour is not and never has been a socialist party. But over the last four and a half years, socialist leadership has provided a project for power for progressive forces to work towards. The challenge for those forces is to keep growing – and all pull in roughly the same direction – when there is little leadership and no single strategic horizon.
After the compressed focus of the Corbyn era, a great variety of strategies will reemerge. The process could and likely will prove messy. Sectarianism, particularism and cultural differences will reassert themselves. But a multiplicity of strategies need not be disastrously divisive; in fact, it’s necessary. No one has a monopoly on wisdom – and a fog covers the path to sustainable socialist advance.
Some will focus on greenfield industrial organising, democratising trade unions, defending the socialist position in the Labour Party or direct action. Others will concentrate on feminist activism, community organising, anti-racist work, the climate emergency, the cultural terrain, challenging imperialism, cooperation between anti-Conservative parties or organising tenants. If these different strands butt against each other and fracture the movement, then the gap between the relative strength of progressive forces and the ruling class is likely to widen. But if they broadly run in the same direction and there is a degree of coordination between them, the former could be strengthened, preparing the ground for the next major opportunity for advance.
Here, Momentum could play a vital role if it commits to change and evolve. After a necessary process of renewal and re-democratisation, the organisation could articulate a socialist strategy in the party and in society connecting with all of the efforts above.
With no party leadership to defend, Momentum could focus on bridging the gap between the moment’s possibility and the movement’s weakness. It could help build socialist capacities across the movement as a whole and offer coordination on every terrain of social struggle.
The Corbyn movement may be half-orphaned but it is no infant. It can succeed if it proves its maturity through tolerance for diversity, internal generosity and commitment to the long haul. Corbyn’s leadership was never going to bring socialism, even if elected with a majority government. It was a spark, an organiser and a staging post. It is up to the movement to take the cause further and win advances, for the many, not the few.
The movement can prove Jeremy Corbyn right: there is no such thing as Corbynism. There is socialism. And, things can, and they will, change.
James Schneider volunteered on Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign, co-founded Momentum and served as Corbyn and Labour’s spokesperson and head of strategic communications.
This essay is part of a series of excerpts from Futures of Socialism: Into the Post-Corbyn Era, edited by Grace Blakeley. Read all the essays, as they are published through March, here. Until April 8 (23:59 EST), we have 80% off all our ebooks, and 40% off all our print books.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Offering a lucid and gripping history of the Labour New Left from its origins in the inter-party struggles of the 1960s until today, Panitch and Leys show how the defeat of that project paved the way for the embrace of neoliberalism under New Labour, but also how new political forces came to coalesce for a renewed socialist political mobilisation in the twenty-first century.