The Corbyn Phenomenon

The Corbyn Phenomenon

In the single most significant development in the labour movement since the miners’ strike of 1984/5, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour Party leader looks set to transform the rules of the game for socialist and working class politics in Britain.

Corbyn’s rapid rise to the status of front-runner in the election to replace Ed Miliband is little short of astonishing, surprising everyone, not least the candidate himself. Remember, Corbyn secured the required 15% of nominations from Labour MPs at literally the last minute as supporters of other candidates agreed to allow the veteran left-winger into the contest in order the “broaden the debate”. The suspicion is that Andy Burnham’s team calculated that the presence of someone from the hard left would make Burnham (who expected the support of most trade union leaders, the soft left and Corbyn’s second preferences) appear more of a centrist.

Prior to appearing alongside Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall in the first televised hustings organised by Newsnight on 17 June, Corbyn was a relatively unknown backbench MP. He has never served in a front-bench position. Although, well known to activists in a range of anti-austerity, international solidarity and anti-war campaigns – he is National Chair, for instance, of the Stop the War Coalition – Corbyn was hardly a household name, even to the extent of, say, Diane Abbott of Politics Show fame. She served as the token left candidate in the 2010 leadership election and duly came last. Nor would Corbyn be described as traditionally charismatic. And he is older than the other candidates by at least 20 years in a political culture that has for the last couple of decades favoured youthful leaders.

Elected MP for Islington North in 1983, Corbyn is one of only a handful of MPs of the hard left Campaign Group and famously rebellious. Between 1997 and 2010, the period of the Blair and Brown governments, Corbyn defied the Labour whip 428 times. In the 2005 to 2010 parliament alone he did so 238 times which means he voted against the leadership in something like a quarter of parliamentary divisions.

Top of Corbyn’s election platform for Labour leader is opposition to all austerity. A balanced budget will be achieved without cutting public services, but through increasing taxes on the wealthy, blocking corporate subsidies and tax avoidance and achieving a growing economy. The railways and the energy companies are to be renationalised. A public investment bank is to be established (and a majority stake in the Royal Bank of Scotland either retained or restored) that will invest in key strategic sectors of the economy and aim at balanced regional growth. Corbyn says that people’s quantitative easing would be his response to another economic downturn – printing money for investment in infrastructural projects, rather than increasing the liquidity of banks as in the versions of QE practised in recent years.

Corbyn opposes a replacement for Trident, proposing the civilian diversification of industries currently supporting Britain’s nuclear weapons. He supports withdrawal from NATO and an end to UK military interventions abroad. His policy on Europe looks as if it might involve a break with the traditional nationalism of Labour’s left (and much of the far left) – Corbyn has talked about opposing withdrawal in the coming referendum while working with other European socialists to change the European Union. Corbyn is an open republican although he does not propose to campaign in 2020 on abolition of the monarchy. Speaking specifically about ex-Militant leader of Liverpool council, Derek Hatton’s failed attempt to the re-join the Labour Party, Corbyn has indicated that those left-wingers expelled in the 1980s and ’90s should be allowed back into the Labour Party. In response to a question, he spoke positively about the contribution of Karl Marx.

These stances would make Corbyn just about the most left-wing, radical leader of the Labour Party in its history. Yet against the received wisdom of every wing of the Labour Party and the combined punditry of the print and broadcast media, Corbyn is performing so strongly that YouGov‘s Peter Kellner declared that he would be “astonished” if Jeremy Corbyn fails to win. The most recent YouGov poll (for The Times) released on 10 August showed Corbyn winning in the first round with 53% (49% of Labour members, 55% of £3 registered supporters and 67% of affiliated supporters).

A new movement

Since the General Election and with increasing rapidity after the start of the leadership campaign hundreds of thousands have either joined the Labour Party or signed up as supporters. On 25 August in a meeting with all the candidates, Harriet Harman, the stand-in leader, announced that 187,000 paid-up members before 7 May had grown to a combined total of 554,000 members and supporters – 293,000 members, 113,000 registered £3 supporters and 148,000 affiliated supporters (levy-paying trade unionists who could sign up as supporters for free).

The growth in membership figures began before the leadership election was launched, so it does seem that Ed Miliband’s austerity-lite campaign was sufficiently differentiated from the Tories to project the Labour Party as the principal anti-austerity and anti-Tory alternative. As Corbyn’s campaign has caught light, the wave of young people, and returning older activists joining Labour has become a flood.

Corbyn’s low-key, calm, anti-demagogic personality, his self-evident honesty (he was the MP with the lowest expenses at the time of the expenses scandal), his refusal to sling any mud, or even to counter with any great alacrity the attacks on him, plus an unwavering commitment to clear, strong policies has struck a resonant chord. Warnings from Labour grandees and every living ex-leader, apart from Ed Miliband, of the catastrophic consequences for Labour if Corbyn is elected have fallen on deaf ears. If anything, they have boosted Corbyn’s anti-establishment credentials. His meetings all over the country have attracted such large and enthusiastic audiences that the booking of overflow rooms has become routine, with Corbyn on occasion addressing crowds in the street outside venues.

Corbyn’s cause has been assisted by the anodyne character of his opponents who have failed to generate so much as a single exciting policy proposition. All three launched their campaigns by emphasising the need to appeal to business and the “aspirational”. At least until Burnham starting shifting to the left in response to Corbyn, potential electors would have required a PhD in Kremlinology to differentiate between them.

One of the most significant developments over the summer is the degree of support for Corbyn from the trade unions. Trade union leaders inevitably come under immense pressure to tack to the centre in order to clinch a deal or at least achieve a result of some sort. It is generally not in their nature to take a principled but minority position that is likely to leave their organisation isolated. Burnham, fairly reasonably at the beginning of the campaign, took their support for granted. The fact that the majority of affiliated unions, included Unite and Unison, the two largest, have thrown their weight behind Corbyn – as left-wing a candidate as it was possible for the parliamentary Labour Party to throw up – is unprecedented and a tribute to the level of grassroots support for Corbyn. Len McCluskey, Unite General Secretary, apparently did recommend support for Burnham but was overruled by his executive.

Strikingly, the rise of Corbyn is a glorious example the triumph of unintended consequences. Under Labour’s previous electoral college which gave MPs (plus MEPs) a third of the vote, even with his current level of support among members and trade unionists, Jeremy Corbyn could not have won the race to be leader. Yet one-member-one-vote with an opening up of the election to non-members has long been an objective of Labour’s right. The new system was designed to remove the collective involvement of the trade unions and dilute the influence of members – seen as too left-wing and politically obsessed – with the common sense pragmatism of the broader Labour electorate. However, far from shifting Labour to the right, the new electoral system has proven to be a vehicle for a popular rebellion against New Labour and mainstream politics in general.

Of course, the response of the Labour establishment to the self-inflicted wound of an impending Corbyn victory has been to panic about “infiltration”. These concerns have validity when it comes to Tories signing up to make fun of Labour’s new-fangled election process. But the Labour establishment have little right to complain about those who have previously supported the Green Party or left alternatives to Labour signing up to vote for Corbyn. These are people who are likely to swell Labour’s membership in the event that their candidate wins. In an entirely objective sense, is that not a welcome development?

The desperate attempts to purge the left from the list of supporters (so far some 1,500 supposed Green supporters and 700 defined as being on the left have been told they cannot vote) amounts to saying that Corbyn is allowed to stand as a sop to the “breadth” of the Labour Party, but that the wider left constituency to which he was always likely to appeal under the new electoral arrangements – and, by extension, Corbyn’s politics – is alien to “the aims and values” of the Labour Party. Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS, has been excluded. He has said that his union may affiliate to the Labour Party in the event of a Corbyn victory. If the bureaucracy were not applying an obviously ideological test, you would think that might qualify him as a supporter.

What if Corbyn wins?

A victory for Corbyn would be potentially transformative for British politics. The Labour Party, the official opposition, would be led by an anti-imperialist, anti-austerity, pro-trade union, and pro-working class struggle socialist.

Corbyn could be a leader who spoke from the platform of every major anti-government, anti-austerity and anti-war demonstration – just as he has done as a back-bench MP. He could be a leader who from the Labour front-bench unapologetically backs strikes and turns up on picket lines – the first since Keir Hardie. He could be a leader who supports workers and local people resisting the closure of services and facilities. He could be a leader who uses the House of Commons as a platform to articulate the kind of socialist, class struggle politics that has slowly been extinguished from the chamber over the last three or four decades and has virtually never been heard from either front-bench. This would have a huge impact on politics in Britain. The ice floes that have formed over working class and socialist politics would begin to melt and crack. Space would open up to argue for Marxist politics.

However, Corbyn as leader will face daunting challenges. He will not have been elected by a Labour left that has been increasing the strength of its organisation within the party. Far from it. Paradoxically, the Labour left entered this contest far weaker than it has just about ever been. If Corbyn is elected it will be as a result of what might be characterised as a flash mob uprising against what have become the stultifying norms of Labour politics.

Even among Labour Party activists, although Corbyn won more constituency Labour Party nominations (152) than any other candidate, together the other three candidates secured more CLP nominations than him. More than half of CLPs did not nominate anyone.

Corbyn has minimal support from other Labour MPs. As leader Corbyn needs to appoint a shadow cabinet and appoint MPs to up to a hundred positions. Cooper and Kendall have said they will not serve under Corbyn. Even before a single ballot was cast the likes of Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna were preparing to organise resistance to Corbyn within the parliamentary Labour Party.

The Labour left has little representation among Labour councillors. It is almost impossible to be an open rebel councillor. Councillors who rebel in a vote in the council chamber have the whip withdrawn and are removed from the list of authorised candidates. A Labour councillor equivalent of serial rebel Jeremy Corbyn could only survive one electoral cycle; not the thirty-odd years Corbyn has been in the House of Commons.

Attacks by the media, big business and the whole British establishment will be intense and unremitting. Corbyn’s foreign policy threatens the basis of Britain’s post-imperial settlement as the USA’s most loyal ally. His economic policy challenges the cosy neo-liberal consensus to which British capital has become accustomed. His support for trade unions and for workers’ struggles, and the strengthening of the left in the Labour Party that his leadership will inevitably oversee, threatens to unleash forces that could challenge the very basis of capitalism. Every comment Corbyn has ever uttered, every meeting he has ever attended, every hand he has ever shaken will be poured over, examined from every angle through a myriad of distorting lenses for any hint of embarrassment and drip-fed to the Telegraph and Mail to be taken up by the rest of the media.

In short, the pressure on Corbyn to retreat and accommodate to the reality of the situation will be immense. If he resists, every attempt will be made to destroy him politically.

What is to be done?

The current Labour leadership election demonstrates conclusively that those who have argued that the Labour Party could never again be a vehicle for expressing working class politics were plain wrong. Through the travails of the Blair years the Labour Party remained what Lenin had once dubbed it, a “bourgeois workers’ party”. In other words, a party with working class support, many of whose members were working class activists which, nevertheless, was committed to a programme of managing capitalism and collaborating with the bourgeois state. At the time Lenin was writing that meant a party led by men (mostly trade unionists) who had helped persuade the British working class to sacrifice itself on the killing fields of the First World War.

Over the intervening years the balance within the party has shifted between the bourgeois and workers’ poles. They are not mutually exclusive. Through most of the history of the Labour Party, the trade union leadership was the bulwark of the right, the trade union block vote being used to vote down the left-wing constituencies. However, as long as the trade union-labour link remains, any revival of working class and socialist politics was always likely to be reflected in the internal dynamics of the Labour Party.

That is why the strategy of the Socialist Party in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was so misconceived. Attempting to recreate the federal structures of the Labour Party while the Labour Party still existed was entirely futile. There was no case for demanding that trade unions disaffiliate from the Labour Party. The correct demand was that trade union leaders and trade union representatives within the Labour Party should fearlessly promote the policies of their own organisations.

If Corbyn wins, the RMT and FBU are likely to seek re-affiliation to the Labour Party. Socialists within those unions should support that move.

Socialists and especially those who understand the need for a Marxist programme that challenges capitalism have a historic duty to engage with the forces that Corbyn represents and to try and influence what happens in the Labour Party. That duty stands whether or not Corbyn wins. If he does win, it means backing Corbyn against the Labour right and the British establishment. That must mean a moratorium, other than in exceptional circumstances, on fighting elections against Labour. Labour’s performance in next May’s local, London and Scottish elections will be a key early measure of Corbyn’s electoral viability and may well determine his ability to survive.

But engaging with the Labour Party also means arguing for the kind of politics that can help the working class win the battle for a socialist society – what Marx called winning “the battle for democracy”. Corbyn’s platform, much as it challenges the way that the ruling class and capital currently operates, is inadequate for that task. In many ways, it represents just a different way of managing capitalism. Given that the capitalists will fiercely resist it and that a capitalism in crisis is limited in the concessions it can make, the odds of such a programme succeeding in its own terms are not particularly high.

What hinders Marxists in putting any kind of relevant strategic perspective into effect is the lack of a Marxist Party – as opposed to a multitude of pseudo-Marxist sects. Corbyn or no Corbyn, the creation of such a party should be our overriding objective. Such a party needs to be democratic and pluralist, able to discuss differing theoretical and policy positions without rancour or expulsions. It needs to be committed to independent working class organisation, to the democratic and socialist transformation of society and to thorough-going internationalism. A party built on this basis could be a mass membership organisation. But even a Marxist party of hundreds of thousands, or millions would still need to relate to the political reality in Britain of the existence of a Labour Party that is effectively the political representative of the trade union movement. A sectarian approach to such a party and especially to the left of that party separates Marxists from the working class.

In the absence of a Marxist party, mass or otherwise, a few simple strategic concepts should guide our politics. The defence of a Corbyn leadership requires the left in the Labour Party to rapidly strengthen its organisational capacity and prepare for the fierce struggles ahead. Marxists should encourage all those who have signed up as affiliated or registered supporters to join the Labour Party but with the intention of organising collectively to support both a Corbyn leadership and the transformation of the Labour Party.

The emerging response of the Socialist Party to the Corbyn phenomenon which seems to be along the lines that the supporters and affiliated organisations of TUSC should stand aloof from the Labour Party, making demands for a new clause 4 and so on (ie, awaiting the victory of the left without lifting a finger to make it happen), before they deign to open talks about collaboration or merger is effectively to opt out of the most important struggle for the working class in decades.

Alongside the internal Labour Party struggle, attempts should be made to cohere Marxists both inside and outside of the Labour Party. Since for the time being, the Labour bureaucracy has made clear that it will block the membership of many socialists, even if they wanted to join, it is inevitable that many socialists will remain outside of the Labour Party.

The Independent Socialist Network could play a role in promoting the coming together of Marxists. We should allow Labour Party members into our ranks – they have not been explicitly excluded, but most ISN members have either been active in TUSC or Left Unity. At the same time we should seek to initiate contacts (including public meetings and conferences) between Marxists, whether independents or those currently in self-described Marxist or revolutionary socialist organisations, both within and outside of the Labour Party. The aim should be to explore the possibilities of developing a common Marxist programme, strategy and organisation. Faced with a political landscape on the verge of transformation, it is time for Marxists to throw aside sectarian considerations and seize the new opportunities.

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