Simon Hannah asks whether Corbynism has stalled politically.
I’ll be honest, I was going to call this ‘Corbynism has peaked’, but I decided to triangulate the article a bit to make it sounds less final, less downbeat. After all, I’m not some fortune teller – I mean I don’t actually know the future.
But speaking of triangulation, let’s talk about Corbyn and Corbynism.
Do people feel like something has changed a bit? It used to be this new shiny and really exciting thing which was a kind of very British (constitutional, gradual, parliamentarian) revolution and now it already looks a bit tired and worn?
Given the contradictory nature of British politics at present, the Gordian knot of Brexit that wraps around everything, it certainly feels that Labour under Corbyn is stuck in a rut – it not facing potential decline. The recent split with TIG might be the beginning of a rebirth of avowed liberalism in Britain after nearly 100 years – it might not be. But the split and the subsequent collapse in polling for Labour should not be simply written off as weightless froth – they could point to something far more reaching
You might point to ongoing succeses such as the left sweeping the board at the London Region conference. This would be a mistake. My argument is not that the left of Labour cannot win any more factional fights in the party or machine that Momentum has built up over the last four years cannot consolidate various positions. My point is a political one, not merely a question of organisation.
I would argue that if there was been a peak that has been passed then there are actually two peaks.
The first is that there will be a backlash for Labour if it drives through Brexit or is seen to facilitate a No Deal Brexit. Corbyn might prefer a Brexit that delivers better workers’ rights and alternative state aid rules but whether he gets a chance to negotiate any kind of deal depends on a general election being called and Labour winning it. Otherwise the deal we have is all that is on offer and it is such weak sauce (inevitably so) that the demands for a Hard Brexit will only grow stronger. After all, complete independence from the EU is what the hard right want, and it is also increasingly what many of the the Lexiteers want – the consistent ones anyway.
Which is why so many of the Labour left who feel betrayed by Labour adopting a second referendum on Brexit is such a strange sight. People were willing to pursue a hugely damaging right wing nationalist project simply to scoop up some leave voters in marginal seats – an indication of chronic and fatal electoralism, the kind of malaise that Ralph Miliband diagnosed over 60 years ago.
I can hear some voices at the back saying “but there will be a backlash against Labour if they don’t deliver Brexit” – this is true. It shows you what a disaster the whole Brexit referendum has been from start to finish and what demons it has unleashed. There is literally no way out of this political crisis without alienating a section of Labour voters.
Already the number of people on Twitter claiming to have quit Labour provides a small indication of what may become a deeper trend. At the start of the year there were reports that some Labour members are joining the Greens or Lib Dems or simply dropping out. At the start of the year people were quitting becase Labour was facilitating Brexit, now they are quitting because Labour is proposing to put May’s awful deal to a public vote.
Of course this is all anecdotal at the moment – and Labour is furiously denying any drop in membership, but since so many young working class people voted remain and still want to be part of the EU, it is bound to be the case that increasing numbers will just draw the conclusion that Corbynism is too tainted by association with the kind of petty nationalism that the UKIP lot are also so obsessed about.
This also has an impact on Momentum. The Corbyn-supporter network might have over 40,000 members now but many of the groups seems to be withering, getting smaller and more fractious. A large number of younger people have bypassed the Momentum groups (and often their CLPs) altogether. There is a danger that CLPs begin to slip back into the control of the right who are waiting in the wings – they believe after all that Labour is their party, and that the left are mere interlopers (no doubt similar to what some socialists felt in 1994 when the Blairites took over). Can we keep up the momentum internally within the party and the electorate?
Programme – reaching for the stars or a modest contribution?
The second peak concerns programme.
It appears that we have already arrived at peak Corbynism, by which I mean the pinnacle of what the new politics is about. After three years when you could write the most beautiful characters on the blank piece of paper that was Corbynism the writing is finished. Corbynism has congealed before us. It is a social democratic project with a splash of workers’ cooperatives and a rehashed and very watered down Meidner Plan from Sweden in the 1970s to turn workers into shareholders. It is a little bit of renationalisation and a large dose of Keynesian investment. It is an end to austerity coupled with such a mild tax reform proposal that there is barely any extra money to restore funding for local government. It is ending freedom of movement and extending the hostile environment era ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ to all immigrants whilst its supporters still laugh at the old Control Immigration mugs of the Miliband era. Who’d have thought it, eh?
And one of the most pressing issues is the lack of historical or institutional memory. A lot of the old debates in Labour and on its left have been had before and then forgotten. This time we are ploughing on as if there has never been a critical word written about the current trajectory.
For instance in the 1930s there was a huge debate on the nature of ‘gradualism’ – could a Labour government just stay in government for years slowly nationalising things under the noses of the capitalist class until the New Jerusalem arrived? Left critics like the Socialist Leagu, the Independent Labour Party and the Trotskyists argued not; more mainstream voices said that gradualism was not only preferable, it was the only way. Today we see similar arguments, only this time the left is the mainstream – the left are advocating gradualism. They will renationalise rail, one track at a time, as the contracts expire. It will take over a decade.
Likewise with the plan for worker-shareholders. After 20 years we could see some companies run by their workforce when they finally get a 51% controlling stake on the board of shareholders. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey. Actually McDonnell’s scheme makes this much less likely than the Meidner plan did. But if we did approach that point, does anyone believe that the bosses will allow this to happen gradually? It didn’t work in Sweden when they tried it in the high point of Social Democracy – it seems unlikely that the rabid neo-liberalist privileged elite of the British capitalist class will simply sit back and watch their companies slowly prised from their fingers. As Labour theoretician R H Tawney said: “You can peel an onion layer by layer but you cannot skin a tiger claw by claw.”
It isn’t just the question of manifesto/programme, it is the approach to wider political struggles. Corbynism has had no impact on the trade unions. They are still run by the same conservative minded bureaucracies as before. Strikes are at a historic low, lower than when they were illegal during World War Two, despite wages having flatlined for over a decade. There are no new rank and file or grassroots movements to challenge the industrial reticence of the unions leaders.
The same is true of local government; the Corbyn surge did not translate in any meaningful way to either a higher turn out, a new strategic direction for Labour local authorities or even considerably more Momentum/left wing councillors being selected or elected. Local government is run by the same people as it was before – with the exception of Haringey who have run headlong into a massive argument about gentrification. There are no new social movements or community led campaigns around issues like housing. All of that peaked before the 2015 election, not to be seen again because presumably everyone joined Labour and is just focussing on internal factional warfare (and also intra-left warfare) alongside elections. It is a tale as old as time (well, as old as the Labour Party…)
The biggest change that can be discerned is how many young left wingers now have careers in parliament or the unions – that is where they see change being made, within and through the machine. It seems that the long march through the institutions has replaced marching on the streets. The biggest social movement in the last three years was the anti-Brexit movement, which most Corbynite activists scorned and derided with such intensity it could have powered the national grid for weeks, despite the fact that most Labour members and voters are also opposed to Brexit. The largest demonstration since the anti-Iraq War protests the bulk of the Labour left had nothing to do with and actively fought against happening.
And all of this will come to a crunch if Labour loses the next election. The failure to build sustainable campaigns or make inroads outside of parliamentary politics means that if Labour loses the election Corbyn will have little to show for his time in charge. In some instances you can lose one election and carry on (Kinnock did, Miliband chose not to) but you cannot lose two. Unless you are Clement Attlee and have the political capital of the 1945 government to spend on canceling out defeats.
The problem is that the entire political landscape now will be dominated by Brexit. Some on the Labour left will throw themselves into activism to combat the rise of the far right, but the growing strength of fascism is only a symptom of a deeper crisis at the heart of globalisation internationally. Labour’s response to that crisis is to reach for the Tony Benn and go for the siege economy model of the Bennites from the 1970s – but this time not even linked to the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. Without widespread socialist democratic planning alongside a revived and militant workers’ movements we are heading for a crisis of social democracy, riding a wounded and flailing tiger, trying to cut off its claws with implements singularly ill designed for that purpose.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of recent political events to demonstrate the peak has already passed is the distress that so many on the left felt about Corbyn backing a second referendum over Brexit (a position supported by the majority of the party) and outrage over the suspension of Chris Williamson. There are honestly people who think the Williamson episode indicates some kind of red line that has been crossed and the potential end of the Corbyn project.
Such a shallow analysis points to the deeper problem – very few people were up in arms when the 2017 manifesto presented an incredible limited social democratic platform or when Labour agreed to ditch freedom of movement from Europe and extend NRPF to appease nationalists. If people want to draw red lines then they need to think strategically about where they are placing them and what they honestly think the consequences of crossing them are.
But then I don’t know the future, all I can do is look to the past and try and draw some lessons.
• Simon is one of the Clarion‘s editors and author of A Party with Socialists in it: a History of the Labour Left, as well as the joint Secretary of Lambeth UNISON and Secretary of Tooting CLP. His website is talking-about-the-new-jerusalem.com