ReviewsMike Phipps

Building a Corbyn movement

ReviewsMike Phipps
Building a Corbyn movement

This is a very useful collection of essays exploring the meaning, potential and contradictions within the Corbyn project. Far from being some kind of alien invasion, notes Lorna Finlayson, “Corbyn’s politics belong to a tradition that stretches back to Labour’s beginnings (something that could never be said of Tony Blair’s).” They constitute a defence of some of its founding principles, now under attack as never before.

But she continues: “The greatest significance of ‘Corbynism’, though, what it has disclosed about the political conditions under which we live. The events of Corbyn’s leadership campaigns and of his subsequent embattled tenure have helped reveal the degree to which the self-appointed political ‘centre’ has drifted to the right... Corbyn’s left reformism may be mild by the standards of earlier generations...but this moderate agenda is, clearly, totally unacceptable to the British political Establishment... The advent of Corbynism has called the bluff of those who argue that the homogeneity of British politics since Blair is simply reflective of a public consensus.”

So here’s the contradiction at the heart of Corbynism: its ideas have never been so popular. But this political movement comes at a moment when the level of industrial struggle by workers has rarely been so low.

James Meadway describes the shrinking of both the unions and their activity, with strike days lost in 2017 at their lowest since records began in the 19th century.  Of course, this problem is not confined to the UK. Elsewhere, democratic socialist parties have ideologically retreated, using organisational changes in the working class as the pretext. Our challenge is t build a movement that can sustain and help the Corbyn leadership transform the country.

The decline of trade unions challenges traditional working class identities and fuels electoral volatility.  Paula Surridge notes: “While the 2007 general election produced the largest two-party (Conservative and Labour) share of the vote for four decades, it also saw the highest level of vote switching. Voters are no longer anchored to parties by enduring party identities.”

So where will Labour find the extra voters it needs to win? The 2017 ‘youthquake’ may have been more about activism than extra voters, and to rely for victory on previously disengaged voters turning out would be a precarious strategy. Evidence also suggests that the largest increases in turnout in 2017 were among voters with liberal values on issues like gender identity, human rights and multiculturalism. But existing Labour voters may be alienated by excessively orienting to these issues – a cultural problem for Labour intensified by attitudes to Brexit.

There are limits to an approach based on issues and values, however.  Many of the individual policies championed by Ed Miliband in 2015 were popular, but the poor credibility of the overall campaign and the lack of a coherent narrative damaged Labour’s vote. In Scotland, the huge vote for the SNP in 2015 was for policies to the left of Labour -  and the opposition there to Brexit in 2016, despite Scottish voters feeling just as marginalised as ‘left behind’ voters in other parts of the UK, reflected the absence of a divisive and exclusionary nationalism that was so significant elsewhere.

What form will the movement needed to sustain a Corbyn government take? As someone who has been active in it for nearly 40 years, I would say: don’t put too much hope in the Labour Party. Mark Perryman in his keynote introductory essay notes its routinism and institutional conservatism. Heather Wakefield discusses the way Labour-led councils have rarely prefigured the radical potential of a Corbyn government – quite the opposite. And Jeremy Gilbert writes incisively about the limited impact of the new politics within the Labour Party: “Disappointingly, the Labour Party’s 2018 Democracy Review focused entirely on procedural issues... The question of how to encourage, extend, intensify and institutionalise the spirit of self-organised enthusiasm that emerged among so many party members during that historic 2017 election campaign should have been the Review’s central question. Instead, it was ignored.”

The danger, he argues, is that instead the leadership will seek success where it is at its weakest -within the Westminster system - and this will demoralise the membership. Operating within the traditional frameworks, it will be the more conservative pillars of Corbynism – including key unions – that will exercise most sway. He warns: “It is the apparent desire of the Unite trade union to exercise absolute authority over the party that poses the greatest danger. In 2018, Parliament voted to allow Heathrow airport to build a third runway: a catastrophic decision from an environmental perspective. It was pressure from Unite that prevented the party leadership from instructing MPs to oppose this measure.”

Hilary Wainwright too is preoccupied by the need for a new kind of party, “responsive to the ideas and innovative organisational forms of radical movements”.  But the examples she cites of earlier movements that prefigured the possibilities for transformation – the Institute of Workers’ Control and Women Against Pit Closures - while engaging grassroots activists, left no lasting impression on the Labour Party.

Is that so surprising? The Labour Party is after all, an electoral vehicle for getting politicians into office. While it needs to be made better at achieving this goal, the struggle to permanently transform the Party is arguably unachievable and perhaps ultimately secondary. The real problem is to ensure that a Corbyn government can govern. To ensure a Corbyn government can wield real power and transform Britain may mean building a much broader campaigning movement beyond democratising Labour.

I’ve highlighted the most thoughtful pieces, but some of the material here gets things spectacularly wrong. Neal Lawson’s discussion of Corbynism and, in his view, its excessive caution towards issues of Party democracy, is entirely divorced from the unrelenting siege mounted against the leadership by the Parliamentary Labour Party. How can one seriously talk about reintroducing the election of the shadow cabinet by Labour MPs, many of whom did not support the current leader and actively plotted his downfall? The experience of Corbyn’s first cabinet which moved, unsuccessfully, to destroy his leadership in 2016 is not even mentioned. Lawson’s failure to see the trade union movement as one of the social forces underpinning Corbynism leads him to misread the caution of key union leaders – for example in relation to the Party’s 2018 democracy review – for a lack of radicalism within the Corbyn leadership itself, which initiated the wide-ranging review.

Most of the other contributors here have a commitment to the Corbyn project and situate their criticisms in the context of a wish to strengthen it. Lawson’s failing is his desire to bury Corbyn under the dead horse of a progressive alliance with Liberals and others.

But overall, this is a valuable book, which comes with an excellent reading list for new activists.