openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Corbyn wasn't all bad

Labour has to learn from the successes as well as the failures of the past.

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Neal Lawson
11 April 2020
Jeremy Corbyn leaving home on 3 April, on the day he's due to meet Theresa May to discuss Brexit
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David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images

I was ready to let the Corbyn era drift off into the sunset and enjoy the fond memories of some and the disdain of others. That was until I read Sarah Baxter in the Sunday Times, whose words compelled me to write yet more.

Baxter, who I recall vaguely but fondly, from the early New Labour years when she was at the New Statesman, wrote a tirade against all things Corbyn, demanding indeed a “Corbynite clear-out’.

Look, I was no real backer of Corbyn. I did vote for him for reasons I’ll explain. But I never believed it would work as a project. But such a ‘year zero’ approach by the likes of Baxter fails, it seems to me, to learn anything.

This matters because Corbynism happened for a reason. Years of austerity, the shift to the gig economy and massive graduate debts left swathes of people ready and willing to adopt quasi-Marxist politics for the very good reason that capitalism had failed them. It wasn’t going to pay them or house them. Could they ever find security or start a family? Mix in climate change, corporate tax dodging, even dodgier foreign wars and bone dry technocratic political culture, and the ground had been beautifully but unwittingly prepared for a left-wing project like Corbynism.

Of course, anyone who had experienced the politics of the 1980s knew better than to swallow the whole ‘Jeremy is the new politics’ line. But it wasn’t hard to see why younger generations did. They had to experience it for themselves, for good and bad.

By the time the moment for Corbynism arrived in 2015, the so-called moderates that presumably Baxter backs, were so bereft of new ideas, culture or charisma that Corbyn romped home. The modernisers had long since stopped modernising and instead regurgitated weak versions of 1998 politics as if the crash in 2008 had never happened.

There are many substantial criticisms that can and should be laid at the door of the Corbyn project. Not least the way anti-Semitism festered during its reign and saying anything positive about the Corbyn era in no way makes up for this appalling episode. But it did attract thousands of new people to Labour, not all of whom could have been old Trots, and new ideas were allowed to flourish, like basic income, the Green New Deal, universal basic services, new forms of public ownership and more. Meanwhile the moderates offered nothing by way of new concepts, strategies or policies.

Brexit and the electoral hole Labour fell into in 2019 was not just the making of Corbynism, though it undoubtedly made it worse. Rather it was dug from 1997 onwards. New Labour never had a good word to say about Europe, opting out of so many Social Directives and encouraged mass migration without underpinning this with the social infrastructure to cope in terms of homes and incomes. New Labour was too relaxed about the City and too keen to commercialise public services. In all this, and its cultural humiliation of all things Old Labour, the voting figures prove it started loosening the bricks of the Red Wall before even 2005. The defeat last December is owned across the party.

But Corbyn was never a serious prime ministerial figure. That isn’t the fake news of neo-liberalism out to dupe us all. It’s the cold harsh truth of a politician who, however well meaning, never expected to lead Labour, never prepared for it and didn’t take it seriously when it happened.

Being anti-austerity is necessary but knowing how to manage and run a political party and project is also a requirement of real leadership. The sad truth is it wasn’t even a gentler or kinder form of politics as promised. Just recall Andrew Fishers resignation memo where he spoke of the toxic culture right at the heart of the Leaders office. These things matter. They really do.

I remembered very early after Corbyn won in 2015, talking with Jon Lansman, who runs Momentum, offering advice on why and how the Corbynites should and could reach out to others and be more inclusive. I knew I was wasting my time and his, but still felt compelled to try. Of course, a Parliamentary Labour Party that refused to ever accept the legitimacy of Corbyn’s win never helped. But the surprisingly good showing at the 2017 general election was the moment to open up from a position of strength. Instead, it seems, they believed their own hype and circled the wagons even tighter.

So, the Corbynites refused to learn anything about the professionalism and management skills of the Blairites. There was nothing good to say about the many achievements from 1997-2010, despite the mistakes. In turn, it seems from Baxter, the right of the party has nothing to learn from Corbynism. Politics frozen in time. An endless loop of either 1975 or 1997. All rock-solid certainty that shares a common and overwhelming trait of politics done to people by politicians who think they know best. It turns out they don’t.

The deep answers we face about the crisis of progressive politics in the tumultuous age lie for Labour way beyond the narrow politics of either Blairism or Corbynism as if there are only ever one of two choices. A different theory of change is offered here by Compass, the organisation I’m the Director of. Critically it sees the prime role of the state as being in service to myriad emerging networked and collaborative organisations in civil society and the social economy. A politics centred on negation not imposition.

Back in 2015 I said I was voting for the wave that the Corbyn moment gave political life to. I was clear I didn’t have confidence in the surfer. His moment has now come and gone. But the wave of anger and hope that swells in our society is there to be honed and harnessed and put to good effect. Especially now given the Coronavirus.

Starmerism, whatever it is, beyond obvious decency and competence, will steer its own course. But it would be wise to take the best from the past and not try to make out its year zero all over again.

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