Corbynism – where has the mass movement gone?

Despite the fighting talk, Corbynism has wasted the opportunity to transform Labour – and democracy – in a way that would be essential to deliver a radical programme in the face of opposition from capital.

Simon Hannah
25 January 2019
people's assembly.jpg

Image: Britain is Broken - General Election Now! protest called by People's Assembly, 12 January 2018. Credit: Facebook/People's Assembly.

In mid-January as the contradictions of Brexit left Parliament in gridlock, Labour supporters attended a small demonstration in London to call for a General Election. After three years of Jeremy Corbyn as leader and the almost unrivalled hegemony of the left at Labour Party conference in 2018, only a couple of thousand turned out - despite the general election call being the main demand of Momentum and others in the Corbyn camp. Where were the hundreds of thousands of members of Labour who joined because of change of direction?

In the midst of the Brexit debate and the grinding to a halt of Parliament, perhaps now is a good time to take stock of where the Labour left is at, asking a few simple questions we can try and discover just how transformative has Corbynism been.

What kind of socialism? 

In 2015 after Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership, John McDonnell said that Socialism is no longer a word you have to whisper in Labour. Fighting talk, but the 2017 manifesto promised only limited nationalisations and the current direction is firmly for a mixed economy with some regulation and a few modest tax increases – in other words a solid social democratic agenda.

The painfully moderate nature of Labour’s politics leads to a strange cognitive dissonance where activists herald Corbyn’s Labour as both a huge left-wing breakthrough whilst also pointing out that it is no more radical than Norway in the 1980s. The notion of realigning Britain with social democracy in Europe seems refreshing considering the last 40 years of neoliberalism and a decade of austerity, but there is little indication that we are developing a critical appreciation of the problems and near-collapse of social democracy.

The most radical part of the Labour left is seeing to exploit Brexit as a chance to implement capital controls and end state aid restrictions - known as ‘Lexit’. But without a bold anti-capitalist programme it looks remarkably like a poorer cousin of the Alternative Economic Strategy of the 1970s.

The inevitable response from comrades is that we have to be social democratic first and then - presumably when public opinion is more approving - proceed to a more socialist order. This stagist view of politics has historically been criticised as ‘gradualism’.

Gradualism - as Labour historian Andrew Thorpe describes it - means that “incrementally and by degrees, the party would gain support and pass legislation in an inexorable progress toward the socialist millennium." Booming capitalism would lead to more tax receipts and more money for state expenditure on social need and as the working class grew, more people would see the inequality and organise against it. All Labour had to do was keep winning elections and pass laws to - by degrees - transform capitalism into socialism. 

Today we have to ask ourselves: do current Labour left activists and intellectuals think that a Corbyn government can gradually, by degrees, lead us towards socialism? The plan to renationalise the rail is currently focused on waiting for the contracts to expire and then simply taking them back into public ownership – possibly as a co-operative of some kind. Even the plan for workers to be shareholders in capitalist enterprises will take around 20 years for workers to become majority shareholders. Will this happen without opposition? This leads us to the next question.

Why is there no extra-parliamentary action?

When Corbyn became leader he rapidly became a 'politician' in the traditional sense. This was a man who spent most of his adult life on picket lines, being arrested by the police and fronting campaigns for a thousand lost causes. Under his leadership we might expect Labour to turn outwards, become an organisation of social activism and struggle. Of course it never happened. Labour remains an electoral party only. The left might wish it did more extra parliamentary campaigns, but it doesn’t, and I doubt it ever will in any serious way. 

It has always been the left’s role to push extra parliamentary politics of community campaigns or solidarity with strikers. If Bennism meant anything, then it referred to an inherent distrust of the political class and the British establishment and a kind of left populist view of mass protests and empowerment as the alternative. Only this time the Labour left has been weak at organising and providing support for any campaigns outside of the Labour bubble. This is not to say that it never happens. But whilst the left prides itself on the 200,000 people that joined Labour because of Corbyn, outside of election campaigns those people are not organised nor visible. Remember the housing campaigns under the coalition government? They seem like a lifetime ago.

This will have implications for a left government. The Labour left argues that if a Corbyn government faces opposition from capital then the masses must turn out to defend it, presumably through mass demonstrations. The fear is that the networks of activists that might build such a defence have either atrophied and wasted away or were never created in the first place. Even as a general goal, such a strategy reduces the role of the masses to a stage army to be turned on and off like tap water in the defence of a government. Not a transformative approach but a paternalistic and electoralist one. 

How far can we transform Labour?

After three years, the Labour left has achieved some modest gains in transforming Labour. It focused on winning internal elections, and did so handsomely.

But the recent Democracy Review missed the huge opportunity to fundamentally change Labour as radically as Blairites had done between 1994 and 1997. Whilst the Democracy Review achieved some reforms, it did not tackle the historic and fundamental fault line in the independence of the PLP, how the manifesto is created and conference sovereignty.

Another concern is the culture on the Labour left. The rise of quasi-Stalinist or soft Stalinist politics, the constant demands for people not to criticise ‘the leader’ and an approach to debate where crucial questions of strategy are reduced to a matter of loyalty – all worryingly lead towards a form of authoritarian thinking which sees disciplining the left and silencing critical voices as an essential step on the road to victory.

The left has also essentially adopted the same approach as the Blairites to command and control politics. Momentum’s organisers appear to have become immediately distrustful of the membership and shut down most avenues that allowed any say in internal democracy. Some people celebrated the lack of democracy as it allowed Momentum to ‘get on with things’ and not be ‘bogged down’ in constant ‘internal debates’. Momentum also promised an online voting platform to replace delegate-based decision making, though it’s never appeared.

None of this bodes well for a healthy and vibrant party of the left.

And what about transforming the trade unions?

The left and specifically Momentum had an incredibly strong showing for CLP delegates at the 2018 national conference, but they couldn't beat the trade union vote when it came to crucial issues like mandatory re-selection/”open” parliamentary selections. Instead of the far more democratic proposal for open selections the conference merely lowered the threshold for trigger ballots. A classic trade union response – negotiate a compromise that leaves the essential power relations untouched. The failure to build any kind of fighting radical left in the unions is a strategic weakness. 

In fact, one of the most telling indications that the revival of the Labour left has failed to lead to more radical developments in other areas of the workers' movement is the trade unions. Corbyn and McDonnell have now said that under their leadership Labour will be a party that readily supports strikes and there is now conference policy for Labour to repeal all the old Thatcherite anti-union laws once in government. Whilst welcome, this is still a programme for government, not a practical guide for socialist struggle today. The leadership say they will support workers on strike - if only there were any strikes! In 2017 there were only 79 stoppages, the lowest figure since records began in 1891 with only 33,000 workers involved in Labour disputes - again the lowest since records began.

The contradiction in the unions that hasn't been resolved is that a lot of trade union big wigs profess support for Corbyn whilst also perpetuating an industrial malaise which is seeing the NHS privatised, local government decimated and wages at historically low levels. They urge people to vote for Corbyn while doing nothing for their members in the present. Most of us wouldn't expect much different from established union leaders, but the newly energised and organised Labour left has had no impact whatsoever on the dire state of British trade unionism. It is all eggs in the basket of winning the next election. A classical electoralist approach. 

Is the state neutral?

Likewise the current Labour left's position on the state seems very unclear. Previous incarnations of the Labour left had touched on a critique of the state. The Socialist League developed a strategy around overcoming the inherent conservative pro-capitalist class nature of the political establishment, with one of their leaders, Sir Stafford Cripps, even proposing abolishing the monarchy. The Bennite movement had a critical take on the 'political class'. What is the view of the Corbynite movement on the nature of the state and what a socialist, or even social democratic strategy towards it should be?
There is some critical thinking -– openDemocracy published an extended examination of the role of the state in a Democratic Socialist project in 2018, New Thinking for the British Economy, which lists a range of problems dogging British democracy, a list which Labour’s politics have barely touched on. It suggests a Constitutional Convention to draw up a constitution for the UK – a radical proposal compared to Labour’s current business-as-usual approach.

Is there a way forward?

I have previously analysed the Labour left as a transformative tendency (as opposed to the integrationist right of the party) which - at its best - was rooted in campaigns outside parliament and able to engage with social struggles as part of its parliamentary strategy.

Today we would have to conclude that the Labour left is dogged by strategic shortcomings that mean even if a General Election is called and even if Labour win, there are serious problems further down the road.

In the face of international growth in fascism and far right populism, having a successful, radical, transformative socialist government in Britain would make a difference. Sadly as each month slips past, it looks less and less likely. Labour as a parliamentary party was always going to struggle with a socialist agenda. The Labour left has focused mainly on winning the faction fight against the ‘melts’ and centrists in Labour and not on building broad campaigns of resistance or using Labour as a spring board for empowering people to challenge the entire system. Instead, the structural problems of parliamentary reformism not only haven’t been overcome, they haven’t even been addressed.

On the question of greater democracy, reforms are lacking. On the question of turning Labour outwards into a campaigning organisation the culture change has been almost non-existent. After three years of Corbynism, Labour is the same old parliamentary, electoralist party it has always been – and in a period of parliamentary crisis around Brexit, when we need a mass movement on the streets, Labour has done nothing to build it.

The way forward must include a more democratic space on the Labour left, a more considered political criticism of social democracy and the state, turning Labour out into the communities and building grassroots organisations in the unions. The Labour left has always been at its strongest when it achieved these things - its failure to tackle these issues now could be politically fatal.

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