openDemocracyUK: Opinion

I was at the heart of Corbynism. Here's why we lost

Structural factors, not individual failings, defeated us

Andrew Fisher
10 September 2020
Andrew Fisher and Jeremy Corbyn
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Andrew Fisher, all rights reserved

For me, Corbynism is not a description of a political ideology, much less a personality cult, but of a four and half year period (from June 2015 to December 2019) when socialism in the UK advanced and then receded.

Understanding the reasons for that advance, and for its demise, are important. If we cannot learn from our mistakes (and from our successes), how can we do better in the future? Neither the emergence of Corbynism nor its failure were primarily due to individuals or groups of individuals, but to structural factors that need to be understood.

Of course the roles of individuals are important, but they are only important within the context of whether they take the opportunities and dodge the pitfalls that structural factors put before them. 

As Marx said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”.

There is no gain from mourning what could have been, and a lot to lose by being subsumed in a vortex of personal recrimination. Not only does such negativity and division delight the Right, it misdiagnoses the issue and actively prevents learning by expending our energy on peripheral trivia.

Why ‘Corbynism’ emerged

The economic malaise that has afflicted the UK since the global financial crash, recalls Antonio Gramsci’s words: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” 

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s leadership of the Labour Party was an attempt to birth that new order. 

In 2015, five years of austerity in public services, a housing crisis, and stagnating wages were huge issues facing Britain, and Labour had little answer to any of them. Labour promised a little bit less bad stuff, a little more good stuff, but not too much lest the deficit and debt get out of control like last time, for which the Labour leadership had collectively and foolishly decided to blame itself. 

In the wake of the 2015 general election, the Tories had a parliamentary majority, Labour had its lowest number of seats in the Commons since 1983, and party membership, which had peaked at 450,000 in the mid-1990s, had withered to just 190,000. The party was defeated, demoralised and decimated.

In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn …

… a 200-1 outsider in June

… a lifelong backbench MP since his election in 1983

… someone for whom allies begged nominations to scrape onto the ballot 

not only won the Labour leadership, but won it by a landslide.

After the 2015 election defeat, the Labour right had acted swiftly to frame the election as a popular rejection of Ed Miliband’s pigeon-step leftwards. “Too anti-business” intoned one; “we failed the John Lewis test” chimed another.

There was a problem with this argument. It wasn’t true, and it didn’t resonate with the experience of Labour members on doorsteps around the country, who in May 2015 had been more likely to be told “you’re all the same” than “I fear Marxist Miliband”.

The right of the Labour Party sought to confine the 2015 leadership debate to a technocratic contest to find the most competent and inoffensive leader to the John Lewis shoppers ventriloquised through the right wing press. This attempted framing alienated the centre-left within the party, which then became fertile recruiting ground for the Labour left – an opportunity that was seized, enabling Corbyn’s landslide victory three months later.

Corbyn won because he offered resistance to the Tories: resisting austerity, xenophobia and attacks on social security. But he also did something else: he put forward a modest case for socialism – for workers’ rights, public ownership, and redistributive taxation.

One of the most impressive facets of that transformative campaign in 2015 was how it mobilised people and motivated them to join the Labour Party. There was a gloriously optimistic energy about the 2015 leadership campaign and within a matter of months Labour Party membership nearly trebled to over half a million members.

Pre-Corbynism, in the death throes of the New Labour era, Labour’s leading lights were openly debating greater state funding since there was consensus across the political spectrum that the days of mass political parties were dead. Likewise there were the interminable assertions that the young were politically apathetic.

Corbynism smashed this consensus, built as it was on a comforting misdiagnosis of the problem. People had disengaged from Westminster politics because it deserved nothing more than apathy, if not antipathy: the lies of the Iraq war, the MP expenses scandal, the corruption of cash for honours – and, most of all, the failure of either side of the political divide to articulate meaningful policies for the country post-crash.

Unlike in Greece where the socialist Syriza had replaced the sold-out social democrats of PASOK, Corbynism was an attempt to convert a centrist Labour Party into a radical socialist movement. Naturally that met resistance …

The structural problems: 

Labour culture

Corbyn won a landslide by winning a majority of existing members, new members, registered supporters and affiliated members. His victory was total. Well, near total. There were two groups that had not been won over that summer: the PLP and many senior staff in Labour HQ.

What has become known as the Labour leaks report, giving rise to the Forde Inquiry, is not just a story of embittered factional misbehaviour, but the inevitable consequence of the contradictions of New Labour’s legacy.

New Labour won electoral success on the back of the groundwork done by John Smith, but it never really converted the party grassroots. The New Labour leadership was defeated at conference on numerous issues like PFI, as far back as 2002, and rail renationalisation in 2004. Even at the apex of New Labour’s apparent hegemony within the party, the membership consistently voted for at least half its representatives on the NEC to be from the left and centre-left. New Labour relied upon patronage and the electoral success which John Smith, and the Tories’ implosion, had made inevitable.

Labour has historically been characterised as a party of social democrats and democratic socialists, with the former almost always dominant. The differences between those two positions were significant but rarely debilitating in the context of a party aspiring to move the country left.

New Labour created a fundamental rupture by embracing the post-Thatcherite neoliberal economic settlement – indeed rolling it out into new areas, as Mary Robertson recently explained. New Labour repealed little of the anti-union legislation, continued financial deregulation, and reversed no major privatisations. 

Corbynism exposed the fragile hold of New Labour’s policy positions within the party and led to a realignment. Labour is now a party committed to public ownership and opposed to privatisation, for stronger rights at work, and the global financial crash has buried that failed model of unsustainable growth. Not a single candidate for the leadership in 2020 demurred from those positions.

New Labour’s economic and social authoritarianism had lost its place in a culturally liberal and economically social democratic Labour Party – but it did not leave without seeking to inflict the maximum possible damage.

As Corbyn was giving his victory speech in September 2015, a handful of shadow ministers resigned. This immediately framed the story of Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable rise to the Labour leadership as a moment of internal conflict.

The resistance came not only from those departing, but also from those who served in that initial shadow cabinet and frontbench. In 2015, Corbyn had nowhere else to go. There were few socialist Labour MPs, and of those few many had only been elected three months earlier. Those with longer standing who wished to serve, served: John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett. With Jeremy they comprised four of the shadow cabinet – one in six.

Only around 20 Labour MPs had genuinely backed Corbyn. The politically balanced shadow cabinet and the retention of the previous chief whip was both a genuine attempt at pluralism and an anticipatory suing for peace.

The first year of Corbynism established only that Labour was dysfunctional. Despite the popularity of his policy-heavy leadership bid, none of it had been articulated from office, because it couldn’t get it through the shadow cabinet.

When Labour was faced with the snap election in 2017, it was polling at just 24%, half the level of Theresa May’s seemingly impregnable Conservatives.

It’s worth reflecting that without their co-ordinated and long-planned resignations in 2016, there is no chance that the 2017 manifesto would have looked as it did. The transformative policies would never have got through Corbyn’s original shadow cabinet.

Whatever truth the Forde inquiry finds about the actions of senior staff exposed by the leaked report, the reality is that Labour MPs inflicted far greater sabotage in the period prior to the 2017 election. 

Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership in 2020 for three main reasons: he pledged to stick to the core policies of Corbynism; he promised competent leadership; and he prioritised party unity. There is nothing in this that the left should oppose or be in conflict with. 

Starmer has so far faced little to none of the internal sabotage and obstruction that Corbynism endured. The Left should behave better (and largely has), and it may also need to build alliances to keep Starmer’s policy pledges on track.

The weakness of the Left

Corbynism didn’t emerge from nowhere. Although there was no organised proto-Corbynist faction within Labour in 2015, Corbyn and McDonnell had spent years supporting disparate movements large and small, popular and niche. 

During the leadership election, support was drawn from the People’s Assembly – which mobilised a 200,000-strong march in late June 2015; from the Stop the War movement, and the Palestine solidarity movement. Corbyn’s support for these movements wasn’t opportunism during a leadership campaign, but genuine participation, solidarity and hard graft over decades. Likewise, thousands of trade unionists had seen him on their picket lines, at 5 or 6am in the morning, not with a camera crew but just there in solidarity. These forces coalesced in the summer of 2015 to give us Corbynism.

New Labour co-architect Peter Mandelson had spoken proudly of encasing the Labour Left in a “sealed tomb”. The resurrection was Lazarus-like: a sickly outcast in the corner, whose demise had been widely confirmed, suddenly returned from the dead.

And the problem that faced Jeremy Corbyn and his team in 2015 was that the above depiction is accurate. The Labour Left was not an organised force within the institutions of the party prior to his victory. 

This long-standing absence of an organised Left imposed material constraints on Corbyn’s leadership from the start. It meant that there were few socialist MPs that had been elected in recent elections, and few at all with prior frontbench experience. While the party membership had ushered in a new era, the PLP remained a New Labour stronghold (buttressed by the corrupt patronage of the House of Lords). 

The Left was not sufficiently prepared to take on the management of a major political party. The staff appointed were all learning on the job, while facing huge institutional resistance. Christine Berry recently wrote that “the Corbyn project was an attempt to build the car whilst driving it”. That's an understatement. The Corbyn project was an attempt to build the car while driving it and learning to drive at the same time, while fighting over the steering wheel.

This had profound consequences too for those at the grassroots. Momentum was built from the foundations of the 2015 Corbyn leadership campaign. Too much of its time was subsumed being the defenders of the leadership, less praetorian guard and more peasants’ revolt in the constituency parties of recalcitrant MPs. Momentum’s founding purpose of transforming the party into a social movement from solely an electoral machine (and not a recently successful one) was understandably diverted because of the huge resistance Corbynism faced. 

When the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale introduced open selections for every MSP seat, it was discussed rationally, but when there was a hint that party members could force their Westminster representatives to go through a democratic process to stand again, there was outrage – and language turned on its head: democracy became “a purge”, “a threat” or “intimidation”. 

This frame is important to understand as it has deep roots that go back to Labour’s formation, when the party adopted all the parliamentary conventions of the establishment. As former Labour cabinet minister Dick Crossman once put it, in a brutally honest assessment of how MPs viewed the membership:

“The Labour Party requires militants, politically conscious socialists, to do the work of organising the constituencies. But since these ‘militants’ tended to be extremists, a constitution was needed which maintained their enthusiasm by apparently creating a full party democracy while excluding them from effective power. Hence the concession in principle of sovereign powers to the delegates at the Annual Conference, and the removal of most of this sovereignty through the trade union block vote on the one hand, and the complete independence of the PLP on the other”.

The purpose of the Left now must be to make the party more democratic at every level.

Brexit

Being in a leadership role, doesn’t mean only that you get to promote the issues you want. You also have to address the issues that events force upon you. 

Corbynism always felt on strong ground when talking about public services, redistributive taxes and ending austerity. While Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott – the three MPs core to the project – were personally confident and principled on issues like social security and migration (as their exemplary voting records on these issues attest), there were tougher institutional hurdles to be overcome in being able to articulate those sentiments without contradiction.

Taxing the rich, public ownership of the railways and core utilities, and ending austerity had majority public support. Increasing benefit levels and more humane migration policies did not. Even among some parts of the pro-Corbyn coalition, there were some who always cautioned against raising these issues.

These were consequences of both the weakness of the Labour Left and the culture of Labour. But both were, in part at least, overcome. Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign had been strengthened by his rebellion on the Welfare Reform Bill, when Labour was whipped to abstain and all the other leadership candidates did. Under Corbyn, Labour also scored two massive U-turns on social security – on tax credits in 2015 and personal independence payments in 2016.

Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, the daughter of the Jamaican migrants, was one of only six Labour MPs to have voted against the 2014 Immigration Act that ushered in the hostile environment. When the Windrush scandal emerged, Labour’s response was forceful and principled. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was forced to resign and Labour committed to scrapping the hostile environment policies (and more).

But the major policy issue that stymied Labour was Brexit. Although the overwhelming majority of members, trade unions and MPs all favoured remaining in the EU in 2016, the divisions erupted in 2018. In February 2017, all but 47 Labour MPs had voted to trigger Article 50, i.e. to start the process of leaving the EU – implementing the result of the 2016 referendum.

The 2017 general election changed the arithmetic in the House of Commons and removed the Conservative majority. The then prime minister Theresa May continued to pursue a hard Brexit – outside of the single market and any custom union – without the parliamentary majority (or negotiating skills) to deliver it. What followed was months of stalemate in government-EU Brexit negotiations, followed by months of parliamentary stalemate.

By the time Theresa May was ready to compromise in Spring 2019, there was an entrenched ’People’s Vote’ block (mostly on the opposition benches) and an entrenched ‘no deal’ block on her own benches. Just as she had run out of road, she decided to change course. Like Wile E. Coyote she was already over the precipice without yet knowing it.

It is important to counter the myths that have grown up around Labour’s Brexit position.

a) Labour could have done a deal with Theresa May

It is possible that the two negotiating teams could have agreed a deal in May 2019, but that deal would not have survived the Conservative cabinet, let alone got through the House of Commons. 

The talks broke down because the judgement of everyone on the Labour side – from Jeremy Corbyn to Keir Starmer – was that the Conservatives had neither offered enough nor could they deliver on the limited concessions they had made.

b) Labour could have held to its 2017 manifesto position

Circumstances changed dramatically after the 2017 election, and so had opinion within the party. The 2018 conference composite motion recognised that a stalemate was on the cards and voted unanimously (or very near) to put the option of a public vote on the table. By the 2019 conference, after another year of stalemate, every affiliate and every CLP delegate voted for Labour’s position to be for a second referendum – the only point of dispute by that stage was whether Labour should stay neutral in that referendum or campaign for Leave.

Labour’s more balanced approach, holding to the 2018 conference position, was put to the electoral test in 2019 European elections, where Labour polled just 13.6% of the national vote – and finished third. By July 2019, Labour had indicated clearly it backed a second referendum, and was ahead of the Tories in the polls (partially because the right vote remained split between the Tories and the Brexit Party).

Brexit divided the Labour/Left electorate more than it did the Conservative/right electorate – especially once the Brexit Party effectively went into coalition with the Tories for the 2019 general election. That realignment contrasted with the inter-party hostility on the other side, where the Lib Dems attacked Labour with more gusto than they did the Conservatives.

The recently floated idea of a limited electoral pact between the two parties could theoretically have limited the losses of both, without changing the overall outcome. But such a proposal was a fantasy, when the clear electoral objective of the Jo Swinson-led Lib Dems was to attack Labour, and replace it as the major opposition party, if not the government (an even more fantastical notion).

A final alternative history reflects that the indicative votes of 2019 suggested there was a majority for a soft Brexit, close to a Norway-style deal. If those MPs opposed to a hard Brexit had voted for compromise, it is possible that it could have been delivered. However, reality intrudes again: many People’s Vote supporting MPs (from Labour, Lib Dems and SNP) rejected this, wanting to remain at all costs – a ’shit or bust’ strategy.

Counterfactuals and hypotheticals can be mildly diverting conversations, but they are not serious analysis – and cannot wish away objective realities that the party faced over Brexit among its electorate, its membership, and its MPs at different junctures. Brexit entrenched division and caused frustration principally because of the mishandling and dithering under Theresa May; and because of Labour’s relative success in the 2017 election campaign, which shifted the parliamentary arithmetic and gave the hardcore Remainers a glimmer of a chance.

The task for the Left is not to re-fight Brexit, or to further entrench the related ‘culture wars’. Instead, the Left should be seeking to unite people campaigning around the policies that proved popular, bringing people together whether they voted remain or leave.

We're stronger than we were

When the Labour vote rocketed by nearly ten percentage points in 2017 – the largest increase in the share of the Labour vote between elections since 1945 – it was because Labour rammed home a simple message, For the Many Not the Few, and illustrated it with three core messages that fitted within that frame, and had mass public appeal: we’ll invest in your public services, we’ll increase taxes on the corporations and richest to pay for it, and we’ll take into public ownership services that should never have been privatised to stop the rich ripping you off.

In 2017, Labour came within a whisker of squeaking into government despite huge internal sabotage from some of its own politicians and some of its own senior staff. 

It is also true that in 2019, a dysfunctional Labour Party, divided on the biggest issue of the day – with that dysfunction and those divisions reaching deep into the leadership – went down to ignominious defeat.

There is no contradiction in those two statements. Focusing on allegedly malicious individuals, rather than structural problems is futile when the individuals concerned are no longer influential in either the leadership of the party or in running Labour HQ. We must learn the lessons for the future, not argue the past.

I hope the Forde Inquiry gets to the truth on the extent of sabotage by senior HQ staff against the Labour leadership team, but whatever its conclusions, and the actions that follow, it will do nothing to advance the left within the party. 

We have the power to do that. And we should have confidence. 

The structural conditions that gave rise to Corbynism still persist. The Left is in a stronger position than it was in 2015. The membership is still favourable to the key tenets of the policy agenda (as is much of the public). The new party leader ran on a 10-pledge policy platform almost identical to Corbyn in 2015, and called the 2017 manifesto (unfathomable for decades in Labour politics) his “foundational document”. 

Newer Left wing members have become much more skilled and knowledgeable about how the party operates, gaining experience of local parties, conference and in campaigning techniques.

The Left now also has far greater parliamentary representation with some seriously impressive young blood (e.g. Zarah Sultana, Nadia Whittome and Bell Ribiero-Addy) alongside the older guard (e.g. Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott) and the class of 2015 (e.g. Long-Bailey, Burgon, Lewis).

For some newer members, unused to a party in which their faction is not in control, the current situation is disorientating. Likewise for older members who experienced the party pre-Corbyn, there is a comfort in retreating to the pre-2015 ‘heckling from the sidelines’ discourse, as if a switch has been flipped and the circumstances reset.

Older members in particular have a duty to recognise the changed environment and react accordingly. While the Left no longer controls the leadership, it maintains the best organised faction of the party, with tens of thousands of members. The core policies of Corbynism are not only supported by the membership, but are the standard to which the new leader has attached himself.

As a simple illustration, in late August the Labour frontbench called for the benefit cap to be removed entirely. The pre-Corbyn party supported the benefit cap. The last five years have shifted the centre ground of debate in the party, and the Left can play a constructive (and, when necessary, constructively critical) role that reflects both our influence and the position of the current leadership. 

We cannot construct a binary of ‘Corbynism’ and ‘not Corbynism’ – that locks us into an oppositionalist stance and in doing so places us into a sealed tomb of our own making. 

Instead, the Labour Left must work constructively to build on the best of Corbynism’s legacy, while organising to remove the structural factors that inhibited its success. 

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