Rising from the abyss - the Corbyn effect

In an exclusive and edited extract from his new book The Corbyn Effect, Mark Perryman measures the scale of Labour’s 2017 recovery.

Mark Perryman
22 September 2017
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In February 2017 Labour faced two by-elections. Losing one and with a much reduced majority in the other, the results seemed to leave Labour staring into the abyss.

In the Guardian Jonathan Freedland (who admits he is one of the “people who warned Corbyn would be a disaster from the start”) advised:

“Those who voted in good faith for Jeremy Corbyn need to ask themselves what they value more – the dreams they projected on to this one man or the immediate need to hold back a government wreaking intolerable damage on this country’s future.”

Whilst we’re revisiting Corbyn’s critics and their unqualified certainty of the disastrous outcome awaiting Labour under his leadership, it is worth recalling the open letter from Jamie Reed MP, whose subsequent resignation triggered the by-election Labour lost:

“At Prime Minister’s Questions today, an inexplicable development occurred whereby David Cameron spoke for the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs and Labour voters everywhere ‘it might be in my party’s interests for him (Jeremy Corbyn) to sit there, it is not in the national interest. I would say for heaven’s sake man, go!'...The Labour Party stands for a moral purpose that you do not share. We exist to redistribute power, wealth and opportunity through parliamentary democracy. Your (Jeremy Corbyn) actions have repeatedly shown that you do not believe that.”

Serving up humble pie to the Corbyn critics is of course no recipe for the unity Labour now craves if it is to turn a decent second into first place. But we need to understand why those who convinced themselves - and did their best to convince the rest of us - of Labour’s dismal electoral prospects under Corbyn, got it so wrong.

Of course Jeremy has form as a serial backbench rebel himself. But he was ignored by most of the media with only rare appearances in the TV and radio studios, and no columnists or leader-writers to champion his case let alone his credentials as an alternative party leader. In contrast, Jamie, Tristram, Jess, Chuka, Dan and the rest enjoyed all these advantages.

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But Labour’s crisis wasn’t ever as simple as just ‘their lot versus our lot’. It was best summed up by the prospect of ‘Pasokification’. Contributor to The Corbyn Effect James Doran describes the characteristics - the deep-seated unpopularity of austerity which were, pre-Corbyn, not being represented by any party’s electoral programme. The British Labour Party’s prospects were worsened by headlong and seemingly unstoppable decline of Scottish Labour, the break-up of any semblance of Labour Party unity, and Labour’s inability to transform its own outmoded organisational culture.

The eventual success of Corbynism in 2017 can to some extent be judged by its ability to address each factor. The SNP failed to popularise its case for a second independence referendum, which shifted the political debate north of the border away from constitutional matters and sparked a Scottish Labour recovery. The election campaign everywhere focussed on Jeremy’s growing popular appeal. And the manifesto, welcomed by previous regular Corbyn critic Polly Toynbee as “a cornucopia of delights”, created a platform for the left populism Corbyn had long promised to deliver. For the duration of the election Jeremy was no longer lumbered with voluble dissent from his rebellious MPs. And the ground campaign of Labour on the proverbial doorstep at last provided the space for the huge influx of new members to become involved in the party they had joined.

The magnitude of Corbyn’s achievement in avoiding ‘Pasokification’ has barely been noticed by a notoriously parochial English left and media commentators. Have they not noticed the headlong decline of those European social-democractic parties that have followed the favoured centrist route - not just PASOK in Greece, but Parti Socialiste in France, Partito Democratico in Italy, Partido Socialista in Spain, and the Dutch and Irish Labour parties? Adhering to the neo-liberal consensus and indistinguishable from their centre-right opponents, voters preferred the real thing while social democracy found itself outflanked on its left, its right and in some cases both. On the left, Syriza, Podemos, Mélenchon and others have rivalled the mainstream left for appeal and in some cases, the Dutch Green Left most spectacularly, have overtaken it.

The difference in Britain was that in Britain this challenge, the alternative to neoliberalism, has come from within the party of social democracy - Corbynism as what Doran calls ‘the antidote to Pasokification’.

John Harris is one of those writers who combines a healthy scepticism for what Corbyn might achieve with an acute sense of the depth of this crisis he inherited and – to some extent – of the Pasokification critique. Here’s Harris describing the context of Corbyn’s stunning win in the 2015 Labour Leadership election:

“Centre-left politics all over Europe remains locked in deep crisis, sidelined by the dominance of the centre-right, and further unsettled by the rise of new populist and nationalist parties from both ends of the political spectrum. In the delirium of Corbynmania and the arrival of tens of thousands of new members, the cold reality of Labour’s predicament has been somewhat forgotten. At the last election (2015), it won its second-lowest share of the vote since 1983.”

This was the wreckage from which Jeremy was expected to climb with party in tow. Nobody, not even most of his closest supporters, believed he could achieve that if the Tories set the trap of an early General Election. What in those circumstances could possibly go right?  A lot as it turned out, but not enough.

Post-election John Harris wrote another measured piece this time outlining the complexity of the position now Labour found itself in:

“In Scotland the party put on fewer than 10,000 votes. Despite the ‘dementia tax’ the Conservative lead among people over 70 was estimated to be 50 percentage points. And the syndrome whereby former Labour voters went first to UKIP and then the Tories was real and widespread – as evidenced by a handful of Labour losses in the Midlands, and other places where the Tory vote went up thanks to voters supposedly at the sharp end of austerity.”

The fact that in the iconic former mining constituency of Bolsover Dennis Skinner suffered a 7.7% swing to the Tories is as good a benchmark of the latter, and vital, point we are likely to get.  For some critics these flaws in the 2017 success story reveal a more worrying proposition, that the advances made are there to be reversed because of Labour’s enduring ambivalence on Brexit. Academic Matt Bolton spells out the likely consequences in particularly stark terms:

“Corbyn’s success postpones once again the moment of reckoning at which the left finally recognises that the acceptance of Brexit and the end of free movement constitutes a fundamental, generational defeat, one for which gains in the House of Commons, however welcome, are scant recompense.”

There are plenty, including those who enthusiastically back Jeremy, who share at least in part Matt’s reservations. However the contradictions of Brexit are yet to tear Labour apart. Some have warned of an ‘existential crisis’ as Labour sought to appeal to Labour leavers while keeping Labour remainers on board too. Labour in 2017 has mostly avoided that by shifting attention instead to the break with neoliberalism and an anti-austerity agenda. Labour’s response to the human tragedy of the Grenfell tower block fire further entrenched the popular reach of both Jeremy’s personal touch and the party’s values-led politics. Materialism and profit margins, as Grenfell so tragically illustrated, have their limits.

Any existential crisis, for the moment at least, is on the Tory side. The coalition from hell with the DUP can only further alienate whatever remains of Cameron’s liberal Conservative support. And at any sign of hard Brexit being softened, hardline eurosceptic Tory support will also lose faith and the resurrection of UKIP - or something like it - to split the right’s vote could become a serious proposition.

Perhaps the current situation of complexity and volatility is best summed up by the idea of a ‘Permanent Election.’  A neat turn of phrase on Trotsky’s thesis of a Permanent Revolution.  To the doorsteps!

 The Corbyn Effect is edited by Mark Perryman with a foreword by Paul Mason, and published by Lawrence & Wishart.  An essential post-election read, The Corbyn Effect makes sense of Jeremy Corbyn and the fundamental shift in our system of ideas 2017 has made possible. Available now from L&W here.

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