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If the left is to move forward, we must ditch cartoon Corbynism

It’s essential that we debate the limits of Corbyn’s leadership. But this must be based on reality – not a cartoon version of what Corbynism represented.

Christine Berry
4 February 2020, 1.13pm
Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

There have always been two versions of Corbynism: what I’d call ‘actually existing Corbynism’, and a sort of cartoon Corbynism that exists mainly in the minds of its political opponents.

You’ll be familiar with cartoon Corbynism, even if you don’t know it, because it has dominated media discussion of the Labour party for the last five years. They’re top-down state socialists; they just want to nationalise everything; they’re going to take us back to the 1970s (or maybe the 1940s).

Theresa May set the tone in the 2017 election campaign, responding to the leaked Labour manifesto by accusing it of harking “back to the disastrous socialist policies of the 1970s”. But it wasn’t just Tories that peddled this line: many Labour politicians privately and not-so-privately did the same. As it turned out, the electorate didn’t seem to agree, with the manifesto leak later seen as the turning point of a campaign that deprived May of her majority. This inconvenient fact silenced Corbyn’s internal critics for a while, until they found new sticks with which to beat him. Now Labour has finally suffered the resounding defeat that 2017 so unhelpfully failed to produce, cartoon Corbynism is enjoying a comeback.

Writing for the Independent, Rob Newman of The Independent Group for Change repeats Margaret Beckett’s dismissal of the Corbyn wing as “the ‘moron’ tendency”, insisting that the country “reject[ed] nationalisation out of hand” at the election. This is certainly a bold take from someone representing a party that has just lost every single one of its MPs. But more than this, it’s one that wilfully refuses to engage either with the evidence that Labour’s policies on public ownership are still overwhelmingly popular, or with the detail of the policies themselves.

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Suzanne Moore has been at it as well. Last week she published a rambling diatribe that implicitly accused the Corbyn wing of having nothing to offer: “shouting about austerity and neoliberalism may have felt righteous, but it was never policy”, she observes. Good job Labour also had some policies then, eh? The left must be “optimistic, visionary and inclusive instead of just ranting slogans about how awful everything is.” Honestly, it’s as though 2017 never happened. Corbyn’s opponents never truly got their heads around the fact that people were presented with a bold vision for change and actually seemed to quite like it. Now that Corbyn has been defeated and order is restored, they have simply written this episode out of history.

Last week’s Guardian article from John Harris is another example. Labour is “stuck in the 20th century”, we’re told; its 2019 platform amounted to little more than “old-fashioned statism”, and represents a “failure to understand that 1945 was a long time ago”. Harris will be relieved to know that he’s not alone in his view that Labour must embrace radical democracy and empowerment rather than “leaving the basic structure of the state untouched”. Nor is he the only one looking to “things written many years ago”, such as 1989’s New Times. One senior Labour figure has been re-reading the 1979 pamphlet ‘In And Against The State’, which declared: “it is the state’s resources we need – its relations we don’t”. He has argued that “the old, Morrisonian model of nationalisation centralised too much power in a few hands in Whitehall”, and that Labour must instead embrace more localised models that genuinely empower ordinary people and communities: “democracy and decentralisation are the watchwords of our socialism”. The name of this maverick innovator? John McDonnell.

Today, Liz Kendall and Alison McGovern became the latest to add their voices to the chorus. In a piece for PoliticsHome, they accuse Labour of being "stuck in the past" and of focussing on what it is against rather than what it is for. Bafflingly, the piece then goes on to set out a list of five "challenges" which could have been written ten years ago, and to which they offer no solutions.

But as Joe Guinan and I show in our book People Get Ready!, the Corbyn project has always been about reinventing twentieth-century socialism rather than reviving it – and, moreover, reinventing it in precisely the ways Harris identifies. Hence their work on new approaches to public ownership: for instance, “passengers, rail workers and government too, co-operatively running the railways”. The 2019 manifesto pledged to expand community energy, promising that “utilities won’t be run from Whitehall but by service-users and workers”. The party set up a Community Wealth Building Unit to help replicate and scale the much-lauded Preston Model in Labour councils across the country.

So why is this agenda still so poorly understood? Why has cartoon Corbynism proved so resilient? Part of the answer lies in Labour’s toxic factional politics. A large swathe of the party seem to have decided what Corbyn and McDonnell represented from day one, and despised them so much that they couldn’t bring themselves to listen to anything they actually said or did.

Of course, the leadership must also take their share of responsibility. Preoccupied with the pressures of developing this agenda whilst fighting on many fronts, they never did enough to popularise it, either within the party itself or outside it. Intellectually, they knew that developing an agenda for radical democracy from the top down was an oxymoron – but practically, they were unable to do anything else. And, as many commentators have now observed, the 2019 election campaign did not put this radical agenda front and centre, instead spraying spending pledges around like confetti in what proved to be a disastrous strategic mistake.

Rebecca Long-Bailey appears to have taken these criticisms on board, and has put democracy and empowerment at the heart of her campaign – going further than Corbyn on the need to extend this to the state itself as well as the economy, with radical devolution and reform of parliament. Her launch speech in Manchester promised to “put power back where it belongs: in your hands”. But the anti-Corbyn brigade clearly aren’t listening. While the Daily Mail correctly identified democracy as the top line of Long-Bailey’s launch, it was largely ignored by the left-wing commentariat.

Suzanne Moore claims that only Lisa Nandy understands that “our institutions are not for purpose” [sic] and “the answer does not lie in more centralisation”. Harris accuses Long-Bailey, along with Starmer, of “trying to convey a sense of purpose while saying nothing much at all”. If I were Long-Bailey (or indeed Corbyn or McDonnell), I would find all this absolutely exasperating. It’s one thing to be attacked based on your actual positions; it’s quite another to be attacked based on something diametrically opposite to what you are actually saying, by people who seem to stick their fingers determinedly in their ears whenever you open your mouth.

After the election, in the discussion about the media’s treatment of Corbyn, a comment on social media conjured up an image that has really stuck with me: “if you challenge power in this country, you’re not even on the pitch – instead there’s an evil cartoon version of you, saying things you never said.” It’s bad enough when this is coming from the Tories and the right-wing media. It’s no longer good enough for it to be peddled from within the left itself. By all means, let’s debate the limits and the legacy of Corbyn’s leadership. But let’s do so based on the reality – not the tired old myths of cartoon Corbynism.

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