The inside story of the movement behind the man—and why, whoever wins the electoral battle, the Left is winning the war
By Jack Shenker
Published on Prospect Magazine, Nov 8, 2019
Late in October, just as temperatures dropped and the nights drew in, more than 1,500 people joined an online conference call to discuss how Labour might win the upcoming general election.
Participants introduced themselves and shared their locations: from Crouch End to the Calder Valley, Canterbury to Cornwall. So many people were typing simultaneously that the text was often unreadable; it was a giddy celebration of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party by its most passionate activists. “Don’t listen to the naysayers and the doom-and-gloomers, don’t listen to the cynical hacks from the Westminster bubble!” Ash Sarkar, a journalist with the left-wing Novara media outlet, implored to wild applause. “This time around, you are Labour’s secret weapon,” insisted Callum Cant, an organiser with the pro-Corbyn Momentum group. He ran through some of the local initiatives that Momentum would pioneer to counteract the Conservative Party’s financial advantages: voter registration drives, phone-banks in living rooms, and WhatsApp threads to prompt like-minded friends and family members to knock on doors in marginal constituencies. “It’s only by stepping up your commitment that we will win,” he said.
Then it was time for a live link-up with Corbyn himself. Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition appeared on screen with the outlines of a children’s soft-play area and ball pit dimly in view behind him; he was calling in from the back room of a community centre in Harrow, where he’d just been meeting with supermarket workers, trade unionists and Labour members. “In this election campaign, nobody anywhere in this country will say there isn’t a choice,” he declared. This was vintage Corbyn, revelling in the role he plays best: the unvarnished politician communicating directly with supporters, rather than being trapped in the corridors of Westminster where the ambience and rituals reek of institutional power on somebody else’s terms.
“So, be up for it,” he concluded, his voice rising. “It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be wet… but you’ll look back on the winter of 2019 as the time you delivered a government that didn’t believe in free market economics and neoliberal thought, and instead believed in people, believed in social justice, whose whole being is based on our socialist values, and you would have got cold and wet for a very good reason.” The online crowd hit fever pitch; among these supporters, opinion polls of the wider public suggesting that Corbyn has the worst personal ratings for an opposition leader on record are disdained as flowing from media misrepresentation, and something that the energy of the campaign would soon put right.
“You restored my faith in politics,” wrote one supporter. “This guy’s the don,” said another. “Nationalise the ball pits!” quipped a third.
“Corbynism”—a broad and nebulous term, used to describe both a leftist ideology that has emerged from the wreckage of the financial crisis and the unlikely assemblage of political forces that has coalesced around it—is facing a moment of reckoning. Four years after he defied odds of 100-1 to claim the Labour leadership, and more than two years after the party shocked the pollsters and the commentariat by depriving Theresa May of her parliamentary majority, Jeremy Corbyn knows that December’s general election is likely to be his last shot at becoming prime minister. With the country and the constitution mired in Brexit chaos, and the gulf between the two major parties an ocean wide, the stakes are monumental.
Over the coming weeks, Corbyn’s every utterance, action and wardrobe choice will be relentlessly scrutinised, as they have been since his sudden ascension from backbench obscurity. But if the past is any guide, the coverage will make little attempt to explain the draw of Corbynism—part of the reason the pack read things so wrong in 2017. Press interest in Corbyn has tended to concentrate on in-house gossip and party discord; intellectual curiosity regarding the context for his rise, or its consequences for our politics, rarely features. That is a problem because the Corbyn project cannot be dismissed as a fad, a cult, or an irrelevant holdover from a bygone era. Its real meaning is deeper. It has emerged from a specific set of economic circumstances and social antagonisms that have scrambled political reality around much of the world over the past decade, fragmenting an old technocratic consensus and unleashing a bitter struggle over what will be built on the ruins. In joining that struggle, Corbynism is seeking a once-in-a-generation resetting of the terms of political debate.
In many ways, the 70-year-old man who lends his name to Corbynism is the least interesting thing about the phenomenon. Far more important than any individual is the question of what kind of future Corbynism hopes to build. Win or lose this election, neither the ranks of activists nor many of the ideas will disappear. Whether those ideas fill you with horror or hope, how they’re taken forward is crucial.
As a movement, Corbynism has never been monolithic. One element of its support base can be categorised as the remnants of the 1980s Bennite faction, who came of age politically amid the early days of Thatcherism and the ultimately unsuccessful battle by the Labour left to lead the party’s resistance to it. Some, like Corbyn himself and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, stayed in the party throughout the New Labour years despite being consigned to the fringe; others drifted away, especially after the Iraq war, and only returned to the fold to vote for Corbyn in 2015. Many of the party leadership’s fellow travellers are baby boomers who went to university in the late 60s or early 70s, bought houses at the right time, and went on to public-sector careers from which they are now beginning to draw their pensions.
“Just as critical to Corbynism’s rise has been a different generation: the children of the 2008 crash”
But just as critical to Corbynism’s rise has been a different generation: the children of the 2008 crash, who have entered adulthood against a backdrop of austerity, debt, staggeringly unaffordable housing and insecure work. Many have come to Labour from social movements like UK Uncut (which agitated against public spending cuts and corporate tax avoidance), Climate Camp and the campaign against university fees. Others have been radicalised after discovering that being well educated and well connected is no longer much of a shield against economic precariousness: a 2013 LSE/Manchester University study for the BBC concluded that such “emergent service workers” had become Britain’s second-biggest social class. Third Way triangulation doesn’t resonate with a cohort who want more from their politics than vague efforts to soften the edges of a market fundamentalism that has failed them or slow the pace at which the planet burns.
The boundaries of these different tribes are hazy: ideas and personnel overlap, and ideological nuances can cut across generational divides. McDonnell’s political impulses, for example, are closer to Momentum’s than those of Corbyn’s recently-removed chief of staff, Karie Murphy, accused by colleagues of being too controlling, stubborn and disciplinarian. But the tribes are worth keeping in mind if you want to grasp the two main faultlines running through the Corbyn project.
The first is over the radicalism, or lack of it, when it comes to the party’s platform. Labour’s 2017 manifesto was described by the Institute for Fiscal Studies as representing not just a break with austerity, but “something much, much more dramatic than that—an alternative to the form of market capitalism practised in this country for at least the past 40 years.” But just how “dramatic” it looked depended very much on your starting point: scrapping university fees, renationalising railways, and raising taxes on corporations and high-earners was bold by the standards of Britain in the 2010s, but not by the standards of many other contemporary European countries, nor indeed by those of Britain itself before the 1980s. The shockwaves created by the manifesto’s fairly unremarkable social-democratic policy suggestions exposed just how deeply neoliberalism had been entrenched.
Yet social democracy—ameliorating the worst impacts of capitalism through the weaving of a social safety net—is a programme born of another era, back when markets still held the promise of eternal growth, whose fruits the state could reasonably hope to redistribute somewhat. In a time of footloose and financialised capital, climate change, and vast corporate power over technology and data that transcends national borders, many of Corbyn’s supporters—especially the young—believe that socialist transformation will require something more: as adventurous and ground-breaking as Thatcher’s economic revolution was, but from the left. “The conditions under which you can possibly do social democracy are gone. They went with 2008,” argues James Meadway, an economist and former adviser to McDonnell.
What could an alternative look like? From Labour’s own “Alternative Models of Ownership” report, published after the 2017 election, to influential books by the likes of Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, Paul Mason and Grace Blakeley, a new wave of literature is emerging that offers some clues. It would likely involve new forms of public ownership in a more co-operative economy, universal basic services, an embrace of automation, and the equitable distribution of subsequent productivity gains via a shorter working week. Whereas the older left looks back on 1945 as Labour’s high noon, yearning to recreate the mood of a country whose state had “won the war and now wanted to win the peace,” the rising generation of activists descends from a different lineage.
Instead of the top-down political economy of 1945 and Herbert Morrison’s nationalised corporations, the pertinent precedents are found in guilds and mutuals, while the thinking stands more in the tradition of libertarian socialist GDH Cole. This rival philosophy never quite disappeared—it resurfaced in the pluralistic new lefts of the 1950s and 60s—but it was long eclipsed by big state social democracy.
Another generational difference is that the direct experience of many younger Corbynites makes traditional social democratic remedies for the housing crisis look tame. For those who are locked out of the housing market, and who grow up sharing music, data and knowledge online, Proudhon’s famous one-liner equating ownership with theft acquires a new resonance. Their thinking about property rights is thus much more radical than social democrats of the past. And they have shifted the dial within the party in the last two years: witness the move beyond the old staple of “building more council houses” towards instigating a new and more disruptive “right to buy” for private renters from their landlords.
It’s a distinct break from the dominant strand of British socialism in the late 70s and 80s. “The big thing that I think gets missed from what we’re trying to do is that we’re not seeking to concentrate power at the top within the state,” says 36-year-old Faiza Shaheen. Shaheen directs the CLASS thinktank and is also the Labour candidate hoping to unseat Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green, East London. “We’re trying to do this in a way that builds a new type of stakeholder society.”
Some Labour veterans fear there could be a trade-off between straying too far beyond the bounds of social democracy and electability. The midwinter election will soon test that. But the doubters have not carried the party. At this year’s conference in Brighton, delegates adopted motions including a commitment to decarbonisation at breakneck speed, free movement for migrants and the abolition of private schools, policies that went much further than—or outright contradicted—planks of the 2017 manifesto. All of these examples originated from grassroots Labour circles, rather than being put forward by the leadership itself.
The cultural revolution
Beyond the policy programme, there are disagreements over what sort of politics is required for implementation. Neal Lawson, director of the Labour-aligned think tank Compass, describes this second faultline as running between “wind” and “sun,” after Aesop’s fable in which both natural elements compete to see who could strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The wind blew with all its might, but only succeeded in forcing the traveller to clutch his cloak more tightly around him; the sun, however, shone brightly and the man soon disrobed and bathed in a stream. The story encapsulates the difference between power “over”—the dominion one has over others in a hierarchy—and power “with” or “to,” the influence that can be asserted through a collaborative project in which control flows from the bottom-up. According to Lawson, its moral—that persuasion is better than force—is not being heeded by those at the top of the Labour left.
“Wind” and “sun” represent divergent political cultures, each a product of their time. Corbynism, comprising as it does both an older vanguardist struggle—for power within the party’s hierarchical institutions, en route to taking over the bigger hierarchies of the British state—and a newer set of social movements with a participatory ethos, has always been an uneasy blend of the two.
Sceptics worry that programmes based on disparate, bottom-up policy-making may harbour contradictions, especially when it comes to allocating funding and arbitrating between different interests. But in his original pitch for leader, Corbyn himself followed the “sun”—ridiculing the idea that politicians had a monopoly on wisdom, adding that he would use suggestions from teachers, medics and social workers to inform Labour’s programme. And the accompanying surge in Labour membership seemed to open up the possibility of a party that could reach into workplaces, neighbourhoods and community groups to become a genuine movement.
Momentum, which sees itself as a bridge between Labour in Westminster and an array of (often unaffiliated) ground-level groups, campaigns and collectives that broadly share Labour values, has worked hard to make this happen, teaming up with striking workers, and forming clubs to help people access food that might otherwise have been thrown away. Corbyn has taken note, establishing a “community campaign unit,” the workings of which feel a million miles away from the bureaucratic drudgery of the traditional branch meeting. “The inclusive way in which we approach -campaigning is crucial,” he said on the -election conference call. “It’s not just knocking on doors and identifying whether people have voted—it’s discussing with them the issues that face their community and empowering their communities.”
But despite such rhetoric and a much-hyped democracy review, the party remains too top-heavy, and its internal governing structures are largely unchanged. A more mechanical politics was on full display in the early hours of the Brighton conference, when Labour’s left-dominated National Executive Committee supported a crude attempt to oust the elected but anti-Corbyn deputy leader Tom Watson, only to row back ingloriously. On Europe, too—where an old guard left including Unite leader Len McCluskey and arguably Corbyn himself has more sympathy with “Lexit” opposition to the EU than younger supporters—institutional jockeying and backroom shenanigans have dogged the party’s grindingly slow evolution towards its current compromise of renegotiation followed by a fresh referendum. Indeed, one of the reasons that the ugly debate about anti-semitism within Labour’s ranks reached such a damaging pitch was the leadership’s initial and lamentable withdrawal into a bunker mentality; Momentum, with its reflexive grasp of a more pluralistic politics, reacted much more swiftly to acknowledge and address the issue.
Part of the explanation for this return to “wind” at the top is that from day one of his leadership Corbyn has been forced onto the defensive, facing an onslaught of attacks from a hostile media and the anti-Corbyn bulk of Labour MPs. Even though virtually all of those who have sought re-selection have ultimately achieved it, many still see Corbynism as a sinister, sectarian force obsessed with replacing them. There has been intrigue, for sure—but just as often it has been aiming in the opposite direction. Some MPs began plotting to force Corbyn out immediately after his decisive 2015 victory; many more followed in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote, rowing behind Owen Smith’s doomed challenge. Struggles for survival have thus consumed Corbynism’s energies, and not only in SW1. Momentum, too, has been forced to throw resources at protecting Corbyn from being ousted; the intangible goal of a different kind of politics is always vulnerable to being sidelined in favour of more immediate challenges, like battling for seats on party committees. This has deprived Corbynism of some of its insurgent energy, leaving the membership base—still large, but now shrinking—somewhat unmotivated and directionless, at least outside of election periods.
“Proximity to office has, in some important respects at least, bred an apparent aversion to risk as far as the party is concerned,” claims Tom Blackburn, a Momentum member and editor at New Socialist, one of a fresh breed of leftist media outlets to emerge in the orbit of the Corbyn project. “The temptation is always to avoid rocking the boat in the hope that Labour will be rewarded with a shot at government.” A disconnect between Labour’s leadership and the grassroots, he continues, “points to the party’s ingrained paternalism and an unwillingness to genuinely unleash the capacities of its own activists.” The worry is that in a mercurial age of reversible and fast-flowing voter loyalties—witness wild swings up and down for Lib Dems, the SNP and the Brexit Party—a unique window of socialist opportunity is being squandered. Party authority, and party thinking, remains too centralised.
If the Labour left does not ground itself in the communities it seeks to represent, then—like algae, which can spread rapidly but have no roots or stems—it risks being swept away with the next change in political fortune. “The wind is not the option it once was,” concludes Lawson in a recent essay. “However, the sun has all the makings of a new, revived, model of political change.”
Crashing without burning?
Like or loathe Corbynism, on its own terms its achievements to date—many of which appeared impossible only four years ago—are remarkable. It has reinserted the word socialism into British political discourse, and shifted the centre of gravity decisively leftwards both within the Labour Party and also, at least in terms of economic policy, the country at large. In 2019, austerity has become a dirty word which even the Conservatives are desperate not to be tarnished with, and the Financial Times cleared its front page to proclaim that “rigged” capitalism needs a “reset.”
The Corbyn project helped saved Labour from “Pasok-ification”—the fate of the traditional party of Greek social -democracy, which like so many of its European counterparts, has been hollowed out. Imagine if Labour had, as self-styled “moderates” urged after the 2015 defeat, eschewed dramatic rethinking to embark instead upon a focus-group-led chase to connect with, in the words of the then-MP Tristram Hunt, people “who shop at John Lewis.” Who is to say how low such a Labour Party, stripped of anything but aspirational platitudes, may have fallen. By wriggling free of the “end of history” ideological straitjacket that was fastened around formal politics after the Berlin Wall came down, Corbynism has expanded the politically possible; breaking up, as Lawson puts it, “the permafrosted soil that for 30 years had been too harsh for our dreams to grow in.”
If Corbynism were to storm the citadel this winter, its contradictions will be thrown into sharp relief in power. After defying expert predictions, the starting point for a Corbyn government—a broken economy, tattered social fabric and dysfunctional democratic infrastructure—would still be inauspicious. As Tom Blackburn points out, there is a danger that, having avoided the fate of Pasok, Labour would instead follow the path of Syriza, which rode to power in Greece on the back of a rejection of the ancien regime, rather than any positive embrace of its own ideals. Just as in Athens, the vested interests of business and the state could swiftly gut a Labour government’s radicalism.
“I’m simultaneously really optimistic and very, very pessimistic,” says Aliya Yule, one of the young co-founders of Labour for a Green New Deal—the campaign that has pushed the leadership into adopting the most ambitious net-zero carbon emissions target in the world. “I don’t think the left has raised class consciousness enough and really embedded that in our politics beyond Corbyn as an individual. We need to be organising in communities much more than we already are. To date, we still haven’t cut through with what the ideology is, what it is that we’re fighting for.”\
The coming election could easily prove a false dawn. Most obviously, this will be the case if Labour crashes and burns on 12th December. But it could happen, too, if it turns out that Corbynism in office can’t, in the end, fulfil the transformative promises it has made during the campaign and awakened among its grassroots. That’s not to say, however, that its influence would have come to naught. Ted Heath’s Conservatives talked up free market economics in 1970, but that agenda wasn’t really achieved until the 1980s—under different management.
Ultimately Corbynism—like Thatcherism—should be judged on more than electoral terms. Its success will lie in a recasting of what passes for “common sense,” and the construction of a sustainable majority for a left-wing political economy—an approach which, as Corbyn put it in his conference speech, goes beyond defending the gains of previous generations and starts building a country fit for the future. Under the radar, work towards that aim is under way, what Meadway calls “institution building”: the creation of new leftist think-tanks like Common Wealth, and new ground-level political education initiatives like The World Transformed—the lively, Momentum-supported alternative conference that runs alongside Labour’s official one, which is now expanding into towns like Derby and Southampton.
“There are so many accidental activists that come out of the woodwork when you engage with your local community,” Faiza Shaheen told me, when I asked if she was optimistic about the political future. “People say we should be looking for the soul of this country, and I’ve found it at the grassroots level; until now, we’ve just been pressing all the wrong buttons.”
Are these changes durable? If Labour fails to win office at the end of this year, Corbyn is unlikely to stick around for long, and Corbynite candidates for the succession, such as prominent frontbenchers like Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler, or even young rising stars like Laura Pidcock, are set to face a serious challenge—though most likely from the party’s soft left initially, in the form of Emily Thornberry or Keir Starmer.
But even if Labour lost badly the large membership would be unlikely to jettison the Corbyn programme; for the moment, any aspiring leader will have to buy into it before they can take up the reins. And despite its tensions, the Labour left is in much ruder health than the party’s Blairite wing, which can offer no more than negative attacks, because it hasn’t developed any intellectual response to the collapse of faith in market managerialism. The resignation of Tom Watson, no Blairite, at the start of the election campaign was also revealing—party figures from outside the left are finding it hard to envisage their future role.
All this is evident; it still leaves open the question of which variety of Corbynism we’ll get. The answer, perhaps, can be found in the backstage battle in Brighton’s Hilton Metropole at this autumn’s party conference, where Aliya Yule and the rest of the Green New Deal team were camped out in the corridors—fending off pressure from wary trade unions and a worried party leadership to water down their 2030 decarbonisation plan before it went to the conference floor.
Their ultimate victory—persuading the Labour Party to endorse the most radical climate change policy of any major party in the world—suggests the younger generation of activists might be gaining the upper hand. “The Green New Deal has grown out of the way that the Labour movement has shifted under Corbyn’s leadership, and the space that’s opened up for members to mobilise and push policies,” Yule told me. “We know that we can win on these ideas, and we were just completely unwilling to be told from above that it was impossible.”