Understanding the Corbyn Era

Mike Phipps reviews Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn, by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, published by Verso, price 14.99.

Nineteen years ago, Panitch and Leys published The End of Parliamentary Socialism, tracing the emergence of a new Labour left from the mid-1950s to the end of the 20th century. Whether socialists could ever take control of the Labour Party and use it as a means to transform society was a question that that book’s title seemed to have answered. Recent events, however, have reopened the question. The original book is condensed into the first five chapters of the current volume, and at first, I wasn’t planning to look at that period, preferring to focus on the demise of New Labour and the emergence of the Corbyn project.

But is it worth dwelling on one aspect of that era, because of its parallel to the situation today. After the disastrous 1983 general election, left activists faced a choice: whether to stick to their core socialist belief in the centrality of the extra-parliamentary struggle as the engine of social change, or to work with the new leader, Neil Kinnock, to influence Party policy from the inside. Those who took the latter course not only equivocated, or worse, during the most important class battle in a generation – the 1984-5 miners’ strike. They also went on, after the strike’s defeat, to become the key purveyors of ‘new realism’ in the labour movement, and later became the shock troops of New Labour.

Those who held firm to their principles found themselves increasingly marginalised and isolated over the next thirty years, a footnote to official Labour politics. But out of this small core of socialists came the 2015 challenge by Jeremy Corbyn for the Party leadership, and from that an unforeseen era of a very different politics to what had gone before.

Today, in different conditions, the left faces similar choices – whether to acknowledge the support that the new leadership,  Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, drew from the left, and work with them in pursuit of office, or whether to map out a clear socialist alternative, rooted in campaigns and mobilisations beyond the confines of electoral and parliamentary politics. It’s a problematic choice, not least because under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership from 2015 to 2020, it was possible to embrace both approaches.

There is no doubt that the Labour Party has undergone some dramatic changes in recent times. In the Blair years, the centralised vetting of parliamentary candidates quashed all dissent. A similar repression was extended to candidates for the Scottish and Welsh regional bodies, as well as those for the European Parliament, with MEPs who had criticised Blair being removed from winnable positions in electoral lists. In London this control freakery backfired spectacularly in 2000 when Ken Livingstone, deprived of Labour’s mayoral candidacy by a stitched up selection process, ran as an independent against the official Labour nominee – and won. Four years later, the new Labour apparatus was so terrified of it happening again that it invited Livingstone to come back in and run as Labour’s official candidate – an interesting example of rule-bending in the left’s favour when it is powerful enough.

But Livingstone’s independent bid for mayor in 2000 was the only ray of sunshine for socialist forces outside the Labour Party in these years. No matter how right wing New Labour became, socialists outside the Party were unable to make themselves politically relevant, despite often having star members with a national profile, such as miners’ leader Arthur Scargill in the Socialist Labour Party or ex-Labour MP George Galloway in Respect

New Labour was not just an apparatus. For a while, it added members, but that peaked at 400,000 in 1996. Once Blair was in office after 1997, membership began to slide, falling by almost a third by 2001. This was a sign of the disillusionment that was setting in, even while New Labour remained electorally popular. The shift in income from poor to rich, the detachment of the midlands and the north from the prosperous south accelerated at this time, but New Labour ideologues were relaxed about this, seeing no electoral dangers ahead, because low income voters outside of the metropolitan areas had nowhere else to go – or so they believed . Within a decade, that would decisively change.

The 2003 war on Iraq, a country which had no involvement in 9/11, may not have had an immediate electoral impact, but it profoundly demoralised Labour’s activists, many of whom quit. By 2009, membership was down to 153,000 and the following year, fewer than two-thirds of CLPs sent delegates to the annual Party Conference.

The longer term damage was incalculable. In his diaries, Chris Mullin MP noted the prescient comments of one Labour MP who told him as early as 2006: “I think we will lose the next election. The Tories will come to some sort of understanding with the Lib Dems and we’ll find that we’ve opened the door to the market in health and education. And when we protest they will reply, ‘But this is your policy; you started it.’ We’ll be vulnerable for years. Our benches will be full of ex-ministers who won’t have the stomach for the fight.”

If the failings of the left outside the Party at this time make depressing reading, what was the left inside the Party doing? Drawing heavily on Andrew Murray’s analysis, Panitch and Leys suggest that the election of a new layer of left wing trade union leaders paved the way for changes to the Party leadership as New Labour ground to a halt.

This is too smooth. The union leaderships put up little resistance to the worst excesses of Blair-Brown and blocked any real challenge to them. If Ed Miliband won in 2015, it was largely because the membership had had enough of New Labour, something that had been apparent for a while from the constituency section of elections to Labour’s NEC. For example, the late Walter Wolfgang, not mentioned in this text, physically ejected by security guards from the 2005 Labour Party Conference after shouting “Nonsense” at Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, was elected to the NEC at his first attempt the following year. His brutal treatment had provoked a wave of disgust among members and given him a national profile.

In fact, there are earlier examples of the Party membership, when given a credible left candidate to vote for, seizing the opportunity with both hands – even in the honeymoon period of New Labour. For example, Liz Davies, also not mentioned in this text, barred by the Blair leadership from being a parliamentary candidate on spurious grounds, was elected to the NEC soon afterwards, along with other left wingers.

Any account of these years that overlooks the dogged resistance of the membership, or sees its organisations as solely in retreat and defeated, misses something important: a desire by a large section of the membership, while welcoming Blair’s electoral popularity, to place real constraints upon his authoritarianism. Grassroots members were also among the first to break with the whole New Labour project, expressed firstly in the vote for Ed Miliband in 2010 and, more spectacularly, in the election of Jeremy Corbyn five years later.

The promise of burying New Labour in 2010 brought 50,000 new members into the Party. Yet the principal initiative to emerge from Ed Miliband’s ‘Refounding Labour’ project was a proposal to replace the electoral college process which elected the Labour leader with One Member, One Vote. At the time, Tony Blair praised the idea to the rafters as “real leadership”, “a defining moment” and “long overdue”. The left opposed it, although this would become the method which would permit Jeremy Corbyn to be elected in 2015.

Immediately after Labour’s 2015 election defeat, Blairites took to the airwaves to claim Labour’s defeat was due to its radicalism. Liz Kendall stood contest as their candidate in the subsequent leadership contest, with Morgan McSweeney – now Keir Starmer’s Chief of Staff – as her campaign director. But members were not convinced of the narrative: if Labour had been too left wing, why had it been wiped out in Scotland by an SNP that had positioned itself substantially to Labour’s left?

Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest hurdle was getting enough MPs’ nominations to get on the ballot paper. Of the 36 MPs who did nominate him, only 14 voted for him, but by now the outcome was in the hands of the membership and his victory was decisive.

Once elected, Labour faced a blizzard of hostility, from both outside and inside the Party – including from its senior staff, as the leaked Governance and Legal Unit Report on antisemitism now shows. The 2016 EU referendum result – and Corbyn’s assumed responsibility for it – was the pretext for an attempted coup against him. This was despite the fact that he made 123 media appearances during the campaign and put across a far more realistic message of Remain and Reform than the unalloyed EU-enthusiasm of much of the Remain campaign.

The pressure from Labour’s right on members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet to resign and denounce him was intense. Any other Labour leader, without Cobyn’s decades of readiness to stand firm in defence of principle even when in a small minority, might have caved in and resigned. Instead, he was re-elected in autumn 2016 with an increased majority against Owen Smith, who was backed by some of the key figures now working for Keir Starmer, including his politics director Jenny Chapman and the aforementioned McSweeney.

The forces hostile to Corbyn inside the Party continued their obstructiveness through 2017 general election the following year. Despite this, Labour, to the astonishment of the mainstream media, made substantial gains at the polls, reducing the Tories to a minority government. Although Theresa May’s car crash campaign was partly responsible for this, much of the credit must go to Labour’s genuinely popular election manifesto. For the Many, not the Few was a unifying document that grounded Labour’s vision in its core democratic socialist beliefs of collectivism and universalism.

After 2017, the authors seem to lose their way a bit. Yes, Corbyn was being monstered in the tabloid press, and yes, the antisemitism issue festered. But it is clearly hyperbolic to suggest that “the party succumbed by stages to an acceptance that opposing Israeli policy in Palestine was antisemitic, to the point where no party member could express an opinion unacceptable to Labour Friends of Israel without risking suspension and possible expulsion.” Such a statement ignores the policies passed at Labour Party Conferences in 2018 and 2019, which were highly critical of Israel, amid the mass waving of Palestinian flags and chants of “Free Palestine”.

Conflating these issues is unhelpful. As we now learn from the leaked Governance and Legal Unit Report, the principal problem was the failure of hostile party officials to deal with the limited number of real cases of antisemitism, which damaged how the Party leadership was seen to be tackling the issue.

Following the 2017 general election, Corbyn actually enjoyed his first breathing space since becoming leader. True, much of the media and his class enemies inside the Party and out, continued to attack him and there was little he could do about that. But one thing he could have strengthened was his immediate leadership team which over the next two years would come under increasing criticism, even from his most ardent supporters, for example former Campaign Group MP Alan Simpson.

Of course, on becoming leader in 2015, it had been difficult for Corbyn to assemble a stellar cast, given that many commentators doubted he could last the year. But after the 2017 general election, it was clear he would lead Labour into the next election and it was an opportunity – missed – to press the reset button both organisationally and in terms of widening the political foundations of the project.

Not to do so implied that ‘one more heave’ would be enough. Enough to get Labour elected with a slim, unstable majority maybe, but a long way short of building the movement necessary to sustain a radical Labour government in the face of a bunch of new adversaries – the markets, the civil service and even the military. There had always been a contradiction between electing the most left wing Labour leader ever and the weak state of the mass movement. John McDonnell, in the online launch event for this book, suggested that he and others perhaps got too immersed in the parliamentary and electoral bubble and the opportunity for the Corbyn project to put down deeper roots in society was not developed.

Jeremy Corbyn can’t really be blamed for this. A leader, he consistently spent four out of seven days a week touring the country and building support. But much of the left, who worked hard to advance progressive policies in the Party and even theorised that the Labour Party could itself become the new social movement needed, may have misunderstood the nature of Labour, which is an essentially electoralist formation. These activists found themselves campaigning in 2019 in many areas where the Party had ceased to have any real presence on the ground, save as the transmitter of local service cuts by hard-pressed, but right wing Labour councils.

But let’s stay a bit longer with this critical two and a half years from 2017 to 2019. Circumstances were indeed more favourable for the Corbyn leadership, with a majority at last on the NEC and less vilification from his parliamentary colleagues, but the to-do list was daunting. Corbyn’s team had to develop its strategic vision into a narrative of policies that could broaden its base of public support. It needed to transform the Party and ensure not only more democratic selection procedures for candidates at all levels, but also to push for the adoption of more socialist candidates under the existing processes. To its credit, Momentum, whatever other failings it may have had, worked hard to do this. Less laudable was the 2018 decision, under pressure from trade union leaderships and sections of the PLP, to kick into the long grass most of the ideas assembled by the Party’s Democracy Review, commissioned by the NEC and organised under former MP Katy Clark’s direction.

Within the Corbyn project, key trade unions were applying the brakes in other areas, for example on environmental and industrial policy. Unite especially had been a central pillar of support for Corbyn from 2015 on and supplied a number of loyalist officials within the Party apparatus, such as the new General Secretary Jennie Formby and, more significantly, within the Leader’s Office itself. Yet, as the authors cautiously note: “it was a relationship that now seemed to provide little impetus for the transformation of the party into an active agent of political education and democratic mobilisation.”

Meanwhile events after the 2017 general election shifted the political focus firmly onto Westminster: a minority government, negotiating with small parties and factions to find a way through the tangled Brexit thicket. This parliamentary bubble, however, was the Corbyn leadership’s weakest political territory.

Brexit itself exposed significant divisions within the project. While Corbyn himself knew well the limitations of the EU, he also understood it would be wrong to leave under conditions dictated by the eurosceptic right. Key figures in his team, however, favoured Leave more unequivocally, while much of the younger Corbynite base in the Party were Remainers. The 2018 Party Conference fudged the issue, keeping a second referendum as an option if there was no prospect of a general election.

Repeated defeat of her Brexit deal in the House of Commons forced Prime Minister May, to the fury of some of her Conservative colleagues, to approach Labour for talks. Panitch and Leys suggest that “had the Corbyn team been willing to face down the opposition in the PLP and put more effort into making these talks succeed, a deal on a protracted soft Brexit might have left the Tories divided, sustained Corbyn’s coherent position on accepting the outcome of the referendum, and kept faith with Leave voters in the Labour heartlands.”

This line of thinking, in my view, is not sustained by the realities of the situation. A soft Brexit, which upheld workers’ rights and environmental safeguards and offered the prospect of trading arrangements that would protect jobs and the broader economy, was never on offer. Corbyn had little choice but to end talks, when May’s own premiership was being openly challenged from within her own party. Additionally, the impact of 2019’s EU parliamentary elections needs to be factored in. Labour support slumped to 13.7%, while the formerly marginal pro-Remain Lib Dems surged to 19.6%. The questionable loyalty of some Leave-supporting forces on the left to Corbyn’s Labour was underlined by the Morning Star calling for an abstention in the elections, instead of a Labour vote. This was irrelevant to the broader picture, but symptomatic of the confused priorities of some on the left on the issue of Brexit, and not just on the Leave side.

Eventually, Labour edged towards a compromise of offering voters a second referendum with credible Leave and Remain choices, in which Corbyn as prime minister would remain neutral, the policy on which the 2019 general election was fought. It was reminiscent of Harold Wilson’s position in the 1975 EEC referendum, but that comparison speaks volumes. Wilson, who had more trouble distinguishing truth from fiction than Tony Blair, was the ultimate fixer for whom political principles were expendable. Whatever the merits or otherwise of Labour’s 2019 general election position on Brexit, it looked less principled than the “straight-talking, honest politics” of two year earlier.

If this compromise maintained unity in the Corbyn project, it didn’t persuade Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP who seized the opportunity to intensify their campaign against him. But by now, with Johnson in Number Ten, all rational discourse about Brexit was being buried under an avalanche of nationalist electioneering, with the tabloid press and shadowy social media operations obediently toeing the Tory line.

It’s difficult to say whether Labour doing any of these things differently would have enabled it to win the 2019 election, but in any case, it is important to reflect on all this, to learn lessons for the future. Perhaps the frenetic timetable of events was against the Corbyn project from the start. As Ben Sellers noted: “If you’d asked me five years ago what the plan was, I would have said: build locally in the CLPs, win political arguments, organise at conference, get more representative MPs, win the leadership – in that order. I would have talked in terms of a 10-year plan at a minimum. Instead, we did it back to front, winning the leadership in an extraordinary summer. None of this gave us time to educate, organise and agitate in the rest of the party and movement.”

The various reasons for Labour’s election defeat have been gone into elsewhere. It is worth emphasising, however, that despite a lack of campaign narrative, the monstering of Corbyn, the Brexit fudge and much else – despite all that, individual policies from the 2019 election manifesto remain highly popular, and, in the current context of the pandemic, more relevant than ever. It is this legacy that socialists in the Party now have to defend if the Corbyn era is not to written off by future historians as an aberration.

It is to their credit that Panitch and Leys have understood a lot of what happened and what went wrong – including the dysfunction at the very top, the full story of which has yet to be told. That this picture is incomplete may be due to the fact that the story is far from finished. Consequently, it is still too early to give a definitive answer as to whether the Labour Party can be a vehicle for the socialist transformation of Britain.

Mike Phipps is the editor of For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power, published by OR Books (2018), https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/for-the-many-preparing-labour-for-power/