What is Corbynism?

By Tom Wood

Corbynism is often viewed as a call-back to the policies you would find in Labour manifestos during the pre-Thatcher post-war era of consensus politics when both Labour and Conservative politicians remained committed to nationalised industries, municipal socialism, and the NHS. But this popular interpretation of Corbynism can be seen to be wholly inaccurate.

Firstly, there was arguably never a consensus in politics during the pre-Thatcher post-war period. Politicians during this time never consciously rose out of bed and declared that their agency was limited somewhat by an unspoken commitment to a certain consensus. In fact, the term was never used during the so-called consensus period, but only when Thatcher rose to prominence, as people began to state, that in retrospect, there had been a consensus in politics and that Thatcher had broken it up.

Depending upon which side of the political spectrum you sat, the use of consensus as a discursive instrument to separate the politics of Thatcher from the politics which came before Thatcher’s premiership had either negative or positive connotations. Either Thatcher had broken what was a happy consensus during which people had access to council housing, cheap public transport, full employment, and cheap utilities. Or, for the Thatcherites and other advocates of the free market, Thatcher had taken a battering ram to the consensus politics which has led to the Winter of Discontent, the dethroning of the Heath government, and too much interference in the economy.

The use of a ‘consensus’ as a discursive instrument had assisted the ‘Hard’ Tories (Thatcherites) in separating themselves from the Tory ‘Wets’ (Macmillan types). Later, ‘consensus’ became a useful, if not entirely accurate, way for the left wing to recall a Britain that hadn’t been ravaged by privatisation and regionally disproportionate destitution. This, in effect, demonised Thatcher as the one who had broken the happy, unspoken, and unwitting agreement between Labour and Conservative politicians which had been the cause of then sustaining of a certain set of policies during different successive governments.

But the Conservatives were never committed to nationalisation and even less committed to mirroring Labour’s pledge to future nationalisation. It would be more accurate to say that they maintained the nationalisation that Attlee’s Labour brought about during what was a possibly revolutionary period after World War Two. Then, as soon as the trade unions had been undermined by public discontent and incremental restrictions on their power, the Tories pounced upon the opportunity to overturn nationalisation.

Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that Corbyn would bring back the days of consensus politics, because those days never really existed. It would be more accurate to say that Corbyn was mirroring Attlee by recognising the shortcomings of the free market and was therefore seeking to use parliamentary power to improve the lives of the working-class.

It would also be accurate to describe Corbyn as a consensus-breaker, as he was breaking with Labour’s and the Tories shared acknowledgement of Thatcher’s legacy. This is a better use of the word consensus, as Tony Blair acknowledged Thatcher’s apparent legacy just as much as any Tory backbencher, let alone the Leader of the Opposition at the time, namely David Cameron.

Corbynism, then, is not a nostalgic recall of policies that were lost when Thatcher broke the ‘post-war consensus’ as such a consensus never existed. Rather, Corbyn, especially in his 2017 manifesto, offered a vision for the British working-class that broke away from any consensus regarding ‘Thatcher’s legacy’ and offered a radical, sorely needed, socialist vision for Britain’s future outside of the EU.

It is worth briefly touching upon the headlines emblazoned upon the tabloids during the time Corbyn reached the peak in his popularity. It was claimed that Corbyn’s policies would plunge Britain back to the 1970s. By this the tabloids meant the winter of 1978-1979 during which sections of the British working class made their feelings known by going on strike – the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

Many tabloids greatly exaggerated the events at the time, with one newspaper claiming that Merseyside gravediggers ‘left the dead unburied’, in an attempt to paint the workers who were on strike as selfish. In reality, the dead were buried after a short time on strike and the workers on strike only wanted better pay and conditions so that they could better provide for their families. This is far from the picture that the right wing tabloids tried to paint, of piles of rotting dead bodies being left to vermin while smug workers looked on. This particular case epitomises the fact that the Winter of Discontent was a narrative constructed for the means of ridiculing the Labour government which presided over the events.

We see that the press has once again reused this old, untrue narrative to ridicule a socialist and spread fear among the electorate. If the press were to ever attach a ‘crisis narrative’ to the current government (which they never would because they are in the pocket of the Tories) it would be more accurate and respectable than its malicious attempt to condemn the premiership of a Labour leader before he ever had the chance to take office.

Take the fuel shortages, fights at petrol stations, understaffed hospitals, unnecessary deaths from COVID, food shortages, the potential use of the military or prisoners to fill a labour shortage (which apparently is more sensible than raising the minimum wage), nurses who are about to strike over pay and conditions, tens of billions of pounds wasted on cronies and a useless track and trace app during the pandemic – the list goes on. Surely these examples are symptomatic of a crisis and provide ample evidence needed for a ‘crisis narrative’ which virtually writes itself the more the Tories stumble from one blunder to the next.

Corbynism was, and arguably still is, a more than viable path for left wing reformism to follow in post-Brexit Britain. This was proved in 2017 when the manifesto presented the working class with a vision of Britain outside of the EU. I bring up the EU as its protection of the four freedoms – the freedom of movement of people, services, goods, and capital – would prevent the radical economic management, planning, and interference that Corbyn’s socialist programme would have demanded. Things such as the nationalisation of the railways would not have been possible while Britain was in the EU.

Therefore, Corbyn stood for a hopeful image of Britain outside of the EU and delivered the reassurance that people needed during a politically turbulent time. This observation is, of course, limited to 2017 Corbyn. The Corbyn who led Labour to the thrashing in 2019, despite standing for the very same things that working class voters can get behind, did not deliver any clarity on Brexit. This gap was filled, rather cunningly, by the Tories who went on to an emphatic victory and delivered the final nail in Corbynism’s coffin.

Corbynism, however, delivered the blueprint for how Labour can succeed in post-Brexit Britain. Emphasising how the British public is now less restricted to pursue its socialist dreams now that it isn’t restrained by a constitution formulated in Brussels is what the leadership should be doing. Keir Starmer’s tactic of blaming Corbynism for Labour’s failings and expelling a myriad of socialists from the party works only to indicate to the working class that a socialist Britain in a post-Brexit political climate is not possible, when it entirely is. But this tactic is hardly surprising given that Europhile Blairites, most prominently David Evans, have returned to the scene. They view Corbynism as a threat to the entwinement of British domestic policy with the free market, which is irreversibly protected by the ‘four freedoms’ which the EU stands for.

So, Corbynism is not a nostalgic revival of a particular strain of socialist ideology that was long dead after Thatcher tore up a post-war consensus agreement. Instead, in my opinion, it is better to see Corbynism as the presentation of what socialism can achieve in a post-Brexit Britain. It seeks to undo the damage done by a consensus which was shared by right wing Labour and Tory politicians which essentially believed in the permanence of Thatcher’s legacy. Nationalised industries, nationalised utilities, municipal socialism, education from cradle to grave, health care and social care for all… these are the foundational demands of Corbynism as much as they the reasonable demands of any society that seeks to provide a decent life for all. Corbynism stands for the many, not the few.

Tom Wood is a student at the University of Birmingham, a member of the Labour Party and of Unite.

Image: Jeremy Corbyn. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeremycorbyn/49017933408/. Author: Jeremy Corbyn,  made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

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