This is the first in what I hope will become a short series of notes on the way forward for the British left. The second is Brexit: wrong question, wrong answer, and the third is On not mentioning the war.
Is Corbynism over? Before we can answer that question, or even sensibly ask it, we need to decide what we think Corbynism was or is. We could define it as meaning no more than support for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and potentially as Prime Minister. In that case, yes: it is over, or it very soon will be. On the other hand, we could say—as Corbyn himself did today in an interview with Channel 4 News—that ‘there is no such thing as Corbynism. There is socialism.’ Many of Corbyn’s supporters would probably be inclined to agree. ‘It’s the policies, not the man.’ And in that case, of course, the aspiration for socialist or social democratic change has not been extinguished by an election defeat. But that aspiration existed in, for example, 2014 as well: the only difference is that in 2014 there did not seem to be any organized political project capable of putting it on the agenda as more than a pure aspiration. So it seems unhelpful to reduce Corbynism—the concrete form leftism has taken as a serious force over the last four and a half years—simply to leftism in general or to a specific set of more or less left-wing policies. I suggest it makes most sense to understand Corbynism instead as a particular strategic concept for how socialists might be able to win power in Britain. So far as I can tell, the strategy involved was never formulated quite explicitly; but it was implicit in much of what Corbyn and his supporters did between 2015 and 2019, and equally in many of the things they failed to do or chose not even to try.
In a word: Corbynism may be defined as the attempt to replicate, at the level of state power, Corbyn’s unexpected victory in the 2015 Labour leadership election.
There had been any number of efforts, over the decades, to sketch out trajectories that might lead to the Labour left winning the party leadership. But the reality, when it came, made all the hypothetical British roads look snail-like and Fabian in their gradualism. Everyone had imagined that the left’s triumph would come as the culmination of a protracted series of struggles at every level of the party and movement. There would be a substantial contingent of battle-hardened left MPs. There would be huge and organized left campaigns with branches in every CLP and every affiliate. There would be newspapers and magazines, conferences and committees, a left programme that had been debated and endorsed by unions and co-ops and Labour branches. Elements of the programme would have already reached the party manifesto. The left minority in the cabinet or shadow cabinet might even have fought to put them into practice. It would perhaps look a little like 1981, when the left was strong enough for Tony Benn to finish a close second in the deputy leadership election, but with the left even bigger, even better organized, even more militant.
The Labour Party did not look like that when the 2015 leadership race began. None of the groundwork had been done; there had been no preliminary battles or incremental trials of strength. The left sailed in straight at the top, powered by a largely spontaneous and self-organizing mass mobilization, to seize the leadership of a party where its influence had previously been negligible. It wasn’t a Long March through the institutions—it was a Great Leap over them.
This experience immediately goes some way to explain Corbynism’s strange passivity or ineffectiveness with regard to democratizing the Labour Party’s internal structures and hierarchies. Unlike the left of 1981, it had not grown out of them and barely had a foothold in them; the committees and subcommittees were the right’s turf, not the left’s. And the left had won anyway. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall and their friends had had all the committee positions they could have wanted. What good had it done them? Under these circumstances, it is natural that mandatory reselection and other steps towards internal democracy might have seemed desirable, but could hardly be vital priorities. Gruelling internal battles risked distracting attention from the principal strategic task—that of preparing for another and still greater Leap, the one that would carry Corbyn all the way into Downing Street.
It was not self-evident, at least outside the ranks of the Corbynist grassroots, that the strategy was even viable. The leadership victories in 2015 and 2016 had been made possible by an outpouring of hope and anger that had spread organically among hundreds of thousands of people who were—or who became—members of the Labour Party. Could the same be repeated on a scale of millions, among the wider electorate? The overwhelming consensus among the professional commentators was that it couldn’t. Perhaps, if the left’s influence had been built up more gradually, some journalists would at least have understood left-wing positions. Perhaps left-wing journalists would not have been so thin on the ground; or the left-wing press would have been bigger and more widely read. But the Great Leap in from the fringes meant that Corbyn’s opinions were greeted almost everywhere in the media with incomprehension and revulsion. Every new party leader gets a bounce in the polls—but Corbyn didn’t. Most opposition leaders gain ground in local elections—but Corbynism, the strategy of the all-or-nothing Great Leap, found elections that didn’t pick governments difficult to mobilize for or even to prioritize.
The real picture only became clear during the 2017 general election campaign: the blanket hostility of the press coverage had managed to postpone Corbyn’s ‘new leader’ bounce, but only to postpone it. And the bounce when it came was another Great Leap,—Spring-heeled Jez soaring into the sky like a missile as his critics gaped incredulously and his supporters pointed and whooped. ‘It’ll go higher.’ Once again, people queued round the block to get into Corbyn rallies; once again, the message that ‘things can—and they will—change’ was taken up and spread by word of mouth, by social media, in the air. This was the strategy of the Great Leap over the institutions in action. Even official Labour Party bodies were, to a great extent, bypassed by Momentum’s grassroots canvassing efforts. The campaign relied on volunteer activists’ excitement, energy, and combativeness; it didn’t win, but it broke the Conservatives’ majority and gained millions of extra votes for Labour.
A similar approach in 2019, as we know, did not yield the same fruits. I hope to say something about the 2017–2019 period, the 2019 election, Brexit, etc., etc., in further notes in this series, so I shall not go into any of those matters now. We have already covered enough ground to enable us to identify Corbynism’s distinctive strategic concept. To summarize: it is a strategy focused on using near-spontaneous grassroots mobilization to capture positions at the apex of power in the party and the state (the leader’s office, Number Ten), while paying comparatively little attention to building influence at intermediate levels or to democratizing the formal structures of power. Corbyn’s tendency to be ‘Mr Zen’ outside election campaigns, and a tornado of energy during them, was never a personal quirk—it reflects Corbynism’s basic orientation towards the Great Leap rather than the Long March. Corbynism as we have known it did not seek to make itself acceptable to the institutions of the British state and establishment, but neither did it openly challenge them or confront them: it hoped that at the decisive moment it could leap right over them, on a wave of popular enthusiasm, and install itself at the heart of the political system in spite of them.
So, is that strategy over? Will there be no more Great Leaps over the institutions? We would be rash to say so, even though the BBC, the Labour right, etc., are now forewarned and may not let themselves be blindsided as completely as they were in 2015. But it seems clear that developing a way forward for the British left will require diligent thought about precisely the kind of strategic questions to which Corbynism implicitly represents one possible answer.
Friday, 13 December 2019