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The Making of Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn drew on the historic struggles of the Labour left and new social movements to power his successful party leadership bid.

The sudden electoral success of a handful of radical left leaders — Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and Spain’s Pablo Iglesias in the European periphery, and now Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, a heartland of market politics — is more a testament to the hollowing out of the political system than a demonstration of a viable political alternative.

Indeed, even while celebrating Corbyn’s victory — made all the more delightful by its totally unexpected character, not to mention the angry panic it has provoked among the establishment — I can’t help but be haunted by the fate of Tsipras, whose victory was cheered with equal exuberance less than a year ago.

The differences, to be sure, are immense: Tsipras led a young party of which he had been a founder; he faced little opposition from within his party; and in public meetings he acted with the charisma of a conventional populist politician. In the end, though, his problem was that he and his party were in government, not in power. Moreover, as is now clear, Syriza did not have a strategy to build enough power to counter its opponents — both elites throughout the European Union and capitalists in Greece.

But Corbyn, if still years away from a general election, faces a lack of control over the party he ostensibly leads, despite his unprecedented electoral mandate. Party elites refuse to cooperate with — indeed, positively sabotage — a figure who for decades challenged them from the backbench as one of the most rebellious left-wing members of parliament.

Three key questions arise. First, how could someone so openly and determinedly of the radical left triumph in the leadership contest of a party that has always contained — and, under Tony Blair’s New Labour, seemingly crushed — the Left? Second, do the circumstances of this extraordinary victory point to sources of power that could be mobilized to transform the Labour Party in the direction of Corbyn’s “new politics”? Finally, can Corbyn’s insistence that there is an alternative translate into a practical electoral strategy?

What’s clear is that for Corbyn to succeed, the majority of working people would have to believe his government could not only end recent austerity, but could enlist huge portions of the populace to enact a programmatic alternative to both New Labour and the Tories — everything from stopping privatization and introducing democratic forms of public ownership to ending casual and precarious work and legislating decent pay and working conditions for all.

In other words, Corbyn’s prospects turn on whether he can reverse the traditional logic of electoral politics, whereby the people cede their power to their political representatives. Corbyn’s “new politics” is about political representatives using the platform of the state to empower popular forces.

How Corbyn Won

Institutionally, Corbyn owes his victory to a series of reforms: first those pushed through by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy — the organization championed by Corbyn’s close friend and fellow socialist, the late Tony Benn — and, more recently, the changes to the leadership election process enacted under Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband.

He needed all the help he could get. After all, while Labour was founded as a workers party, its institutions were designed in part to ensure that radicals never won power.

From the time of Labour’s formation in 1906, the party’s members of parliament were responsible for choosing a leader among their ranks. Ralph Miliband, author of Parliamentary Socialism and father of Ed, described this primacy given to the legislature as “parliamentarism” — by which he meant not simply abiding by the conventions of parliamentary politics but deferring to them absolutely. The trade union leaders, who had created the party with the sole purpose of gaining representation in parliament, shared this devotion.

A shared interest, and a potential source of tension, was thus built into Labour’s DNA. On the one hand, the immediate desire of trade unions to improve the material position of their members within the limits of capitalism meant that winning parliamentary seats to consolidate and extend worker rights was paramount (but also as far as politics went). On the other hand, the links between Labour and workers’ industrial organizations were built into every level of the party, creating a potential channel for radical struggles and demands that challenged the nature and existence of capitalism itself.

Indeed, fleeting moments when industrial struggles pushed the limits of capitalism and gestured toward a vision of socialism can be seen in the preambles of many trade union constitutions. These aspirations were also present in Labour’s founding constitution, which committed it to the eventual “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” But the actual power structure of the party displayed a perpetual fixation on the short term, and the imperatives of attaining immediate electoral goals suppressed any latent tension between trade union and parliamentary leaders.

This alliance effectively imprisoned the organized left. To be outside the party orbit, as the British Communist Party found out, was to be doomed to the political margins. Yet to throw one’s lot in with Labour meant regularly putting on hold challenges from the left for the sake of electoral unity. After each election, it was back to square one for the Labour left.

In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the party’s left finally appeared to be gaining some ground, the beneficiary of the deepening radicalization of the trade unions, members and leaders alike. Growing support for Benn in the early seventies stemmed from the trade union backlash against the pre-Thatcher Thatcherism of Edward Heath, the Conservative prime minister whose government fell in 1974 due to a resilient miners strike.

These increasingly left trade unions formed a rare alliance with Bennite constituency Labour parties. The coalition won reforms to democratize Labour at party conferences — including a 1981 vote establishing the election of the party leader by an “electoral college” of unions, Labour members, and members of parliament, rather than just the parliamentary party. That year, Benn came within a percentage point of beating Denis Healey, the well-respected leader of the Labour right, in the deputy leadership election.

Ultimately, however, the switch to an electoral college selection process didn’t dramatically modify the power structure of the party. Members now had some say instead of none, but the actual voting mechanisms remained weighted in favor of the members of parliament. Moreover, the inclusion of trade unions in the leadership election — where they marginalized internally dissenting views by voting as a bloc — effectively consolidated the alliance between union and parliamentary leaderships on which Labour’s very existence depended.

In the 1950s and ’60s, conservative forces in Labour accepted the unions’ right-leaning bloc of votes. But the unions’ move leftwards in the 1970s and early ’80s led some on the Right, including Blair, to reassess that position. They now wanted to sever the party’s links with the unions altogether.

When Ed Miliband won the leadership contest in 2010, vowing to break from New Labour, he triumphed partly because he managed to win more support among unions than his Blair-supporting brother David. This put New Labour leaders on further alert for opportunities to weaken the union-party link.

A somewhat shadowy group of New Labour MPs and their media allies saw their chance when a local parliamentary selection process in 2013 was tarnished by accusations of trade union corruption. While strongly rebutted, alleged chicanery did enough damage to convince Miliband to favor a rule change that ended the electoral college and turned the leadership election into a “one person, one vote” contest.

Under the new rules, MPs could nominate candidates but otherwise had no more power than the individual member, affiliated union member, or supporter (a new category in which people could vote after paying 3 pounds or, if they were members of an affiliated union, nothing at all). At the time, Miliband declared that “300,000 trade unionists active in the party is preferable to 3 million paper trade unionists affiliated to the party.”

Corbyn’s election has proven Miliband more perceptive about trade union members than New Labour’s mandarins, whose fixation on party activists and unions as the source of Labour’s problems and whose dream of a US-style politics led them to believe that increased public involvement as “supporters,” US primary style, would pull the party toward the center.

The reality soon became clear. As the Labour leadership election meetings traveled around the country, Corbyn’s campaign gathered momentum, and an unpredicted public — “a movement searching for a home,” as some commentators put it — surged into the church halls and community centers of every city and town, sometimes climbing in through the windows to be part of the excitement, or waiting in an overflow outside for Corbyn to make his second appearance of the night.

The Roots of a Hybrid Movement

The scattered movement that came together around Corbyn has deep roots. In the 1970s, Benn advocated in a pamphlet a “new politics” that was at once international — a response to the worldwide rebellion against the US war in Vietnam — and focused on the very British problem of Westminster parliamentarism and the Labour Party. “[T]he student power movement, the Black Power movement and the discontent among trade unionists are very powerful and important new forces in society and the Labour Party has got to enter into a creative relationship with them,” Benn wrote.

In the decades since — which saw the destruction of Benn’s attempts to radically reform industry as a government minister, Thatcher’s bludgeoning of organized labor, and New Labour’s attacks on the party’s left — a generation of activists have grown up for whom “a creative relationship with the Labour Party” is inconceivable.

In a modest but often effective way — like their political cousins, the indignados in southern Europe and Occupy in the United States — they have defined their own politics, directly intervening in society without the mediation of political parties. Some of these activists — including from UK Uncut, Climate Camp, and Occupy London — ended up constituting the creative linchpin of Corbyn’s campaign (similar to many indignados’ active involvement in Podemos).

Then there is the older generation, Corbyn’s own generation, shaped by the new politics that influenced Benn in the late 1960s and ’70s. They were drawn into the Labour Party by Benn, repulsed by Blairism, and on the eve of the war on Iraq held the local meetings, gave out the leaflets, and booked the buses that brought two million onto the streets in 2003. (Corbyn himself was an active supporter of Stop the War, the national organization behind the antiwar demonstrations. He became its chair in 2011.)

These elder activists found their voice again through Corbyn’s reluctant candidature for Labour leadership. In a potent mix, they provided the local infrastructure that was then amplified by the younger activists’ outreach on social media. They were further aided by large numbers of trade unionists who have been fighting Thatcherism’s various iterations for the past forty years but never received the party’s support.

So can this hybrid movement make the Labour Party theirs? Or is the movement formed in the space that Corbyn opened up just squatting — soon to find the electricity cut off and the bailiffs coming round with police reinforcements?

For now, the two main sources of energy — party members and credibility with the wider public — are flowing relatively well. A recent YouGov opinion poll of Labour Party members, for example, found that Corbyn’s support had increased to 66 percent since his election. And although many of Corbyn’s opponents predicted a December 3 by-election in the northern town of Oldham would be a disaster for Labour, the party increased its share of the vote with a local moderate candidate to whom Corbyn and his grassroots supporters gave their full approval.

The campaign against Corbyn has been based mostly on the purported lack of electability of the longtime member of parliament (MP), though the Blairites are also fired by disbelief — how could the Left still be alive after all those years of defeat?

But alive it is. The appeal of Corbyn, like that of his longstanding ally and now shadow chancellor John McDonnell, does not spring from the kind of charisma that sets a leader apart from supporters, leaving them in passive awe. It is Corbyn’s closeness that is the source of his attraction and strength. He celebrated and empathized with people at his meetings, telling the recognizable stories of their daily lives, or those of people like them, and demonstrated with his leadership bid that it is possible to mold those shared experiences into the foundation for a collective power, an active, solidaristic hope (“Jez We Can,” his campaign slogan went).

Corbyn’s honesty and unpretentious style continue to resonate with the general public. Despite all the personal attacks against him — for not bowing properly, not dressing properly, not singing the national anthem properly — the arrows have largely failed to hit their target.

The most vivid example of Corbyn’s “new politics” has been his conversion of Prime Minister’s Questions into a “People’s Question Time,” crowdsourcing his queries so they come from Doreen in Wythenshawe, Mark in Coventry, or Sharon in Leeds. Cameron has been unable to dismiss these questions in his usual arrogant manner without fear of a public backlash. In the first weeks of Corbyn’s leadership, the People’s Question Time helped stabilize his position and convince some doubters of his genuine commitment to political renewal.

And then there’s his mandate. Blairites have to sleep with the fact that their candidate won only 4.5 percent of the vote, compared to Corbyn’s 59.5 percent. The other candidates were all far behind the victor as well, with the second place finisher receiving just 19 percent.

Though there is no shortage of pushy MPs who fancy themselves a moderate successor, none can rival Corbyn’s backing among party members and supporters. Sober commentators judge him to be secure for years to come and likely to survive possible electoral setbacks for Labour in the London mayoral elections or the devolved elections in Scotland.

Moreover, the late November vote over airstrikes in Syria indicated that Labour MPs are beginning to listen to their growing constituency memberships. Only sixty-six Labour MPs voted against their leader and for the airstrikes — in spite of media predictions that the figure would be one hundred or more.

This was not a result of the harassment of which pro-Corbyn people are being accused, but simply that government-imposed parliamentary boundary changes (and consequent reductions in the number of MPs) mean that MPs will have to compete against each other to be reselected. Under Corbyn’s leadership it is the members who decide. (Though it was Miliband who ended Blair’s habit of imposing candidates on local parties through the national executive.)

In sum, even with significant intra-party antipathy and constant attacks from the media, the new party leadership’s position is stable due to strong backing from Labour members, growing credibility among voters, and the resilience and energy of Corbyn and McDonnell, sympathetic MPs, and young activists. Whether Corbyn has enough space to begin setting the agenda, however, is another story.

Sources of Momentum

Corbyn’s institutional attempt to sustain the energy of his campaign — aptly called Momentum — intends to create that space (and subdue hostile party forces in the process). The organization is led by the same generational mix that drove the campaign: people formed by the Bennite struggles for inner-party democracy in the 1970s and the new cohort of direct action organizers schooled in the principles of open, horizontal forms of organization.

Momentum is an effort to give an affirmative answer to the question of whether there were sources of power activated in the lead-up to Corbyn’s extraordinary victory that could be harnessed to transform the Labour Party. The character and work of Momentum also bears on the question of whether Corbyn’s insistence that there is an alternative to New Labour and Tory rule can be turned into a practical strategy for electoral office. Both hinge on whether and how a different kind of Labour Party can be forged, capable of winning a general election despite the greatly diminished might of the industrial working class.

Gaining leadership of a party that has atrophied and whose campaigns largely consist of direct, unmediated appeals to potential supporters is very different from the “long march through the institutions,” as the socialist activist Rudi Dutschke once put it. These institutions were created in a very different society that no longer exists, so a successful march requires changing society, changing the Labour Party’s relation to society — and only then beginning to remake the Labour Party’s own organizations.

The mismatch between these necessarily overlapping processes was evident at a founding meeting of a local branch of Momentum in Hackney, an eastern district of London once the site of large factories with well-organized workforces. Now the largest employer is Hackney Council; everyone else works in the City of London, delivery and transport, shops, restaurants, or a large number of small creative workshops and partnerships.

The meeting was a microcosm of the different strands of thinking and practice in the making of Momentum, as well as their limits. Chaired in the spirit of the new politics of consensus and openness, everybody spoke who wanted to, but no one could speak twice. This facilitated a process by which every position was laid out, and those who were trying to explore new ideas and express uncertain directions had the chance to speak as well. It was good-humored and respectful, and the spirit was one of unity and common cause despite sometimes-sharp differences.

Several older activists spoke with the certainty and precision of experienced stalwarts back on home territory: now that we’ve won the leadership, they insisted, it’s a matter of changing the party — resolutions to conference, replacing right-wing MPs, and so on. The familiar formula was expressed with great confidence that it would produce the desired left turn in the party, ready for government.

Others spoke from campaigns based mainly outside the Labour Party: Stop the War, the anti-austerity People’s Assembly, and others, stressing the importance of building these movements to change politics and hoping that Hackney Momentum would strengthen these campaigns by enlarging a common base of support.

Still others brought to the meeting urgent problems requiring immediate collective action, most notably an attack on schools. They hoped Hackney Momentum would become a hub for mobilization. Some were more tentative. A young man complained that the meeting was dominated by a language — of socialism, of class — to which he could not easily relate. An older woman stressed the importance of learning from local people, of reaching out and finding out what was going on in neighborhoods and streets and discovering people’s needs. At the end, people met in clusters of shared interests to discuss what Momentum could do.

The meeting indicated that there is a desire to come together to create some kind of collectivity around Corbyn’s principles and the need for change, but it didn’t look like it could lay the foundation for agenda-setting initiatives quite yet.

A New Terrain

One of the lines of attack against Corbyn is that his leadership means a “return to the 1980s,” when Labour supposedly veered too far to the left. As a result, the story goes, the party lost a series of elections until New Labour’s heroic rescue.

There is little basis in fact for this account, but there is an interesting contrast to be made between Corbyn’s situation today and that of his mentor, Tony Benn, more than three decades ago. Benn’s campaigns took place at the moment when neoliberal policies were taking their hold over British politics.

But the central institutions of the social-democratic postwar settlement — a national economy, the welfare state, national collective bargaining, and trade union involvement in corporatist industrial policies — were still in place, if precariously so. Changing the Labour Party in order to intervene in industry, expand the welfare state, protect jobs, and improve working conditions made a good deal of sense.

In contrast, Corbyn won the Labour Party leadership at a time when neoliberal politics has come to dominate the Labour Party and taken over the UK state, stripping it of its more social-democratic features. Moreover, by eviscerating the welfare state and the infrastructure of a progressive tax system, neoliberal economics has all but destroyed the material basis for the provision of public good, or even of a moderately just, regulated, and redistributive national economy.

The prevarications of both former Labour leader Ed Miliband and his presumed successor, Andy Burnham, prove the point. Their goals are social democratic, but the world of a mixed economy, in which the profits of a productive capitalist sector could be taxed and redistributed to provide universal welfare, social security, and public infrastructure for the benefit of all, within a relatively closed, predictable, and controllable economy, no longer exists.

It has been replaced by a financialized global capitalism in which capital flows shape politics rather than vice versa. And in the case of eurozone countries, treaties or austerity packages imposed from on high serve to prevent progressive reforms.

In the past, social democracy’s symbiotic relationship with Keynesian macroeconomics worldwide shaped the internal debate in the Labour Party and other social-democratic parties. The question was about how far center-left governments should push the mixed economy toward socialization. Meanwhile, capital was willing share the spoils of rising profits, preferring this to worker unrest.

This context began to change as the postwar economy confronted deep problems — the 1973 oil price hike, stagflation, an intensification of global competition, financial instability, and the increasingly militant demands of workers. Businesses’s response was swift and punishing: a massive wave of factory closures and cuts that devastated municipal government and public housing and, consequently, working-class communities.

Capital killed the postwar accord — and it’s not coming back. Victories can be achieved here or there — for example, against water privatization or for protective legislation — but only when strong extra-parliamentary movements pressure the state and win support from sympathetic politicians.

Fortunately, in the UK and other countries ravaged by unfettered capitalism, there are many signs of a new kind of resistance.

Typically this involves mobilizing all possible sources of counter-power — economic, social, cultural — and different levels of political power, local as well as national and, very occasionally, continental. In particular, these efforts don’t just try to become or to lobby an elected government. They seek instead to disrupt the day-to-day oppressions and injustices on which the neoliberal order depends and to create new, emancipatory relationships of mutuality and democracy out of resistance, amid the wreckage of social democracy.

Many non-state initiatives try to build a social economics based on common or cooperative forms of ownership, challenging on a dispersed and micro scale the logic of profit and private capital and illustrating the potential viability of an economy based on socialist principles.

Others work to create networks of cooperatives and collaborative partnerships in energy, agriculture, food production, culture, and more (sometimes backed by progressive municipal councils). Alliances of workers and communities whose resistance saved public services from privatization (for example, water) attempt to organize these services along democratic and communist lines.

Precarious workers long neglected by traditional trade unions — hotel and restaurant workers, delivery workers, self-employed workers, and independent cultural producers of all kinds — build economic power on their own. And sometimes unions, in turn, introduce new organizational forms and branch out beyond traditional methods.

Unite — the UK’s largest trade union and a backer of Corbyn in the leadership contest— has started community branches, organizing unemployed people and supporting local community-based campaigns. The union is also using direct action tactics learned from UK Uncut and others to pressure suppliers of companies with whom the union is negotiating.

People who relied on the welfare state and are hit especially hard by austerity — for instance, disabled people and people facing fuel poverty — are self-organizing, connecting to broader alliances and pressing demands on MPs and councilors. Increasingly, citywide networks and convergences are choosing the city as the level most favorable to organizing both a platform and material strength.

And while they often favor parties and figures like Podemos and Corbyn, the people behind these initiatives also value their autonomy as a vital condition for efficacy and sustainability.

A Different Kind of Democracy

Were it to assist these kinds of initiatives — what could be termed grassroots productive democracy rather than just state-led social democracy — Momentum could bring about a far-reaching movement, laying the groundwork for a Corbyn win in the 2020 general election. The creation of such a movement could simultaneously set in motion the dynamics for supportive and transformative post-election alliances.

Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign is an exemplar in this respect: it was a non-party social movement that brought together a diverse range of campaigning and productive civic organizations to organize for a “yes” vote in the country’s referendum.

Especially pertinent for the Corbyn campaign have been the initiatives of Common Weal, which was set up to generate and disseminate grassroots economic alternatives. They developed a new language of mutuality and collaboration — a “we” against the competitive market “I” — furnishing living models of a socialism that does not revolve exclusively around the state (even if it does require the support of a different kind of state). This they share with Corbyn, who has a plural understanding of social ownership, regulation, and intervention.

They have also provided sustenance to the belief that there can be something better than the current state of affairs — breaking the fatalism that leads people to vote for the status quo or abstain — and spurred in people a sense of confidence about their agency and abilities, another feature of Corbyn’s socialism.

This new kind of democracy should incorporate labor as well. But for that to happen, the division unions traditionally erected between the economic and political must fall. It might have made sense at the end of the nineteenth century, when trade unions seeking parliamentary representation set up the Labour Party.

Now, however, as workers engage in struggles that push their unions in a more directly political direction, there’s an opportunity to erode the outdated demarcation. Activists — including those from Momentum — can speed along the process, assisting in the creation of economically transformative initiatives, fusing the political and economic to bring about systemic change.

Something Different

Corbyn’s original campaign for the leadership contained within it the inchoate method and tools of radical change. The veteran MP ran within his own party, looking to rise to its highest post on his own radical terms. But he also stepped outside the party, mobilizing social forces that previously found Labour repellant.

Similarly, Momentum needs to reach beyond the familiar campaign politics of the Left — not abandoning the conventional modes entirely but combining them with economic initiatives and self-organization endeavors that can develop the capacities and create the resources through which to build power to transform society (as well as win electoral office to manage the state).

As for Corbyn, he built the language of his campaign around the experiences of his constituents and their stories of (often extreme) deprivation. He’s given voice to their plight in the House of Commons, using People’s Question Time to underscore the unjust policies of the current government.

Similarly, in the run-up to the election, Corbyn could collect positive, inspiring examples of people building an alternative: the ways in which English, Scots, and Welsh are self-organizing, the collective initiatives people are launching to take care of themselves and their neighborhood — in short, the basis of new sources of working-class power in communities and in new forms of work.

Corbyn has already caused a seismic shift in Labour politics and taken the media and the establishment, Labour and Tory alike, by surprise. As one journalist from Sky TV told me when the insurgent candidate was gaining momentum, “Corbyn has completely upset our template.” The reporter delivered the remark with extreme perplexity.

We shouldn’t be astonished if Corbyn and his young supporters, unaccustomed as they are to political convention, ultimately deliver even broader change on a national level.