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The Labour Left Didn’t Start With Jeremy Corbyn’s Leadership, And It Won’t End There Either

British socialists may be reeling from December’s election defeat, but the injustices that fueled their movement are still as glaring as ever. Sooner or later, the forces inspired by Jeremy Corbyn will regroup and resume the struggle, under the leadership of a new generation.

Jeremy Corbyn during the #March4Women 2020 rally at Southbank Centre on March 08, 2020 in London, England. Lia Toby / Getty

With Jeremy Corbyn having now departed from the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, the postmortems have begun in earnest. For bien-pensant liberal and conservative pundits — a ubiquitous presence in the British media — Corbynism could only ever have ended in a historic election defeat. Such accounts usually erase the memory of the 2017 general election, when, under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour came close to unseating the Conservatives on an ambitious left-of-center manifesto.

But with Labour having now lost four consecutive general elections in a decade, under party leaders from its right, center, and left wings respectively, it’s clear that more fundamental factors underlie the party’s current crisis.

Searching for Socialism, a fresh study of Labour’s New Left by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, thankfully provides the kind of historical context so commonly absent from mainstream discussion. A follow-up to their earlier volume, The End of Parliamentary Socialism, the book condenses and reprises the thesis of its predecessor, while taking stock of the turbulent Corbyn era and Labour’s heavy loss in December’s general election.

Panitch and Leys explore the contentious relationship of Labour’s New Left to social democracy, working to defend its gains while aiming to go beyond them. They trace the story of this current from its initial origins in the second half of the 1960s through its efforts to transform Labour beyond recognition in the 1970s and ’80s, and the myriad controversies flowing from those struggles.

They then conclude by assessing Corbynism — which marked the first time that the Labour New Left had won the party leadership — and the furious, scorched-earth counteroffensive with which it was met by Labour’s entrenched old guard.

From Consensus to Conflict

Labour’s New Left first started to take shape under the leadership of Harold Wilson. Having led Labour into government in 1964, Wilson initially inspired considerable enthusiasm among British socialists. He had a seemingly radical past: a former confrere of Aneurin Bevan, Wilson had resigned from Clement Attlee’s government along with his mentor in 1951, in protest at the introduction of charges for some NHS services.

Wilson also had a notable “talent for double-talk,” as Panitch and Leys note, and came to office promising to unleash the “white heat” of a “technological revolution,” shaking up Britain’s decrepit class structure and marching boldly into a new era of change. But Wilson had the misfortune to govern just as the long postwar capitalist boom was showing signs of faltering. A generation of trade unionists had grown up “in an acquisitive, affluent society,” and many realized that the reality of their own lives didn’t measure up to the images with which they were bombarded by television and advertising.

Simultaneously, a new intellectual ferment was taking hold in the universities, as movements oriented toward anti-imperialist, feminist, and anti-racist causes similarly tested the boundaries of the social-democratic consensus. Forging unity between the two strands of this New Left would prove onerous, but they shared a disdain for the traditional parties of social democracy.

In spite of this tension, there was a drift of New Left activists into the Labour Party after Wilson’s government fell in 1970. The limitations of fragmented and often localized activity had become apparent to these activists through experience, and they turned to Labour in the hope of scaling up their campaigns.

Their goal was to turn Labour into a pole of attraction around which social movements could coalesce, and to make it a vehicle for raising socialist consciousness as well as an electoral machine. The consequences for the party over the following decade — both at the national level and in local government — would be profound.

“That Option No Longer Exists”

Tony Benn provided the burgeoning Labour New Left with the leadership it had hitherto lacked. By the mid-1970s, it had proven itself as a force to be reckoned with, both in the party and in the trade unions. Previously a modernizing and broadly centrist Labour technocrat who seemed to be in tune with the Wilson zeitgeist, Benn had been radicalized by the frustration of his experience in government, and he saw more clearly than most the threat posed by the emerging New Right. To preserve the gains made by social democracy in the postwar period, Benn argued, it was essential to go beyond them.

Panitch and Leys are quick to debunk common stereotypes that claim the Bennites failed to come to terms with the inexorable rise of globalization. In fact, it was precisely because they recognized the threat a more mobile regime of capital movement would pose to the postwar social compact that they felt it necessary to respond by subordinating capital movements to popular needs. Labour’s 1974 manifesto, which famously contained Benn’s ringing call for “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families,” bore the unmistakable stamp of the New Left.

Though Labour returned to government in 1974, the Bennite left had imposed a left-wing program on a party leadership that essentially didn’t believe in it. Benn himself sought to use his new position as industry secretary to pursue experimental new models of worker ownership and economic democracy. In doing so, he faced opposition from an uncomprehending Labour leadership, the mainstream press, and his own civil servants, all at once. After the 1975 referendum on membership of Europe’s common market, in which Benn had campaigned unsuccessfully for Britain’s withdrawal, Harold Wilson took the opportunity to demote the troublesome minister.

After Wilson stood down as prime minister in 1976, his successor, James Callaghan, took to the rostrum at the Labour Party conference to signal a final abandonment of Keynesianism, in a speech that would be warmly received by none other than Milton Friedman. “We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending,” Callaghan informed delegates and media onlookers. “I tell you in all candor that that option no longer exists.”

The Struggle for Party Democracy

The focus of the Bennites thus turned to democratizing the Labour Party’s constitution so that, in future, party leaders could not disregard rank-and-file opinion so casually. The reforms they sought included mandatory reselection of sitting Labour MPs (in effect, forcing them to seek a renewed endorsement from their local party before each general election), and granting ordinary party and union members the right to vote in Labour leadership elections.

Democratizing the Labour Party was, in the eyes of the Bennites, a necessary precursor to the future democratization of the British state. Favorable political changes in the trade unions greatly assisted their campaign: many unions were moving leftward at this time, depriving party leaders of the iron control they had previously exerted over Labour conferences.

Tony Benn’s concern with party democracy was neither an opportunistic way of boosting his own leadership prospects nor a fetish. For him, democracy was a prerequisite for building “mass popular support for and involvement in radical social change.” Benn saw himself primarily as a tribune and a teacher, raising the sights of the exploited and oppressed. A future socialist Labour government was to serve, in Benn’s words, “as the liberator unlocking the cells in which people live.”

He recognized that neither the Labour Party nor the trade unions had offered any serious program of political education, satisfying themselves instead with a reformed capitalism. As the 1970s wore on and the crisis deepened, the diminishing value of this approach, and the impossibility of continuing in the same vein, became ever clearer.

Backlash

However, this campaign for party democracy met with aggressive pushback from Labour’s main power holders. As a result, the Bennite New Left was forced to devote huge amounts of energy to overcoming the internal resistance it encountered inside the party. As Panitch and Leys observe, it became preoccupied with that intraparty struggle and was left with little energy for doing anything else outside it.

By comparison, the Thatcherite takeover of the Conservative Party only faced half-hearted opposition. While the Bennites were bogged down in internecine warfare, the Thatcherites were able to quickly get on with addressing their doctrine to the wider public.

Some Labour MPs compounded this problem by peddling lurid tales of hard-left sectarianism and intolerance to a media that was only too eager to consume them. Attempts by constituency parties to replace right-wing Labour MPs saw the targets swiftly elevated to martyr status in newspaper and broadcast coverage.

Although the Bennites succeeded in extending the franchise for Labour leadership elections and securing mandatory reselection of sitting MPs, it proved to be a step too far for some and split the party. Twenty-eight Labour MPs decamped to the breakaway Social Democratic Party after it was formed in 1981.

This fissure in the anti-Tory vote proved to be devastating, and the Thatcher government — having come through a fraught early period, including a sharp recession — was well placed to take advantage.

Defeat and Retrenchment

Before the new system for leadership elections could be introduced, however, Labour’s parliamentary party installed Michael Foot as leader under the old arrangements. Foot was another acolyte of Bevan, about whom he had written a poignant two-volume biography. But Foot was no longer the radical hero of the Labour left, having served as one of the key mainstays of the unpopular Wilson–Callaghan governments of 1974–79.

While Foot did pursue some left-wing policies as Labour leader, including unilateral nuclear disarmament, he sought above all to play the role of unifier, ensuring that his leadership would be defined by its bumbling incoherence, trying to placate all sides and satisfying none. In any case, the first beneficiary of the electoral-college system for electing Labour leaders was Neil Kinnock, who greatly accelerated the counterrevolution against the Bennite New Left.

Elected leader after Labour’s colossal defeat in the 1983 general election, Kinnock was confronted by a divided, demoralized Left that was unsure of how to approach him. As a protégé of Foot, Kinnock had his own left-wing credentials. Previously supportive trade unions, now suffering badly under the Thatcherite assault, had abandoned the Bennites. The all-consuming priority in Labour was ending Thatcherism, without any clear idea of what to replace it with.

The Labour New Left split in two: some regrouped around Marxism Today, house journal of the Eurocommunist wing of Britain’s Communist Party, while others formed the Socialist Campaign Group, a parliamentary faction of Bennite die-hards. As Marxism Today gravitated toward a new “radicalism of the centre” and (in some cases, inadvertently) laid the foundations for New Labour, the Campaign Group retreated to a more workerist position, devoid of much of its old creativity, and hunkered down for hard times ahead.

From New Labour to New Left

With the Bennite left all but vanquished, the advent of New Labour saw the party reconcile itself (seemingly for good) with neoliberal capitalism. Tony Blair’s giddy embrace of light-touch financial regulation, privatization, and imperialist wars of aggression made him a hated figure on what remained of the Labour left.

That left faction was, however, ill-equipped to resist as Blair did away with timeworn Labour shibboleths, most notably Sidney Webb’s 1918 Clause IV, with its commitment to state ownership. In any case, few seriously believed by the mid-1990s that Labour was committed to reversing the privatizations of the Thatcher years, let alone doing anything more radical.

Blair led Labour to three election wins, but the music finally stopped for New Labour when the global financial system went into meltdown in 2008, and Gordon Brown led the party to a bad defeat two years later. The financial crisis and the austerity that followed under David Cameron largely erased the modest gains of thirteen years of social reform under Blair and Brown, as Panitch and Leys point out. A reluctant rebellion against Labour’s long rightward drift finally began to crystallize, first in the trade unions and then in the party itself.

Ed Miliband became Labour leader in 2010, promising to move on from New Labour, but he was elected on the back of the votes of trade unionists, not those of party members. His brother, die-hard Blairite David Miliband, won 44 percent of the Labour membership vote, compared to just under 30 percent for Ed. The constituency Labour parties, for so long strongholds of the Left, had been hollowed out.

Lacking organized support, either within the Parliamentary Labour Party or in the constituencies, Miliband was browbeaten into adopting an uninspiring “austerity-lite” platform as the Tory–Liberal Democrat coalition government tore chunks out of Britain’s welfare state. The result was another Labour defeat in 2015, including a near-total collapse in Scotland — a canary in the mine for the party’s near future.

Corbynism

Miliband immediately resigned, and the Labour leadership election that summer started in bleak fashion, as candidates from the party’s right and center competed to disown Miliband’s allegedly excessive radicalism. With the Labour right flagellating itself about New Labour’s public-spending record, it fell to the depleted forces of the Bennite left to defend the more progressive aspects of the Blairite settlement.

Grassroots members pushed for an alternative. The end result was the impromptu candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn, a follower and close friend of Tony Benn, who squeezed onto the ballot at the very last minute, yet was elected on the first round with nearly 60 percent of the vote under a new “one member, one vote” system.

Corbyn was widely respected as a dogged campaigner who had used his parliamentary platform to promote a range of often marginal causes, and who had been active in the anti-cuts movement after 2010. He brought hundreds of thousands of new recruits with him, many of whom had been formed by that movement.

However, once Corbyn assumed his position as Labour leader in September 2015, he found himself isolated. The Campaign Group had withered to barely a dozen MPs, forcing the new leader to assemble a shadow cabinet with a center of political gravity well to his right.

That shadow cabinet fell apart when most of its members resigned en masse in coordinated fashion after the European referendum of 2016, forcing another leadership election. Corbyn was reelected as Labour leader by an increased margin, but his opponents never accepted his legitimacy, and the Tory leader Theresa May called the 2017 general election in a bid to capitalize on Labour’s palpable discomfort.

Scores of Corbyn’s MPs openly despised him, barely concealing their willingness to throw the election if it forced him out. In similar fashion, senior Labour Party bureaucrats engaged in an unprecedented wrecking campaign, the details of which are only now coming to light. The malicious mindset at work will be familiar to supporters of Bernie Sanders.

Even so, Labour deprived the Tories of their parliamentary majority, with the campaigning group Momentum — formed to support Corbyn’s leadership in 2015 — playing an instrumental role.

Quagmire

However, the 2017 election had contradictory consequences. As Panitch and Leys detail, a rousing grassroots campaign reenergized Labour, but the party’s focus then shifted back toward Westminster — precisely where Corbyn was at his weakest — as Brexit came to the crunch. The “mass repudiation” of neoliberalism that Corbyn had spearheaded in 2017 soon dissipated, as his party returned to the grind of parliamentary maneuvering.

The prospects of meaningful party reform likewise died at this point: with a socialist-led Labour government seemingly an imminent possibility, Corbyn prioritized holding the parliamentary party together over democratizing Labour. His concessions, however, earned him no goodwill from the Labour right.

Meanwhile, the issue of Brexit tore Corbyn’s fragile base apart. The Labour left could neither make a convincing case for a left-wing Brexit — it was evident, as Corbyn acknowledged, that the nationalist right was in the ideological saddle — nor could it offer a plausible strategy for democratizing European institutions from within. Corbyn’s supporters in the party were badly split on the matter, and they argued rancorously among themselves.

Belatedly, Corbyn ended up calling for a second referendum on Brexit, a stance that not only failed to fire up most of his supporters, but also alienated many voters in those Labour-held “rust belt” constituencies that had voted Leave in 2016.

Much of the Labour right, sensing an opportunity, had latched on to the anti-Brexit cause with a view to maximizing Corbyn’s embarrassment and splintering his support base. They succeeded in that aim, at least, but some of them paid for it with their jobs in December’s election: fifty-two of the sixty seats Labour lost had voted Leave three and a half years earlier. In the process, they helped hand a mandate for a hard Brexit to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, before the COVID-19 pandemic intervened.

Corbyn’s attempt to renew and reimagine social democracy for a new era was successfully undone by his inner-party opponents, who made such a fuss of claiming the social-democratic label for themselves, without making any effort to explain what they took it to mean.

Prisoners of the Broad Church

Leo Panitch has remarked elsewhere that the responsibility for maintaining Labour Party unity bears down heaviest on its left wing: it is “more easily guilted, always.” Keir Starmer’s appeal for unity has resonated with a tired party membership guilt-stricken by December’s defeat, winning over many erstwhile Corbynites.

Starmer has implied that he will keep party policy well to the left of where it was before Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. If he is serious in this aim, he will have to face down opposition from the Labour right in a way that both Miliband and Corbyn were unable to do, which seems most unlikely.

To understand the bitterness of Labour’s internal rivalries under Corbyn, we need to appreciate the fundamental nature of the divisions within the party. Labour has always been a fractious and borderline incoherent coalition of divergent perspectives. Simply holding the party together as a serious electoral force and a prospective party of government, then, necessitates certain ideological elisions.

The result has been, as Raymond Williams once noted, “an evident poverty in theory” in Labour, as “any attempt to go beyond quite general definitions leads at once to strains on this complicated alliance.” Corbyn’s unlikely rise to the party leadership instantly brought these latent tensions to the boil.

In the Labour Party, mutually antagonistic political projects — primarily those of reformist socialism and centrist liberalism — are squeezed together, cheek by jowl, in the same unwieldy political vehicle. The intense antipathy between its warring camps suggests that this is not because of any shared commitment to pluralism.

In truth, Labour’s much-mythologized “broad church” remains welded together primarily by the need to adapt to a first-past-the-post electoral system that punishes splits severely — as underlined by the fact that Change UK, a centrist breakaway from Labour formed in February 2019, had dissolved completely by the end of the year.

Resisting Rollback

And what of Momentum? With a membership that peaked somewhere north of forty thousand, the organization quickly established itself as a highly effective campaigning machine, mobilizing many thousands of Labour activists in the general elections of 2017 and 2019.

It had plenty of practice: the 2016 challenge to Corbyn’s leadership, which saw sizable pro-Corbyn rallies take place in towns and cities across Britain, turned out to be a useful dress rehearsal for the general-election campaign of the following year. Its social-media presence, at least at its very best, has been witty, sharp, and provocative.

But Momentum has had far less success in reorienting Labour toward social movements, or with socialist political education, notwithstanding its original intentions. It has been overwhelmed by its responsibilities, forced to serve simultaneously as get-out-the-vote operation, propaganda outfit, factional organizing vehicle, and Praetorian Guard for an embattled party leader.

Its progress in reforming the party has thus been very limited, and Labour’s structures remain essentially unchanged since 2015. It would be fairly easy for Starmer to roll back the modest reforms made under Corbyn; an undeniably poor return for four and a half years of acrid civil war.

Corbynism After Corbyn?

As Jeremy Corbyn departs the political limelight to see out the remainder of his career on the Westminster backbenches, he does so to a chorus of derisive hooting from his many adversaries. He has done well just to survive the extraordinary campaign of vilification directed at him.

Corbyn’s supporters were similarly demonized. In fact, so splenetic was the screaming vitriol circulating in the press and right-wing social media circles that two elderly Labour canvassers came away from the campaign trail last December with broken bones. The British media, normally so scrupulous about upholding standards of civility in politics, took minimal interest in such attacks.

Undoubtedly, Corbyn had his failings as Labour leader, some of them major. Yet he also generated heartfelt enthusiasm, renewed interest in socialism after decades on the margins, and inspired a movement several-hundred-thousand strong: achievements that none of his detractors are ever likely to match.

Crestfallen and badly disoriented though that movement is now, the grievances that fueled it — rampant inequalities of wealth and power, deep-seated social alienation, the injustices of a decade of cuts, and the impending threat of climate breakdown — remain. The history supplied by Panitch and Leys provides us with a valuable and timely reminder that, for all the defeats it has suffered over the years, Labour’s New Left current has been stubbornly resilient.

A World Still to Win

It’s worth noting the apparent change in what Panitch and Leys have to say about the prospects for socialist advance through the Labour Party. The authors had previously concluded in The End of Parliamentary Socialism that the failure of Bennism and the rise of New Labour settled the question of whether Labour could be a vehicle for socialist politics: the answer was “no.” In Searching for Socialism, by contrast, they acknowledge that the revived Labour left is unlikely “to see any other way forward than continuing the struggle inside the Labour Party.”

The failure of Europe’s new left parties to make the hoped-for breakthrough hangs heavy here: the eclipse of Syriza after showing such early promise was particularly shattering. Other left parties, such as Podemos, have, as Panitch and Leys note, at best “served as minor partners in coalitions with mainstream social-democratic parties” — and even that is likely to be more than any British equivalent could hope for, so long as the first-past-the-post system remains in place.

But the authors do see 2019 as a kind of watershed, and an indication that the generation of Labour leftists that came to maturity in the 1970s can no longer take that project any further. Instead, those drawn into Labour by the Corbynite insurgency must find their own way forward, “discovering and developing new political forms” in the process.

It might take a while, but Corbynism’s scattered forces will regroup, rebuild, and resume their struggle. There remains a world to win, though we may be short of time in which to do it.