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Corbynism Lost Because We Didn’t Transform the Labour Party

Jeremy Corbyn's leadership was a historic challenge to neoliberalism and inspired millions of people. But bursts of enthusiasm at election time weren’t enough to empower working people — and a year since Labour’s defeat, its centrist management is working to ensure that the Left never threatens its rule again.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses supporters at a Sainsburys Superstore as Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard (C) and Labour candidate Andrew Hilland (R) stand by on November 13, 2019 in Hamilton, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

Few on the Left will relish being reminded of the anniversary, but today marks one year since Labour’s landslide general election defeat. It brought the final denouement of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, in which so many socialists had invested their hopes.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, thousands of left-wing activists had poured into constituencies across the country to campaign for a transformative Labour government, committed to reversing decades of damage to Britain’s social fabric. Back in the June 2017 election, a similar mass canvassing operation had seemed to do the trick. Defying predictions, the Labour vote had surged to 40 percent, forcing a hung parliament. But second time around, the task was simply too great — and the Tories returned with an eighty-seat majority.

With Labour now tacking sharply to the right under Corbyn’s successor Keir Starmer, many on the Left are wondering whether it was all worth it. To socialists on both sides of the Atlantic, it must feel as if normal service has been resumed after a turbulent and exhausting few years. Indeed, Joe Biden made this an explicit part of his appeal in the recent US presidential election — offering a tired electorate a degree of calm.

Yet the need for far-reaching social change is greater than ever. The coronavirus-induced economic crisis — exacerbated by the inadequacies of Britain’s punitive and miserly social security system — threatens to plunge another two million families into destitution. Already, the country’s poorest and most marginalized people have borne the brunt of the pandemic, making a mockery of the government’s “we’re all in this together” mythology. Then, there’s the global existential threat posed by climate change.

The Corbyn era saw Labour finally start to treat issues like Britain’s gaping inequalities and the environment with the seriousness they deserved. Those who fought for a Corbyn-led government fell short of that goal. But they needn’t take lessons in “realism” from those who refuse to confront the multiple crises we face.

One More Heave

A year on from the defeat, it’s worth asking what can be drawn from our recent experience. And we shouldn’t forget our more successful moments. After all, in the previous election back in 2017, Corbyn’s Labour came closer to governing than even his most enthusiastic supporters had thought possible. The party went into that campaign lagging over twenty points behind Theresa May’s Tories in the opinion polls. By election day, Labour had come within a hair’s breadth of overturning that deficit completely.

When May called the election, it was simply assumed that a Tory landslide was inevitable. Right-wing papers crowed about the beating that would inevitably be dished out to Corbyn’s Labour, while centrist outlets simply hoped it would bring a relatively swift end to the Corbyn experiment. Labour MPs had failed to do so themselves the previous summer, when right-winger Owen Smith mounted an embarrassing challenge for the party leadership.

In the event, far from the Tories increasing their majority in the House of Commons, Labour’s gains deprived them of it altogether. Fired up by the party’s most ambitious manifesto in decades, grassroots Labour activists — backed up by Momentum’s impressive and polished organizing machine — mobilized in every corner of the country. In the process, they won in several constituencies which had never elected a Labour MP; the most notable of these was Kensington, where seventy-two people would die in the Grenfell Tower fire a week after the election.

British prime minister Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street on November 14, 2018 in London. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

The Grenfell fire appeared at the time to mark a fundamental crisis for the neoliberal regime in Britain. Opinion polls in the aftermath of Grenfell put Labour as high as 46 percent. Visiting North Kensington after the fire, Corbyn himself looked genuinely prime ministerial, empathizing with local residents where Theresa May had shamefacedly scurried away from them. Hopes were raised on the Left that, at long last, British neoliberalism might be verging on an ignominious collapse.

In Labour circles, the general assumption was not just whether Labour would win the following general election, but what it would do when it did. A “one more heave” mindset began to set in. However, with Brexit — which Corbyn had previously neatly triangulated around — coming to a head, and with his opponents redoubling their efforts to keep him out of office, the next election would take place in very different circumstances.

The element of surprise was also lost. The British political establishment had been caught cold by Labour’s unexpectedly strong showing in 2017. Now, it would be much better prepared. Simply repeating the mass canvassing strategy of that election a second time thus proved unrealistic. Deeper problems in the party went unaddressed. And the Labour left would pay a heavy price for its short-termism.

Round Two

The 2019 general election was called to settle one question above all: that of Britain’s departure from the European Union, three years after the Brexit vote. It suited the Conservatives that the campaign should revolve around this one question, implementing Brexit being the one genuinely popular policy they had after presiding over years of austerity and an unprecedented decline in real-terms living standards. Boris Johnson had been elected Tory leader that July to bring an end to the impasse.

The delicate parliamentary arithmetic following 2017 had ensured that no resolution could be reached without another general election. The anti-Brexit campaign pursued schemes with various degrees of realism, in the bid to overturn the 2016 referendum outcome. It went from demanding a second referendum on the matter to pushing for a cross-party government of “national unity” only to find that there was — as was already quite obvious — no House of Commons majority for them.

Labour’s own position on Brexit ended up falling between two stools. Corbyn had gone into the 2017 general election pledging to abide by the result of the previous year’s referendum, while pursuing a customs union with the European Union and regulatory alignment with the single market. But by 2019, with fears of a no-deal Brexit mounting, the Labour leadership was under increasing pressure to come down on the anti-Brexit side of the fence.

Corbyn had attempted to maintain a kind of “constructive ambiguity” over Brexit. Given how the party’s popular coalition had split in the 2016 referendum, any Labour leadership would likely have done the same: roughly two-thirds of Labour voters had voted Remain, but just over one-third had voted Leave. To make matters worse, many of the latter were concentrated in postindustrial areas where Labour had been losing ground for years.

By the time the 2019 general election came around, and after much agonizing, Labour had formally committed itself to holding a second referendum on Brexit if it formed a government. Here, Corbyn was responding, in part, to legitimate democratic pressures from within his party — there were, as we’re seeing now, good reasons to worry about what Brexit might entail. But, predictably, the policy went down disastrously in Leave-voting Labour seats. Of the sixty constituencies Labour lost last December, fifty-two had voted Leave.

Labour campaigners tried to recapture the energy of 2017 amid some truly miserable December weather, but it proved impossible. The atmosphere surrounding the election was sullen and menacing. Two Labour campaigners, both in their seventies, sustained broken bones in unprovoked attacks. Many more were verbally abused and threatened. If canvassers were themselves often cast as “Momentum thugs,” the attacks they themselves suffered were met with the near-total indifference, if not tacit encouragement, of the British media.

A Thin Legacy

The Labour leadership contest that followed the general election was likewise dispiriting. Rebecca Long-Bailey, a loyal Corbyn supporter and shadow cabinet member, stepped up to serve as the Labour left’s standard-bearer in difficult circumstances, something for which she deserves credit. Her campaign, though, reflected the exhaustion of the Labour left after a draining four years of defending Corbyn from attack, and a traumatic election defeat.

Starmer’s campaign adopted optimistic tones, centering on party unity and ending internecine factional in-fighting — and he easily strolled to victory. His campaign took the temperature of the Labour membership very accurately: members wanted reassurance that the civil war of the preceding years could be ended without having to abandon the bulk of Corbyn’s left-wing policies. Starmer appeared to be offering them exactly that.

Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer at the Labour Leadership Hustings at Cardiff City Hall on February 2, 2020 in Cardiff, Wales. (Matthew Horwood / Getty Images)

We won’t know until shortly before the next general election how many of those Corbyn-era policies will survive. But since becoming Labour leader, Starmer has made it his priority to isolate and humiliate the Corbynite left. Long-Bailey, having been begrudgingly admitted to Starmer’s shadow cabinet, was soon ejected from it. Jeremy Corbyn himself, meanwhile, is still not allowed to sit as a Labour MP despite being readmitted as a party member.

Scores of local Labour parties have revolted against Starmer’s treatment of Corbyn, many defying edicts from the party bureaucracy forbidding them from discussing the case (even though Starmer has freely done exactly that, all over the media). There is disquiet as well among Labour’s left-wing trade union affiliates, with some unions withholding money as Starmer courts rich individual donors, largely unsuccessfully thus far.

While many prominent Labour leftists have encouraged activists to “stay and fight,” tens of thousands of party members have walked out altogether. Certainly, they can’t be blamed for being indignant about their treatment. These are, in a lot of cases, people who generously gave up hours of their time to campaign for Labour candidates in 2017 and 2019 — in doing so, potentially putting themselves in harm’s way — only to be ritually humiliated now, by way of thanks.

The swiftness with which Starmer has been able to do this, however, speaks to the thinness of the Corbyn leadership’s long-term legacy. Corbyn claimed (rather controversially) to have “won the argument” on policy, and Keir Starmer (however insincerely) was compelled to promise continuity in this area. His pitch for the party leadership pledged to retain most left-wing policies, but combine them with a more polished style of party management and a cessation of hostilities between its warring factions.

Some on the Labour left have advised it to focus on holding Starmer to these pledges. The trouble is, in the absence of major structural reform, it’s not clear how this might be done. Labour’s internal structures remain little changed by the Corbyn era. In particular, the political composition of the parliamentary party and local councils (both very unfavourable to the Left) was altered only marginally. The modest reforms that were achieved are proving easy to sweep away.

The Revanchist Center

In his book on Corbynism, Richard Seymour recalled how, the morning after the 2017 election, socialists in Britain felt like they’d woken up “in a country they didn’t know existed.” Since last December, the general tenor of British politics has had a much more familiar ring to it, despite the upheaval of the pandemic. It is sometimes hard to resist the sense that the immense forces of British nativism and reaction are so deeply rooted as to be unshakeable.

But Corbynism posed them a much more serious threat than anyone had foreseen during that fateful Labour leadership contest in the summer of 2015. And it would have come even closer to government than it did, were it not for active sabotage by Labour’s own right-wing party bureaucrats — belatedly exposed by a leaked report this April. For a brief time, the Labour left really did have the British ruling class, and its assorted flunkeys, on the ropes.

Had Corbyn actually won, the odds would have been stacked heavily against him. A sizable minority of his own parliamentary party was relentlessly, intransigently hostile to his leadership from the very outset. This minority would have made his life extremely difficult in government, if it allowed him to take office at all. But a Corbyn election win could nevertheless have provided an important breakthrough and served as a rallying point for forces from below, potentially setting unpredictable political dynamics in motion.

The fact that Corbynism came so close to government is part of what drives the scorched-earth campaign against it today. A revanchist center is desperate to drive socialists back to the margins of public life, and out of the tenuous foothold in the mainstream which they had secured under Corbyn. Because the center has no inspiring vision for the future, and no remedies to the myriad social ills that plague us, it has to mobilize its institutional power to crush those who do.

For Starmer, waging war on the socialist left serves another purpose, too. Perhaps, he thinks if he makes a point of discarding any vestiges of radicalism (any form of anti-imperialism, especially), he might be considered sufficiently innocuous to be permitted a tilt at office. It may work. The Tory government’s pandemic response has been disastrous; the human cost of the virus has already been enormous in Britain, and with unemployment shooting higher, there is more pain to come.

Tory support remains remarkably resilient — the pro-Brexit bloc that comprises the bedrock of the party’s popular base continues to hold together — but Labour has closed the opinion poll gap. It is not impossible that Labour could end up winning the next election, or at least being in a position to lead a government, more or less by default. This is not, however, the way that public consent for enduring social change has ever been built.

Corbynism marked the first concerted attempt in many years to revive social democracy and put it on a new, more radical footing. It proved that such an agenda could resonate with millions of working people, even if it couldn’t convince enough of them. Of course, it had shortcomings and made mistakes, some of them major. But it also had the temerity to fight tenaciously against the injustices that fuelled it. That fight must now be renewed.