Ten Lessons of Corbynism

The achievements were real. So were the mistakes

As Keir Starmer wins the Labour leadership election emphatically, the left loses control of the NEC and Jeremy Corbyn stands down, here is a (not exhaustive) list of lessons we can take away from 2015–2020.

1. Corbynism wasn’t an accident

Yes the Labour bureaucracy made a huge mistake letting new members sign up for £3 and decide the leader in 2015; and yes John McDonnell only got Jeremy on the ballot paper by saying he couldn’t win. But the absolute dearth of radicalism among the other candidates is what opened the door to Jeremy — at a time when Syriza’s victory had energised the entire western left.

Corbyn’s victories in two leadership contests (2015/16) were themselves radicalising moments — with the “chicken coup” and the ridiculous attempt to exclude tens of thousands of members from voting (plus McNichol’s purge) actually mobilising even deeper layers of support.

This was part of a wider international phenomenon, combining the entry of the Occupy/anti-capitalist activists and radical environmentalists into party politics with the pent up energy of the survivors of the defeats of 1979–97.

But as a “moment” it was five years ago, and there are new enemies, new dynamics and new alliances now to be made. That’s what lay behind my decision to back, and campaign for Starmer, as part of a very diverse team including people from the centre and the soft-left.

2. The transformation of Labour was real

Jeremy opened the door to mass political involvement for a new generation, and gave my generation, which had been excluded or disillusioned since the purge of Militant and Blair’s rewrite of Clause IV, the chance to re-enter social-democratic politics. The lasting legacy of mass involvement is a 500k+ membership, branches bigger than entire CLPs were 5 years ago, the establishment of Momentum, the Community Organising Unit and The World Transformed — of which the latter proved the least controllable by the bureaucratic forces that eroded Corbynism’s effectiveness.

Specific moments that stand out for me were: the Camden rally on the night we defeated McNichol/ Watson’s attempt to keep Jeremy off the ballot paper; the Liverpool and Gateshead rallies in the 2017 election; and the 2018 conference, where — despite burying the Brexit debate — real and radical policy formation took place because the left temporarily controlled all the party’s levers of power. This is what we have to defend.

3. Corbyn triggered an intellectual revival

… though his inner team were never completely engaged in it. Today there are key left voices writing in the Guardian, New York Times, LRB and New Statesman and who occupy a broad, diverse and distinctive space in British public life. To the chagrin of the clueless pundit class, we also hegemonised the TV debate and discussion shows. It wasn’t because we are slicker than the centrists: it was because we had something to say other than “the middle way is best” and “there is no alternative”.

Meanwhile left think-tank world has moved left: we’ve got Autonomy and Common Wealth, Labour for a Green New Deak, Platform etc — plus the IPPR and NEF both moved left during Jeremy’s leadership, and NEON has been a brilliant offshoot. We also saw, with Real Change Labs, what could have been achieved if there’d been more interest in US-style campaign techniques.

Though this broad new ideascape ranges between the triangle of autonomism, orthodox Marxism and eco-activism, somewhere in the middle is a series of generally accepted principles of action, policy and narrative that’s been absorbed by literally millions of people. Though we lost the 2019 election, 32% of the electorate was still prepared to vote for a programme that would have ended neoliberalism, and rapidly decarbonised Britain.

4. Trade unionism has a new and militant edge

The left-led unions played a historic role ending Blairism, and in the move to the left after Miliband. But in turn, the entry of numerous social movement activists into the movement has revived the effectiveness of unions. Look at the victories won by the IWGB, or the GMB with Uber as well as, for example, the huge ballot turnout in the CWU dispute, or the UCU strikes. This is wholly different to the period between crushing of the print strike of 1986 and the left’s initial victories in Aslef, the TGWU and RMT in the early 2000s.

What’s different? The militants I worked with in the late-70s/80s were effectively syndicalists: “The NUM is my party”, miners used to say. Between 1997 and 2015 unions were forced to be the critical clients of a top-down Labour Party. After 2015 the emerging union radicalism was heavily inter-penetrated with developments in the party, though the bureaucracy remains wary of projects like #TWT and still determined to teach quite functionalist left politics in their political education schools.

Once the Coronavirus crisis is over, I expect a new wave of militancy, both over wages/safety and austerity, if they dare to try it. The irony for Neil Kinnock was that, even if he’d wanted to (and he didn’t want to) he couldn’t have “led” the solidarity movement with the miners. Keir Starmer is in a position to front up the grassroots struggles that breakout once the lockdown is over, though we’ll have to resist the Labour right’s attempt to stop this happening (see eg Lisa Nandy’s “don’t pick sides in strikes” comments).

5. The left’s basic programme is clear

Both in the 2017 and and 2019 manifestos, we produced a body of policy work that should stand the test of time and, by and large, be defended and built on. I am a bigger fan of the 2017 manifesto because it was the product of hard choices: above all between welfare and student loans (I was in the room when that discussion was had). The 2019 manifesto, while it lacked a coherent narrative, must stand as the first viable programme of government, in any developed country, which put decarbonisation at its heart.

The point now is not to treat these as dead documents to be defended against the centrist pushback, but exactly as Sidney Webb envisaged Labour’s programme in the Clause IV discussions in 1918: a menu to be ordered from in specific circumstances (via the Clause V process). Given the bond market, the railways and possibly the banks and energy companies will end up nationalised, and debt will go above 100% of GDP, the next manifesto will probably have to be even more statist than the last. I’ll write about this elsewhere. But now to the downsides…

6. The British left has no effective critique of Stalinism

First let me define what I mean. Of course there are a few self-proclaimed Stalinists who wear badges at conference depicting the murder of Trotsky, or run Facebook pages where the Holodomor and the Gulag are treated as a joke, and Syrian first responders slandered. But the wider problem is the influence of an bureaucratic left ideology that emerged out of the orthodox communist tradition after the fall of the USSR.

The first thing to note is that its supporters, originating from the Straight Left group and the CPB, never had an a adequate theory of their own failure. The failure of the USSR was the fault of external forces, above all US imperialism.

The sci-fi writer Ken MacLeod always predicted that Stalinism would simply become fashionable again, once people forgot how terrible it had been. It is easy to see what made it fashionable among a specific section of the post-Occupy youth.

For some, their leftism was deeply imbued with academic post-structuralism, anti-humanism and determinism. Given most of the former Trotskyist groups went the same way, a new generation of activists found almost everything that described itself as “Marxist” carrying around the anti-humanist baggage of the late Engels, Althusser, Butler, Negri and (for the really niche) the NRM movement in political economy.

What Jeremy Gilbert describes as the “radical left” tradition was, by contrast, weak. It had virtually no allies in the unions, could never organise itself, and remains even now a motley collection of intellectuals, MPs, blogs and networks that — when the big split over Europe came — had to rely on the soft left and the extra-party social movements to achieve stuff (see for example the Left Bloc on the PV demos, AEIP, the #StopTheCoup movement).

Sourced from Gramsci, Eurocommunism, intersectionality, altermondialism, left Trotskyism, postcapitalism and autonomism, it has a good grasp of practice and social movements, but no commonly held theory, and no organisational capacity.

Unlike the Labour right and the pro-imperialists, I believe the orthodox communist tradition does have a place inside the Labour movement and I will defend them against any purge. But the price is being able to critique their ideas, and my central critique is functional, and quite similar to that of Serge, Benjamin, Mattick, Andreu Nin etc: bureaucratic, anti-humanist Leninism destroys everything it takes control of.

7. The class dynamics are crucial

There are three implicit sociologies at war with each other inside the British left, overlaying the left-right split but shaping positions over Brexit.

For the first position, the ex-industrial working class of small towns (and traditional city communities) is the core of the proletariat, while precarious workers, white collar workers are the periphery, and social movements of the oppressed are seen as allies. This is as true for the orthodox Marxist left as it is for Lisa Nandy and even Yvette Cooper, who has re-emerged as an outright communitarian.

A second group, best exemplified by Claire Ainsley (currently at JRF but tipped in the media to become Keir Starmer’s head of policy) in her book The New Working Class. Ainsley argues, correctly, that the neoliberal era has created “a new working class, which is multi-ethnic, comprised of people living off low to middle incomes, and likely to be occupied in service sector jobs like catering, social care or retail. The new working class is more disparate, more atomised, and occupies multiple social identities, which makes collective identity less possible you add to this the work of writers like Keir Milburn on inter-generational dynamics, Calum Cant and Guy Standing on the precariat, there’s a fairly wide current that accepts the new class dynamics — though their solutions for the problem of alienating the “traditional” working class differ.

A third view, originating out of Italian autonomism, argues that the emergence of financialisation, data-extractivism and networked individualism diminishes work as the primary site of exploitation: for this current (myself included), the whole of society is the new factory floor, as the authors of The Coming Insurrection wrote in 2007. Multiple forms of exploitation trigger multiple forms of resistance, each of which can lead to the limitation or shut-down of exploitation. For us, the cultural dichotomy between the old and new working class can be overcome by understanding that they both inhabit these new sites of struggle — over housing, healthcare, cultural rights, data rights etc to precarious work and democracy, even if their exeperience of work and cultural life is different.

Once the cultural divide opened up over Brexit, between the new and old working class, two rival logics kicked in: “we can’t abandon the working class” means something very different whether you live in Kennington or Leigh — and the party’s attempt to paper over the cracks using pure economic slogans didn’t work.

Going forward, whichever of these analyses you hold, the undeniable fact is that Labour is now primarily a party of young, urban, diverse and educated working people, with the BAME communities of big cities as its irreducible heartland.

A second undeniable fact is that this sociological group has no intrinsic loyalty to Labour. It has switched en masse to the SNP in Scotland and went heavily to the Greens and Libdems in England in 2019. While it took the ex-industrial working class more than a decade to drift away from Labour, the new working class are prepared to switch allegiance at will, if they see Labour failing to represent their cultural and political values.

Meanwhile large parts of the ex-industrial small town working class have also lost their intrinsic loyalty to Labour: 900,000 switched to the Tories over Brexit and a staggering 300,000 pro-Remainers in this group did likewise.

The fundamental problem for Corbynism was that it never developed a narrative or tactics that could overcome this sociological divergence. As soon as its social base divided over migration and Brexit, Corbynism became less than the sum of its parts. Starmer’s leadership will fail or succeed according to whether it can reunite them.

8. Bureacratism sucked the energy from the left

Because the Labour right were so determined to sabotage Corbyn — both in 2016 and after — it became necessary to rely on the union bureaucracy and the networks of the orthodox left. But that came at a price. The diversity of the advisers around Corbyn and McDonnell dwindled; rebel voices like Clive Lewis and the LSHB group were sidelined; talented organisers and parliamentary candidates were blocked in favour of nominees who would toe the line, and ultimately we ended up back in the world of loyalty rallies, midnight purges and the imposition of candidates.

The energy built up by #TWT was left to sporadic moments, while the party instead mobilised around preach-to-the-faithful events like Labour Live and Labour Roots. Meanwhile — and this was a big theme of an internal session at Momentum’s event in Durham in 2018 — activists began to warn that “fake left” people were rebranding themselves as Momentum and Corbynites, just to secure jobs and nominations. Hopefully that problem will now evaporate.

The party cannot be a social movement, but it could have learned from social movements and interacted with them. In the end, between 2017 and 2019, those in charge showed little interest in developing what the US left calls directed networked campaigning. The Community Organising Unit was one bright spot, which according to the internal NEC report in January may have made 2–3 percentage points difference in the place where it mobilised. But it was never a substitute for the kind of hegemonic and pervasive narrative presence which, at their most successful, Syriza, Sinn Fein, the Sanders movement and Podemos were able to achieve.

9. The leadership became dysfunctional

Between 2015 and the chicken coup, Corbyn was hostage to a soft-left PLP and a hostile HQ. Then, right through to the 2017 snap election, the HQ remained stubbornly un-co-operative. Only in 2018 did the left gain simultaneous control over the NEC and the HQ, but from September 2018 onwards, the arguments over Brexit began to stifle our effectiveness as a force capable of running the party.

The anti-Semitism scandal — which even yet still inflict a severe crisis on the party via the EHRC report — was a symptom of a wider problem: LOTO as an institution (going back to Miliband), and the orthodox left as a culture, lacked any serious information-gathering and processing functions. In fact, if you consider all the other functions of leadership — decision making, execution and oversight — only execution ever happened properly.

The Shadow Cabinet was never a real decision making or debating body; LOTO didn’t like hearing information that conflicted with their worldview (eg the TSSA/HNH polling on Brexit of February 2019); many of the professional functions you observe in a Crosby-led campaign were absent, both from HQ and LOTO. John McDonnell’s team, which functioned much better, ended up increasingly detached from the main operation.

Corbyn often refused to make choices until pushed into crisis mode. Instead of building a network of influence and information-seeking, LOTO built a wall around itself.

In every successful boardroom, newsroom, research team or general staff there is always someone whose job it is to say: the entire plan is bullshit, the information is wrong and — least welcome of all — your favourite person can’t do the job and has to go. For obvious reasons, given we are a comradely movement, creating that function of “loyal critique” has proved impossible for successive Labour leaders (including Blair and Brown).

10. The situation is critical

The coronavirus will create a slump, and the debts incurred to deal with it will force neoliberalism to choose point blank between a new round of global austerity or a series of competitive exit routes, as per the 1931–34 period. It will also a big ideological crisis for liberalism and laissez faire economics.

This is not just about a virus: it’s a virus, plus a dysfunctional model of capitalism, plus climate chaos, plus ageing, plus a disintegrating geopolitical order and the revival of fascism. Phil Hearse and Neil Faulkner call it “the third major crisis of human civilisation in the last century” and it’s hard to disagree.

At the very least the strategic goals of smart reindustrialisation, state ownership, industrial planning, public health strategies focused on wellbeing, and rapid decarbonisation will find new supporters among the electorate and even parts of the elite.

The problem is all these things can be embraced without a significant redistribution of wealth and power, and some even without class struggle. And as the crisis deepens, with secondary financial chaos and on top of that geopolitical upheaval (wars, refugee flows, debt defaults and annexations) it will be open season for the alt-right and their supporters in the Trump-Salvini-Orban-Farage sphere.

I’ve supported Keir because, like him, I believe the left cannot run the party by acting as a faction in conflict with the rest. If we couldn’t win with the whole left running the party, it’s unlikely that we can do it with just the Lexiteers running it.

The results of the ballot confirm this: Rebecca Long-Bailey, despite running a good campaign and growing in stature and independence as a politician through the campaign, got less than half the votes Jeremy got in 2016, and actually came third among the union affiliates.

During the leadership campaign, and despite the efforts of RLB’s core team, the orthodox left compounded its mistakes on the class dynamics of Britain and Brexit — so that the mass of the membership who joined after 2010 are now being stigmatised as “self-satisfied, southern, middle class, timid and FBPE” (Owen Hatherley).

A positive way of looking at this is: Starmer can probably unite the party around a new narrative because the majority of members actually agree with his politics.

But the challenges are huge. Starmer’s politics, and the majority of his campaign team, straddle those of the radical left and the soft left. The soft-left, as many have pointed out, is intellectually ill defined. It’s still stuck in the world of minor technocratic good ideas, like an endless seminar at the Resolution Foundation — and without the pressure of a Corbyn/McDonnell we will see some MPs who’ve looked very left on the frontbench since 2015 revert to a default soft-leftism that is just not ambitious enought given the scale of the crisis.

The old Labour centre, figures around Labour First and the Fabians, want to purge the left — either literally, or out of positions of power. We need to resist that. But for some on the left it was always only about Corbyn, and the danger is they will either quit the party or seek to turn CLP meetings into the kind of small, fruitless factional bickering sessions we had in the 1980s. I would urge them to stay and help build the compromise and collaboration we need.

What next?

If we take Jeremy Gilbert’s typology — orthodox left, radical left, soft left — then it’s clear that those of us in the radical group need to get organised as critical supporters of the Starmer project, with red lines (no purge, no austerity, stick to the Green New Deal, democratise the party, support all class struggles) — and we need a distinct, vibrant policy and ideas forum.

Momentum, says it wants to support Starmer, hold him to account and defend the left policy agenda — while turning to the extra-parliamentary struggles. As a member of Momentum I think that’s right — because we need to prove to the soft-left skeptics, and Blairite opponents, that a grassroots organising movement of the left has its worth. Surprisingly, a lot of the digital functions we thought were unique to Momentum turned out to be easy to replicate in the Starmer campaign itself — so Momentum’s USP is not going to be doing the digital stuff right anymore.

I’ve supported Keir not just because he’s the kind of plausible guy in a suit who stands a good chance of winning back places like Leigh and Bury (though he is), but because he represents the possibility of going beyond the stark choices prescribed for us by the political science academics.

These are (cf Paula Surridge): an electoral alliance with the Greens/SNP/Libdems, aiming at PR and constitutional reform (as Clive Lewis has proposed); abandoning some of our social liberalism and economic radicalism to win back the small towns (implicily the Nandy programme); and continuity Corbynism with a different face, in the hope that the crisis will be big enough to bring us to power on the 2019 programme (again, implicitly, the RLB offer).

Starmer’s pitch is that, if every faction of the party agrees to work together, and we construct a narrative designed to win back the both the lost small towns, and the offensive target marginals — we dont have to abandon social liberalism or seek an electoral pact.

Implicitly, however, we then have to prepared for Labour to become the electoral pact (at least in England) — and that means creating a space in our voting coalition for working class people who vote Tory because of social conservatism, nationalism and economic centrism, and those who voted Libdem/Green/SNP/PC for the exactly opposite reasons.

I’m certain, just as with Corbyn, I’ll end up criticising Starmer, holding him to account, wrangling with a new set of party bureaucrats the conference floor etc. But then again I come from a working class syndicalist family who thought Tony Benn was “just another politician”, Wilson a con-man and that Nye Bevan too obsessed with parliamentary politics. It’s been weird to see so much of the left project loaded onto the shoulders of a politician, when for the first 20 years of my political activity it was widely seen as the working class itself that would do the work.

I’d like to finish by thanking Jeremy Corbyn for his courage, fortitude and good humour. I’m proud of the way he transformed Labour; inspired a new generation; fought May and Cameron to obliteration; practised solidarity and comradeship all his political life; and learned to command the House of Commons at PMQs.

To spend your entire life ostracised on the back benches, defending the human rights of the most vilified people on the planet, and then survive five years of co-ordinated attacks by the press, the Labour right and (latterly) the US State Department is a collossal achievement.

Jeremy is a figure of equal stature to Hardie, Lansbury, Bevan and Benn — but unlike any of them he actually came within an inch of being Prime Minster. As the meme says: it’s not him they’re frightened of, it’s you.