Labour Party, Reviews

Corbynism from the Ground Floor

Richard Price reviews Corbynism: What Went Wrong? By Martin Thomas (Phoenix Press, 60 pp, £4)

Days of Hope

On 13th June 2015, outside the SWP’s Marxism fest, a leading member of Workers Liberty gave me a half-hour ear bashing for “wasting my time in the Labour Party”. Nominations for the Labour leadership contest were due to close in two days’ time. In an email to friends, I had jokingly described the task of getting Jeremy on the ballot paper as a “kamikaze mission”, but nevertheless along with many others I got on the phone and rang anyone I knew who might be able to persuade their MP to nominate him, if only to promote a debate. In the event, he got over the line with 90 seconds to spare before nominations closed on Monday 15th, courtesy of John McDonnell twisting the arms of two last minute waverers.

Seasoned observers on the Labour left thought we’d be doing well in a four-way contest to score 20%. Nobody I spoke to thought we could possibly win. On 20th June, without too much expectation, I went with a mainly young group of activists to leaflet the big People’s Assembly demo. Previous PA events had mainly been the preserve of the far left, greens, anarchists, crusties and others not normally much interested in the inner workings of the Labour Party. The response was astonishing. Instead of struggling to get people to take leaflets, people were coming to us and grabbing them out of our hands.

On 26th June, when I arrived at my CLP’s nominating meeting – the first in the country I believe – I was apprehensive. It wasn’t a particularly large meeting. Several stalwarts weren’t there, and there were numbers of people I didn’t recognize. It didn’t look good. Nominating Jeremy, I gave it my best shot, concentrating my fire on Liz Kendall, the most right-wing of the candidates, who was endorsed by the Sun and all over the media calling for a grown up attitude to austerity. By the time the first round of balloting was completed, Jeremy was only one vote short of an absolute majority, and won at a canter. And so, I believe, my CLP became the first to nominate him. It was the prelude to an astonishing summer. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a battered left wing survivor was very heaven.

Martin is dismissive of the pre-Corbyn Labour left, writing that when it “reassembled in 2015”, it was “politically unformed, chaotic and burdened with much dross”. But it had at least kept its head while the left groups outside the party had lost theirs. While it’s broadly true that “life had been dwindling” in the party for 20 years prior to 2015, this was part of a bigger picture, in which the non-Labour left had suffered catastrophic losses. Between 1985 and 1991, the WRP, the IMG and Militant had all suffered serious or terminal splits, and the CPGB had wound up, with a small rump continuing to produce the Morning Star. In all these splits, the largest faction was composed of those who left politics entirely. The SWP appeared to have achieved its goal of hegemony of the left, but it too had lost a fair amount of its membership by the late 90s. In the following decade it would suffer a series of small splits culminating in the much larger “Comrade Delta” debacle in 2013 from which it has never recovered.

The lesson that most of the non-Labour left drew from defeats and splits was that it should attempt to build a broad organisation composed of various combinations of the splinters. But as Engels had warned long before, a federation of small sects could not perform the role of a real workers’ party, and one by one, the Socialist Labour Party, the Socialist Alliance and Respect – not to mention other even less memorable lash-ups – collapsed amid predictable internal bickering.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, proved to be highly popular, and his honeymoon, which many on the left thought would be brief, extended up to the Iraq war. Party membership boomed while internal democracy was stifled, although Blair was canny enough to avoid internal purges. The Iraq war, however, was deeply unsettling, not only for the left, but for swathes of centre-left and Old Labour opinion. If the record rebellion of 139 Labour MPs in March 2003 didn’t open up a big space to the left of Labour, as the non-Labour left hoped, it did indicate the potential for rebuilding the left within the party. This was confirmed by support for Grassroots Alliance candidates in successive NEC elections. The Labour Representation Committee, founded in 2004, seemed to offer a way forward, but within a few years it had become little more than a rest home for tired old Trots and Stalinists, issuing the odd manifesto, but doing very little practical work in the party. John McDonnell’s john4leader campaign in 2006-7 again showed potential but relied too much on non-affiliated union leaders and non-Labour outsiders. Subsequent to that, McDonnell in some public speeches appeared to be giving way to siren calls for a new party.

In Scotland and Wales – not mentioned at all – there were pre-2015 left organisations, in the shape of the Campaign for Socialism and Welsh Labour Grassroots. Formed in 2003, WLG had made a significant impact on Welsh Labour.

Socialist Appeal had pottered around harmlessly for years, aloof from the rest of the left and with very little influence. Its campaigning, such as it was, revolved around repeating like a mantra the need to restore Clause 4.

That left the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, doggedly fighting to democratise the party. Derided by some as being obsessed by rule changes, its message that structural democratic reform of the party offered the best chance to unite the left and enable it to move forward on a broad policy front has stood the test of time. And the failure to achieve that is at the heart of the defeats suffered in 2019-20.

A heavy price was paid for failing to remove Iain McNicol as general secretary for nearly three years – presumably a sop to the unions, whose candidate he had been seen as in 2011. Many had suspected him to be a snake and that was confirmed in the infamous leaked report. So too the Regional Directors who worked to sabotage the project from within and fix selections. No serious attempt was made to reform the monstrous system of NEC delegated powers. That said, significant progress was made in democratising Conference.

Momentum’s democratic deficit

I don’t attach the same importance as Martin does to the “coup” inside Momentum in January 2017 because Momentum wasn’t up to the task from the outset because its own structure was undemocratic. A top-heavy head office staffed by young people with little background in Labour or trade union activism. A system adopted at the beginning of franchising cities and boroughs out to organisers with a similar lack of experience or with problematic backgrounds. What happened in early 2017 was that Momentum High Command recoiled from the consequence of one set of undemocratic practices that had resulted in power being wielded by small, undemocratic vanguards and lurched into an opposite but equally undemocratic regime of rule from Head Office.

In my own borough, a provisional Momentum committee was set up six months before its official launch on which the only representatives from my constituency were members of Left Unity, still outside the party. The organiser had a background in around 12 different left formations, and his chief lieutenant was a red vicar who was forced to resign as a parliamentary candidate in 2019 when faced with charges of sexual harassment, and was subsequently defrocked by the Church of England. And instead of seeking allies in my strongly Corbyn-supporting CLP, Momentum tried for an alliance with a group of councillors without any record whatsoever on the left.

In some boroughs the franchise was grasped by false flag flyers who became overnight converts from the right, only to revert to their true politics under Starmer; and in one it was held by a bona fide antisemite. In too many places, little attempt was made to engage with centre-left sections of the membership with whom a working alliance could be built around party democracy and anti-austerity. Instead, there was a recurrent illusion that it was simply a question of organising the left of the left.

The logical alternative to this morass of opportunism and sectarianism was a broad left that was tolerant, inclusive, diverse and as united as was possible. This is what some successful Momentum branches turned themselves into, while Momentum branches loyal to Head Office have collapsed across the country.

Creating a new party

A recurring theme of this pamphlet is that not enough was done in one field or another. The fact is that CLP activists faced considerable challenges – new members’, women’s and young members’ meetings to organise; relations with local unions to rebuild; votes in internal elections to deliver, and much more. There were major elections throughout the Corbyn years – three general elections in 2015, 2017 and 2019. In London there were Mayoral and Assembly elections in 2016 and Borough elections in 2018.

It took time for the Corbyn surge to become a reality at local level. The reason that the 2016 Conference still reflected the pre-Corbyn party so much – as a delegate, it looked to me like the right had two thirds of the Conference floor – wasn’t a lack of “push” from the left in the constituencies. The GCs that elected the delegates were still predominantly right-controlled, and many new members didn’t have the requisite membership to be elected as delegates. Many CLPs didn’t turn Corbynite until 2017-18.

Integrating new pro-Corbyn members wasn’t straightforward. Many – probably a majority – showed little interest in activity at local level. Some saw the pre-2015 left as enemies who had failed, or who had betrayed them by staying in the party after Iraq. Others saw on-line discussions, petitions and memes as substitutes for “boring meetings”.

Nor was uniting the very diverse tribes that poured into the party. Around 20,000 people moved straight across from the Green Party which had experienced its own green surge shortly before. There were large numbers of returners who had left the party anywhere between the end of the miners’ strike and Iraq. There were refugees from the wreckage of various left groups and the Communist Party, along with many who hadn’t been involved in active politics before. Corbynism’s strong appeal to young people increased the number of young activists but it didn’t favourably alter the overall age profile, not least because of the number of returning baby boomers, keen for revenge for the long years since Thatcherism.

The vanguardist sects that came into the party and proceeded to talk down to rank and file members were typically resented as Johnny-come-latelies who had only been in the party five minutes and not even bothered to get their feet under the table. By far the most constructive role was played by former Militant supporters who had left behind the sectarianism of the Socialist Party and the dead-end propagandism of Socialist Appeal.

Women are barely mentioned in this pamphlet, yet Corbynism had a big appeal to hundreds of thousands of women repelled by the pale aspirational feminism of the Blairites. The ludicrous attempt to paint Jeremy’s first shadow cabinet as misogynist despite it having 50% women fell flat on its face. But most of the left completely neglected Women’s Conference, and the task of promoting a Corbynite agenda fell largely to CLPD and Labour Women Leading. Much the same could be said of the National Policy Forum.

The central problems

In general, Martin argues, Corbynism lacked big ideas and strategic thinking: “Only a meagre culture of debate and discussion developed” between 2015 and 2019. The problem was rooted in the very different forces that came into the party, but in the springtime of Corbynism a thousand not necessarily compatible flowers bloomed, expressed through books, teach-ins, on-line gatherings and theatre. The Brick Lane Lectures drew large audiences that unfortunately were very little interested in practical activism. The World Transformed had a strongly libertarian flavour.

The task confronting the leadership in 2017 was not to write a highly complex programme setting out the transition to socialism, but to concentrate on the key issues on which it could get the broadest agreement in the midst of fighting its internal and external enemies. The Bolsheviks, after all, took power in 1917 on the slogan of “Peace, Bread and Land”, not a 50-point programme drafted by Workers Power. That said, Martin is correct, particularly in relation to the 2019 manifesto, that it dropped out of the sky, rather than being widely discussed and popularised.

Which leads me on to whether “the Stalinists” (i.e. principally Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray) were centrally responsible for what went wrong. This has become something of an obsession with Paul Mason, even as he claimed it was a “no brainer” to vote for Starmer and against Rebecca Long-Bailey in 2019-20. It is assumed that they were behind the bumbling response to the Skripal affair, which certainly did us no favours. Who, other than Russian agents, were likely to take a day trip to Salisbury with Novichok in their pocket? There were many times I longed for an effective rebuttal unit led by a left-wing Alastair Campbell or Malcolm Tucker. Yet Milne and Murray were scrupulously loyal to Jeremy at a time when loyalty was at a premium, and too many other leading figures were happily freelancing.

Instead of emphasising Jeremy’s alleged political limitations, as Martin does, we should celebrate the qualities that he did bring. It was a moral fervour, courage and authenticity combined with a self-effacing modesty far removed from the playbook of modern politics that people responded to by turning up to his meetings in their thousands. It was that he had remained consistent and unwaveringly on the side of workers and the oppressed internationally through four decades. Only a handful of workers’ leaders have had this quality. After Keir Hardie and Jean Jaurès I’m struggling. Anyone who thinks this is sentimental should re-read Trotsky’s tribute to Jaurès.

I tried to explain this “love factor” to a Labour MP who frowned and told me it looked like a cult. In fact, it would be hard to imagine anyone less cultish than Jeremy, with his allotment, his home-made jam and his cat. Never underestimate envy and jealousy as factors in politics. Most of his detractors would struggle to half-fill a modest sized church hall and the sight of him addressing huge crowds, whether it was at Glastonbury or Tranmere Rovers, spurred his Labour enemies to destroy his character, painting him as everything from a terrorist sympathiser and a traitor to “a fucking antisemite and a racist”.

The biggest problem the Corbyn leadership faced throughout, at least as far as the NEC was concerned, was the wavering and inconsistent support it received from the unions, even during the relatively short period the left had a working majority. They showed only limited support, and sometimes opposition, to moves to democratise the party, in particular to the Democracy Review headed by Katy Clark until her removal in 2019. On the eve of Conference later that year, the GMB produced what was in effect a wrecking amendment to a rule change from my own CLP, which would have given much more power to CLPs in local government selections. Instead, the GMB rule change strengthened the power of Labour Groups to select their own team, and it got the support not only of other unions but of Momentum. Although both trade union membership and strikes ticked up after 2017, there was no comparable movement in the unions to the Corbyn surge in the party.

Like Martin, I view the antisemitism and Brexit crises as central to the fall of Corbyn, but for different reasons. Since Martin deals with the former fairly summarily, I don’t propose to respond in much detail. One case of antisemitism is indeed one too many. That a few hundred people out of over 500,000 – an average of less than one per CLP – should have antisemitic views is regrettable but not surprising. But that is a long way from antisemitism being “severe and widespread” as a letter from 68 rabbis in July 2018 claimed. The question of incidence is relevant in relation to the charge of institutional racism, and doubting that it is severe and widespread has in turn become the basis for further allegations.

What seems statistically incontestable is that your chance as a woman of being sexually harassed or assaulted in and around the Palace of Westminster is much greater – probably by several hundred times – than your chance as a Jewish party member of being the object of antisemitic abuse or harassment. It is up to others to explain why one of these crimes has received infinitely more coverage than the other, and it is hard to conceive of any reason other than a political one.

When Jeremy did receive vocal support from Jewish members or organisations, whether it was the letter from 29 Orthodox rabbis in September 2018, from the Orthodox youth group Jewdas, or the secular socialist Jewish Voice for Labour, it was predictably rubbished. These were “marginal Jews”, divorced from the mainstream – “marginal” being the repellent rebranding of “self-hating Jews”. What is clear is that the Labour Party, frequently in the form of non-Jewish officials, is trying to dictate the nature of Jewish identity. Jews that are critical of Israel clearly are “the wrong kind of Jews”, and the fact that some 40 Jewish socialists are currently under investigation, suspended or expelled is a wild disproportionality – an extraordinary situation in a party supposedly battling antisemitism.

Ken Livingstone’s decision to discuss the relationship between Zionism and the Nazis on the radio was ill-advised and best left to academic historical debate. The suggestion however that it was antisemitic to raise the issue – essentially that only the Zionist narrative is acceptable – is an affront to free speech. As Bob Pitt has pointed out in a recent article, in his last book David Cesarani, a noted Jewish historian of the Holocaust not known for his sympathies with the left, quotes a Nazi report from 1934 as stating: “The efforts of the Gestapo are oriented to promoting Zionism as much as possible.” If Ken was a secret antisemite all these years, it’s not something I ever heard from my friend the late Ellis Hillman, the first Labour mayor of Barnet, and a fellow GLC councillor.

The idea that contemporary antisemitism – in particular, opposition to the “racist endeavour” clause of the IHRA working definition – is motivated by a straightforward opposition to Jewish self-determination is unsustainable. The idea that the Palestinians, in Golda Meir’s words, simply “ran away” in 1948, or that they were the unfortunate victims of a defensive war waged against invading Arab armies, has been as comprehensively demolished by Ilan Pappé’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine as 530 Palestinian villages were in the Nakba. Martin caricatures anti-Zionism on the Labour left by referring to the position that “Israel should be replaced by an Arab or Islamic state … and the Jews would have to flee or accept subject status”. No organisation on the Labour left to my knowledge holds this position.

As for Brexit – the single biggest cause of Labour’s defeat in 2019 – we learn little. I am puzzled by the suggestion that “No-one on the Labour right disputed that Labour that should make a distinct effort for Remain.” What about the retiring pro-Brexit Labour MPs who campaigned for the Tories? The central problem for Remainers like me was that the attempt both to overturn the Referendum result and the 2017 Manifesto could only end in tears, split the party in the least favourable way, and result in an electoral backlash. The fudge achieved at the 2018 and 2019 Conferences only served to strengthen the feeling among critical sections of the electorate not only that they didn’t know what Labour stood for, but that it was seeking to overturn a democratic decision.

It is true that in 2019 Labour leaked votes both to pro-Remain and pro-Brexit parties, but the biggest damage was done in Leave-voting areas – something for which Martin offers no analysis. What Labour should have done was work out a viable strategy for mitigating the effects of Brexit along the lines of Norway 2.0 or Common Market Plus. This could have reached out to both sides, addressing leavers’ concerns by leaving the EU’s institutions, while keeping most of the benefits of EU membership. It would even have got some Tory support. Instead, much of the left including Momentum opted for a Second Referendum – a policy which never had majority support – and we are living with the Hard Brexit consequences.

Finally, Martin implies throughout that Corbynism is a phenomenon of the past. Jeremy remains hugely popular with the activist section of the party. Battered and bruised the Labour left may be, but my guess is that if Jeremy booked a rally in a large football stadium it would quickly be booked out. It ain’t over yet, as David Evans may find to his cost at this year’s Conference.

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