Jackson Caines writes
When the comprehensive history of Corbynism is written, it will date its demise not to the general election defeat in December 2019 or to the subsequent Labour leadership contest but to the 48 hours or so following the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party on 29 October 2020. This historic moment has marked the final surrender of the Labour left to the establishment forces it sought to challenge. It is the turning of a page on a momentous, disorienting chapter in British political history and the unequivocal return to dominance of the Labour Party’s right wing.
Corbynism beyond Corbyn
The devastating election defeat in December extinguished the left’s dream of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. But the future of the broader movement he led remained, for a time, uncertain. Some, wrongly believing the left’s control of the Labour Party to be secure, spoke optimistically of a ‘Corbynism without Corbyn’, a new chapter of the movement to be led by one of Corbyn’s young proteges. Following the resounding victory of Keir Starmer in the leadership election, this assessment was revised: while the Labour left had lost the election and now the party leadership, it could reassure itself that it retained intellectual dominance and that core elements of Corbynism (including higher taxes on the rich, public ownership of key industries, a Green New Deal and opposition to military intervention) would survive. Keir Starmer’s promise of party unity, specifically a factional truce discouraging the denigration of both New Labour and the Corbyn years, was of great appeal to a party membership exhausted by years of brutal infighting. Many Labour members who had voted for Corbyn in 2015 and 2016, not out of a deep ideological commitment to socialism but for more contingent reasons, opted for Starmer over Rebecca Long-Bailey, Corbyn’s anointed successor.
In the first months of Starmer’s leadership, the left of the party watched carefully to see whether Starmer would stick to his Corbynite ‘Ten Pledges’. The speed and audacity with which these pledges were undermined shocked all but the most hardened socialist observers. Instead of standing ‘shoulder to shoulder with trade unions’, the new leadership briefed against Long-Bailey for supporting the National Education Union, soon firing her on a highly tenuous antisemitism pretext. Instead of making Labour ‘the party of BAME representation’, Starmer dismissed Black Lives Matter as ‘a moment’ and condemned the anti-racists who tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colson in Bristol. In the midst of the greatest economic crisis in memory — a crisis which has immiserated working people and enriched billionaires — Labour announced that it was ‘not calling for tax rises’, despite Pledge №1 to increase income tax on the top five per cent of earners.
Should I stay or should I go?
As the list of betrayals grew, a new fault line on the Corbynite left emerged, not over policy but strategy. Traumatised by the election result, cowed by defeat and perhaps seeking to curry favour with the new party leadership, a series of notables from both politics and journalism lined up to inform left-wing Labour members that the sensible thing to do was to stay in the party and work constructively with the new leadership. John McDonnell, once the hard man of the Labour left, assured his followers that Starmer was a true socialist and that his tepid, vacillating response to the Covid crisis was ‘exactly right’. Owen Jones, Corbyn’s original supporter in the mainstream media, hurriedly published an autopsy of the project which blamed its defeat squarely on Corbyn, praised McDonnell’s strategy of reconciliation with neoliberals and studiously ignored the lamentable role played by his own employer, the Guardian, in smearing Corbyn as a racist. On the other side of the fault line were the many Labour members, especially young and BAME members, who left the party, either with a howl of righteous Twitter indignation or in resigned silence. If all these former Labour members were to switch to one particular alternative vehicle, it would constitute a major realignment of the left. Instead, anecdotal evidence suggests that these disillusioned Corbynites are splintering, switching their allegiance to the Green Party or irrelevant socialist corpuscles, focusing their energies on workplace and community organising, or retreating from organised politics altogether.
Left members who chose for the time being to stay in Labour looked desperately for leadership. Would it come from the Socialist Campaign Group, the parliamentary grouping of left-wing Labour MPs including fresh faces like Zarah Sultana, Apsana Begum and Sam Tarry? The group’s failure to coordinate their response even to egregiously hostile attacks on labour such as the Covert Human Intelligence Sources bill (some voted against, others followed the whip to abstain) suggested not. One source of hope was the revitalisation of Momentum by a new leadership, drawn from the Forward Momentum faction, committed to empowering members and working with organisations like London Renters Union and ACORN to build working class power in communities. But Momentum too appeared to lack a clear strategy for resisting Labour’s rightward turn. Platitudinous calls to ‘stay and fight’ began sounding increasingly hollow as Starmer’s strategy to humiliate and marginalise the left became transparent.
This lack of left leadership, married with an unimaginative institutional loyalty to the Labour Party, laid the groundwork for the utter tragedy that has unfolded over the past 48 hours.
Taking the king
Solidarity is everything in politics. The left preach this, but the curious reality is that the right practise it much more effectively. Consider Boris Johnson’s unfailing loyalty to Dominic Cummings, which extends to defending the indefensible. Or recall the reaction of the Labour right to the threat of disciplinary action against Margaret Hodge after she allegedly called Jeremy Corbyn ‘a fucking anti-semite and racist’. There was no thoughtful chin-stroking from right-wing Labour MPs and their outriders, no nuanced tweets about how Hodge might have expected her actions to have consequences. There was instead a collective howl of outrage, sufficiently loud to convince John McDonnell that the disciplinary action had to be withdrawn. The same solidarity ensured that Alasdair Campbell’s expulsion from the party — a straightforward ‘auto-exclusion’ following his admission to having cast a ballot for the Lib Dems — resulted in a hand-wringing semi-apology, again from McDonnell.
The propaganda campaign to smear Jeremy Corbyn as a racist would not have found the foothold in public discourse that it did had it been met by a similar show of solidarity on the left. Many of the left’s strengths, including sincerity, kindness and a belief in the importance of nuance, became weaknesses in this debacle. Instead of responding in a firm, collective voice, ‘Jeremy Corbyn is an exemplary anti-racist and allegations to the contrary are an appalling weaponisation of Jewish suffering’, leading figures on the left (with a few brave exceptions) mostly engaged earnestly with the smears as if the debate were a good-faith anti-racist endeavour rather than a thinly veiled attempt by Corbyn’s enemies to divide and demoralise his supporters. Important efforts to debunk the false narratives around Labour and antisemitism, such as the book Bad News for Labour or the contributions of Jewish Voice for Labour, were ignored; their findings did not suit the policy of apology and appeasement adopted by McDonnell and other influential left voices. Commentators on the fringes warned that the anti-socialist, pro-Israel groups leading the charges of antisemitism would never be pacified by this strategy and would instead continue to up their demands until the threat posed by Corbyn and his supporters was completely eliminated. As in a game of chess, they would not claim victory until they had taken the king.
The left’s Stockholm syndrome
The decision by the new leadership to suspend Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party following the publication of the EHRC report was not without risk. Though unpopular with the general public, Corbyn retains the enthusiastic support of a considerable proportion of the Labour membership; many of them would not have joined in the first place had it not been for his leadership. Corbyn’s suspension could have been the trigger for a historic exodus of the left from Labour and the formation of a new socialist party that posed a genuine electoral threat to Labour. It is not entirely fanciful that the 48 hours following Corbyn’s suspension could have unfolded something like this:
- Following an emergency meeting, the Socialist Campaign Group announces that Corbyn’s suspension is an unforgivable act of war on the left; that Starmer has betrayed his promise of party unity, rendering his leadership illegitimate; and that all SCG MPs have resigned the Labour whip in solidarity with Corbyn and will sit with him in an independent parliamentary grouping.
- Momentum’s National Coordinating Group announces that Momentum members will be balloted on whether the organisation should retain its institutional link with the Labour Party or should instead align itself with the independent left grouping and arrange for a committee to redraft Momentum’s constitution.
- Unite announces that the suspension of Corbyn is unacceptable and that it will withdraw all funding to the Labour Party and ballot its members on the union’s future political alignment.
These are the actions of a socialist movement with strong leadership, a commitment to solidarity, and an understanding that the Labour Party is a mere vehicle for change, not a goal in itself.
But instead of taking this historic opportunity to flex its muscles and fight back against the right, the left has crumbled. Not a single ‘socialist’ MP has resigned in solidarity with the leading socialist of his generation. The statements issued by left MPs in response to Corbyn’s suspension have been fatally, unforgivably weak. Clive Lewis, a young MP who owes his visibility and standing to his earlier alignment with Corbyn, quoted a fence-sitting assessment by the journalist Rachel Shabi: ‘Corbyn’s statement yesterday was ill-advised, to put it mildly — and the party response to it equally so.’ Angela Rayner, endorsed by Momentum in the deputy leadership election and believed by many members to be on the left of the party, defended Corbyn’s suspension in a BBC interview. Richard Burgon, putative leader of Labour’s parliamentary left, tweeted that he agreed with members who were ‘deeply upset’, committed to ‘working for [Corbyn’s] reinstatement’ and urged the party to ‘move forward together’. In the midst of war, the left’s representatives have continued to appeal politely to the enemy even as he executes them without mercy.
The left’s perverse loyalty to an organisation that despises it, and its steadfast refusal to fight back even after the gravest provocation, was confirmed yesterday at Momentum’s online ‘Stand with Corbyn’ event. This roll call of Labour left worthies was billed as a rally; its participants seemed oblivious to the fact they were actually attending a funeral. Rather than articulating a credible strategy for leveraging the left’s not inconsiderable power, speaker after speaker uttered meaningless variations on the theme of ‘stay and fight’. John McDonnell, embracing his new role as high priest of neoliberal accommodation, explicitly ruled out forming a new party and appealed once more for ‘unity’. Left-wing Labour members, bruised and bloodied after seeing the British establishment work overtime to destroy their political hero, were told simply to ‘redouble [their]efforts’. Most craven of all was Burgon, who reassured members, ‘I want to see Keir as PM’. Compare this to the attitude of Peter Mandelson, who bragged to a reporter in 2017 that he worked ‘every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of [Corbyn’s] tenure in office’, and ask yourself which Labour faction is more serious about institutional power.
Unedifying as it is, the Labour left’s slavish loyalty to its enemies is a clarifying phenomenon — comforting, even. Since the leak in April 2020 of the internal report which laid bare the extent of sabotage by right-wing Labour staffers in the 2017 general election, supporters of Corbyn have entertained the notion that were it not for a handful of embittered wreckers, we would now be three years into a transformative Labour government. The total collapse in solidarity which has followed Corbyn’s suspension suggests otherwise. A Corbyn-led government, while nominally in power, would have had to contend with the hostile forces of global capital on a daily basis — the same forces which have in recent years fomented a right-wing coup in Bolivia and devastating anti-socialist ‘lawfare’ in Brazil and Ecuador. To survive this constant pressure and implement even a part of its social democratic manifesto, a radical Labour government would have needed to show a toughness and strategic nous that is nowhere to be seen among the Labour left’s leaders today. A left which cannot even bring itself to threaten a walkout when its former leader is ousted is not a left which can take on the one per cent and win.
The next time
This conclusion may seem unnecessarily dramatic. But it comes from a sincere belief that if we are to develop meaningful strategies on the left, we must begin from a completely unsentimental appraisal of what has happened and where we are. Naivety and wishful thinking are luxuries a socialist movement serious about power cannot afford. Jeremy Corbyn inspired a whole new generation of socialists; given the realities of climate catastrophe and dystopian levels of inequality, it is highly unlikely that middle age will have its traditional de-radicalising effect on them. These young socialists are presently locked out of power and the anti-Corbyn backlash will ensure they remain so for several years more. But their moment will come — and if they are to succeed in their mission to transform society they must learn the right lessons from the last five years.
Jackson Caines is a member of Islington North CLP