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7 September 2022

The lessons of Corbynism

In their new books, Andrew Murray and James Schneider ask what the left can learn from its time in control of Labour.

By Lola Seaton

“There is no such thing as Corbynism,” Jeremy Corbyn told the press the day after Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election, which brought an end to his leadership: “There is socialism, there is social justice.” The self-deprecation was typical of Corbyn, a reluctant leader whose very reluctance to lead – he had a long-standing dedication to grass-roots politics over personal advancement – was part of what made him such an attractive political outlier, capable of swelling the ranks of the Labour Party by over 300,000 members and garnering the support of millions more.

Yet the remark contains more truth than Corbyn perhaps intended. In a way, there was no such thing as Corbynism not only because Corbyn preferred to see himself as the temporary figurehead of an enduring political tradition rather than the founder of a new one, but in the sense that “Corbynism” was an ephemeral, gossamer phenomenon – more frenzied election campaign than mass political movement – that vanished almost as suddenly as it appeared. There has been little organised opposition to Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, whose principal objective as leader appears to be the eradication of all traces of Corbynism from the party – personnel and ideas. Members who haven’t been expelled have cancelled their direct debits in droves (more than 90,000 left the party in 2021).

Both Andrew Murray and James Schneider quote Corbyn’s remark in the opening chapters of their new books, both of which are about what the left can learn from its years at the cockpit of the Labour Party under Corbyn, who was elected as leader in 2015 with the backing of the party’s newly empowered membership but to the astonishment and chagrin of many of his parliamentary colleagues. Unlike the journalists behind the first set of Corbynism autopsies – most notably the Guardian columnist Owen Jones’s This Land and Times reporters Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s Left Out, both of which appeared in September 2020 – Murray and Schneider were in Corbyn’s inner circle, though neither hails from within the Labour Party. Schneider, who is in his thirties and was a Lib Dem until 2010, before co-founding the grass-roots organisation Momentum, was Corbyn’s communications director from 2016. Murray, a generation older, and a member of the Communist Party until 2016, advised Corbyn from 2017, seconded part-time from his position as chief of staff at the union Unite.

[See also: Blue Labour: A rallying cry for a return to inclusive politics]

Neither book is “insidery”, however. Murray’s blend of “memoir, history and analysis” abjures parliamentary gossip, seeking not to apportion blame but to extract lessons from Corbynism’s failure by charting the institutional rocks against which the project foundered, including the media, “the coercive arms of the state” and the anti-Semitism controversy. Murray recounts an anonymous “senior serving general” telling the press the week after Corbyn’s election as leader that the armed forces would “not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country” – by, for example, scrapping Trident or pulling out of Nato, neither of which Corbyn ultimately pledged to do – and “would use whatever means possible, fair or foul, to prevent that”.

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But Schneider and Murray are agreed that the decisive factor in Labour’s descent from the poll-defying heights of 2017 to the doldrums of 2019 was more contingent: Brexit, and the party’s disastrous drift towards demanding a rerun of the 2016 referendum, in which it would inevitably find itself campaigning to nullify the decision of critical parts of its traditional coalition in the post-industrial north and Midlands.

Schneider’s approach is compellingly matter-of-fact and constructive, exuding a bright enthusiasm for shrewd organising and eschewing the kind of lugubrious “introspection” common in the immediate aftermath of 2019. Focused, as his subtitle has it, on “how we win”, he offers a much brisker post-mortem on “why we lost”, confined to his opening chapter. The rest of his slim volume is devoted to outlining a strategy for how the left can be better prepared to take advantage of “the next surge”. Schneider proposes the active construction of “a left bloc: a formal, explicit alliance of social movements, trade unions, the Labour grass-roots and socialists in parliament”. Murray lands on a similar recommendation: a synthesis of the unions and “organic social movements embedded in the people”, from “Stop the War to Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion”, “can seed a new class politics”.

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This vision of “embedded”, interconnected social movements is informed by their common diagnosis of Corbynism’s failure. The EU referendum may have accelerated long-simmering trends destabilising Labour’s base: the “political reconfiguration which has ostensibly seen politics of culture and identity displace more traditional politics of class”, as Murray writes. But if Brexit was the proximate cause of Corbynism’s undoing, the project’s vulnerability to this “wedge” issue was in part conditioned by its social weightlessness and political prematurity, abruptly arriving on a scene that was neither organisationally nor ideologically primed for it. Inadequately buttressed by a flourishing extra-parliamentary labour movement – or the rootedness in communities and workplaces that can help form a sturdy popular basis for a radical agenda – the embattled leadership was less resilient against the hostile pressure of those eager to weaponise Brexit to depose Corbyn.

Yet, notwithstanding Starmer’s efforts to stamp out its embers – from proscribing left-wing grouplets to removing the whip from Corbyn himself – Corbynism has not disappeared without a trace, nor was it the total failure its opponents like to remember it as. Especially when judged by more expansive criteria than winning office, the legacy of Corbynism is more mixed. It has, for example, made lasting inroads into the neoliberal consensus. As the academic Jeremy Gilbert has argued, the Johnson administration’s “willingness to deploy many of the tools of the state in defence of universal minimum living standards” during the pandemic would have been inconceivable “without significant socialist revival in recent years”. Corbynism also politicised a generation of debt-loaded millennials facing stagnant wages, precarious work, police violence and escalating climate disasters. Many of these supporters were for the first time drawn into not only membership of the Labour Party but canvassing and attending rallies and political education festivals like The World Transformed, and now form an engaged audience for the refreshed left-wing mediasphere.

[See also: British diplomacy in the dock]

Embracing an approach to politics that will earn the contempt of the sententious anti-Corbyn brigades, Schneider even characterises Corbyn’s leadership as a kind of holding environment in which popular support for social change could germinate. Forming a government was, of course, the ultimate objective – Schneider advises that “we must never lose sight of that goal: constructing a social majority for change with a political vehicle and the organised forces in society”. But he argues that a genuinely radical administration – one capable of effecting transformative legislation, of not merely “taking office” but “taking power”, to borrow Stuart Hall’s distinction – requires wider and deeper social support, especially faced with the uncooperative right wing of the PLP.

Corbyn’s heady tenure helped to fracture the edifice of “capitalist realism” – the cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s term for the inability to “imagine a coherent alternative” to capitalism – by rekindling belief in the possibility of meaningful political change and even a different social order. But its disillusioning end was a painful lesson in what that kind of change requires: the “short-cut” Corbynism represented to a fairer, freer, more humane society proved too good to be true. As the political theorist Tom Nairn wrote in his anatomy of the Labour Party in 1964: “The social changes envisaged by socialism are vast. They can only be realised by generations of men” and “require the dedication and active participation of vast numbers of people. They cannot be brought about by a few dozen party leaders, or a few hundred men in a parliament.”

The record of 2015-19 starkly revealed the real nature of what Raymond Williams once called the “unprincipled and amorphous and often compromised organisation” that is the Labour Party, which is not full of “latent socialists”, as Murray points out. Indeed, compacted within the question of Murray’s title – Is Socialism Possible in Britain? – are other, age-old questions: first, whether there is a “parliamentary road to socialism” (Murray’s answer: any other road to socialism in present conditions is “purely fanciful”). And second, whether Labour is the best, or even a plausible, vehicle for traversing that parliamentary road. Tens of thousands of former members, judging by their exodus, seem convinced the answer is no. Murray and Schneider’s verdict is less conclusive. Though no one “seeking political agency for social change would found the Labour Party in its existing form today”, Murray writes, the historical allegiance to Labour, the financial backing of the trade unions, the chastening evidence offered by the fortunes of social-democratic parties elsewhere in Europe and the perversities of first-past-the-post all warn against abandoning ship for a new, authentically socialist party.

[See also: Liz Truss and the cost of winning]

Schneider recommends postponing the question of party affiliation until the “historic bloc” he has in mind is well established, and taking an instrumental view that should help activists resist renouncing the party. The priority for the left, Schneider and Murray are agreed, is its “growth” outside parliament, after which an assessment about whether Labour is a suitable Westminster conduit of that popular energy can take place.

But is it pragmatic to postpone this question of affiliation, especially if it bears on the conditions for such growth? Does remaining invested in Labour, however provisionally or prospectively, stunt the development of the left? Conversely, if, as Schneider insists, a “political vehicle” for change must be complemented by “organised forces in society”, might it be that the reverse applies: that organising those social forces requires a political vehicle in the form of an established, mainstream party? Schneider thinks disparate social movements can unite under a “common banner” (he proposes the Green New Deal), but this picture of a “federation of movements” without an electoral lynchpin seems idealistic.

Writing in 1984, the year after Labour’s historic defeat under the left-wing leader Michael Foot, Stuart Hall noted that “people sometimes speak as if all we have to do to construct a new social alliance is to add up incrementally the demands of everybody who happens to be in the room at the time”. But since such demands “are often genuinely contradictory”, they “have to be subsumed and ‘reconciled’ within some larger programme, which only a party aiming to become a popular political force is capable of putting together”.

As for whether Labour fits that description: what Hall said about the party, then led by Neil Kinnock, resonates once more. “The one thing nobody knows is what Labour conceives to be an ‘alternative way of life’. It currently possesses no image of modernity. It provides no picture of life under socialism… it has mistaken adaptation to the present as progress towards the future… It has no alternative but to renew itself and its vision or to go out of business.” If the task for the generation inspired by Corbyn is the growth of their movement, the fate of a party that “has ceased to serve any distinctive political purpose”, as Ralph Miliband warned in 1961 at the end of Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, is “slow but sure decline”.

Is Socialism Possible in Britain?
Andrew Murray
Verso, 272pp, £14.99

Our Bloc: How We Win
James Schneider
Verso, 144pp, £8.99

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[See also: Geoff Dyer and the art of slacking off]

This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained