No-one saw the Corbyn surge coming - that means we'll have to do some thinking

Neither the centrist commentariat, or the left, really foresaw the Corbynite surge. A period of reflection will be required amidst the celebration, says Michael Chessum. 

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If your job is predicting the political weather, the chances are you’ve had a bad few months. On May 6, the prevailing common sense was that we’d wake up to a messy Labour-led government.  The prevailing common sense by early June was that no left-wing challenger could reach the Labour leadership ballot paper. Then it became the prevailing common sense that it was really between Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, and that the left’s second preferences might decide between the two. When figures like Monday’s poll are published, revealing that Jeremy Corbyn is on course to win in the first round, the commentariat can only remark that they are on the edge of the known world. In reality, they have been swimming somewhere off the edge of it for some time.

It isn’t just the armchair professionals who have been caught off guard by recent events. Almost no-one on the left – including the vast majority of people around Corbyn – saw this coming. Two weeks before the close of nominations, I wrote a piece which struck a chord with some people, calling on fellow Labour leftists to consider whether we should bother any more – and now here I am proverbially waving a miniature Corbyn flag and sipping tea from a Corbyn mug.  The radical left is now presented with a moment which could put its ideas centre stage. But, just as crucially, this moment also presents two golden opportunities for a serious internal renewal of ideas and practices, which will be essential if the left is to play a successful role in whatever happens next.

The first opportunity is strategic. Realising that you’ve been wrong about which strategies, which bases of support, which methods contain the seeds of political success is, far from being a major problem for the British left, a golden opportunity for renewal. One of the very few bonuses of having such a divided left is that almost every strategy – from running your own candidates, to Labour entryism, to withdrawing entirely from electoral politics, to literally sitting around and waiting for socialist aliens to show up and make everyone socialist – has been pursued by someone somewhere. 

Of all the spectres haunting the British left, none is so omnipresent, and so empty, as the ‘failed strategy’. For thirty years the, the Labour left has maintained that building an alternative outside the party was a failed strategy, while all the time being squeezed and crushed by the onward march of New Labour. Meanwhile, the left outside Labour has accused the Labour left of pursuing a failed strategy – failed, presumably, in comparison to the thundering success of the Socialist Alliance, Respect, TUSC, Left Unity and the Green Party. So for thirty years, it has been impossible to properly evaluate these strategies or learn proper lessons, because they all seemed like they were failing and being defeated.

If Corbyn wins on September 12, all of that should change. At last, from a position of strength rather than yet-another defeat, the wider left will be in a position to evaluate itself. Many groups – and, just as importantly, a sea of individuals – may decide that they were (like much of the Labour left) wrong about the prospects for a leftward shift in Labour and ‘take a turn’, in the jargon, into it. Far from representing the peak of the left’s strength, or a final test of the popularity of its ideas, the result of the Labour leadership will determine our fortunes and orientation for decades. Corbyn coming second – which is now the only feasible outcome other than him winning – would likely have the opposite effect: it would leave a large and inevitably disappointed new network inside Labour, while on the outside, the forlorn cries of “leave” would grow stronger.

The second critical opportunity for renewal with which the left must grapple is new blood. As the Corbyn bandwagon has rolled on, much of the underlying emphasis of the radical left is on how to organise and re-mobilise the huge numbers of people who clearly share the left’s politics, but who for now have no home beyond the time-limited sprint for the Labour leadership. This is undoubtedly the most crucial question, but any attempt to answer it will be doomed if it skips over the task of understanding and learning from those who constitute the Corbyn surge, and runs straight into setting up a series of out-of-the-box fronts designed to shepherd the illiterate masses into socialism.

The mass popular support that Corbyn is attracting dwarfs any comparable ‘surge’, let alone the organised far left. There are now hundreds of thousands of potential socialist activists whose sudden political activity basically nobody saw coming. And while this is the best news any of us has had in decades, it’s also a problem for your analysis if your main reason for existing is to predict and shape moments precisely like this. While a large chunk of the radical left can feel vindicated in their general position that Labour and the labour movement was probably the most fertile soil for such a surge, it is undeniably true that there is now a force ‘out there’ that no-one fully understands.

Nobody would seriously claim that the nearly 200,000 supporter sign-ups and new memberships have come entirely “from nowhere”. There has been a growth and a slow consolidation of the Labour left since 2010. Some new joiners are from the student movement, other supporters are veterans of years of anti-austerity and anti-tuition fee protests, strikes and even, for another generation, the movement against the Iraq War. But Corbynmania is more than the sum of the parts we currently understand. The political revolution that it will cause is not about to happen – it is happening now, and to a great extent had clearly already taken place out of sight. If the radical left is to turn this into a moment of genuine renewal, we must not be content with changing the world; the world must change us, too.  

Michael Chessum is a socialist writer and campaigner. 

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