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21 December 2015

100 days of Jeremy Corbyn: A lot done, a lot still to do

The world hasn't ended - but the battle isn't won yet, either. 

By Michael Chessum

The world hasn’t ended. One hundred days into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and Labour still exists. Opinion polls are improving. Dan Hodges may have left the party, but many thousands have joined it. John McDonnell, whose appointment was ridiculed by the mainstream press, has affected the mannerisms of a local bank manager and has pushed the Chancellor into open retreat on tax credit cuts. They’ve beaten the government back on Saudi prison deals as well. From one angle, the press smears and predictions of doom have become so frequent and undifferentiated that they resemble the patter of rain on a tin roof.

But while the left has every right to shout about its achievements, the end of Corbyn’s first 100 days should also mark a point for sober reflection. Just as many on the left have simply started ignoring headlines in the Sun because they are so obviously ludicrous, across the country many folk are also tuning out – but because the drip-drip of allegations and scandals has already come to shape their perception of political reality. The next 100 days of Corbyn’s leadership – in fact the entirety of it – has to be about finding a formula to wide Labour’s base and win back mass support.  

This situation is new for everyone on the left, not just Corbyn’s inner circle. One of the commonest refrains among left wing activists in recent months has been “we weren’t ready” – and most don’t mean it in the sense of media presentation, or the content of PMQs. There have to be sure been unforced presentational errors – Mao’s little red book was one, as was Corbyn’s stuttering response on shoot to kill – but the real lack of preparation was about something bigger. At a time of generalised social crisis, a crisis in various layers of the establishment, and worsening living standards for many Britons, the appeal of leftwing ideas has out-paced our organisation.

For well over a decade, following the hegemonic rise of Blairism in Labour, the socialist left turned away from electoral politics. The past five years saw social movements and industrial disputes on the biggest scale since the 1980s, but many were indifferent to electoral politics. What remained inside Labour was demoralised and, except for a few MPs such Corbyn and McDonnell, out of touch with the various movements in the streets. All of that is now inverted: the only realistic path to turn the tide against on the onward march of neo-liberalism is for the extra-parliamentary left to win an election, led by a Labour left which, in its present form, is almost by definition incapable of leading effectively.

So three months in, with the initial wave of media consternation withstood, Corbyn faces a fork in the road in how to proceed with the task of winning that mass electoral support. On one hand is the road of “real politics” – with all its plaudits and good PR. On the other is the turn outwards, embracing the energy and liability of grassroots movements, setting off on a seemingly endless trudge through denunciations and anonymous briefings in the press.

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In recent weeks, Corbyn’s most bellicose detractors have focussed their fire on indirect targets – most prominently Momentum, which has seen its attempts to lobby MPs denounced as bullying and even had its Christmas parties invaded in search of cocaine. Superficially, this new focus can be explained by a broader red scare strategy, or even just a need to create some variety alongside the long list of character assassinations – but its real purpose is to force Corbyn and the rest of the left in the Shadow Cabinet to distance themselves from the project, and from the organised left more generally in an attempt to appear respectable.

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The anti-Corbyn wing of Labour and the Tory press know that if Corbyn is forced to distance himself, either from Momentum or from the grassroots campaigns that have given him sustenance, this will do far more damage to him than any campaign of character assassination. Inside Momentum itself, the press attention is creating a special dynamic: organisers get jumpy about anything that might bring bad press; activities are suspended or delayed to coordinate with press announcements designed to allay fears of a return to the days of Millitant. It is no good trying to set the agenda in Westminster if the Sun can set the agenda inside the Labour left itself.

What is needed is a strategy that breaks out of the bubble – of the left, but much more importantly that of Westminster. On tax credits, Corbyn has achieved at least one government u-turn without really relying on any particular street movement. He must spend the next 100 days embracing social movements – giving resources and parliamentary air time to the attacks on Junior Doctors and the government’s higher education green paper. And the leadership must not flinch from calmly asserting that Labour should be redemocratised. Doing these things will unleash carnage across the press – but only these movements and processes can make Corbyn’s Labour win in 2020, by giving it a credible backdrop and reaching out directly to voters.

There is nothing that is guaranteed to fail quite so certainly as an incomplete revolution – and the key lesson for the new Labour leadership after their first 100 days is not the one that they should learn, but the one that they mustn’t. Corbyn’s detractors can never be satisfied with triangulation and respectable positioning on council budgets – because their only real demand is for him to resign and hand over the keys of the Labour Party to their rightful owners. What is needed is a change in the terms of debate, not by changing the subject or implementing a clever press strategy, but by unleashing a new power in society.