“It’s not necessarily about Jeremy, it’s about the moment. Like 1979, this is a moment of transition. We’re in a state of political flux. There are big changes across the world, not just in Britain… After the crash, neoliberalism has failed, austerity has failed, and I hope that means we’re at the beginning of a socialist era again.”
That is how life-long leftwing activist, member of the Labour NEC, and founder and chair of Momentum, Jon Lansman, summed up “The Meaning of Corbynism” at the latest in the New Statesman’s event series on “The New Times” last week.
He was joined by Faiza Shaheen, Director of CLASS, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, and the New Statesman’s special correspondent Stephen Bush.
In a discussion chaired by the New Statesman’s editor, Jason Cowley, Lansman went head to head with Professor John Bew, author of the acclaimed biography of Clement Atlee, Citizen Clem. Bew expressed a more sceptical view of Corbyn’s leadership: “Corbyn represents a break from parliamentary socialism and traditional, patriotic, democratic, British socialism… Any good Leninist will tell you it’s about seizing power and the structures of the organisation, which is what is happening in the Labour Party.”
Lansman, however, argued it was top-down leadership and rigidly enforced New Labour hegemony that characterised the Blair years: “What do you think Blair did when he took over the structures of the Labour Party? That is the model of Leninism. I don’t recognise Leninism in what Momentum does and advocates.”
Discussing Corbyn’s small circle of political allies within the parliamentary Labour party, Lansman described Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell as “both more ideological and more pragmatic than Jeremy” but later added that “Jeremy was the right man [to choose to stand as a candidate of the left in 2015] in that he didn’t have any enemies and so could get on the ballot.”
In a wide-ranging debate that analysed the origins and direction of the Corbyn phenomenon, Faiza Shaheen highlighted the fact that outside lecture halls and seminar rooms, concrete economic conditions and material factors take precedent over lofty political philosophies and niche ideological distinctions. “People aren’t having political conversations about Trotsky and Gramsci. Actually it’s about not being able to get a house, or that your kids still live at home at the age of 35. We’re at the dog-end of an economic model that has failed.”
When John Bew criticised the middle-class composition of the dominant Corbynite faction of the Labour Party, along with its grassroots supporters, Stephen Bush pointed out that “there is no future for a Labour Party that does not attract middle class people to vote for it.” For Bush, during the 2015 leadership contest and thereafter, “there was a hunger for some kind of radical change – and only two candidates were offering something different to what Ed Miliband offered – Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn.”
As panellists debated the divisions within Labour, and a supposed culture of nastiness and hostility within the Party which finds its most common expression on social media, the conversation moved to talk of recriminations against political opponents and deselections. “Momentum is not going to campaign to deselect anybody. I’m not saying there won’t be any deselections,” insisted Lansman, to some laughter from the crowd, “but there will be very few.”
“When you talk about nastiness” said Faiza Shaheen, “I accept that there’s nastiness on the left, as there is everywhere. But when you look at what’s happened in the last few weeks, with the Conservatives and the nastiness of their policies, they’ve waged ideological warfare on those with disabilities, the most vulnerable, the poorest, women of colour have been hit hardest by austerity so it’s essentially been a racist policy, and now we have Windrush and a hostile environment. So when we’re talking about nastiness, let’s remember who is nasty.”
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