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26 September 2018

The strengths of the Corbyn project are clear – but so are its weaknesses

To defend itself against its foes, inside and outside of government, Labour needs a better grasp of power. 

By Paul Mason


The first and most obvious strength is the programme. Labour’s June 2017 manifesto has become embedded in the thoughts and practices, not just of a few tens of pro-Corbyn MPs, but a large number of people who matter in a social democratic party: trade union leaders, councillors, allied think-tanks and supportive alternative media groups.

The policy announcements this week were focused and incremental: redistribution via share ownership, revival of the high street via microeconomic regulation, more secure tenancies for private renters and a big offer on green jobs. Labour’s programme is “shovel-ready” and there is a resilient network of people inside the party who know how to execute it.

The second strength is the membership, currently numbering 540,000, around two thirds of whom were not members when Corbyn became leader. As a public figure, I cannot move in Liverpool without being asked for selfies: but what interests me is the changing social character of the people asking. They are often young, working class men and women – from Huddersfield or Frome or Wigan – who have made the trek to Liverpool under their own steam, just to be here as ordinary party members. There has not been a party of the left with this specific gravity inside civil society since the 1930s.

The third strength is that Labour has an answer to Brexit – albeit one that took five hours of horse-trading to achieve.


Unfortunately, the weaknesses are many. The most important one is that Labour’s mass membership are not active. They are not a social movement, nor are they greater than the sum of their parts as an electoral machine. Many people complain that CLP meetings, now heavily policed for discipline, and with the right conducting a vigorous rearguard action, are unbearable. The party structure is not conducive to activism and needs to change.

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Where this will tell is if Labour comes to power as a beleaguered left-wing government, surrounded by enemies within civil society. If it can’t mobilise its supporters to enable the execution of radical policies on the ground then, as with Syriza in Greece, the institutional obstacles, combined with a strategy of tensions stoked by the right-wing press, might overwhelm a Corbyn government.

The second weakness is technocratic. Most shadow ministerial teams consist of an experienced politician, two people with PhDs, a press officer and an admin worker. Because Corbyn has eschewed the secondment of corporate expertise into the shadow teams, very few people have any experience of power, and almost none have experience of working inside the power networks of the establishment.

A third weakness is the prevalence of Fabianism as an ideology: top-down technocratic socialism courses through the veins, even of people who were anarchists five years ago, because it is in the DNA of the British left. The traditions of syndicalism, direct action and rank-and-file control that flourished in the 1970s are atrophied. Combined with the dogged survival of Stalinism on Labour’s fringes, it means the slogan of the US left – the movement versus the machine – will have to be applied within Labour for the foreseeable future.

But possibly the biggest weakness might be contained in the focus on “Corbynism” itself.  At this conference, a clear philosophical split opened up between the politics of the CLPs, which is libertarian, and that of the unions, which is a hierarchical and overladen with the dead rhetoric of the Morning Star newspaper. Once Labour comes to power, civil society needs to be able to anticipate how it might react to threats and crises and these two traditions, which sit together uneasily at events such as The World Transformed, do not easily mesh into a single methodology.


The threats, likewise, are numerous. Because Corbynism is an alliance of very different lefts, they’ve had to eschew the development of a unified theory and methodology. As a result, the Labour movement has no clear map of executive power, or understanding of the way in which that power might try to thwart the wishes of an elected government.

There is a rational assumption that, because we have a Supreme Court, better parliamentary checks and balances, and verifiable observance of the rule of law inside the military, police and security services, there could be no repeat of the attempts to undermine the Wilson government described in Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher.

If so, any “very British coup” would have to happen before Corbyn comes to power – in the form of slander campaigns in the media, splits choreographed by Labour’s die-hard neoliberal wing, and “advice” by the security service on the suitability of this or that adviser. This is the framework through which many Labour members see the events of the summer.

A second threat, increasingly discussed among Labour delegates, is of a revived far right: Ukip has morphed into a party of street action, online hate speech and disgusting racism. Even as its members “enter” the Tory party, in anticipation of a leadership election, Ukip itself has opened its doors to fascists and alt-right trolls.

The danger is not just thousand-strong marches by Tommy Robinson, but closed Facebook groups numbering tens of thousands where the poisonous discussions – about “Muslim grooming gangs”, and “race science” and halal meat in Tesco’s – are allowed to ferment undisturbed. If you add to that the embittered ERG wing of the Tory party, Labour’s adversary in many constituencies becomes an alliance of plebeian xenophobia, amplified by the patrician xenophobia in the mass media. It is not a threat many members relish fighting.


But the opportunity is huge – to end the neoliberal era in the very country where it began, with Thatcher in 1979. To do that, Labour knows it has to be laser-focused on the discontents of small towns and of low-skilled workers. Such is the divergence of experience between a place like Oldham and a place like Newham, that only an institution like the Labour Party could hope to project a single brand into both of them.

So what Labour needs to do between now and its next conference, irrespective of whether it can force a snap general election, is develop a coherent narrative and thought-architecture, which can frame the efforts of both Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and the innovative local politics of non-Corbynite MPs like Stella Creasy and Lisa Nandy.

Though there is talk of Corbynism 2.0, it misses the bigger point. If it is anything, second-wave Corbynism represents the bolting on of libertarian and horizontalist politics to an updated Bennism. There is talk of trialling the universal basic income, of copying Barcelona’s attempts at participatory democracy, of reconfiguring the architecture of local government in places like Newham, led by left-winger Rokhsana Fiaz. And of course there was the revolt led by grassroots activists, not Momentum, to democratise the selection of MPs.

But the fact is, Corbynism 3.0 – the programme of a second term Labour government in the late 2020s – would not be Corbynism at all. It could be, if Labour is brave enough to attempt it, a synthesis of all the innovative thinking and practice going on to meet the challenges of climate change, an ageing population, automation and social injustice.

As I’ve floated, stumbled and ranted though the streets of Liverpool this week, between the suit-wearing throng at the conference and the T-shirt clad masses at TWT, it’s clear they all want what Richard Tawney advocated in the 1920: a moral economy. Designing one means dismantling the neoliberal architecture, and replacing it with one that delivers growth, decent jobs, prosperity and hope to Britain’s towns.

Though I would relish a snap election, the thought of letting Theresa May’s government destroy patrician Toryism forever by falling apart in office is also attractive. Because, what we are fighting for here, is the shape of Britain in the 21st century.

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