The unfinished revolution: can Corbynism as a force survive its creator?

The lack of an heir to Jeremy Corbyn is far from ideal, but not yet the subject of full-blown neurosis.

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Labour is divided: about whether the general election result was good enough or not. The party’s remaining Corbynsceptics point to the backdrop of austerity and falling wages, a government that had been in power for seven years and a maladroit Conservative campaign. Yet Labour couldn’t win. To make matters worse, they say, many people voted Labour only because they thought that Jeremy Corbyn would not be prime minister. Labour, it is said, maximised the number of seats it could win with the votes of graduates, the young, city-dwelling social liberals and ethnic minorities. In other words, this was Peak Corbyn.

However, this small band of critics no longer has much influence in the party.  Most MPs and trade unionists believe that the election result was remarkably impressive, with unexpected gains in Scotland as well as in affluent English constituencies such as Kensington in west London and Canterbury in Kent.

This means that Labour is unified, or at least as unified as such a broad coalition can be. Certainly Corbyn’s inner circle has no fear of external opponents. When Philip Gould, one of the architects of the New Labour transformation, wrote The Unfinished Revolution, his thesis was that, as the country kept changing, Labour had to do the same. Corbyn’s allies believe, however, that their economic analysis is ahead of the curve – the country is coming to meet them.

Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, Corbyn’s most reliable ally among the large trade unions, says that all the party needs in order to win is “time, just time”. The 58-year-old former postman told me “there will be a natural end” to Theresa May’s fragile government.

For his part, Corbyn abhors attempts to split up the electorate into bite-size chunks. That’s true for policymaking, when he prefers universalism to targeted programmes, and for electoral strategy. He dislikes polling and focus groups, quipping after one pre-election seminar by BMG Research that it was “a good job we didn’t have any of this in 1906, or the party might never have got started”. That scepticism has been intensified by the election result, when only Survation and YouGov predicted Labour’s surge in support.

Corbyn’s closest aides, too, are increasingly confident that tomorrow belongs to them. They think that mounting pressures on the public realm, particularly the NHS, will further erode the Conservatives’ lead among voters over the age of 55, while the pressures on the housing market will enhance Labour dominance among the under-50s. They also believe that the 2017 election was one part of a wider story about the loss of elite control. As one senior staffer puts it: “The elites said: ‘Don’t vote Brexit’, and people voted for Brexit. They said ‘don’t vote Trump’, and they voted Trump. And now 12 million people have voted for Jeremy Corbyn.”

Yet just because the leadership doesn’t much fear the Tories, that doesn’t mean that Team Corbyn believes all is well. The leader’s office is concerned that a new pro-European party of the centre may yet emerge to block their path to Downing Street – because it would attract enough liberal voters to let the Conservatives back in.

This concern has in part led to Labour’s new, softer approach to Brexit. In supporting a four-year transition inside the single market, the leadership opened up a useful divide with the Conservatives and, they hope, drained the oxygen from any potential third or new party challenge. In the Commons, there is an acknowledgement it is easier to peel off Tory rebels on Europe if backbenchers put down amendments rather than if they are seen to come from the Labour leadership. That suits Corbyn, who is more Eurosceptic than most of his party.

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Yet Corbynites are still worried about the long-term future of their project. Before the election, their attempts at party reform had one major driver: the need for survival. Although Jeremy Corbyn held the leadership and his office was staffed with loyalists, they were, as one aide puts it, “surrounded by people who hate us”.

The only way to redress the balance of internal power was to increase the say of the one group that they could rely on: the party’s members and activists who propelled Corbyn to the leadership and kept him in it. Since the election result, Corbyn no longer needs to bolster himself against internal threats or challenges but the ideological case for party reform remains.

At its core, the Labour left’s support for more internal democracy is only partially about factional advantage: it also emerges from an analysis of why Labour governments tend to lose momentum and disappoint their supporters when in office. One example is the proposal to allow black and minority ethnic party members to vote for the BAME representative on the national executive committee (NEC), a post currently held by Keith Vaz MP. Such rule changes have the benefit that the likely winner would be a true-blue Corbynite as well as giving members a greater say. As Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary and Corbyn’s closest ally, puts it, “Jeremy sees his legitimacy and responsibility as coming from the members.”

Veteran Corbynites remember how Bennism declined as a force and movement without the charismatic leadership of Tony Benn. Their hero won a landslide among ordinary members when he challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981 but was blocked by the party’s electoral college, which privileged the votes of Labour MPs and trade union general secretaries. None of his successors on the Bennite wing of the party was able to repeat his success, with each gaining derisory shares of the vote among the grass roots. They fear that, without Corbyn’s presence, the left will once again struggle to retain power.

Compounding the problem is the missing generation of fortysomethings who struggled to be selected as MPs during the years of Blairite and Brownite dominance over parliamentary selections. How realistic that fear is will be tested by the coming election to choose a new Labour leader in Scotland after Kezia Dugdale’s unexpected resignation. The immediate factional prizes are large: the leader in Scotland picks a seat on the NEC (Corbyn, as leader of the national party, picks two), and can exert considerable influence on who prevails in selections to parliamentary constituencies in Scotland. But the result will gauge the appeal of Corbynism divorced from the person of Corbyn himself.

Although the bookmakers have declared that the frontrunner is Richard Leonard, a former trade union organiser with impeccable left-wing credentials, many expect the prize will go to the Glasgow MSP Anas Sarwar. His friends had begun preparing for a contest before the general election, believing that a disappointing result in Scotland would have ended Dugdale’s leadership. Sarwar has enhanced his left-wing credentials by asking the MSP Pauline McNeill –who one opponent calls “a crazy lefty with a massive Palestine flag in her office” – to act as his campaign co-chair.

That Sarwar is the favourite is a testament both to the success of Corbyn’s unfinished revolution and to its limitations. Sarwar is no Blairite, but he is as far to the right as a viable candidate for the leadership in Scotland can go. Yet, at the same time, it is noteworthy that a successor of the same hue as Corbyn is not guaranteed.

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Although the national leadership is Corbyn’s for as long as he wants it, the roster of his potential successors attests to the same problem. Currently in the ascendant is Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary. If, as all but a handful of Corbyn’s allies expected, Labour had suffered a heavy election defeat, the remaining Corbynite MPs planned to nominate Thornberry – not because she shared all of their convictions but because they believed she would prevent the wholesale purge of the left.

It would be an overstatement to say that the Labour leader or his allies are haunted by the question of the succession. They expect that Corbyn will lead the party into the next general election whenever it occurs, when some older Corbynsceptic MPs will retire and true loyalists will be selected in seats that are Conservative-held. But concerns still linger. The lack of an heir is far from ideal but not yet the subject of full-blown neurosis.

The most emblematic fight is over the so-called McDonnell amendment, a reference to what Corbynsceptics see as the shadow chancellor’s ambitions for the top job. Earlier in the year, it seemed as though the left would fight hard to reduce the percentage of MPs needed to nominate a leadership contender from 15 to 5 per cent, as it would be the only way to get their candidate on the ballot. Now, they are far more relaxed and a compromise deal seems likely.

Corbyn’s allies have plans for other measures to embed their faction. They want to increase the number of posts on the NEC that are directly elected by members. They want to make it easier for policies to pass at the annual conference by allowing local parties to raise more than one motion.

In his attempts to reform the party, Corbyn is supported by Momentum, the organisation that formed to bolster his leadership. Although individual regional organisers occasionally make headlines by calling for deselections, the group’s main role is to win internal contests, ensuring left-wing representation at conference and within constituency parties.

Momentum’s success in this means that Corbyn could end the political conference season having passed a range of reforms that secure not only his leadership, which is unchallenged, but the Corbynites long-term dominance of a party that has been utterly transformed and shifted boldly to the left since Ed Miliband stepped down in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move