The Corbyn Experiment

The Corbyn Experiment

Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent marks a watershed moment for Britain’s Labour Party—but it is a product of contingency and failure as much as radical brilliance or inspiration.

Jeremy Corbyn speaking in February 2015 (Global Justice Now / Flickr)

Depending on who you ask, Britain’s Labour Party is either soaring, or in free-fall. There is evidence for both propositions, but the reality is messier. Against international trends, membership has surged by some 180,000 this year, to an estimated 370,000. This is a level close to that of every other British political party combined. The early signs are that the commitment of new members is meaningful. Many have proved willing to show up to party meetings, donate money, and participate in local campaigns. The vast majority are there because of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The veteran left-wing London MP for Islington North became an overnight sensation during the leadership contest following Labour’s crushing defeat at the 2015 general election. The party’s reinvigoration as something approaching a mass movement, alongside its clear declaration of left-wing intent, has been greeted by progressives and socialists around the world as the latest sign of the volatility and opportunity of post-2008 politics.

Even in British terms, however, the numbers involved in the Corbyn movement were relatively small. Before we draw big conclusions about what his leadership means, it’s necessary to dwell on the more parochial realities of British politics: to work out where he came from, how he won, and what hopes he has of making his leadership matter to anybody outside the immediate confines of the British left. Dubious assertions that the British political and financial elite should be “scared” of an energized Labour party won’t get us very far. Corbyn’s leadership should not be viewed as merely one example of a broader flourishing of populist anti-austerity politics across Europe. Corbyn’s victory owed much to the specific and local circumstances of British Labour in summer 2015, as the party reeled from an epochal electoral defeat. Whether Corbyn’s leadership can prosper outside this very specific moment remains an open question.

The key piece of local context to understand is just how bad May 8, 2015 was for the Labour Party. The Conservatives, as callous and blundering as ever, nonetheless cleaned up in marginal English seats, destroying their Liberal Democrat coalition partners in the process. David Cameron, slapdash and conceited throughout the campaign, increased his vote share, pushing Labour ever further back into its urban and ex-coalfield heartlands. This is a virtually unprecedented feat for a British governing party—still less one with no tangible record of success. Cameron has presided over a failed policy of austerity and a boom in the use of food banks in Britain alongside countless instances of gross incompetence: a corrupt fire-sale of postal services, a near-breakdown of the social security system, a farcical non-renegotiation of competencies with the European Union, botched market reforms of Britain’s treasured National Health Service (NHS). And yet the voters still come. Why? The analyses multiply, but few combine empirical rigor with any sense of promise for Labour’s revival.

The problem for the British left now is far worse than in the 1980s, when the electoral requirement was simply to bolt on enough Tory switchers to an obvious Labour core. The thoughtful MP for Dagenham, Jon Cruddas, put it succinctly: “We lost everywhere to everybody.” In Scotland, Labour lost forty of its forty-one MPs to a Scottish National Party (SNP) that many mistake for a left-wing force. Labour owes both its founding mythology and post-Thatcher “modernization” to the docks, coalmines, and law schools of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Wipeout in Scotland is a body blow. There is a growing fear, meanwhile, that northern England could be next. The region’s more affluent voters, and successful ethnic minorities, are being targeted by a Conservative party offering a cooked-up form of administrative federalism (the so-called “Northern Powerhouse”) to local elites. Its economically left-behind voters, meanwhile, show signs of turning to the national-populist UK Independence Party (UKIP). Analysts attribute the shock election defeat of the party’s prominent finance spokesman, Ed Balls, to a combination of Labour abstentions and a strong UKIP vote. (Best known in the United States as a pal of Larry Summers, Balls is now on sabbatical at Harvard.)

The two ex-ministerial candidates for the leadership, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, were unable to speak to the gravity of Labour’s situation in the aftermath of the 2015 defeat. They wasted most of the summer campaign shadowboxing with a neo-Blairite right that never stood any chance of winning the membership. Indeed, the immediate post-election mood music from key figures on the party’s right was crucial to Corbyn’s ultimate success. Ambitious younger MPs, alongside noisy Blair-era grandees, argued that Ed Miliband’s mildly social-democratic prospectus had been a foolhardy deviation from the iron laws of British politics. Within hours of defeat, the airwaves were full of vague, threatening-sounding claims that Labour’s problems stemmed from it being “anti-business,” “pro-welfare,” and—worst of all—“left wing.” The eventual candidate from the party’s right, inexperienced Leicester MP Liz Kendall, was more interesting than these backers allowed her to be, but never overcame the negative effects of their tin-eared chivvying of a shattered and fearful base.

The real flashpoint came, however, when party veteran and interim leader Harriet Harman made an astonishing decision to whip a parliamentary vote in favor of a new round of punitive Conservative benefit cuts in July. This was the product of extraordinary Westminster groupthink, as well as dumb gesture politics, designed to show the country that Labour had “listened” to the message it received in May 2015 (even though nobody could really know what that was). It was difficult for anyone outside the parliamentary party to envisage a scenario where voting with the government—against the interests of Labour’s few remaining core supporters, and five years before the next election—would do much for the fortunes of the opposition. The echoes of 1931, when one of the first Labour governments fell apart over similar demands for “sound money” from the City of London, were overpowering. The 2015 capitulation, however, resembled farce rather than tragedy. Cooper and Burnham sensed danger and eventually secured a retreat to a position of abstention, but the damage had already been done. Corbyn duly led forty-odd rebels through the “no” lobby of the Commons and moved into an unassailable lead with the membership.

Why was the benefits farrago so important? Not, it should be noted, because of any particular effect on the new activists Corbyn was bringing to the party: they were always unlikely to endorse run-of-the-mill candidates like Cooper or Burnham. Rather, it was significant because it convinced many long-standing members, in the immediate wake of a terrifying election result, that only Corbyn could be trusted to preserve Labour’s identity as a recognizable party of the left. Voting for Corbyn could thus be a despairing, defensive gesture, as much as a declaration of radical intent. Victory for the left at the top of the party was not replicated all the way down. Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan, stalwarts of the party’s social-democratic center, triumphed in their simultaneous campaigns for the deputy leadership and London mayoral nomination.

All this is not to deny Corbyn’s skill. He and his team saw earlier and more clearly than anybody else that changes to Labour’s membership structure were making internal elections easier to disrupt. The conversion of Labour leadership elections into open national primaries was a longstanding project of the party’s right, who still look to the United States, and the Democrats, for political inspiration (the European-minded note the French Parti Socialiste and the Italian Partito Democratico have also taken on this model of candidate selection, with some success). In previous elections, an “electoral college” system was used that divided the Labour movement up into its constituent parts: parliamentary party, membership, affiliated trade unions, and socialist societies. An MP’s vote counted for many times more than that of an ordinary member, which in turn counted for more than that of a trade unionist who had not joined the party. Preservation of this system would have favored anti-Corbyn candidates, who between them commanded the support of nearly the entire parliamentary party.

Better still for the Corbynites was the introduction of a new category of the “registered supporter,” now given equal weighting in leadership votes. This produced a situation where a long-standing MP or local government representative had as little influence on the outcome as somebody who had signed up as a supporter for £3 the day before the deadline. Some 88,000 such supporters, recruited online and via a series of packed town-hall meetings, signed up to vote for Corbyn, dwarfing the other candidates’ feeble efforts to play the new system (notoriously, nobody other than Corbyn remembered to put a signup button on their campaign website). In the absence of the party membership reforms, the second-placed candidate, Burnham, would have won a narrow victory thanks to the overwhelming backing he received from the parliamentary party. As a result, far fewer blog posts about the global march of the radical left might now have been written, even if exactly the same number of people had been mobilized by Corbyn’s campaign.

The point of recounting this rather bitty, deflating narrative isn’t to deny what is genuinely significant about Corbyn’s leadership and the movement behind it, but to try and understand it better—as a product of contingency and failure as much as radical brilliance or inspiration. In terms of the long-term evolution of the Labour party’s base and political strategy, it is certainly a watershed moment. The party has slipped its moorings in its passive, historic, and deferential trade-union base, launching onto the choppy waters of an atomized, affective politics, mediated by social networks, but still rather traditional in its methods and outlook. For the untold story of the result is the precipitous collapse of the old “affiliated members” section: largely ordinary trade unionists, given the right to vote in Labour elections by virtue of their union’s continued financial and political links with Labour. This can partly be attributed to another party reform, which makes participation and financial contribution to political activities by ordinary trade unionists an opt-in, rather than an opt-out, affair. But the fact remains that Corbyn did not enthuse this group: just 41,000 bothered to opt in and vote. As a comparison, the number who automatically received ballots and subsequently returned them was nearly 250,000 in 2010—and some 400,000 in 1994, when one Tony Blair was elected leader with a similar margin of victory. Indeed, Labour’s present carnival of internal democracy pales in comparison to that of 1994. The electorate that chose Blair included close to a million people, even allowing for some duplication between the different sections of the electoral college. The 2015 contest attracted less than half of that, and largely swapped trade unionists for party cadres. Overall levels of participation in the leadership vote were still higher than in 2010, and many trade unionists may simply have chosen to become full members. The impression over the longer term, however, is of a deepening, rather than a broadening, of the party’s appeal.

This should give pause for thought. Surging support for a radical candidate for national political leadership has not been accompanied by any broader upswing in labor militancy. Participation in the British Labour party may have grown in intensity, but it is further than ever from broader developments in society and the economy. We don’t yet know if the “Corbyn surge” is masking a broader decline. Serious examination of the social composition of Labour’s new base is hard to find—research is only just getting underway—but a few things seem plausible, anecdotally at least. Young and old predominate, alongside a smattering of middle-aged former members who left the party in disgust over the Iraq war. The young are certainly the most politically promising. Racially and socially diverse, they no longer buy the boomer ideology that they should be selling themselves, padding out their CVs to protect against the chill winds of a post-crash world. They recognize at eighteen or twenty what it’s taken my slightly older millennial crowd until their mid-twenties to realize: landlord exploitation, soaring debt, and poor job prospects have nothing to do with our lack of industry or intelligence, and everything to do with the political might of Britain’s oversized rentier class.

Corbyn’s clarity, energy, and compassion spoke directly to this group, as much as his age (he’s sixty-six) and demeanor appealed to altruistic pensioners. While the Corbyn campaign brought new constituencies into the party, however, it would be a mistake to suggest that it organized them in innovative ways. Around the edges there have been a few gestures towards crowd-sourced policy, but it’s hard to claim that it’s core to the project. Along with his key lieutenants and supporters, Corbyn has been declaiming at length from platforms for years. He continued to do so, albeit to bigger crowds, at his packed campaign rallies. The audience never really gets to set the agenda. The leader’s hallmark is his “principled,” stubborn consistency, rather than any particular willingness to engage in genuine dialogue with those who have uncomfortable things to say about the modern Labour party (a category that includes much of the electorate). A good, top-down social media strategy, nice graphic design, plenty of coverage from a mischievous summer press, well-organized public meetings, a decent amount of trade-union money (if not votes); this was very much politics as we have known it, and it was done rather well.

Here, however, the continuities end. It is difficult to convey to those outside Labour (or indeed the United Kingdom) just what a big departure Corbyn’s leadership is, not only from “New” Labour, but also from much of the party’s pre-Blair history. Indeed, it is difficult for many inside the party to accept this: for them, Corbyn, aged, dogged, and principled, represents a reassuring return to the Party’s “real” origins and values. But this isn’t true. Since the election of Clement Attlee in 1935, the far left within the party has never held the leadership; and never has such a peripheral figure shot so rapidly to the top. When candidates coming from out of the party’s left groupings have taken the leadership—notably Harold Wilson and Neil Kinnock—they have led the party down a more centrist route. Michael Foot, the recent leader to whom Corbyn is most often compared, was a completely different proposition: an experienced former Cabinet minister, he was endorsed by the party as a conciliatory, “soft-left” figure, who could hold the ring in the fierce left-right battles then gripping the party. Corbyn entered parliament in 1983 as a protégé of Tony Benn, the candidate Foot was elected to stop, and has been a reliable member of the Parliamentary Party’s tiny far-left awkward squad ever since. Like Benn, Corbyn has spent his career as much in opposition to the Labour Party of Bevin, Wilson, and Callaghan as to that of Blair and Brown. Taking Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and Perry Anderson’s “Origins of the Present Crisis” (1964) as their starting points, Corbyn’s wing of the party have consistently expressed their disappointment in the small-c conservatism, pro-NATO foreign policy, unreconstructed monarchism, and petit-bourgeois morality of Labour’s leaders and voters. These, in short, are people for whom even the 1945–51 Labour government was something of a disappointment.

In his personal beliefs and rhetoric, meanwhile, Corbyn is probably further down this road than Benn. The latter consistently rooted his politics in an idea of an English radical tradition, developed by New Left historians like Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson, as well as his own intense spirituality. When Benn was in his prime, no speech was complete without a reference to the Bible, the Diggers, or the Levellers.

Corbyn’s style is very different. More rational dissent than old-time religion, he talks abstractly about justice and human rights, and struggles to invoke loyalty to anything that is historically rooted and specific. Corbyn’s entrenched secular cosmopolitanism—for all its endearing bookishness and occasional articulacy—probably takes him further away from most remaining English Labour voters, let alone potential Tory or UKIP switchers. It is also a non-starter in Scotland, where it is now impossible to talk about social justice without going through the nation first.

The misconstrual of Corbyn as a traditional Labour figure is actually a product of “New” Labour’s trashing of both the party’s labourist and socialist history. The Blairite discourse of modernization lumped together the corporatist Keynesianism of the party’s old right with the New Left radicalism of its enemies into a single compound, “Old” Labour. This could be made usefully responsible forthe inflation and trade-union militancy associated with the 1970s Labour governments, as well as the notorious left-right splits of the 1980s. New Labour’s erasure of these older divisions, alongside the accumulated mistakes of his rivals, enabled Corbyn tactically to don the mantle of the very social democracy he once decried as insufficient and emerge as the custodian of the party’s traditional identity.

The residual influence of Ralph Miliband, however, is visible in the new leadership’s extreme ambivalence toward the idea that the 2020 election needs to be won by Labour at all costs. The phrase that Corbyn and his most senior lieutenant, finance spokesman John McDonnell, most often use when talking about the party they want to lead is “social movement.” The answer to the problem of electability is to “change the conversation,” rather than to try to win tactical battles within the stifling confines of Britain’s political culture. This certainly needs to happen to a degree, not least because Labour has been playing by the rules for a long time now, with steadily diminishing electoral returns. At the same time, however, it is very difficult to see Labour operating successfully as a purely countercultural force. It is still, just about, one of two conceivable parties of government, and it would be a betrayal of that potential to desert the field of high-political competition.

And whether we like it or not, the high-political stuff still matters. The judgment about whether parties of the left need to prioritize electoralism or movement-building should surely vary with the structure of the state in question, and the nature of the opposing forces. Britain is extraordinarily centralized, especially in England, which means that there are few points of pressure or resistance in the system. The gentlemen’s agreements that once preserved Britain’s unwritten constitution, alongside the autonomy of its professions and civil society, mean little to this new generation of ruthless, entitled Conservatives—people who look at Netanyahu or certain aspects of the Republican party and see something they admire. Particularly since Corbyn’s election, they believe more than ever that they are required to prevent Labour from ever exerting any kind of power in the state again. To this end, they are introducing crippling financial and legal restrictions on unions and charities, making it harder for the poor and the precariat to register to vote and hurriedly redrawing constituency boundaries on the basis of the resulting shrunken and affluent electorate. It’s all terribly unfair, but it is happening, and doubtless new ruses will be cooked up as time wears on. The Harper- or Bibi-ization of British politics is well underway.

Can Labour survive the onslaught? Much depends on Corbyn’s ability to break the habit of a lifetime and discover some political flexibility. There are worrying signs that his supporters mistake victory within the party for victory in the country: a logical corollary of their movement-building political strategy, but also a dangerous delusion of grandeur. The party is larger than it was, but it is still a very small world. The tactics and rhetoric that won the leadership will not win the Commons.

But there are grounds for hope: many of Corbyn’s policy positions do not only appeal to the narrow segment of the Labour party from which his particular politics has sprung. Inequality is on everybody’s agenda, in the United Kingdom as in the United States. Renationalizing the railways, a key early demand, appeals to a sense both of patriotism and of economic justice. If Corbyn’s political vocabulary can expand beyond abstract appeals to justice and equality, and match the potential of some of his policies, the outlook for Labour might yet improve. In 2015 the key thing the party lacked was a narrative: Labour looked like “austerity-lite” with a few technocratic policies that didn’t add up to much more than the sum of their parts. The renewal of Labour’s broader vision for the good society is what is needed by 2020. The Corbyn leadership—provided it lives up to its rhetoric of promoting inclusion and debate—may be the shock that is needed to deliver this.

Corbyn’s biography and political style may still disqualify him from effectively contesting the premiership—assuming he wishes to do so. But the danger for Labour does not really lie in his being too left wing. Rather, the problem is his inability to offer reassurance to the unaligned, or to respond convincingly to unfolding events. The electorate is worried about a great many things: economic insecurity, geopolitical chaos, refugee crises, most of all terrorism. If the easy answers of hatred and violence are to be eschewed, alternatives demand compelling and energetic presentation. Corbyn’s confused response to the security concerns raised by the Paris attacks, alongside his apparent disinterest in defusing a party row over Syrian military intervention, pushed Labour’s polling numbers to near all-time lows.

It would be nice to think that out of crisis will come a turn to the radical left, but that hasn’t really happened so far. Instead, Britain feels ever more shrunken, mean, cold, and peripheral. The Conservatives are generally far better than Labour at speaking to—and perpetuating—this perception. Overcoming it will be a phenomenal labor of political skill, flexibility, and dedication, which will likely require the party to completely reimagine itself. All those new members have a lot of work to do.


James Stafford is a PhD student in history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and co-edits Renewal: A Journal of Labour Politics.


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