Alex Nunns, a journalist on Red Pepper, has based this book on sympathetic interviews with many of the central people in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 Labour leadership campaign. It’s a well-crafted, well-informed view of the Corbyn surge as it looked from the top.
It’s hard to remember now just how unexpected Corbyn’s 2015 victory was. Before the May election John McDonnell had attempted to assemble a “Left Platform” group. It flopped dismally.
Labour lost the election. Ed Miliband resigned. The main candidates to replace him as leader started to compete for how right-wing they could promote themselves as being. John McDonnell wrote that it was “the darkest hour that socialists in Britain ha[d] faced” for many decades.
Nunns quotes Michael Calderbank: “Everybody was tearing their hair out, there was despair”.
We had all underestimated the growth of a left-wing body of opinion in the country, diffuse, indeed atomised, but there. Although meetings and strikes had become sparser, demonstrations had often been big.
Student protests in November and December 2010 had drawn over 50,000. Big marches had accompanied the public sector strikes in 2011, and maybe 400,000 joined the TUC demonstration in March 2011. Maybe 250,000 would show up to the People’s Assembly anti-cuts protest in June 2015.
All those demonstrations, following the economic shock of 2008 and the “double-dip” in 2012 when GDP fell again, had left a deposit in opinion.
Years of small meetings, difficult literature sales, and so on had convinced too many of us on the left that everyone out there was uninterested, when really it was just that we weren’t strong or dynamic enough, and those “out there” weren’t confident enough, to turn the diffuse interest into consistent activity.
We had also underestimated a slight shift to the left within the Labour Party.
Slow-burning and unspectacular, that left drift was sufficient to create wide indignation when Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Liz Kendall started the 2015 leadership contest by competing to retail right-wing blather about “aspiration”.
A flurry, mostly in cyberspace, demanded a left candidate for leader. No-one at that stage imagined a left candidate could win. John McDonnell refused, and was cool on the whole idea of a left candidate. Ian Lavery refused. He had already opted for Andy Burnham. Jon Trickett refused.
But the pressure was sufficient that, eventually, in a meeting of left MPs, McDonnell told Corbyn: “It’s your turn”. And that enough soft-left MPs, under pressure from their local members, agreed to nominate Corbyn that an addition of maverick and right-wing nominations was enough to get him into the contest.
Without the pressure inside the party for a left candidate, Corbyn would not even have stood. And then “Corbyn was ahead among party members within weeks of getting his name on the ballot paper”.
There followed a much broader “breath-taking surge of people inspired by Corbyn’s candidacy”. But that “came after party members had put him in the leader, after trade unions had lent his challenge an air of plausibility”.
15,800 people volunteered for the Corbyn campaign. Starting from zero, it became a bigger operation than any of the establishment candidate campaigns.
In addition to the left shifts in the Labour Party and in wider society, and the self-destructive bubble thinking of Burnham and Cooper, two other circumstances were necessary for the year-of-the-comet concatenation which brought Corbyn’s victory.
Labour’s right wing had in 2014 changed the rules for Labour leader elections to make them simple one-person-one-vote operations among Labour’s members and “registered supporters”. The right-wingers did that because, as they peered out at the populace through the opaque windows of the world of parliament, lobbyists, the media, think-tanks, and PR, the only world many of them had known in adult life, it looked to them as if New Labour babble commanded wide support which would help them outflank labour-movement activists. They were wrong.
The union leaders, who had through almost all the history of the Labour Party been the bulwarks of the right wing, were fed up. In 2014 they had been through a bizarre exercise with the Collins Review.
At Labour’s special conference on the review, one trade-union leader after another got up to condemn the Collins proposals to reduce the unions’ weight within Labour only to ask the conference to vote for those same proposals. They had decided to let Ed Miliband have what he wanted, and then to go for damage-limitation behind the scenes.
In 2015, the right-wing pitch of Burnham’s and Cooper’s campaigns signalled to the union leaders that they were in danger of being excluded from political influence even more thoroughly than under Blair.
So both the biggest unions, Unite and Unison, and many smaller unions, backed Corbyn.
The Labour Party staff’s “‘Operation Icepick’ — after the weapon that killed Leon Trotsky in 1940 — ... [in which] soon staff and officials were trawling through the social media posts” to expel hundreds of Labour members and ban thousands of new supporters could not stop Corbyn.
Nor could the media hostility. Corbyn won, and doubled his supporters’ joy by going straight from the leadership result announcement to speak to a “refugees are welcome” protest. But Nunns reports: “Members of his campaign staff [had] been anxious that he should not go”.
That clash signalled some of the problems of the two years since then. In many similar clashes it seems to have been the backroom staff who prevailed, rather than Corbyn’s better instincts.
Nunns cites an off-the-record comment from someone in Corbyn’s inner circle: “He’s not an ideologue; he’s not a strategist; he’s not an organisation builder”.
Corbyn had a creditable record as a voter-against-the-odds in Parliament, and as a supporter of working-class struggles in his area. But, since the early 1980s at least, he has never been an organiser.
Drifting somewhat towards the soft left from his early loose involvement with Socialist Organiser at the end of the 1970s, Corbyn had become a regular columnist for the Morning Star, although he clearly dissented from the Star’s pro-Beijing line on Tibet, for example.
Before May 2015, it is hard to imagine that Corbyn had any political perspective than to spend a few more years before retirement (he was 66) casting dissenting votes in Parliament, and then to be an occasional speaker at protests and rallies.
Once Corbyn was elected, he needed organisation and ideas to deal with the hostility of the great majority of Labour MPs and of the Labour Party staff.
“In no sense was [Corbyn] or his team ready” for the challenges of party leadership writes Nunns. There’s a general lesson here, too, for the left. Some see the time that Marxist organisations spend on discussing history, grand perspectives, and revolutionary experiences as off-beam. Why don’t we just talk about the immediate practical tasks, and leave all that other stuff aside?
Why not? Because if we do that, when history suddenly jolts forward — as it does sometimes, and it did with the Corbyn surge — then we will be left floundering at exactly the time when our opportunities are greatest.
On a personal level, Corbyn has not done badly. The coup attempt against him in June 2016, in which most of his Shadow Cabinet demonstratively resigned and Labour MPs voted no confidence in him, must been based on a calculation that, faced with such things, Corbyn would simply retire. He refused, won a second leadership contest handsomely, and then led Labour to a good result in the June 2017 general election.
But even that only keeps the openings open. It does not resolve the questions of organising and political initiative.
The staff of Corbyn’s campaign, and then of his “Leader’s Office”, were mostly scraped together from networks at the top of bourgeois society, and from the left margins of the politico-media-sphere.
Worse, many have politics which see the old USSR, or today’s China, as viable models of socialism — politics which see bureaucratic manipulation, not working-class agitation, education, and organisation, as the key to change.
The membership of the Labour Party has increased to 570,000. But none of the undemocratic rules instituted by Blair have been changed.
The “Operation Icepick” started in 2015 has been continued, in fits and starts, since then, expelling (without prior notice of charges, hearing, or appeal) hundreds more left-wing members than have ever been expelled before in purges under right-wing leaders, and suspending thousands more.
Labour got two-thirds of the youth vote in June 2017. But few of its new young members have been organised into constituency Young Labour groups.
Despite Corbyn’s keynote appearance in September 2015 at the refugee rights demonstration, the Corbyn Labour Party has called no demonstrations. That is, it has called fewer than Michael Foot did when he was Labour Party leader. Or Hugh Gaitskell.
The political weaknesses arising from this delay in organising was shown in 2016 over the issue of freedom of movement for workers. For five months after the June 2016 Brexit referendum vote, Jeremy Corbyn continued to defend freedom of movement in Europe. But there was no broad organised Labour left to support him.
What of Momentum, launched in October 2015 by some of those around Corbyn, and with the help of the databases gained from the leadership campaign, to rally the “Corbynista” grassroots?
Momentum has gained twenty-odd thousand members — making it, probably, the biggest Labour left movement ever — and generated some good local groups. It has made an effort to construct a left presence at Labour’s 2017 conference, after failing entirely to do so at the 2016 conference.
But it has conducted no campaigns within the Labour Party on any issues other than internal elections. It has publicly declared no policies to fight for. It has pressed for no democratic changes.
In fact, in January 2017, its office shut down Momentum’s own incipient internal democracy, abolishing all its elected committees overnight and imposing a constitution which in fact gives all decisive power to the (unelected) office itself.
Momentum remains a large movement, and one within which work can be done, but at present is hamstrung by the anxiety of its leaders to keep in with the union leaders and the Leader’s Office.
Again, there’s a lesson: don’t be beaten down by the common argument that “traditional” organising — meetings, debates, votes, democratic decisions, regular activity — is just too difficult now, so we must settle for clicktivism instead.
We can and should be imaginative about our forms of meetings, but without high-intensity organisation, which means meetings, votes, accountability, and so on, we can never defeat those who now hold the commanding heights, or even the commanding foothills, of society.