The booklet Corbynism, What Went Wrong? by Martin Thomas is written from the point of view of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyist political organisation which was mostly frozen out of the Corbynista and Momentum movement.
The booklet recounts the history of the Corbyn phenomenon from the 2015 beginning until the 2019 end.
It regrets the lost opportunity of those years to build a mass movement, particularly of not bringing in even more young people, and at the same time illustrates the mistakes it feels were made. And – equally tellingly – lists its differences with “the office” (i.e. the Corbyn Labour Leader’s office) on strategy and policy.
No wonder, AWL was at one with the mainstream of the Party on antisemitism, abhorring the mealy-mouthed avoidance and shabby manoeuvring of Corbyn including not declaring clear support for the IHRA declaration. Of course in querying this strange aberration – a left faction giving time and space to antisemitism – AWL were not on their own. Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum told me at the recent Conference he “totally abhors” antisemitism. To risk “the project” on this issue must have driven the likes of Lansman, veteran of Labour internal wars for getting on for fifty years, scatty.
And “the office” was also against EU Remain, an issue which must surely have brought many of the younger recruits into the Party. Corbyn’s pretence of support for Cameron’s disastrous referendum’s aim was undermined by his weaselly words and minimal Corbyn campaigning. It was surely clear to all left of centre that those leading the Brexit campaign were not friends of the Labour Party and a strong “class” argument could have been made against their campaign.
Of course deep grumblings did exist in working-class populations after years of anti-EU right wing propaganda but leadership on Labour’s side was needed. As we know, such leadership didn’t emerge from Jeremy, not least as he seemed to follow the line of his leading two lieutenants (and the Morning Star) who appeared to be taking the Stalinist line - “socialism in one country” - which maybe they genuinely saw as a possibility for Britain, not least given the opportunity that events had given them.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty do think socialism is realistic but not by avoiding debate - which this booklet repeatedly accuses Jeremy’s hierarchy of – and not by going down false alleys like abandoning the working class of Europe or taking sides to shun the historical nationalist ambitions of Jews whilst supporting those of the Palestinians and especially not with antisemitic words and actions which the Nazis used.
Another thing which moderates in the Labour Party would agree with the AWL is the need for face to face interaction with the younger new members. To bring the keyboard warriors in from their isolation and into interaction with actual people and thus real life and real politics.
I’ve known Jeremy for over 45 years and I always found him kind and compassionate at a personal level.
He is, however, trapped by his history and past lonely political stances. Like Fidel Castro, he obviously felt that his alternatives - should he choose to press on with his leadership, which was in some doubt, especially at the beginning - were narrow, and that he had no alternative, give up or continue with the help of the Morning Star and the Communist Party.
I heard first hand at the time from John McDonnell the well-known story of Jeremy being obliged to stand by McDonnell and Diane Abbott as they had previously done their duty. These three left beacons of the Labour Party have, in fact, quite distinct politics from each other but have been thrown together by being out on their own in the Parliamentary Labour Party for many years (Jeremy was first elected in 1983).
We know what happened. A surge of – largely younger – people took advantage of Ed Miliband’s unwise £3 membership and a movement, like those in Greece, Spain, and other countries and the Sanders movement in the US accelerated and took over Jeremy’s campaign. You could almost see the shock on his face as the crowds and their enthusiasm grew. There may have been many young and younger people involved, but the campaign was quickly taken over by various Trotskyist and Communist fellow travelling groups and by those with long experience of organising on the left within the Labour Party like Jon Lansman
Where did Corbynism go wrong? Possibly by not seizing those moments which this AWL booklet identifies, and maybe the more liberal approach of the AWL would have inspired the new, younger, members in a better way for longer. Certainly, there is a popular view emerging from long serving members that many who joined in the two Corbynite surges can now see that the Labour Party is not inhabited by Tories and that the old democratic and socialist dilemma remains – winning the discussion which is as old as democracy between progressive views and those of the conservative and nationalistic members of the working class.
• Terry Ashton was General Secretary of the Greater London Labour Party from 1986 to 2000.