Mike Davis reviews Corbynism: what went wrong?
This is a thoughtful if polemical book charting the rise and fall of the Corbyn project. The essence of the analysis is that Corbynism ran aground on two political issues: antisemitism and Brexit. The remedy for which could have been debate and education. Additionally only a meagre culture of political discussion was developed. Membership mushroomed with Corbyn’s election in 2015. However, the older rejoiners were already "formed" and youth were not drawn into regular activity and education—youth and student activity declined, while the right maintained control of Labour student organisation, argues Thomas.
The bulk of the book is a journey through the Corbyn years to electoral defeat in 2019. Acknowledged are the constant attacks from right-wingers in the PLP, the mass media and party machine. There were no fundamental changes in organisation, which could have helped remedy the latter. The LOTO office could have countered the Party HQ but didn’t. The Seamus Milne, Andrew Murray and Steve Howell team were old Stalinists and tilted Corbyn to have little interest in Brexit, antisemitism or democracy in the party. ‘Much of the structure and culture of the Blair years remained’.
Momentum figures large in the analysis. Born out of the insurgence around Corbyn’s election, Thomas argues the organisation "had no wish to push policy debates" at conference, focussing instead on a fringe festival (The World Transformed), although he acknowledges the left was weak at the 2016 conference in terms of delegates. By 2017 Corbyn had signalled he would not push for Trident non-replacement or NATO withdrawal. He was good on social spending and taxing the rich but said little on Brexit, immigration or trade union rights. Further, Momentum is criticised for a failure to develop democratic structures or conferences for wider political debate.
The near success in the 2017 General Election is little acknowledged. Because Brexit had been a secondary issue in that contest Corbyn was able to outline a broader left alternative (little mention of socialism in the manifesto we’re reminded), mount an effective social media and street level campaign enabling the Party to do well in drastically reducing the Tory majority, though not well enough to win.
Thomas is highly critical of Corbynism on campaigning. Certainly on Brexit, this is justified. We’d agree the arguments for working in the framework of the European Union (akin to working in Westminster or local government structures in our book), for free movement of people and the benefits of the Customs Union were not fulsomely made. Support for invoking Article 50 were over hasty and Brexit was kept off the agenda in 2016, 2017 and fudged in 2018. Too much ideological ground was ceded to the Tory Brexiteers and the leadership missed the boat on campaigning for a second referendum or joining the huge demonstrations making that call.
The wider criticism of Corbynism’s lack of street protests and mobilisation is less justified. Comparisons are made with Michael Foot who supported protests against unemployment and actively supported CND. Corbyn is even compared unfavourably to Hugh Gaitskell and Labour support for mobilisations against Suez intervention in 1956. However, Corbyn supporters were prominent in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and its Labour offshoot, its various conferences and demonstrations. True, Labour did not organise any major demonstrations in its own right or seek to coordinate campaigns against cuts in local government. The latter was in part due to the lack of militant leadership among Labour councils and the need to painstakingly build a grassroots opposition as had begun to develop in the 1980s against Thatcherite rate-capping.
This criticism has echoes of 1979/80 when Socialist Organiser was formed as a cross-Labour left united front including Chartist, Worker’s Action (predecessor of Workers’ Liberty), the newly formed London Labour Briefing and independent leftists like Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, Ted Knight and others. Alongside the independents Chartist took the longer view of the struggle against cuts stressing that the groundwork to build a broader movement had still to be done and that heroic martyrdom of councillors would not assist struggling working class families. This ‘dented shield’ approach was deemed unacceptably accommodating to the Tories by WA/WL and led to a split. There is some inaccuracy on Socialist Organiser. This author was co-editor until the split and several Chartist EB members were signatories to the letter.
Corbyn’s election and re-election to the leadership of the Labour Party undoubtedly represented a huge opportunity to forge Labour as a popular, activist party, developing a mass movement and educating members in a new socialist politics, capable of reaching out to wider communities. No mention is made of the large conferences organised by John McDonnell’s team to debate alternative economic strategies or the initial consultations with members on policy priorities. These did represent a new course and some new thinking. Sadly the Leaders’ office was overly influenced by a narrower politics not far removed from the more orthodox Stalinism of the Morning Star.
Owen Jones in his analysis - This Land - unfolds a detailed picture of dysfunctionality and an inward-looking mentality emanating from many of the figures Corbyn surrounded himself with, echoed in this book. The slowness to tackle the issue of antisemitism in the party, the evasions and lack of an apology for comments on an antisemitic mural wounded the leadership. Left antisemitism is identified as a big problem. Thomas links this to a false left analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, it’s not necessary to subscribe to his less than pro-Palestinian stance to accept the damage done on this issue.
The fundamental problem with Corbyn’s tenure as leader was the failure to reproduce the intense campaigning of the 2017 general election using the streets and social media over a sustained period of time. The promise of regular mass meetings across every town and city in the country never materialised... Involvement of members in policy development faced a similar fate.
The book finishes with a defence of revolutionary socialist politics and organisation using this reviewer as foil. Never say never, but the left has failed to date to push capitalism to its limits and beyond through the democratic institutions created by the working class and its allies, using the Labour Party and trade unions as major vehicles. Those vehicles certainly need renovation but are the best ones we have just now. Any revolution is nine-tenths completed in the womb of the existing society. We still have way to go to that end.
• Mike Davis is editor of Chartist magazine