Corbyn Explained

Michael_Fisher.jpeg

Melbourne-based Labor activist, Michael Fisher is a member of the FSU and works as a policy researcher. Here he analyses the British Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

At the time of writing the results of the second election for the leadership of the Labour party in the space of 12 months are about to be announced. Jeremy Corbyn is widely expected to win again. The future of the party or, more precisely, the future of the relationship between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the rest of the labour movement appears more uncertain and fragile than at any time in the party’s 116-year history. Sharp ideological and factional lines have been drawn. Tempers are not just fraying, they are being lost every day, with the results reported every few minutes on global social media for all to see.

To Corbyn-supporters the decision of 172 Labour MPs to trigger yet another leadership election this year shows breathtaking contempt for party democracy. Only months after party members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters voted by a large majority to elect Corbyn, a tiny number of those electors have chosen to plunge the party into a very public and bitter struggle that is letting a right-wing Tory government get away with policy murder.

To Corbyn-opponents the decision by members and supporters to elect Corbyn last year showed reckless disregard for Labour’s primary status as a parliamentary party that can only effect meaningful change by winning votes from those who may otherwise vote Tory. In this context the pro-Corbyn movement is guilty of wilful electoral naivety and ideological self-indulgence. A bitter struggle to remove Corbyn, while regrettable, is essential if Labour is to survive as a meaningful parliamentary opposition – never mind as a credible government in waiting.

Amidst the fury and spectacle of Labour’s very public private crisis, explanations for what has been happening inside the British labour movement have been hard to find. This has been particularly true in Australia. Here, much public commentary has been characterised by impatient exasperation that the British movement could apparently be so foolish. Writing in The Age last year Nick Dyrenfurth and Nicholas Reece argued that because much of British Labour has clearly lost its capacity for political reason, Corbyn’s popularity can only be explained in terms of ‘nostalgia’, ‘fantasy’ and anti-establishment populism. If widening democratic participation generates leaders like Corbyn, the case for further democratic reform within Australian Labor will be harder to make.[i]

But the scale and character of Corbyn’s initial victory suggests something more significant was taking place than a fantastical yearning for a mythical golden age of social democracy.

Prior to his first election victory in 2015 several Labour MPs confidently predicted that if Corbyn won, he would do so only because the new leadership election rules allowed thousands of new and more left-wing supporters to vote during the campaign. The mature and reliable base of full party members, those that had been part of the Blairite ‘modernisation’ of the party over the previous twenty years, would support Corbyn’s opponents. This belief proved to be misplaced. Not only did Corbyn receive many more votes among full party members than any other candidate, but the candidate most closely associated with Blairite politics, Liz Kendall, received less than 6 per cent of the votes of full members and less than 5 per cent of all votes cast.

Corbyn’s emergence as front-runner during the 2015 campaign stunned the British political and media establishment. His continued popularity among many party members and activists continues to baffle many. A party that had previously declared its embrace of the indubitable logics of late global capitalism – free markets, privatisation, deregulation, flexible labour markets – had now elected the first leader in its history whose socialism owed more to Marx than Tawney, Cole and Crosland.

So, why did Corbyn win in 2015? Why, despite a vote of no confidence in his leadership by the overwhelming majority of his parliamentary colleagues, does he seem likely to have won again?

All political parties and movements are driven to some extent by emotion, utopian thinking, and a sense that a better future can be made by recovering aspects of our past. These forms of thinking are as evident among Corbyn’s opponents as they are among some of his supporters. The notion, for example, that structural intergenerational inequality can be overcome by education, training and ‘equal opportunities’ is as utopian as any vision articulated by some on the left. But to characterise the pro-Corbyn movement as being excessively prone to emotive idealism is to miss the rational impulses that have led many Labour party members, activists and union affiliates to decide that Labour must break with its recent past.

It is argued here that underlying Corbyn’s popularity is a set of rational responses to two experiences that have led party supporters to conclude that Labour must change: the New Labour period of government and party management; and the limits to liberal representative democracy as a means of advancing and entrenching progressive political change.

The New Labour Experience

When Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994 and began recasting the party as ‘New Labour’, some opponents to his left and right underestimated the scale of ideological and organisational change he was determined to obtain.

To his left, Tony Benn argued that ‘New Labour’ was largely a re-branding exercise and that once back in power Labour would reassert its traditional approach to deciding the content and direction of policy. In part, Benn was seeking to reassure Labour’s traditional supporters that the changes being made to the party’s constitution and policies by Blair would count for little once the period of pre-election salesmanship had successfully delivered government. To Blair’s right, the Tories took a similar view, but for different reasons. They argued that the ‘New Labour’ branding was an illusion intended to fool middle-class England into thinking that the return of a Labour government would not entail a chaotic return to high taxes, high inflation and union militancy.

Both Benn and the Tories got it wrong. ‘New Labour’ was most certainly a re-branding exercise. But it was also much more than that. It involved fundamentally recasting the party’s worldview within which policy would be designed, and fundamentally restructuring the processes by which party policy would be decided.

While aspects of New Labour’s worldview drew opportunistically on earlier Labour traditions of Gaitskellite revisionism and Wilsonian technocracy, what really excited Blair and his true believers was specific to the 1990s zeitgeist. This was a period defined by post-Cold War liberal triumphalism and the certainty that industrial society, with all its old structural divisions and pathologies, was rapidly giving way to a post-industrial ‘new economy’ driven by new technology, globalisation and knowledge.

In this increasingly weightless world of knowledge-driven innovation, exemplified by global financial markets, the preoccupations of the ‘old economy’ – class, unions, public ownership, regulated labour markets – were no longer relevant. Those who prioritised such notions when competing for votes and designing policy were doomed to electoral irrelevance and national economic eclipse.

The ‘new economy’ utopia was always an elite liberal vision.[ii] It dazzled many think-tanks and political leaders on the centre-left who were intuitively more comfortable talking about the apolitical wonders of new technology than more contentious topics such as class, power and structural inequality. As a result, ‘new economy’ discourse had little of substance to say to labour movement activists in unions, community groups and not-for-profit organisations who, despite the alleged arrival of a ‘new economy’, continued to struggle against anti-union employers, grinding poverty, low wages and homelessness. These social problems had very obvious structural and class dimensions, about which the prophets of post-industrialism appeared to have little to say. 

The suspicion on the Labour left was that advocacy of the ‘new economy’ by New Labour was more about reconciling the labour movement to prevailing patterns of economic and political power than offering genuinely more effective ways to combat deep and persistent social injustice.

However, in the 1990s, amid rapid global growth and bullish financial markets, the worldview of New Labour fizzed with a sense of historic inevitability and ideological self-righteousness. If labour movement activists, many of whom remained members of ‘old economy’ institutions such as trade unions, refused to join the ‘new economy’ celebrations, they would have to be managed and coerced into doing so. At the level of party management this gave rise to New Labour’s particular form of vanguardism: a determination by Blair and those in the leader’s office to manipulate and, if necessary, ignore the formal policymaking processes of the party and the government in order to ensure their policy preferences prevailed.[iii]

This involved what Lewis Minkin, the distinguished scholar of Labour party organisation, has called a ‘rolling coup’ of internal party change.[iv] This coup largely neutered the traditional policymaking bodies of the party such as the annual conference and the National Executive Committee. A new National Policy Forum was established that promised more consultative and consensual forms of making policy. But such promises counted for little when it came to many of the Blair government’s most contentious domestic measures. Further privatisation in the form of Public-Private Investment, the deeply unpopular introduction of new university tuition fees, and the further marketization of the National Health Service were all adopted as government policy without being formally discussed by the National Policy Forum.

The Labour party, particularly when in government, has never been a model of transparent and consistent democracy. But prior to New Labour the ability to initiate, shape and amend policy, particularly in highly contentious areas such as the ownership and funding of public services, was distributed across a plurality of centres of power within the party: the annual conference, the National Executive Committee, the party in parliament and the affiliated unions. Under New Labour, however, pluralism often gave way to unitarism. 

The rolling Blairite coup was possible not because New Labour was genuinely popular but because it took place after four general election defeats – the defeat in 1992 coming as a particularly deep shock to almost all party members and supporters. The Labour and union left had been demoralised and disorientated by the defeat of the most militant unions in the mines, steelworks, docks and print shops. Amidst the collapse of statist socialism in the East and the rise of market populism in the West, the left struggled to define a policy programme capable of uniting itself and connecting with the broader electorate. It was the weakness of New Labour’s opponents, and the desire for government at almost any cost, that provided the basis for Blair’s apparently permanent transformation of the Labour party.

But there were unintended consequences. The managed and coercive nature of policymaking didn’t go unnoticed and unreported. In particular, the debasement of the party’s annual conference as an important centre of policymaking power, becoming little more than a showcase for Blair and his ministers to declare their achievements to the public, was a glaring sign of how centralised actual policymaking had become. Over time, commentators noted that many local Labour parties stopped sending delegates to conference. Dozens of MPs stopped attending. What was the point? Most policies were decided outside each conference. Debate and voting inside the conference hall had no significance for determining what the government would do next.

Blair began to attract widespread public criticism that he was a ‘control freak.’ His commitment to democracy and consultation was contrasted with his practice of ignoring those who disagreed with him. He was argued to be pre-occupied with ‘spin’ and the news-cycle at the expense of political transparency, principle and honesty. Blair began to increasingly justify policy not by its intrinsic merits, but by contrasting his policies with what ‘Old Labour’ would have done, and by reference to his personal beliefs and convictions. The irony that a political project built largely around the qualities of one person was being undermined by that person’s qualities was lost on very few. 

Ultimately the New Labour worldview was shattered, not by internal opposition, but by two spectacular policy failures – both of which were facilitated by Blair’s vanguardist form of party management. The first was Blair’s decision that Britain should participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The second was the view of Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown that ‘light touch’ regulation was an appropriate response to the massive growth in the size, complexity and systemic-risk of global financial markets – many of which were centred in the City of London.

War in Iraq

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 expressed the hubris of post-Cold War liberal imperialism in its most arrogant and murderous form. Imperial adventures were certainly nothing new. In the words of two scholars of British politics: ‘Rearranging other people’s political furniture is what imperialist powers do best, and what British armies have done many times.’[v]

However, Blair’s justification for the invasion demonstrated a degree of ideological naivety about the harsh realities of imperial intervention and occupation that shocked many foreign policy and Middle East experts. His notion that liberal democratic norms were inherent to the Middle East, and could be made immediately real by military means, embodied an imperial utopianism that only those who thought history had really ended could take seriously.

But few shared Blair’s benevolent Orientalism. Doubts, reservations and outright opposition permeated the party – in parliament and across the country. The task for the New Labour vanguard was to manage this opposition in ways that would enable Blair to have the final say on whether Britain went to war: to allow his personal judgement to substitute for flaws in the evidence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction and for the questionable legality of military action against a regime that posed no imminent threat. 

This meant avoiding or limiting formal discussion of the likely invasion by the National Policy Forum, the National Executive Committee and the 2002 annual party conference. The aim was to minimise pressure on Labour MPs to vote against military action when the matter was eventually debated in the House of Commons. In particular, it meant preventing any policy body formally demanding that military action by British forces must be preceded by a second UN resolution. This was achieved by denying the party the option of supporting war only on condition that such a resolution was passed. The choice was to either vote for or against military intervention.

Aggressive management of the 2002 Labour party conference, in which the large majority of those allowed to speak in the debate supported the government, ensured that Blair retained the discretion he wanted. His autonomy was further enhanced by not allowing the Cabinet to collectively discuss and test the evidence for war and all the potential military options. Nor did the Cabinet insist on such discussions. Not for nothing did the constitutional historian, Peter Hennessey, describe the Blair Cabinet as ‘supine.’[vi]

The final legal view taken by the British government was that military action would be justified only if there was evidence that Iraq had committed ‘further material breaches’ as specified by UN Resolution 1441. The judgment that further material breaches had indeed been committed was made by Blair – not the Cabinet, not the intelligence services and not by the UN itself. The recent Iraq inquiry report by Sir John Chilcot argued that given the gravity of this judgement Blair should have sought expert legal opinion and the matter should have been considered by a Cabinet committee. None of these steps were taken. In the view of Phillippe Sands: ‘Playing God and weapons inspector, Blair simply made up his mind that Iraq was in material breach.’[vii]

This pattern of decision making, in which party democracy and collective Cabinet responsibility were systematically subverted by Blair and his senior staff, helps to explain why so many in the Labour party have come to regard Blair as personally responsible for the murderous carnage that has traumatised much of the Middle East over the past 13 years. That a Labour government was central to causing such a foreign policy and humanitarian disaster – one that many saw coming before the first British troops set foot in Iraq in 2003 – helped to cultivate a deep distrust of the parliamentary leadership among many party members. This distrust was intensified by the experience of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Global Financial Crisis

For New Labour the recently deregulated City of London was more than just another source of employment, tax revenue and financial services. It embodied the ideal form of the ‘new economy.’ The City offered material proof that when markets utilised the latest skills, technologies and knowledge they could be truly stable, efficient and self-regulating. More than this, by constantly developing new and more sophisticated ways of allocating capital and distributing risk, financial markets held the key to perpetual growth to the benefit of all. For Gordon Brown, they made possible ‘the end of boom and bust.’

New Labour bought into the City’s glorified self-image as the embodiment of free-market superiority. Calls by some on the left for the City to be more tightly regulated were dismissed as ‘populist.’ Indeed, when the US government legislated to tighten accounting standards following the Enron and WorldCom scandals, Blair denounced the new regulations as having been ‘rushed through in a blinding fervour of moral indignation.’[viii] When the New Labour government established the Financial Services Authority in 2001, Gordon Brown made clear that the Authority would regulate banking and financial services in ways that were conducive to protecting the City’s competitiveness. It would operate with a ‘light touch’, not ask too many awkward questions, and shy away from intrusive regulation. The City was delighted.

When the global financial crisis erupted in September 2008, both Blair and Brown would claim that no one saw it coming. This was not true. Commentators such as Will Hutton and Larry Elliot repeatedly warned that the massive accumulation of poor quality debt, and its repackaging in opaque financial instruments that few understood, was a recipe for future disaster. John Eatwell, Professor of Financial Policy at Cambridge University and former chief economic advisor to Neil Kinnock until 1992, wrote regularly about the dangers that the accumulation of systemic risk presented to the global financial system.[ix]

The problem was not that no one saw a crisis coming – it was that New Labour’s worldview did not allow for the possibility of such a crisis. They preferred to listen to Alan Greenspan rather than the warnings of many in their own party.

The global financial crisis was a key reason Labour lost the 2010 and 2015 elections. For some strategically important groups of voters, arguments about whether public spending or greedy bankers were responsible for recession and the government’s fiscal deficit were beside the point. The crisis happened on Labour’s watch. The mess had to be cleaned up and others were probably better placed to do it. New Labour had pinned its economic policy credentials to an idealised City-driven growth model of its own creation. When that model disintegrated, so did the party’s economic credibility. After reviewing evidence on how voters viewed the economic competence of the main parties before and after the 2008 crisis, the Institute for Public Policy Research concluded:

‘The economic crash in 2007/08 appears to have done for Labour what the exchange rate mechanism crisis did for the Conservatives more than 20 years earlier: it fundamentally altered the public perception of which party could be trusted on the economy.’[x] 

In the last two general elections Labour has struggled to overcome the legacy of New Labour’s disastrous economic strategy. And it was very much New Labour’s strategy. In keeping with its elitist worldview and organisational vanguardism, New Labour’s approach to regulating the City was not agreed by the broader party. Under Blair and Brown economic policy was removed from the party’s policymaking bodies and centralised in the hands of a couple of senior ministers and their advisors.

Policy therefore became insulated from external criticism and testing. Only those true believers who shared the faith in free financial markets were listened to. All others were dismissed as failing to understand the brave new world that the masters of the financial universe were building. They were prisoners of ‘old economy’ thinking, unable to grasp just how efficient markets had become at pricing and distributing risk.   

The collapse of New Labour’s economic strategy in 2008 not only cost Labour the next two elections, it exposed some of the poorest and most vulnerable sections of British society to deep and sweeping cuts in public expenditure. For many Labour party members, the experience of fiscal austerity was doubly infuriating. Not only were the people that Labour was founded to protect being forced to shoulder the burden of a crisis they had no part in causing – but the crisis that led to austerity was partly a result of their government’s doing. In this context it is hardly surprising that many party members became intolerant of exhortations that they should continue to allow the parliamentary leadership to effectively monopolise the making of policy.

The Limits to Liberal Democracy

The war in Iraq and the global financial crisis are among the reasons that a growing number of Labour party members and affiliates have become critical of how their party was led and managed by New Labour. But the election of Corbyn to the leadership is also about something more general than the specifics of the New Labour experience. The struggle by members for greater democratic control over what their party does in government did not originate in 2015. It has been a recurring battle in the history of the Labour party and of many political parties of the left since they were founded. The desire is an expression of discontent with the limits of liberal democracy.

While in principle modern democracy promises a form of government in which the power to control how the needs of society are met is vested in free and equal citizens, the liberal form of democracy imposes several sharp and significant limits on this power.

Firstly, liberalism insists that private property rights are natural and prior to democratic deliberation. Where private property begins, the reach of democratic control must end. Given that in capitalist societies wealth is highly unevenly distributed between individuals, families and institutions, the liberal insistence that democracy must respect the rights that generate this distribution is, in effect, an argument that the practice of democracy must be circumscribed by private economic power.

While liberal democracies tax wealth and place some restrictions on how it can be used, concentrations of wealth, and the power such concentrations confer on some individuals, institutions and markets, are typically regarded by the liberal state as beyond its jurisdiction. This means that while liberal democracy recognises individuals as formally free and equal citizens, it largely ignores the broader economic forces that mean some individuals and institutions are subordinate to others regardless of their political equality before the law. In short, liberalism assumes that effective equality of political participation and influence can exist regardless of economic inequality.

Secondly, most liberal democratic forms of government are representative in nature. Citizens elect representatives, not delegates. Once elected these representatives are expected to deliberate on policy by reference to the national interest, asserting their autonomy when necessary from any sectional interests to which may they be related. In a context where what counts as the national interest often requires judgements about how to increase the nation’s wealth and income, and most sources of that wealth and income are privately controlled, the process of representative deliberation tends to systematically advantage some individuals and institutions over others.

The combination of the insistence on the apolitical and natural status of private economic power, along with the representative nature of elected government, means that the practice of liberalism tends to generate highly mediated forms of democracy which routinely undermine the ideal of popular control. 

It is because of the failure of liberal democracy to deliver effective democracy, one that is responsive to the interests of those that lack economic and political power, that the political left has traditionally placed a heavy emphasis on building social movements. 

The importance of progressive social movements, such as trade unions, is that that they provide arenas within which otherwise powerless individuals can combine to accumulate and exert power they lack as individual voters, taxpayers and consumers. They can effect change to their workplaces and communities that may otherwise be unlikely if it was left to representatives acting in the absence of popular pressure, in a context where the priorities of private economic power tend to prevail.

But just as important as securing change is the transformative effect that participating in social movements can have on those who take part.[xi] The right to vote in elections offers a form of popular power that is periodic, individualised and makes few demands on those that take part. The act of voting usually leaves prevailing patterns of power and powerlessness in workplaces and communities undisturbed.  

Building a social movement to accumulate power is a qualitatively different form of political participation. It can demand that participants develop skills in collective organisation, leadership, strategy and tactics that they cannot obtain elsewhere. In addition, the collective nature of movement building can help to cultivate a sense of community and common identity that pushes against the tendency of capitalist societies to promote individualism, competition and division. The experience of building organisations and networks of solidarity, and of struggling for change, can cultivate a sense of independent political agency that liberal electoralism does not.

Importantly, change through building social movements involves changing peoples’ minds. As such, it can provide a more resilient basis for advancing and defending progressive reform than one which relies on the goodwill, resolve and number of parliamentary representatives.  

New Labour had little interest in being part of a social movement in this collective, transformative sense. Its oft-stated enthusiasm for citizen participation was typical of liberal paternalism: encouraging participation as another means of communicating to the electorate that New Labour was right. It wanted Labour to have a mass membership, but a mass membership of individualised citizen-consumers – not one rooted in collectivities defined by outmoded notions of class and ideas hostile to free markets, privatisation and deregulation. Hence, New Labour viewed the largest social movement in Britain, the trade unions, with barely concealed contempt. The party-union link was regarded as an obstacle to Labour becoming a fully autonomous electoral machine, unbound by obligations to ‘old economy’ institutions, better able to roam the entire breadth of the policy landscape in the search for votes.

It is against this background that supporters of Corbyn, not all of whom are associated with the so-called ‘hard left’,[xii] have come to place so much emphasis on grounding the Labour party in social movements. For while the New Labour governments did reduce rates of relative poverty among some social groups, they did so in ways that played to the imagery and prejudices of the political right. ‘Work’ was idealised as the only moral form of social participation, assumed to be available to all who held the right ethics and who did not want to be ‘dependent’ on others. That unemployment and underemployment may be the result of structures, processes and employer-strategies that have little to do with the ethical and moral standing of individual workers was ignored.

Not surprisingly, under New Labour public attitudes to questions of poverty, unemployment and welfare shifted significantly to the right[xiii] – making it easier for the next Tory government to demonise those most in need of collective public support as the main source of the government’s fiscal deficit. Meanwhile, bonuses paid to bankers in the City of London, some of whom now worked in banks owned by the government, continued to soar.

This experience has convinced many Labour members that engineering progressive reform by stealth, in ways that do not change minds, do not empower people to resist attacks they face, and which rely entirely on parliamentary arithmetic, do not work. It cedes ideological ground to the right, further weakening the constituency for progressive change, and pulls parties of the left further away from what they should be campaigning for. This is why Corbyn supporters have been critical of New Labour’s electoralism. Not because they do not understand that winning elections is important, but because New Labour’s exclusive focus on electoral success, in a liberal democratic system that tends to dissipate popular aspirations for progressive reform, has proven to have disastrous consequences for both the party and the people it exists to defend.

Despite what some commentators argue, the crisis that has engulfed Labour over the past year is not the result of an irrational lurch to the left engineered by hard-left activists happy to keep Labour out of office for decades to come. This caricatures and trivialises the experience of the British labour movement over the past twenty years and why many have come to the conclusion that Labour must change.

This is not to suggest that because Corbyn won in 2015, and will probably win again, the path to Labour becoming a radical party of social movements will be a smooth and guaranteed process. Far from it. Corbyn’s victory in 2015 was entirely unexpected. As such, it was not the result of a considered long-term strategy by the left to transform the party, with winning the leadership being the final and logical step. Instead the left won the leadership first, taking nominal charge of a parliamentary party many of whom regard liberal electoralism as the beginning and end of what politics is and should be.

In addition, it is not yet clear that the movement inspired by Corbyn will prove to be of sufficient size, sophistication and resilience to be able to convince those who do not yet share the left’s vision for the party that they should support it – in a political culture that places a heavy emphasis on winning elections as the main barometer of a party’s legitimacy and credibility. But the future of the Labour party will not be determined only by the strengths and weaknesses of Corbyn and those around him. It will also be decided by the willingness of most Labour MPs to accept that the period of New Labour supremacy, when all important matters of policy, strategy and tactics were decided by the parliamentary leadership, is no longer a credible and sustainable basis for Labour’s future as a party and government.

Then, a new, more democratic and united Labour party may become possible. 



[i] Dyrenfurth, N. (25.08.2015) ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s nostalgia not the way to take British Labour forward’, The Age; Reece, N. (13.09.2015) ‘What the ALP can learn from Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary elevation in Britain’, The Age.

[ii] On the vapid and reactionary nature of much ‘new economy’ futurology, see Henwood, D. (2003) After The New Economy, The New Press; Frank, T. (2000) One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy, Secker & Warburg.

[iii] On New Labour as a form of vanguardism, see Shaw, E. (2016) ‘Understanding Labour Party Management under Tony Blair’, Political Studies Review, Vol. 14, No. 2.

[iv] Minkin, L. (2014) The Blair Supremacy: A study in the politics of Labour’s party management, Manchester University Press.

[v] Coates, D. and J. Krieger (2004) Blair’s War, Polity.

[vi] Hennessy, P. (28.02.2005) ‘The blame for the Iraq war lies with our supine cabinet’, The Guardian.

[vii] Sands, P. (2016) ‘A Grand and Disastrous Deceit’, London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 15.

[viii] Blair, T. (26.05.2005) ‘Full Text: Tony Blair’s speech on compensation culture’, The Guardian.

[ix] See, for example, Eatwell, J. and L. Taylor (2001) Global Finance at Risk: the case for international regulation, The New Press.

[xi] A good discussion of the importance of social movements as the basis for realising long-term socialist change is provided by Hammond, J. L. (2012) ‘Social Movements and Struggles for Socialism’, in Anton, A. and R. Schmitt (eds.) Taking Socialism Seriously, Lexington Books.

[xii] Professor Jeremy Gilbert, a self-identified member of the Labour ‘soft left’, now argues he was wrong to believe that Labour should have placed so much emphasis on winning elections in the late-1980s and 1990s because it came at the cost of cultivating the sizable base of support for a more radical politics that then existed. See:  https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/jeremy-gilbert/what-hope-for-labour-and-left-election-80s-and-‘aspiration’


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  • commented 2016-10-29 14:23:15 +1100
    Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, by Richard Seymour. Published by Verso 2016
    ISBN-13:978-1-78478-532-1 (UK EBK)

    This book, by Richard Seymour, was written after Corbyn’s first election as Labour leader in September 2015, but before his recent re-election.

    Richard Seymour is an avowed leftist- formerly a members of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (which he left in 2013)he is not a member of the British Labour Party, hence his analysis of the circumstances that led to the election of Corbyn are from a Left, but non- Labour, perspective.

    He places the election of Corbyn in the context of the failure of British ( and wider European) Social Democracy post 2008 financial crisis, and, in the case of Britain, the collapse of Labour at the 2015 elections.

    The Corbyn phenomenon is unique in the history of the British Labour Party. Arguably the most left wing leader every to head the Labour Party ( with the possible exception of George Lansbury in the 1930s), Corbyn was an unlikely choice. He only got on the ballot paper for leadership so as it would appear that all tendencies in the Labour Party were represented. No-one, Corbyn included, ever though he would have any chance of being elected.

    Yet, the post-Blair leadership of the Party totally misread the Party membership. At the commencement of the ballot process, it was generally viewed that the contest would come down to Yvette Cooper ( centre-right) and Andy Burnham ( centrist/soft left). The ‘hard Left’, Corbyn, was not considered an outside chance by the main stream commentators. Indeed, left of centre publications such as the Guardian and the New Statesman, were initially dismissive and then positively hostile.

    The media and the leadership of the Party totally failed to recognise the impact of the rule changes initiated by former leader Ed Miliband. These changes,designed to thwart the influence of a powerful union, installed a one vote-one value mechanism. The consequence was that the membership and the registered supporters of the Party had the power, for the first time, to determine who should lead the Parliamentary party. And exercise it they did. Corbyn was elected with over 58% of the vote-topping the poll in all categories of voters ( Members, registered supporters, union) except the Parliamentary party who remain overwhelmingly opposed to him.

    The British Labour Party is now the largest centre/Left Party in Europe with over 600,000 members. Contrary to some of the more excitable comments made by some of Corbyn’s oponents, this massive increase in membership is not the result of massed ‘entrism’ by extreme left elements. Indeed if there were 300,000 ‘revolutionary socialists’ in Britain, I suspect, Britain would be a very different place!

    The Parliamentary party attempted a ‘coup’ on his leadership after a period of destabilisation. The ‘excuse’ was the Brexit vote and the view that Corbyn had failed to campaign vigorously enough for the Remain camp. Whilst this ignored the fact that over 65% of Labour voters voted Remain, and the Leave camp won primarily because of Tory “Little Englanders”, Corbyn was forced to another ballot. After the humiliation of the Blairite candidate in 2015 ( Liz Kendall received a shade over 4% of the vote), the ‘plotters’ opted for a ‘soft’ Left candidate. The result is history, with Corbyn re-elected in September, with an increased margin.

    Seymour places this sequence of events within the broader context of the failures of European Social Democracy post 2008, but identifies the seeds of its failure quarter of a century ago. In the case of British Labour, he sees the defeat of the ‘Bennite’ / Militant faction in the early 1980s and the formation of the Social Democratic Party ( comprised of former Labour MPs who rejected the moderate left leadership of Michael Foote), leading to the acceptance by Tony Blair of the core elements of Thatcherism, as being the point of rupture for British social democracy. The British Labour Party had, by Seymour’s analysis, never been a ‘socialist’ party, rather it had been a mix of Labourist ( union) principles and a peculiar form of British social democracy. He identifies the high point of that unique mix, the post war, Atlee government which introduced the elements of the welfare state and nationalised those industries that were already struggling due to the shortage of post war capital. Seymour makes the point that there was never an attempt to change the power relations in those nationalised industries. They were, until privatised by Thatcher, managed in traditional ‘capitalist’ lines. After Thatcher, the Blair Government, according to Seymour, ceased being social democratic in its ideology, but rather became ‘social liberal’ with an increased emphasis on identity politics rather than old style ‘class’ politics.

    Seymour also places the rise of Corbyn within the specific British context of the disillusion of the public from the ‘political class’ in general. He sees this reflected in the disgust felt by the public in the parliamentary expenses scandals exposed, and the close run referendum on Scottish independence. He would doubtlessly see the Brexit vote within this context. It is fair to say that the final release of the Chilcott report on the Iraq war, and the criticism levelled at Blair and his senior ministers therein, probably further emphasised in the mind of the Labour electorate, the need for a radical change.

    His final chapter is entitled “ Prospects: Can Corbyn Win?” Here Seymour expresses real doubt that a Labour Party, even led by a dedicated socialist, will be able to confront the forces inherent in the British state should he actually become Prime Minister. In this analysis, I suspect there may be the old Trotskyite idea of the impossibility of socialism in one country.

    I question whether Seymour is correct in his assumptions regarding Corbyn’s objectives. I don’t think Corbyn believes for the slightest moment that he will be able to create a ‘socialist’ Britain. Indeed, an objective analysis of his platform, would indicate that it would not have been viewed as unduly radical as late as the 1970s. He seeks to re-establish the elements of the welfare state, re-nationalise the railways ( an option that has broad public support), support British industry especially in those regions left behind by the combination of Thatcherism and globalisation, and rein in the financial sector. Corbyn’s views on the renewal of the Trident programme and British military involvement are pretty much mainstream left thinking. This is reflected in the fact that on the question of Britain becoming involved militarily in the Syrian debacle, the vast majority of Labour MPs, in a free vote, actually voted with Corbyn to oppose such involvement.

    Whilst this book is about the British Labour Party, it has elements that reflect some of the debates within the Australian Labor Party. One obvious similarity is the relationship between the ALP membership and the parliamentary party, whilst not as fraught as the British Labour Party. The rank and file of the ALP voted overwhelmingly ( 65%) for the “left” candidate for leadership, Anthony Albanese, with a slightly greater percentage of the parliamentary party voting for Bill Shorten, giving the latter a narrow victory.

    An interesting book, well worth reading for anyone interested in British Labour politics, or indeed, in the broader political framework.

    Paul Pearce. Paul has been a member of the ALP since 1974 and was the Labor Member for the seat of Coogee 2003-2011 and Mayor of Waverley 1997-2004