There Always Was an Alternative

In an exclusive and edited extract from his new book "The Corbyn Effect", Mark Perryman traces the origins and potential of Corbynism.

In an exclusive and edited extract from his new book The Corbyn Effect, Mark Perryman traces the origins and potential of Corbynism.

Following Brexit John Harris wrote a brilliantly powerful piece in The Guardian against the rising wave of post-referendum bigotry which got me thinking about the Labour Party-as-social movement which for me is the defining characteristic of Corbynism.

What is afoot is as much cultural as political, and it will take much more than conventional politics to turn it round. This is a moment: one that demands the attention of musicians, writers, dramatists, journalists – and the millions of people who surely feel a dismay about what is happening.

And he then connected the present to the not-so distant past (well it feels like that for those of us of a certain age at any rate) that I had also been thinking about as I was writing The Corbyn Effect.

The late 1970s, when a surge of largely English racism and bigotry was killed off by trailblazing creations such as Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, and a great counter movement of people that went right to society’s roots. I do not know what a 21st century version of that fight will look like, but I do know we need one.

It was a great article and I persuaded John to come to talk about it at a discussion I helped organise for Lewes Labour Party. After John had spoken I put my hand up to ask him a question, knowing he’s not exactly uncritical of Corbyn, particularly on the voting through of Article 50 which was underway as we met. I wanted to know where he saw the prospects for Labour Party campaigning fitting in with the necessity for the kind of popular movement he had described in the article. His answer was typically thought-provoking. In essence John argued that however popular Corbyn’s populism might be on a keynote issue such as housing there was an almost universal disbelief that it would ever amount to anything as his leadership of the party has put Labour so far from anywhere near winning power.

This is what 2017 has changed more than anything else. Not only because people now believe Labour can win, but there’s also a popular faith in the idea that such a victory’s impact on our get-rich-quick and sod-the rest society would be both dramatic and meaningful. The key to making this change possible has to be the coupling of the parliamentary with the extra parliamentary. Or as Tom Blackburn rather neatly put it writing for New Socialist, ‘Corbynism from below.’1 This means Labour’s mass membership going local, a bottom-up politics that proves in practice, via high ideals and meaningful outcomes what Labour values can achieve. This was another point that John Harris made in Lewes, is it possible to have a populist movement rooted more in people-power rather than dependent on the obligatory demagogue?

In a wide ranging analysis of contemporary populisms author John B. Judis counterposes leftwing populism to rightwing populism

Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a version of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group.2

A very decent distinction and one which lends itself to the movement, not the leader. This is neither to decry or minimise Jeremy’s role, but he should personify the needs and aspirations we share rather than become them while the rest of us pack up our bags and leave him to do the rest. Tom puts this admirably well, Corbynism as a movement not the personality cult both lazy critics describe it as but also some left traditions could allow it to become by default “To succeed, Corbynism must begin the vital process of rebuilding popular self-confidence, and the capacity of working-class people to take real collective control of their everyday lives.”

In his article Tom cited longstanding socialist-feminist activist, author and academic Hilary Wainwright (who has contributed a chapter to The Corbyn Effect). Hilary was one of the early pioneers of the ‘from below’. Hilary’s version suggested change should still be rooted, contrary to all the then new fangled post this that and the other, in good old fashioned political economy. Reviewing the legacy of London’s GLC led by Ken Livingstone 1981-86 in their book A Taste of Power Hilary with her co-author Maureen Macintosh wrote prophetically:

Any future political authority which thinks it can construct a progressive and successful economic policy without developing a model of constructing and implementing it in association with (and also sometimes in active contradiction with) those in whose interests it is intended to operate will be wrong.3

Therein lies an explicit commitment to the feminist imperative of the prefigurative, aka as ‘the personal is political’ or in other words how we do our politics shapes what our politics becomes. This finds an echo too in what John Harris was talking about with Lewes Labour, the necessity to dispel in localised situations the idea ‘nice ideas, sorry about the dim prospects of your lot ever being in power’. The writer Lynsey Hanley marks out the huge potential that is released when this is overcome:

Where politics fails, cynicism reigns, and the only way to negate that cynicism is to treat politics first as a local endeavour – in which voters have direct and regular contact with politicians whose experiences inform their parties’ national policymaking from the bottom up.

When Jeremy toured the country with Labour’s ‘For the Many not the Few’ General Election message he filled huge halls and parks with enormous crowds crying out for precisely the kind of political engagement that Lynsey so eloquently describes. His is a practical vision that should appeal across the party’s divides that so crippled Labour 2015-17. Lisa Nandy, Stella Creasy, Jess Phillips and Tulip Siddiq are all Labour MPs who vociferously lined up behind the anyone but Corbyn banner. In theory the likes of us should have no time for them whatsoever. But I don’t abide with too much of the us vs them when for the most part we’re on the same side. Not to fudge and mudge but to recognise that in their constituencies, in Parliament and wider campaigning these and some others of Jeremy’s critics have preached and practiced the beginnings of this new and different ways of doing politics every bit as much, sometime more, as Jeremy’s allies. But until Labour’s startling result in the General Election the chances of any kind of co-operation were next to zero. Now this has begun to change, the bitterest of the critics will remain but many others might just shift. This should be welcomed not resented, serving up heaps of humble pie might make us feel good but what in practice does it achieve? Genuine differences should be explored, but the nastiness of the spite and bile, from whoever and whatever side we are on, left behind. However we also do ourselves, and themselves, no favours if we fail to understand why such a division erupted in the first place between those who would seem to have plenty otherwise in common.

At the same time we need to revisit the layers of support inside and outside Labour that the Corbyn surge appealed to, solidified behind his leadership campaigns and took root as Momentum. Not to re-open what we can but hope are old divisions but to recognise the politics that caused it in the first place. At the same time we need to revisit the layers of support inside and outside Labour that the Corbyn surge appealed to, solidified behind his leadership campaigns and took root as Momentum. Not to re-open what we can but hope are old divisions but to recognise the politics that caused it in the first place. Jeremy Gilbert (another contributor to The Corbyn Effect) sums this up as:

A body of opinion which has been widespread throughout the country for many years, but has been denied any kind of place in our public life since the early days of New Labour. It is a body of opinion which believes, with good reason, that the embrace of neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy under Blair was a disaster, and that it was enabled by the evisceration of party democracy by a small elite who took control of policy-making, media-messaging, and the selection of parliamentary candidates. It proposes that it would be better for all of us if Labour party members had more say over policy and more say over who represents us in parliament.

2017 creates the conditions for a new political settlement in Labour to bring together both sides of this long-standing argument, Labour MPs, party members and voters, as the base from which Labour will go from a good second to a solid win next time. And Jeremy? See you with the crowds hemming in Downing Street, waving our flags and banners ‘Ohhh.. Jeremy Corbyn PM’. Now for a moment, just imagine that.

The Corbyn Effect is edited by Mark Perryman with a foreword by Paul Mason, and published by Lawrence & Wishart. It is the first serious attempt to understand this exciting new phenomenon, the meaning, limitations and potential of Corbynism. An essential post-election read, The Corbyn Effect makes sense of Jeremy Corbyn and the fundamental shift in our system of ideas 2017 has made possible. Available now, from Lawrence & Wishart here.

The Corbyn Effect is being launched at The World Transformed on Saturday September 23rd at 11am, more details here.

  1. See also Deborah Hermanns ‘Labour’s reinvention needs to come from the bottom up’. 

  2. John B. Judis, The Populist Explosion, Columba Global Reports 2016, p 15 

  3. Maureen Mackintosh and Hilary Wainwright (Eds) A Taste of Power : The Politics of Local Economics, Verso, 1987, p 19