This is Just the Beginning: Corbynism's Next Steps

Despite the polling uncertainty of the last couple of weeks, the overall picture of this general election is now clear. While the Tories may remain the largest party in the House of Commons, the Labour Party has forced a hung parliament and gained seats with over 40% of the vote and its biggest tally since 1997 – a remarkable achievement after two years of continual undermining of Corbyn’s leadership. Theresa May’s vision of the future – in addition to being an incompetently-presented one – is unremittingly bleak, insular, petty and incorrigibly reactionary to its bone marrow. It is no surprise that it failed to ignite the enthusiasm of the electorate. Labour’s vision of far-reaching national renewal, hope and solidarity, on the other hand, could not have been more different.

On April 18th, when Theresa May called the election, the Conservatives were on 46% in the polls while Labour were on 25%. However, now it is theoretically possible – if unlikely – that Jeremy Corbyn could be the new Prime Minister. At the very least Labour has increased its share of the vote and its number of MPs for the first time since 1997. It has seen the fastest increase in polling numbers, borne out by the result, ever recorded.

These remarkable achievements are, above all, a testament to the courage, principles and also the practical political skills of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership. This courage, principled approach and political intelligence produced a manifesto and election campaign that for many was inspirational and begins to address the crucial concerns of Britain’s working and marginalised people with more seriousness and more radicalism than has been seen for decades. The result is also a testament to the efforts of activists, many of whom were keen Corbyn supporters in both leadership contests, others who Corbyn and our programme inspired to get involved – and others who may have been sceptical about Corbyn.

Furthermore, the Labour leadership’s position on Brexit has also been proven correct. The likes of Alistair Campbell have been quick to attempt to spin this result as the Revenge of the Remainers. In reality, it is nothing of the sort. Corbyn’s decision to impose a three-line whip on his MPs to vote to trigger Article 50 was scorned by liberals, but it has been vindicated. Any attempt to block A50 would have played into the Tories’ hands, allowing them to portray Labour as aloof elitists, contemptuous of the democratic process. It is now clear that Corbyn was right to spurn this siren song. Our transformative programme, by contrast, was able to reach across the Brexit/Remain divide by addressing real material issues.

This result settles the question of the Labour leadership. It also settles the question of the broad outline of the programme on which we will campaign in the next election, which could be a matter of months away. Nevertheless, important questions remain over the detail and radicalism of a potential programme and over the kind of party Labour will be going forward. The answer to these questions will affect the coherence of the next campaign and therefore the party’s chance of winning, the extent of a future manifesto’s ambition to transform the country and how far we can implement that programme in office.

While Labour may not, ultimately, be in a position to govern now, its performance in this election, its grassroots-powered campaign and its manifesto offer real reasons for optimism, and a platform for further growth. Were it implemented, there is no question that this year’s Labour manifesto would make many millions of people better off. The party has not stood on such a bold and unashamedly social-democratic programme for many years. As Max Shanly and Ronan Burtenshaw note, the manifesto quite simply holds out the promise of ‘a society worth living in’. This would not be so without Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Nor would Labour be producing such rigorous, serious and radical work, offering the potential to even go beyond this manifesto, such as the ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ report commissioned by John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey.

The election campaign itself has generated the kind of buzz and enthusiasm, particularly from young people, not generated by the Labour Party at election time for decades. The party’s spirited campaign – which, delightfully, saw it unseat Nick Clegg – and the raft of popular, progressive policies it put forward were central to narrowing the Tory poll lead significantly and rapidly. Though some will try, that narrowing cannot be put down purely to Tory ineptitude. Sustaining this engagement, and building on the energy already created, will be crucial for the Corbyn project if it is to reach its full democratic and socialist potential.

Even Corbyn’s most intransigent critics inside the Labour Party will struggle to paint this performance in a bad light. Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna in particular were clearly ‘on manoeuvres’ during the election campaign, although both have been forced to acknowledge Corbyn’s right to stay on as leader. However, after a result such as this, it is unthinkable that any attempt to launch a leadership challenge would earn anything other than rightful derision from both Labour members and trade unions.

We should remind ourselves here that European social democracy remains mired in secular crisis. By depriving the Tories of a majority, gaining seats and increasing its share of the popular vote, Corbyn’s Labour has successfully bucked a very powerful and sustained continent-wide trend. Those who attempt to do this down risk making themselves a laughing stock. The stated raison d’être of the Labour right – that only they can expand the electoral appeal of the Labour Party – now lies in ruins, exposed as a complete sham.

Neither can the electoral woes of Labour’s equivalent centre-left parties elsewhere in Europe be pinned on any Corbyn-esque experiments. European social democracy has long since acclimatised itself to neoliberal technocracy and shows no serious signs of political and intellectual renewal. Make no mistake, this tepid managerialism is what would be on offer in Britain now were it not for Corbyn. Deborah Mattinson’s report into Labour’s 2015 election defeat, commissioned by Harriet Harman, offers us a partial glimpse into what might have been – and thankfully wasn’t.

A return to the managerialism and technocracy that, lest we forget, already cost it the two general elections preceding this one would unquestionably be a backward step for the Labour Party. The alarmingly and increasingly reactionary Blue Labour trend, which seems to have gained real traction among those sections of the Labour Party devoid of any other ideas, must also be resolutely opposed. As demonstrated by this election, Corbyn’s brand of politics holds out – both in electoral and extra-parliamentary terms – infinitely greater hope for the party’s future, as well as for those across Britain who’ve seen their wages stagnate, their communities ravaged by cuts, and the social safety net they depend on hacked away.

Rank-and-file Labour members should be strongly encouraged by this result as well as by the energy of the campaign and the promise of the manifesto. In historical terms, the 2017 Labour manifesto is a modest social-democratic document, but in the current context it represents a significant attempt to substitute solidarity, public action and common endeavour for hegemonic neoliberal values. This represents a clear shift in the right direction and provides a solid platform on which to build.

It is now essential that the membership inspired by Corbyn proceed in reshaping the Labour Party in his and in our image. Winning two leadership elections by landslide margins had already earned him the right, and the strength of Labour’s election campaign and the subsequent result has cemented it. It has also earnt him the right to appoint a shadow cabinet solidly in line with the established direction of the party. The immediate priority is to ensure that the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’ – reducing the nominations threshold for would-be leadership challengers from 15% to 5% of the Parliamentary Labour Party – passes at this year’s conference. Constituency parties have until July 7th to select conference delegates and the Labour left will need to move quickly. The amendment’s chances of passing hang in the balance.

Corbyn’s emboldened supporters must look not just to reform the party machine and parliamentary party so that it more accurately reflects his politics and those of the bulk of the membership. They must also re-examine the fundamentals of the way the Labour Party organises and campaigns. Its position in many of its historic heartlands remains uncertain. This is no fault of Corbyn’s – the labour movement as a whole has endured almost four decades of sustained decline and retrenchment.

The task of arresting that decline, and once again making our movement a visible, active, and valued presence in working-class communities, has fallen to Corbyn and the Labour left. It is an urgent one. Indeed, it is possible that by using our formidable numerical and organisational power to help meet needs directly, for example in setting up breakfast clubs, food banks and offering welfare advice to help communities cut free of support by the May government we could both help people ameliorate the damage done by austerity and further rebuild the Labour Party’s presence in these communities.

In addition, the policymaking structures of the Labour Party must be opened up to the membership. The campaigning efforts of Labour’s new-found mass membership – numbering over half a million – in this election were hugely impressive, but that membership isn’t there just to knock on doors, work the phones and serve as unpaid postal workers. It has ideas, concerns and capacities that need and deserve to be harnessed. The process of shaping Labour Party policy needs to be taken out of the backrooms and handed over to newly-empowered members.

Members also have a right to see their politics reflected in the makeup of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Despite the impressive achievement this election represents for Labour, the socialist left in Parliament may be proportionally smaller than it was in when Corbyn was first elected leader in 2015. Despite the strength of his grassroots support, Corbyn’s position in Parliament remains an isolated one as a consequence.

The opportunity to engage members in selecting candidates (at least for vacant Labour-held seats) was deliberately squandered by the National Executive Committee. Corbyn must ensure that in future, candidate selection is a truly member-led process. Mandatory reselection must be put back on the agenda. Had it not been for the two years of sniping and sabotage from large sections of the PLP, we could have been celebrating a Labour majority this morning. This disruption cannot be allowed to happen again especially when a disciplined Labour presence in Parliament will hasten the collapse of a Conservative-led government should they be able to cobble something together. Furthermore, Labour Party membership has more than doubled since 2015. Its representation on the NEC should do likewise, and so the number of CLP representatives on the committee should be increased from six to 12 to further enhance our democratic control.

Corbyn should also look to capitalise on the momentum created by this election campaign by launching a renewed recruitment drive. Such a project was mooted during last summer’s leadership contest. However, it appears nothing much has yet come of it. The leadership should now seize the initiative, drawing thousands more people into the party and providing them with the tools and encouragement they need to transform their own local parties. Those inspired by the vision laid out by Labour in its election campaign and manifesto must be welcomed into the party’s ranks.

The case must now be put: if you believe in these policies and voted for them, you should join the Labour Party to help ensure that they remain on the agenda both within the party and in the country at large. Momentum has talked about grassroots organising and campaigning to once again embed the Labour Party at the heart of working-class communities. The vision outlined within the manifesto must be defended and developed.

We firmly believe that Labour’s performance in this general election firmly vindicates Corbyn’s leadership and strategy. That said, careful planning must be devoted to a future leadership transition. If the McDonnell amendment passes at conference, a left candidate will be all but guaranteed a place on any future ballot. But handing over unreformed party structures, a largely unsupportive bureaucracy and rancorous PLP would risk setting the next left leadership up to fail. Democratising Labour is a prerequisite for democratising Britain, as Aaron Bastani has argued.

The relentless attempts at character assassination to which Corbyn has been subjected – aided and abetted, it has to be said, by a good number of his own MPs – have been extraordinary. In spite of this, Labour has come through to earn an extraordinary result under his leadership. But we do not consider it productive simply to complain about media bias – considering the political makeup of the British media, we take it as a given that no socialist can seriously expect a fair hearing from the press or the broadcasters which are themselves deeply embedded in the political establishment. The labour movement must therefore get serious about developing its own media, putting forward its own analyses and perspectives without the distorting effect of being filtered through Tory or liberal papers.

It is worth emphasising that the Labour leadership managed to oversee a dynamic and inspiring campaign after two years of now hidden, now open civil warfare in the Labour Party. The difficulty of this should not be understated. In fact, we can only wonder where the party would be had it not been for almost two years of implacable hostility from so many of its own parliamentarians – or, indeed, if Scottish Labour hadn’t fallen into such a state of dereliction by 2015. A highly promising new generation of socialist Labour activists is emerging in Scotland – including Danielle Rowley and Paul Sweeney, newly-elected MPs for Midlothian and Glasgow North East respectively – but for now Scottish Labour remains a redoubt of right-wing Labour’s ‘old politics’. It is Corbyn’s politics and that of this new generation of socialist activists, and not those of Kezia Dugdale, which could bring it fully back to life.

The brand of politics for which Corbyn has come to serve as a – perhaps unlikely – standard-bearer has the potential not just to bring about that long-awaited and much-needed redistribution of wealth and power towards Britain’s working class. It also has the potential to power a wholesale revival of British civil and political life. Labour’s election campaign was remarkable for its boldness. Corbyn must now show a similar spirit when it comes to the remaking of the party itself.

Moreover, the energy of the campaign, Corbyn’s own personality and, above all, the manifesto’s connection to popular discontents – offering serious policies to improve the conditions of the working class – have dealt a serious, probably fatal blow, not only to May herself but also to so-called Erdington Conservatism. It is worth recalling how formidable this Conservative project of both unifying the right-wing vote and of detaching a large-section of the working-class from the habit of voting Labour had appeared. Labour under Corbyn, through a relentless focus on the material conditions of working-class life, have prevented what would have been a fundamental shift in British politics.

As Tony Benn very famously said, there is no final victory and no final defeat – only the same battles to be fought over and over again. There are indeed many battles to be fought in the months and years ahead, both to defend the Corbyn leadership and to advance its vision further. For those non-Labour members who were enthused by the manifesto and campaign, we appeal to you to join the party now. Your energies, your ideas and your talents are needed.


Photo: New York Times


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