Lessons from the Corbyn experience

HANNAH SELL introduces this special edition of Socialism Today, which draws together a selection of articles from 2015 on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party leadership and the lessons from it for the ongoing struggle to achieve mass, working class socialist political representation.

The lives of billions around the globe have been turned upside down by the coronavirus crisis with, for many, no prospect of a return to how it was before. The pandemic and resulting lockdowns have enormously exacerbated and deepened the economic crisis that was already on the horizon. Working class people face a new era of mass unemployment, pay cuts and attacks on working conditions as capitalism enters its steepest slowdown since the 1930s.

In an immediate response to this prospect trade union membership has soared in Britain, as many workers look to collective organisation as a means to defend their interests. There has not as yet, however, been any equivalent turn to a collective political alternative. The Labour Party has not seen any noticeable surge of new members. On the contrary, a significant layer have torn up their party cards, angry at the triumph of the preferred candidate of the capitalist class, Keir Starmer, in the 2020 contest to replace Corbyn. Clearly Labour under Starmer is not seen as a potential bulwark against the coming storms. Nor is there any other party in the running to play that role on a mass scale. Does this leave workers fatally unprepared for what lies ahead?

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The Corbyn insurgency

The 2015 Labour Party leadership election ballot ran from August 14 to September 10, with the result declared at a special conference on September 12. The following article is the editorial carried in the September 2015 edition of Socialism Today, issue No.191.

This edition of Socialism Today goes to press three weeks before the result of the Labour Party leadership election is announced. But whatever the outcome of the contest, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has already transformed the political situation in Britain. Public ownership, a free education system, trade union rights, councils resisting the cuts and not implementing them, all are once again up for discussion. And although explicit references to it have been muted in the campaign, even the S-word itself – socialism – is now back in ‘mainstream’ political debate.

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The Get Corbyn plot and how to combat it

Immediately after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory the right began to organise to unseat him. In an article first published in Socialism Today No.193, November 2015, CLIVE HEEMSKERK argued that the likelihood the coming struggle could pose the need for a new party would have to be discussed.

Inherent in a revolution is the prospect of counter-revolution developing in its aftermath, as the forces of the old order test out the possibilities of regaining power. And the blow at the capitalist establishment that was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership insurgency is no different. A systematic campaign is under way to restore what can be salvaged of the status quo ante by the pro-capitalist forces – ‘establishment Labour’ – which still dominate the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), council Labour Groups, and the Labour Party officialdom, both nationally and, in most cases, locally too.

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No retreat on resisting council cuts!

In late December 2015 Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell issued a circular letter to council Labour groups. In an article first published in The Socialist, issue No.883, 6 January 2016, CLIVE HEEMSKERK warned against any hint of colluding in new rounds of cuts to local council services and jobs.

A week before Christmas, on the last day of parliamentary business in 2015, the Communities and Local Government Secretary Greg Clark announced the 2016-17 local finance settlement, listing the exact amount of national funding each council will receive for the next financial year. This filled out the details, at least for the coming year, of George Osborne’s plan revealed in the November comprehensive spending review for a further four years of draconian austerity for local public services.

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After Corbyn’s re-election

In June 2016 the PLP organised a 172 to 40 vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and another leadership election was held, with balloting closing on September 21. The following Socialism Today editorial was published in the October 2016 edition, issue No.202.

At the time of writing – and bar what would be an election stitch-up of monumental proportions – it appears that it will be Jeremy Corbyn who is announced as the victor in Labour’s leadership contest on 24 September, the day before the start of the party’s annual conference.

Corbyn’s expected re-election triumph will be a significant defeat for the capitalist establishment – big business, the media tops, and their political representatives. Despite Owen Smith’s recently-discovered verbal radicalism – he stood, he said, for a ‘cold-eyed socialist revolution’ – he was the candidate of the ruling class, with their vested interest in keeping the Labour Party a safe, New Labour-style alternative to the Tories.

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Corbynism and the rise of left-wing populism

Jeremy Corbyn decisively defeated Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership election. Writing in the November 2016 edition of Socialism Today, issue No.203, PETER TAAFFE, discussed the Corbyn movement in the context of an international wave of left-wing populism.

Jeremy Corbyn, through mass support, has fought off the attempted coup by right-wing Blairite Labour MPs and their supporters. Corbyn actually increased his majority in the second Labour leadership campaign in twelve months. But the Labour right and behind them the strategists of British capitalism still remain unreconciled to his victory, so the ‘civil war’ that has raged throughout the party since his initial election will continue unabated. The main reason for this is to be found in the determination of the pro-capitalist Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and its supporters, backed up by the venal capitalist media, to continue their campaign, not even excluding a third attempt to unseat Corbyn.

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Organise, strike, resist, to fight for Corbyn’s policies

The 2017 general election created another opportunity to carry through the transformation of Labour into a mass working class party fighting for socialist change. The following article by HANNAH SELL was published in the immediate post-election edition of The Socialist, issue No.952, 14 June 2017.

Theresa May’s failed election gamble is a nightmare for the capitalist class in Britain. Seven weeks ago most of Britain’s elite were hopeful that May would succeed in dramatically increasing the number of Tory MPs, thereby buttressing her government to be able to weather the storms of economic crisis, to carry out vicious austerity against the majority in society, and to implement a Brexit in the interests of the 1%.

Instead she is now a ‘dead prime minister walking’, only able to temporarily cling to power by leaning on the reactionary, sectarian Democratic Unionist (DUP) MPs, describing them as her ‘friends’ on the steps of Downing Street.

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The left unions and the Labour affiliation debate

After the general election a new debate opened on how the left-led trade unions should act to transform the Labour Party. This article by CLIVE HEEMSKERK was first published in The Socialist, issue No.956, 12 July 2017.

In a significant development for the whole labour movement, the recent annual general meeting (conference) of the RMT transport workers’ union agreed to open a branch consultation on re-affiliation to the Labour Party. A special general meeting will be organised subsequently to discuss the results.

An RMT predecessor union was one of Labour’s principal founding organisations in 1900, as the larger unions initially maintained their support for the capitalist Liberal Party. Expelled over a hundred years later in 2004, the union continued to fight for a political voice for working class voters, effectively disenfranchised by the transformation of Labour into Blairite New Labour.

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Vultures circle but Corbyn insurgency can still be saved

Re-grouping after the general election, the right renewed their destabilisation campaign against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The following Socialism Today editorial was published in the September 2018 edition, issue No.221.

Jeremy Corbyn’s insurgent Labour Party leadership election campaign in the summer of 2015 raised the hopes and expectations of millions of workers and young people, not just in Britain but internationally.

The late Michael Meacher MP, one of the handful in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) backing Corbyn, spoke at the time of “the biggest non-revolutionary upturning of the social order in modern British politics”. The enthusiasm for Corbyn’s anti-austerity challenge, he said, was a product of mass discontent with “20 years of swashbuckling capitalism”.

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Warning lights flashing for Corbynism

The 2019 local elections saw Labour suffer a net loss of councillors. The editorial from the June 2019 edition of Socialism Today, issue No.229, was published just before the further warning sign of the 2019 European elections.

The promise of the Corbyn insurgency that began in 2015 is in danger. The triumph of the left-wing backbench outsider in the Labour leadership election four years ago opened up the prospect of overturning Tony Blair’s 1990s transmutation of the Labour Party into New Labour. By qualitatively changing Labour from a ‘capitalist workers’ party’ working-class political representation had effectively been eliminated as a mass force for over two decades. Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected victory was a bridgehead from which, potentially, this process could be reversed and workers achieve a mass party of their own.

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