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?

While the working class lacks vital tools for the new era, the experiences of the last decade – not least the lessons of the Corbyn experiment – means it enters this crisis better prepared than it was when facing the post-2008 ‘great recession’. Globally, the world’s capitalist classes then were terrified that – as a result of that crisis – ‘the pitchforks’ would be coming for them, as US billionaire Nick Hanauer famously warned.  Mass movements did indeed sweep the world in the aftermath of 2008, including the revolutionary wave known as the ‘Arab Spring’. Nonetheless, the continued existence of capitalism was not threatened, primarily because of how unprepared the working class was for the storm that engulfed it.

In 2008 the legacy of the era before still lay heavily on the broad understanding of the working class. There did not appear to be an alternative to capitalism – the ideas of socialism were the preserve of a small minority. Levels of independent working class organisation were also at historic lows. Trade union membership was in decline in most countries and mass workers’ parties did not exist. This was a legacy of the global change in the class balance of forces flowing from the collapse of the Stalinist states in Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

As a result, for example, while the enormous power of the 2011 revolution in Egypt succeeded in overturning the old regime, the absence of any kind of mass parties of the working class and poor across the region initially allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to step into the vacuum, and then the old regime to regain its grip.

In Britain too the working class had no mass political voice. The Labour Party, at the head of a global trend, had been transformed into a capitalist party, Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’. Of course, even prior to the triumph of Blairism, Labour governments had ultimately acted in defence of the capitalist system. Nonetheless, Labour leaders were susceptible to pressure from the working class base of the party, via its democratic structures, and were therefore not reliable from the point of view of the capitalist elite. As is detailed in the article, The Get Corbyn plot and how to combat it, on page eight, this was no longer true in the New Labour era.

The limitations of Corbynism

The working class therefore faced the 2008 crisis highly unprepared for what was to come. Despite this, when the Con-Dem coalition government elected in 2010 set out to make the working class pay for the crisis via savage public spending cuts, it fought heroically to defend itself and learnt in the course of those battles. Mass student movements against increased tuition fees erupted in 2010, followed by the huge public sector general strikes of 2011. Ultimately, as Karl Marx explained, it is material conditions that determine consciousness. It was the experience of the 2008 crisis and subsequent battles that created the conditions for Corbynism. Jeremy Corbyn himself said that the electoral surge for his anti-austerity programme in the 2017 general election represented “the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008”.

It would be more accurate to say, however, that it began to catch up. It was the gap between what was objectively necessary to fight for the interests of the working class in an era of crisis, and the reality of Corbynism, which led to its defeat. Corbynism and other similar movements and parties – including Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Bernie Sanders in the US – represented a first hesitant attempt to create a mass political alternative to the capitalist parties. As Peter Taaffe explains in his article (page 18) collectively they could be described as ‘left populist’.

In one sense Corbyn was thrust into the leadership of the Labour Party by an accident of history, the unintended result of a 2011 rule change which allowed ‘registered supporters’ to vote in the 2015 leadership election for £3. That accidental opportunity was seized, however, as a means of expression by hundreds of thousands of people who were looking for an outlet to oppose austerity. Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party both reflected and, in some senses, built on their political outlook. Prior to Corbyn’s election the idea of nationalisation, for example, was known to young people only as ancient history or for bailing out the bankers. The nationalisation policies put forward by Corbyn were quite limited but nonetheless their adoption by the majority of young people marked a significant step forward. Even in the 2019 general election 56% of 18-24 year olds voted Labour.

However, in other crucial ways, Corbynism did not raise but rather blunted the political understanding of its supporters. Any serious attempt to implement an anti-austerity programme required a determined struggle to defeat the Labour right. They had implemented austerity and privatisation in office and supported it in opposition. To give one of countless examples 184 Labour MPs – including all three of Corbyn’s 2015 rivals for the leadership – had failed to oppose the Tory government’s brutal 2015 Welfare Act, which cut £12 billion from social spending and did more than any other single measure in driving millions to rely on food banks to avoid starvation.

These MPs supported austerity because they were defenders of the capitalist system which demanded that the working class pay for the 2008 crisis. Yet at every stage the leaders of the Corbyn movement sought to pacify the capitalist wing of Labour rather than mobilising to remove them from office. Had the programme been adopted that was consistently put forward by the Socialist Party – and elucidated in every article in this issue of Socialism Today – a mass workers’ party would have emerged from the struggle. Instead, endless compromises were combined with attempts to cover up the rotten reality of the Labour right.

The recently leaked dossier on The Work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit, for example, has proven beyond doubt what was already clear to anyone who wished to see. As we explained in our article published the week after the 2017 general election (see page 24), “the right’s control of the Labour Party machine led to outright sabotage of the election campaign”. Instead of drawing the necessary conclusions from this, however, and using Corbyn’s strengthened position in the aftermath of the 2017 election to deal with the saboteurs, they were largely allowed to remain in place, with their actions covered up.

Only after Corbyn’s final defeat was the dossier leaked revealing their rotten role, shutting the door long after the horse had bolted. While the right was ruthlessly exploiting largely spurious allegations of antisemitism to try and undermine Corbyn, the damning evidence of their real agenda was politely kept under wraps – by the left!

The result is Starmer

Starmer’s victory was the inevitable result of a policy of making concessions to the pro-capitalist wing of the party. Jon Lansman, leader of Momentum – founded to support Corbyn – has stood down, declaring that “hundreds of thousands of socialists” have “transformed Labour into a people-powered mass movement” and that “the party was brought back to its roots”. Unfortunately none of these things are true. Not least due to the completely wrong approach of Lansman and the Momentum leadership – which consistently worked to prevent Corbyn supporters ‘going too far’ rather than mobilising them – the enthusiasm of the Corbyn wave has largely ebbed away. They were never organised to build a mass democratic movement or party, but used instead as voting and canvassing fodder. The structures of the party remain little changed from the undemocratic Blairite years. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and councillors are still on the right. Blair’s pro-capitalist version of Clause IV remains. Keir Starmer, the preferred candidate of the capitalist class, has therefore been able to walk into the leadership of a party made in his image.

His programme, however, offers no way forward in this era of crisis. In 2014, in the wake of the 2008 crisis and a year prior to Corbyn’s election, the managing editor of The Economist wrote that “Tony Blair liked to think he was re-inventing the Labour Party for a moderate and middle class future. In fact he was retrofitting it for a world about to disappear”. Starmer could not have won as an open Blairite but he nonetheless has the same goal, to make Labour once again safe for capitalism. However, when crisis-ridden capitalism is offering mass unemployment and misery, acting in its interests can quickly shatter ‘left’ parties. This was the fate of PASOK in Greece, the Parti Socialiste in France and countless others.  It can be the future of Labour too.

In the coming era of crisis parties can shatter, and also be created from all kinds of unexpected directions. As Peter Taaffe points out in his article it was not likely that the moribund pro-capitalist New Labour party would offer a route to working-class political representation. Nonetheless, as far back as 2002, we did not exclude this as a theoretical possibility on the basis of capitalist crisis, mass social upheaval, and a persisting vacuum of working class representation. However, following the defeat of Corbynism, other channels than the Labour Party are now likely to be – and should be – sought by the working class in its struggle to find a political voice. What then are the relevant lessons from the Corbyn experience for the coming years?

Workers’ independence

The most important is the need for independent working-class representation. The interests of the capitalist class and the interests of the working class majority are diametrically opposed. Whether it is dealing with the Blairites inside the Labour Party acting in the interests of the capitalist class, or the capitalists’ institutions of the ‘troika’ demanding the Syriza government implements savage austerity against the people of Greece, the working class needs a party which does not attempt to find ‘common ground’ with the enemy but is instead prepared to organise the working class in a tenacious struggle for its independent interests.

The left populist parties and formations of the last five years were not prepared to do this. Flowing from this they were not able to win deep-rooted support from the working class. Dominant among the fresh layers who did become active within them were the more middle class ‘young professionals’, whose living standards and prospects were being driven down in the age of austerity. The radicalisation of these layers is an important feature of the last period. Had they been drawn into mass workers’ parties alongside more conscious and organised sections of the working class it would have completed their transition into its ranks. Instead, however, they dominated while the working class as a whole tended to reserve judgement. While the leadership of the biggest affiliated union, Unite, was key to defending Corbyn from the right, there was limited active involvement by union members. The responsibility for this lies not with the working class, but the leaders of the new formations. As Clive Heemskerk elaborates on page 14, the left leadership of the Labour Party gave tacit acceptance from almost day one that Labour local authorities would continue to implement brutal austerity. How then could it expect its national verbal anti-austerity stance to be wholeheartedly believed?

Had Corbyn won a general election, like the Syriza government in Greece he would have faced open attack not just from the Labour right but from all of the institutions of capitalism. Corbyn’s programme was in reality a limited programme for Keynesian state intervention, but the capitalist class feared the enthusiasm it could engender among the mass of the population.

Yet today, months after the defeat of Corbynism, a Tory government has increased state intervention on a gigantic scale. As the Financial Times put it in an editorial (9 May 2020), “short of a communist revolution, it is hard to imagine how governments could have intervened in private markets – for labour, for credit, for the exchange of goods and services – as quickly and deeply as in the past two months of lockdowns”. The FT, like the capitalist class as a whole, supports these measures. They are not being introduced by a left government to try and improve the conditions of the working class, but by a traditional party of the ruling elite trying to prop up an ailing capitalist system during a deep crisis. Nonetheless, the editorial reflects the fears of the capitalist class when it warns that these measures could “bring socialism” in on their “coat-tails”.

A new era, a higher level

They are right to worry. If the 2008 crisis laid the basis for Corbynism, this far greater crisis is preparing the ground for mass workers’ parties determined to fight for a society run by, and for, the working class majority. That does not mean such broad workers’ parties will all be united around a clear programme to achieve this.  Rather they can act as a ‘workers’ parliament’ within which democratic debate can take place about how to win a new world. Nonetheless it is clear that in the coming era the debate will start on a far higher level than in the era of Corbynism.

The need to end capitalism rather than to reform it will be far more widely understood. In a world where the capitalists have no choice but to carry out massive state intervention, a socialist programme – of nationalisation of the banks, financial institutions and major companies under democratic workers’ control and management – will appear far more achievable.

This Socialism Today special brings together just a small fraction of the articles the magazine and its sister weekly newspaper, The Socialist, have published at each stage of the Corbyn experience. Articles on many vital specific issues including antisemitism, Trident, Syria, Brexit, Corbyn’s economic policies, and the differences in the political situation in Scotland, have not been able to be included. Some of the articles here too have been edited for reasons of space. But the selection stands as a record of the broad lessons of the last five years, which will be vital for the far greater battles ahead.

Contents of the special edition

The Corbyn Insurgency

The editorial from Socialism Today No.191, September 2015

The Get Corbyn Plot

Clive Heemskerk warns of the right-wing fightback, in the November 2015 Socialism Today, No.193

No retreat on council cuts!

A response to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s letter to Labour councillors, from The Socialist No.883, 6 January 2016

After Corbyn’s re-election

The editorial from Socialism Today No.202, October 2016, on the next steps needed to transform Labour

Corbynism & the rise of left-wing populism

Peter Taaffe puts the Corbyn movement in its international context, from Socialism Today No.203, November 2016

Organise, strike, resist for Corbyn’s policies

Hannah Sell outlines the tasks after the 2017 surge to Corbyn, in the post-election edition of The Socialist No.952, 14 June 2017

The unions & Labour affiliation

Clive Heemskerk looks at debates in the left-led unions, from The Socialist No.956, 12 July 2017

Vultures circle Corbyn

The editorial from Socialism Today No.221, September 2018, on the right’s renewed destabilisation campaign

Warning lights flashing

The message of the May polls, examined in the Socialism Today No.229 June 2019 editorial

Brexit: no unity with capitalist politicians

The editorial from Socialism Today No.232, October 2019

Stand firm for socialist policies to stop the Tories

The special supplement of The Socialist, No.1067(1), produced as the general election results came in on 13 December 2019