Understanding Corbyn

Print edition : November 11, 2016

Jeremy Corbyn after delivering his keynote speech on the final day of the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, England, on September 28. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/AP

The contribution of this study lies in its ability to situate the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon within a context that embraces global currents while retaining a specifically British focus.

ON September 24, the opening day of the British Labour Party’s annual conference, held this year in Liverpool, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn received emphatic reaffirmation. The results of a ballot involving the participation of more than half a million voters revealed that the unassuming Member of Parliament for Islington North had carried close to 62 per cent of votes cast, against 38 per cent for his opponent, Owen Smith. Corbyn triumphed in every section of the party: registered supporters, affiliated supporters (trade unionists) and full party members, and outpolled Smith in every region bar Scotland.

The conclusiveness of this victory followed a year-long assault, often vicious and abuse-laden, on Corbyn’s right to lead the Labour Party. The story starts with Ed Miliband’s resignation as Labour leader in the wake of the party’s 2015 general election defeat. When the Socialist Campaign Group, a depleted but feisty alliance of left-wingers within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), nominated Corbyn for inclusion on the ballot, something close to the miraculous happened: just enough PLP sponsors came forward to back his nomination. The thinking was that while the quaintness of Corbyn’s socialism might add zest to an otherwise lacklustre contest, the candidate—surely no more than a throwback to a previous age—would be comprehensively rejected. That he was in the ring with three other candidates, all polished products of the New Labour years, reinforced the view that Corbyn would never move beyond a token candidacy.

Then things started going seriously off-piste. Escaping from the Westminster bubble, Corbyn set off across the country, engaging with party activists and addressing a sequence of public meetings, which conjured up people in their thousands. The music of his speeches, like that of Hamelin’s Pied Piper, proved irresistible to his audiences; addressing crowds in which party stalwarts, trade unionists and other survivors of the Blair-Brown era brushed shoulders with young people engaging with politics for the first time, Corbyn spoke of fighting austerity, standing up for Britain’s beleaguered National Health System, creating jobs through sustained investment, promoting equality in education, cancelling the renewal of Trident nuclear missile submarines and ending an imperialist foreign policy geared to the pursuit of war. Rather than delivering his ideas with the bombast of a seasoned orator, Corbyn spoke simply, directly and with a passion that seemed to derive from the ideas themselves, rather than from a politician’s lust for power. As news of it all raced out across social media, it seemed a different type of politics was coming into prospect, along with a new type of leader: modest, accessible, ready to listen, and instinctively democratic.

If something new and radical was brewing, the British establishment, whether in the shape of the Conservative government, the massed artillery of big business and finance, or the mainstream media, was having none of it. Incredulity and horror were also building up within the PLP and the top echelons of Labour’s organisational machine, whose worst fears were realised when Corbyn, defying their predictions, won the leadership race with a record-breaking 59 per cent of the vote.

Vicious salvos

The saga of Corbyn’s first 12 months as leader can have few parallels in recent times. Rarely can a party leader have attracted such sustained, unremitting hostility from so many quarters: from BBC and print journalists ever ready to snipe, sneer and belittle; from right-wing pundits and corporate bosses aghast at Corbyn’s anti-austerity presumptuousness; from celebrities (among them the author J.K. Rowling) primed to propagate the line that the new leader was incapable of winning elections. But perhaps the most vicious salvos blasted forth from within Labour itself, specifically its parliamentary party and central organisation. As if inebriated by the range of dirty tricks at their disposal—innuendo, quiet words in journalists’ ears, smears attributing a range of sins (anti-Semitism, sexism, bullying) to Corbyn supporters—and well provisioned by Blairite pressure groups and millionaire financiers, the Corbyn-must-go plotters got ready to strike.

D-Day came in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in June. At carefully staged intervals, with the media conveniently briefed to run with the story, members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet announced their resignations; 172 members of the PLP then passed a vote of no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership, leaving him with the rump support of just 40 MPs.

Chicken Coup

The aim of what was quickly dubbed the “Chicken Coup” was to so demoralise Corbyn as to “persuade” him to step down. Instead, the embattled leader seemed to revel in it all, as if politically and emotionally armour-clad against his conspirators. When a rerun of the leadership race was announced, he saw off anti-democratic efforts to keep his name off the ballot before mustering his own weapon of mass destruction—his overwhelming support among party members.

As the second leadership campaign unfolded, ordinary party members found themselves entering a looking-glass world whose topsy-turvy goings-on seemed to have escaped from the fantasies of Lewis Carroll. There were the rule changes, surreptitiously enacted by Labour’s National Executive Committee, which at a stroke disenfranchised 128,000 new members via the ruse of an arbitrary cut-off date. When this fiat was overruled in the high court, Labour bigwigs made free with party funds to successfully appeal the decision. Then a pay-to-vote deal was dangled in front of registered supporters and disenfranchised members, offering them the possibility of voting in the leadership election in exchange for £25; many who paid up were subsequently disbarred, with no promise of reimbursement. Long-standing party members who publicly supported Corbyn began falling foul of the “Compliance Unit”, an arcane entity of Orwellian bent, which issued them with suspension notices and withdrew their voting rights. As with Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, it was a case of “sentence first, verdict afterwards”; the absence of due process, underscored by dark references to unspecified social media postings, left the “perpetrators” bemused, angry and without redress.

Out in the Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), the hub of local political mobilisation, the purge rolled on. When CLPs across the country voted to support Corbyn over Smith, decrees were issued banning them from holding meetings or suspending them outright. For Corbyn’s supporters, each day held the menace of disbarment-by-Internet, a Damoclean ordeal demanding iron nerves along with a generous measure of gallows humour. Estimates suggest that something in the order of 170,000 members and registered supporters were prevented from voting or did not receive ballot papers.

As Alice observed when wandering in Wonderland: “They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here; the great wonder is that there’s anyone left alive!”

What explains this extraordinary state of affairs? Why are Corbyn and his legions of supporters held in such opprobrium by Labour’s establishment? What factors have contributed to the sudden resurgence of radical politics in Britain? What are the implications of the new politics for a party with a foundational commitment to the parliamentary road? And what are the chances of survival, for Corbyn himself and for the revitalised, radical politics he embodies?

These are among the questions explored by Richard Seymour in a brightly written and persuasive new study. A Marxist writer, journalist and activist whose previous books include The Liberal Defence of Murder (2008), a critique of Blair-style “humanitarian” interventionism, and Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (2013), an incendiary polemic against Hitchens’ imperialist turn, Seymour blogs at “Lenin’s Tomb” and contributes to a range of publications, including Salvage and the Times Literary Supplement. He remains outside the Labour Party but was an invited speaker at The World Transformed, an event run parallel to the Labour Party conference by Momentum, a grassroots movement seeking to build on the energy released by Corbyn’s leadership.

Although published before the paroxysms of the past few months, at a time when Corbyn had yet to face down his chicken coup challengers, Seymour’s analysis has the timeliness and edge essential for the activist’s arsenal. For Seymour, understanding Corbyn’s ascent requires moving beyond his personal qualities (among them the affability, diffidence and lack of airs, which distinguish him from the general run of politicians), and the specifics of his political programme.

The contribution of this study lies in its ability to situate the Corbyn phenomenon within a context that embraces global currents while retaining a specifically British focus. Looking outwards while peering within, Seymour offers his readers a master class in how to handle contradictions, how to remain grounded while keeping several ideas spinning in the air.

For Seymour, the central contradiction is as follows: while Corbyn’s rise has involved the intelligent exploitation of Labour’s long-term decline, this very weakness imposes threatening limitations: “Labour’s decline is what Corbyn was elected to address. Labour’s decline is what gave him the space to lead. And Labour’s decline will now constitute the major obstacle to his success” (page 12).

Labour’s malaise, as evidenced by a haemorrhaging membership (down from 400,000 in 1997 to 156,000 in 2009), plummeting voter turnout, and an existential decline in trade union membership, is seen to constitute “a political withdrawal across the board” (page 68). It appears an affirmation that Britain, along with other parts of Europe and the world, has entered an era of “post-democracy” (a concept first advanced by the political scientist Colin Crouch). Seymour endorses Crouch’s view that neoliberalism, which by its very nature gnaws away at the roots of parliamentary democracy (the class compromise or truce between capital and labour), constitutes the primary source of this demise. Global economic sluggishness post-2008 highlights the process while acting as an accelerator:

“Profit rates being too low in the private sector, firms instead look to government to improve investment conditions by reducing the cost of labour and by creating new opportunities for them in the public sector: this is a far more important part of what the government calls ‘austerity’ than its spending cuts. This exacerbates the peculiar and particularly corrupt form of relationship between the state and privileged sectors of business that is emblematic of the neoliberal era…. As the state becomes less and less democratic, and more geared toward crisis-management, the alienation and volatility of the electorate is likely to increase” (pages 73-74).

Gulf between leadership & base

Within party structures, post-democracy involves a hollowing out process in which grass-roots engagement is discouraged and “doing politics” becomes the preserve of professional politicians, special advisers and focus groups. Party leaders and MPs become detached from their electoral base, whose growing reluctance to turn out and vote is dismissed as “voter apathy”. Within traditionally social democratic parties, policy shifts in neoliberal directions, assuming a hybrid form that can be described as “social-liberalism”. At the top, the “managed” machine hums away, offering jobs for the “boys” (and a growing influx of ambitious women) and the lure of the “revolving door”; party leaders growingly conceive of their power “in terms of influence within the existing state apparatuses and non-elected institutions, assets which they can build up even as they lose electoral support” (page 74).

The growing gulf between leadership and base provides useful context for the incomprehension and incredulity with which Labour’s high command has greeted the rise of Corbynism. Its tone of aggrieved entitlement reflects the fact that beyond the reach of its faltering radar a generational shift has been taking place. Disproportionately hit—in terms of access to education, jobs, housing, and public services—by the consolidation of neoliberalism, young people across a great swathe of countries, from Greece to the United States and from Bolivia to Spain, have begun mobilising for a new type of politics. Seymour argues that in Britain this generational change has intersected with democratic decline to produce the current challenge to the status quo. Rather than forming new organisations on the model of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, Britain’s disaffected young (with the exception of those in Scotland) are effecting an improbable mass entry into Labour.

Obstacles ahead

What are the chances of success for Corbyn and the movement building around him? Seymour applies an unsparing eye to the constraints already bearing down upon the phenomenon, as well as the formidable obstacles ahead.

By its very nature, the Labour Party emerges as an unlikely vehicle for radical change, a suspicion borne out by the writer’s surgical exploration of its history. Beset with failure, its achievements (chief among them the reforms of the post-Second World War Attlee government) ultimately discarded by global capitalism, “much as a body rejects an organ implant” (page 90), and committed primarily to parliamentarism rather than anything resembling socialism, Labour seems ill-equipped for radical transformation. While the surge of new members, along with the growing profile of social media, has prompted talk of Labour’s reincarnation as a social movement, little attention has yet focussed on what this might entail. 1 Meanwhile, the logic of parliamentarism (and the possibility of a snap general election) requires Corbyn to lose no time in turning his anti-austerity message into an electoral offer capable of appealing beyond Labour’s core vote. And while an uneasy truce prevails in the wake of Corbyn’s fresh leadership victory, no one should be in any doubt that, behind the scenes, knives are being sharpened and fresh plots hatched. Under these circumstances, optimism can only be in short supply.

Looking ahead, Seymour adheres to the path of sobriety. “For Corbyn to take [Labour] and transform it into a means to radical inroads on Britain’s power systems would require resources, organisation and opportunities that currently don’t present themselves.… In the final analysis Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism. And it is those limits, above all, which have brought us to this impasse.”

1. An exception is Richard Seymour’s own blog on the subject, retrieved at http://www.leninology.co. uk/2016/08/can-corbyn-build-social-movement.html

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