The Revolt No-One Saw Coming

With support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign apparently growing by the day, what should the left make of this revolt from the blue? DAVID CONNOLLY crosses his fingers and pins his colours to the Corbyn mast.

It goes without saying that everyone has been surprised by the high level of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign and there seems to be no obvious reason why it won’t continue to grow.

Corbyn landscapeAs has been widely remarked, by contemporary standards, he is the anti-candidate candidate. There are no frills, no spin, no personal attacks, an increasing number of substantive policy statements, he is driven not by cynicism but by idealism and, for once, he is someone who is able to express the meaning of ‘socialism’ in a language that is accessible to those who have a care for their fellow citizens. He also has an impressive record of campaigning which stretches over many years, albeit one that the ILP and others challenged in the 1980s on issues such as Labour Party democracy and Northern Ireland.

There is a wider international picture here. In America the sole self-declared socialist on Capitol Hill, Bernie Saunders from Vermont, is now campaigning for the Democratic nomination and recently drew 10,000 people to a rally in Houston, Texas, which is only 3,000 less than Barak Obama attracted in 2008 at the height of his popularity.

Likewise, in Spain the anti-austerity, anti-corruption Podemos continues to reflect the frustrations of millions while a majority of Greeks rejected the counter-productive policies of the EU in the recent referendum, even though their government subsequently buckled under the pressure from Brussels and the imminent collapse of the banking system.

The financial crash of 2008 has had many long term political effects across the world and, combined with the effects of Tory and coalition policies, the surge of support for Corbyn is also one of its consequences.

The fact that Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham are politically timid and Liz Kendall supports discredited Blairism obviously helps Corbyn, not to mention the crass interventions from Tony Blair, John McTernan and Alan Milburn. Having thought they had stuffed the Labour left into the dustbin of history, how galling must be its return as a force to be reckoned with. Threats from MPs to organise an immediate vote of no confidence if the outcome is not to their liking, and talk of an SDP-type split, only add fuel to the fire.

I have a lot of time for the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland but he is mistaken when he somewhat patronisingly suggests that Corbyn’s support comes from those indulging in a self-serving version of identity politics. It doesn’t, it comes from a strong desire to change the terms of the economic and social debate in the country. If politics is continually forced, pushed and bribed to the right, as it has been for many years, where does the hallowed centre ground end up? Sadly, it ends up with Harriet Harman in a policy panic.

Participatory democracy?

One fascinating aspect of the election so far has been the number of people who have joined the Labour Party as members, supporters or registered affiliates with a high proportion being young people. A low cost enrolment scheme was introduced in the 2010 leadership election but the take-up was minimal and its effects diluted by the electoral college structure.

While the recruitment of the young in particular is most welcome, I am one of those old fashioned people who think that when you call an election you should, as a matter of principle, freeze the voting list. Indeed, this used to be the standard practice . Clearly the current approach has exceeded all expectations in terms of recruitment but it is also open to abuse by those who did not vote Labour in the general election.

In a previous era the ILP argued long and hard for the principle of participatory democracy in a one member, one vote system for the selection of parliamentary candidates. This would have involved attending at least three branch meetings in a 12-month period in order to vote. That wasn’t achieved then and it certainly won’t be achieved now, but the idea that there should be some kind of active connection between the party and its members, beyond the life of the internet, remains valid.

That said, the new system has captured the interest of many thousands of Labour supporters who want to have their say and it brings a fascinating dynamic to an election in which a Corbyn victory, once inconceivable, is now a distinct possibility. He represents a direct challenge to the established economic and social orthodoxy, both inside and outside Labour, and his success would open up the possibility of a very different relationship with extra-parliamentary movements on a wide range of issues. He has enthused and re-invigorated many; he is the revolt that no one saw coming.

But there are also risks attached to a Corbyn leadership – the risk of having a leader with so few natural supporters in the Parliamentary Labour Party; the risk of a civil war in the Party involving more than just the hard core Blairites; the risk of a section of the core Labour vote shearing away; and the risk that, with the very best of intentions, this could be Labour’s ‘George McGovern moment’ (when the 1972 Democratic Presidential campaign was radicalised by an influx of youthful and enthusiastic anti-war campaigners, including the Clintons, only to be rejected by the wider electorate).

That said, I think there is no alternative but to take these risks, and I will be voting for Corbyn in the hope that, if he does achieve the ‘impossible’, his leadership will be open to constructive suggestions from all points of view on the left. Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt the Labour Party will have changed in the process and it will have to find new ways of engaging with its supporters and the wider electorate to build a progressive coalition for change.

In the meantime, fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

David Connolly is chair of the ILP. This article expresses his personal view.


  1. […] and David Connolly discuss why he’s backing Jeremy Corbyn at […]

  2. Harry Barnes
    5 August 2015

    Today a BBC report includes the following – “Harriet Harman has written to all Labour MPs asking them to check new members are not trying to skew the party’s leadership contest. Each MP has been sent a list of new members from their constituency so they can check for suspicious names.” Is what is suspicious to a Labour MP, suspicous to the established party membership?

    If there is a perceived problem, then should the key people to contact not be CLPs and Labour Party branches? At one time, an opportunity was given to branches to object to new applications if they found them to be dubious.

    Most CLPs do not have Labour MPs. Are they outside Harriet’s loop ? Her approach seems to be typicially Westminster bubble.

  3. Jonathan Timbers
    5 August 2015

    This research by John Cruddas makes for sobering reading.

  4. Matthew Brown
    4 August 2015

    “Ultimately the issue is not whether or not Corbyn can win an election. The issue is whether enough of us can find the energy, the patience, the imagination and the openness to build a movement which can open up a new historical phase. Without one, it will make no difference who the Labour leader or the next Prime Minister is: we will all still be the slaves of the City.”

    Not my words. This is Jeremy Gilbert’s conclusion to a long piece on the Open Democracy website that’s well worth reading.

  5. Jonathan Timbers
    4 August 2015

    Stephen, regarding the reliance of the UK economy on capital inflows, there’s a great deal of data about. You could try this from ONS from page 3 onwards:

    The rest doesn’t take a crystal ball, just a bit of unexceptional reasoning. Capitalism is corrupt – it requires sweeteners to invest and can move its money anywhere it wants.

    On the question of Richard Murphy, I asked him recently how long it would take to get the £30bn per year he thinks could be recovered if sufficient anti-avoidance measures were in place. He agreed with me that it could be years and the level of recovery would be dependent on regional agreements with the EU. If you don’t think that’s true, I suggest you go and ask him yourself and see what he says.

    On the plus side, public investment returns are usually better than private ones, so the national investment bank idea is a good one, whatever data the Institute of Directors comes up with to dispute this.

  6. Stephen Kelly
    4 August 2015

    “If Corbyn is elected PM and tries to reflate the public sector, there will be an investment strike. This will lead to an immediate balance of trade crisis (because capital inflows through the City compensate for our lack of manufacturing exports). Investment will decline. Growth will collapse. This in turn will lead to further cuts.”

    Someone else with a magical crystal ball methinks. Where do you buy yours from?

    I’d suggest taking your ‘economic’ argument up with Richard Murphy and see what he thinks. I’d rather accept his word than yours.

  7. Jonathan Timbers
    3 August 2015

    I understand why David is voting for Corbyn. He is a breath of fresh air compared to the world weary and vacuous mainstream contenders.

    But I will probably abstain, as I did in the 1988 leadership and deputy leadership elections, because Corbyn’s political economy is faulty. As a result of the awful way the British economy works, I do not think there is an easy way out of austerity. If Corbyn is elected PM and tries to reflate the public sector, there will be an investment strike. This will lead to an immediate balance of trade crisis (because capital inflows through the City compensate for our lack of manufacturing exports). Investment will decline. Growth will collapse. This in turn will lead to further cuts.

    There are much better ways of working towards ending austerity through helping business. In particular, there are several imaginative plans about developing new sectors of the economy and expanding manufacturing. You can read about them in Patrick Diamond’s Progressive Capitalism and Mills and Gould’s Call to Arms.

    Corbyn is demonstrating to the other candidates what a good contender for Labour leadership should do: set out an economic alternative for the UK which will make it fairer and more productive. His alternative has some good points but wouldn’t work in practice.

    However, even though I don’t think his plan will work, at least he has one. The rest only have policies for the public sector and say nothing about how to make things different. I think that makes them unelectable.

    The fact that the Labour party is so devoid of credible economic alternatives at this time indicates that it is in crisis. Osborne and Cameron must be rubbing their hands in glee.

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