Labour and the Corbyn Effect

DAVID CONNOLLY reviews a recent collection of essays that seeks to understand Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and point towards a possible future for the Party.

I recently overheard a conversation in a café in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, that went like this:

Elderly working class woman (reading The Sun): ‘He’s going to bankrupt the country.’
Middle-aged son: ‘Who is?’
Woman: ‘He’s going to borrow £250 billion and he’s going to bankrupt the country.’
Son: ‘Who?’
Woman: ‘Who do you think? Jeremy Corbyn.’

Sitting at the next table I almost intervened but fortunately my scrambled eggs arrived and saved me from doing so. How to begin to challenge what had just been said? I really wasn’t sure where to start.

Corbyn Effect cover

I mention this because it illustrates an on-going problem, namely that despite the many and varied travails of the May government, Labour and the Tories are still neck-and-neck in the opinion polls. While the Conservatives face a huge problem in winning back some of the under-35s, the Labour Party itself and Corbyn in particular continues to generate a lot of hostility from many traditional Labour voters over 65. And, let’s face it, there are lots of them. We know this not just from overhearing other peoples’ conversations but also from our direct experience on the doorstep in 2017.

Still, it could have been a lot worse. Charlie Cadywood, a researcher at Policy Network wrote in May 2017 that progressives should “begin planning for the immense challenge of rebuilding a progressive majority that will present itself in the event of a landslide defeat”, which he suggested was “a foregone conclusion”.

Needless to say, he wasn’t the only one to predict imminent disaster. In the first week of June the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley wrote: “Whether it loses 30, 50 or 70 seats the Labour Party is heading for a shattering defeat under Jeremy Corbyn.”

There again, who am I to criticise? From my experience when canvassing I thought the Tories would have a majority of at least 40 seats and I only know two people who thought the outcome would be any better.

The sense of relief and amazement on election night is reflected in The Corbyn Effect, a new collection of essays seeking to understand the potential and limitations of Corbynism. As Paul Mason comments in the Foreword, “Suddenly, we have a Labour Party that could genuinely represent us in an entirely new phase of politics and economics” and a manifesto that made a clear break with new Labour’s neoliberal legacy.

In his chapter ‘The Absolute Corbyn’, Jeremy Gilbert argues that, “both the Brexit vote in 2016 and the success of Corbynism in 2017, must be seen as symptoms of the complete breakdown of neoliberal hegemony in the UK”. He goes on to argue that social attitude surveys have shown a consistent bloc of public opinion since the 1980s that “in effect endorses a marxist perspective on all important issues. It probably consists of around 20-25 per cent of the electorate.”

He identifies the Corbyn coalition as the “metropolitan left and liberal intelligentsia, low paid workers in cities, the smaller university towns such as Canterbury and Brighton as well as certain ‘traditional’ working class populations in former industrial and mining areas”. To which we can add Mason’s “graduate with no future, equipped with access to social media and a flexible attitude to traditional leftist ideologies”.

Full scale social movement

And yet Gilbert also acknowledges that May succeeded in winning over “a core section of Labour’s traditional constituency: older working-class voters in smaller towns in the post-industrial areas and on the coast”, and that these are the people most likely to be influenced by the Conservative-supporting press.

For him only a ‘full scale social movement’ committed to radical democracy can bring about and sustain the political, economic and cultural changes needed in society, that plus a fundamental reform of the Labour Party. He envisages a dynamic anti-capitalist movement which “no centralised party leadership can contain”, and in the long term thinks this will challenge not just the Tories but also the statist social democracy of Labour’s past.

In perhaps the book’s most thought provoking essay, ‘Mind the Labour Gap’, Hilary Wainwright pursues a similar theme, asking whether Labour can become a truly transformative left party. She sees the movement in support of Corbyn as being, “in many ways our British version of the Indignados”, unleashing a suppressed radicalisation arising from the experience of austerity and taking its energy from protest and direct-action groups on environmental and equality issues, such as UK Uncut, that sprang up outside the Labour Party.

Wainwright draws a distinction between the politics of ‘power-as-domination’, characteristic of the benign paternalism of traditional social democracy, and the politics of ‘power-as-transformative-capacity’, as expressed by movements going beyond protest to prepare and create their own ‘pre-figurative’ solutions, ideally supported by a sympathetic state.

It’s a long time ago, of course, but the plans drawn up by the Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards to convert armaments manufacturing into socially useful production, encouraged by the then Industry Minister, Tony Benn, and consciously ignored by the Wilson Government, remain an inspiring example of how ‘power-as-transformative capacity’ could be used in the future.

There were hints of this approach in Labour’s manifesto proposing a legal ‘right to own’, making employees the buyer of first refusal when a company is up for sale. There was also a commitment to double the size of the co-operative sector and in the Party’s well-researched discussion paper, Alternative Models of Ownership, there is an exploration of the problems and opportunities offered by co-ops and community owned enterprises as well as options for popular participation in the governance of industries that might be taken back into public ownership such as the railways.

Much more work needs to be done in these areas but it seems to me that in the Corbyn / McDonnell leadership, with its political roots in the pioneering work of the Greater London Council and Greater London Enterprise Board of the 1980s, there is a genuine interest in moving beyond the Morrisonian model of public ownership and, although it is a complex issue, this is to be warmly welcomed.

The ‘Corbyn effect’ is far from exhausted. As the increasingly blatant failures and shortcomings of privatisation, outsourcing and threadbare public services push neoliberal ideology into its prolonged death throes, we may yet see more dramatic shifts in public opinion, or we may just be in for a very long war of electoral attrition in which no party develops a decisive lead.

However long it takes we should note the words of editor Mark Perryman, surveying the past 40 years of British politics in his delightful essay, ‘The Great Moving Left Show’, “We need both hope and doubt: one without the other is not much good to anyone. But we need also always to remember that eras do come to an end.”


The Corbyn Effect, edited by Mark Perryman, is published by Lawrence & Wishart and available for £15.00.