Jeremy Corbyn’s rise is only the latest in a long line of left-wing ‘corrections’ to a rightward drift in the Labour Party, which date from before it was even founded, argues GRAHAM TAYLOR.
The election of the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, in dramatic circumstances, as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, was unexpected, but not unprecedented. The party has customarily been divided into a right wing (close to Liberals and Conservatives), a left wing (close to Marxists but not Marxist) and a reformist or social democratic core, and since the beginnings of the party there has been a pattern of a drift to the right interrupted by a sudden left-wing correction.
Corbyn’s unpredicted elevation expressed frustration on the left at years of austerity after the world economic crisis of 2008; at former prime minister Gordon Brown’s failure to take over the banks or punish the bankers; at the marketisation of public services; and at the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
The Labour Party in 1997-2015 had suffered a steep decline in its votes, membership and morale. The right-wing leaders were unresponsive to protest, even to a demonstration more than a million strong in 2003, and did not accept that Labour was re-elected in 2005 only because the bitterly divided Conservatives had much the same policies. Even after their defeat in the 2010 election, the right wing insisted that Labour must not deviate “one millimetre” from policies they had devised back in 1994.
The First Correction (1892)
The first correction of a stale right-wing regime predated the Labour Party itself. In the late 1880s Keir Hardie was frustrated that most ‘Labour’ (Lib-Lab) MPs within Gladstone’s Liberal Party were failing to represent working class interests in Parliament, although the 1884 Reform Act had enfranchised working class voters. In 1892 Hardie, in protest, stood as an independent for West Ham South (independent, that is, of the Liberal Party) and was elected. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was founded in Bradford in 1893 and during the 1890s it was routinely referred to in the press as ‘the Labour Party’.
It is characteristic of corrections that they issue from a prior upsurge in militancy. Hardie in 1892 (pictured below) was washed ashore by a tide of trade union militancy in 1887-91 which had exposed the complacency of the right-wing Lib-Lab MPs, and attracted sympathy from mainstream religious and political figures – Cardinal Manning, even Gladstone – first towards the match girls (1888) and then the dockers (1889). In 2013-15, just prior to Corbyn’s elevation, there was a similar tell-tale shift in mainstream sympathy during anti-austerity campaigns over food banks, homelessness, and the plight of doctors and nurses.
Hardie’s arrival at the House of Commons in 1892 met with a reaction similar to that which greeted Corbyn in 2015. Instead of addressing fundamental issues (unemployment and strikes for Hardie, austerity and wars for Corbyn), the commentators reacted by ridiculing their policies and their clothes (Hardie’s hat and Corbyn’s tie). As Kenneth Morgan wrote: “Hardie’s flamboyant entry into parliament, his outspoken attacks on the Queen and the royal family, his advocacy of such terrifying doctrines as socialism, feminism, pacifism, and colonial freedom all prejudiced conventional opinion against him…”
Morgan added that attacking Labour leaders for their clothes revealed the snobbery of their enemies: Jimmy Thomas’s dinner-jacket, Harold Wilson’s Gannex raincoat, Michael Foot’s ‘donkey jacket’.
As will be seen, the pattern is that a correction revivifies Labour, and this revivification now had positive results. The Liberals moved to the left, and adopted the social Liberalism of Campbell-Bannerman and Lloyd George; in 1898 the ILP and the Marxist Social Democratic Federation won control of West Ham council, a historic victory for British socialism; in 1900 the ILP, the SDF, the Fabians and several trade unions formed the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), an event often regarded as the foundation of the Labour Party as we know it.
The ILP became the left wing of the LRC, and its left-wing philosophy was called ‘ethical socialism’. This is not to be confused with a later ethical socialism (fairness with duty) espoused by Anthony Crosland and the German SDP.
The ILP version, much influenced by Mazzini, aimed at knitting together all humanity – at an individual level by comradeliness and kindness, and socially by uniting in the struggle for emancipation of workers, women and ethnic groups. It was a socialism for practice in daily life, as distinct from the Fabian belief in state planning by intellectuals and the Marxist belief in class warfare to gain state power. Hardie wrote: “Socialism, like every other problem of life, is at bottom a question of ethics or morals.” In 1915 the Merthyr Pioneer chose to announce Hardie’s death by saying that the “Member for Humanity has resigned his seat.”
The ‘socialism of humanity’ did not exclude appreciation of Marxism. Hardie understood that the liberation of humanity needed economic analysis such as that by Thorold Rogers and Marx. Although he relied on Philip Snowden for his economics (as Corbyn does on John McDonnell), he was much influenced by Marx. Indeed the term, ‘ethical socialism’, was first used, pejoratively, by Rosa Luxemburg against the Marxism of Eduard Bernstein who Hardie knew and admired. Hardie also admired the British Marxist, William Morris. As John Callow wrote, anyone familiar with Marx will recognise him in Hardie’s writings. And Maxton held Hardie “more Marxist than those who paid deference to Marxist theories”.
In 1906 the ILP’s aim of electing a strong body of working-class MPs to parliament was achieved. The 29 MPs called themselves the ‘Labour Party’ and elected Hardie as chair. Yet the ‘Labour Party (LRC)’ was still only a federation. Within the LRC the ‘Labour Party (ILP)’ acted as the guardian of socialism since, as Hardie averred, the ILP was “created for the purpose of realising socialism” and winning seats in parliament was only a means to that end. This attitude shaped the outlook of the Labour left, and it reignited the Labour Party from cold ashes in 1914, 1932, 1960, 1972, 1980 and 2015.
The Second Correction (1914)
By 1910 the Labour Party (LRC) had drifted back to the right. The MPs were regularly voting with the Liberals. Like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm, they had reverted to the Lib-Lab posture the ILP was founded to combat. At the ILP conference Hardie reported, sadly: “The Labour Party has almost ceased to exist.” As MacDonald explained in The Socialist Movement (1911): the Labour Party did not have a philosophy as the ILP did; it was not socialist, whereas the ILP was; Labour was just a combination of socialist and trade union bodies “for immediate practical work”.
At the skating rink in Merthyr Tydfil in 1912, Hardie said “the ILP’s ultimate objective remained revolution, not merely reform” but many trade unionists had joined Labour without a socialist perspective. In 1910 ‘General Gribble’, leader of the Raunds boot-makers, put it far less politely: “What are we paying to send men of our own class to Parliament for? Is it to represent our views, our aims, our aspirations, or to make openings for some of the sharp ones to get into office?”
Once again, as in 1887-91, a militant movement from below heralded a corrective break. In 1910-14 strikes broke out in mines, in docks and on railways, culminating in the Dublin lock-out of 1913. At the same time the suffragettes were campaigning for the vote, and strikes by working-class women led by Mary Macarthur scored unprecedented victories, as in the Bermondsey Uprising. The ILP was involved in all of them, as well as in campaigns, crucially, to stop the fast approaching war.
The second correction may be dated to the outbreak of war in August 1914. Labour (LRC) supported the war but the ILP did not. MacDonald, whose base was in the ILP, not in the unions, was obliged to resign as chair of the Labour Party. This stand later brought Labour rewards, as did all the corrections.
After 1918, as returning soldiers cheered the anti-war candidates at meetings, the public’s attitude to the war changed. In 1922 ILP candidates won many seats and MacDonald (pictured below), an anti-war icon with moral authority, became the first ‘leader’ of the Labour Party. In 1924 he became first Labour prime minister. Like Corbyn, he owed his success, at least in part, to an ethical stance against war.
The ILP was the only British party to oppose the war. The Labour Party joined the Liberals and Conservatives in supporting it, and the Marxist British Socialist Party (successor to the SDF and SDP) first wavered, then split. The ILP was also one of the few parties in Europe to oppose the war, and congratulations poured into the ILP offices from Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Clara Zetkin. Even Lenin was impressed. It was generally agreed that, because of the ILP, the summer of 1914 was British socialism’s finest hour.
Keith Laybourn, although conceding that the ILP reaffirmed its opposition to the war at its Norwich conference in 1915, has pointed to the disintegration of the ILP’s opposition to the war at local level, even in Bradford, after 1915. He says the majority of the ILP felt obliged, in the end, to be “patriotic” and “fight for their country”.
But this underestimates the cruel intensity of the intimidation. ILP members were beaten up in the street; they lost their jobs; buildings in which they were speaking were set alight; and, as conscientious objectors, some even suffered torture. Even one third of eligible Quakers eventually cracked and agreed to enlist.
It is the opposite question which is more interesting: why was the British ILP able to stick to its anti-war principles when most left-wing parties, including the Marxist German SPD, did not? The Marxist parties capitulated, said Alexandra Kollontai, because they failed to understand “the moral influence of the old bourgeois world on the mood of the populace.” But the ILP, she pointed out, was based on ethics, not only self-interest. Ethical socialism recognised that, as well as the material concerns of life, humanity also had moral, cultural and social concerns. This was to be developed by (Italian Marxist) Antonio Gramsci later, when he showed that in western Europe the left needed to win ‘hegemony’, not just pay rises and votes.
Understanding this ethical, and hegemonic, element in the early Labour Party is important for understanding Corbyn. Not only was he able to withstand intense pressure to resign in 2015-16, to the astonishment of a cynical political class, but his principled stand in the face of daily abuse attracted wide admiration, and an increase in his vote.
The ILP was also victorious in domestic affairs. It had campaigned since the 1890s for adult suffrage (including suffrage for women) and for state intervention on social questions (a welfare state). Already, from 1906, the presence of 29 Labour MPs in parliament made the Liberal Party fear for its future and Lloyd George introduced his ‘people’s budget’ in 1909, raising taxes to pay for state assistance to pensioners, the sick and the unemployed. It was Britain’s first, though very basic, welfare state. When in 1918 all men and 40 per cent of women received the vote (granted on equal terms in 1928), the ILP’s programme was at last implemented, despite a century of fierce opposition to both democracy and welfare from Conservatives and many Liberals.
Thus, in the two corrections of 1892 and 1914, the Labour left (in this case the ILP) ran up a flag of defiance that re-energised the Labour ranks, just as Corbyn did in 2015, and this eventually brought long-term gains of historic proportions.
The Third Correction (1932)
After the short-lived 1924 government the Labour Party once again moved to the right, and the second minority government (1929-31) saw close Lib-Lab co-operation. The argument that nothing very radical could be done with a minority government was a powerful one in 1924. At the same time dissent in the party, particularly from Communists and women, was under attack. The ILP stood against all this, supporting women candidates, the arrested Communists and the General Strike of 1926, but to no avail.
The most right-wing move was yet to come. In 1931 a world economic crisis struck home. MacDonald, instead of resigning, agreed after an interview with King George to accept, on behalf of the labour movement he represented, mass unemployment and austerity. He was duly expelled from the party as a traitor but at the subsequent general election, led by the ‘moderate’ Arthur Henderson, Labour was almost wiped out.
This led to the third correction. Again, the left shift emerged from a background of intense protest. Hunger marches organised by the Communist Party against mass unemployment climaxed in the national hunger march of 1932, which mobilised 100,000 people in London and caused the biggest police deployment since 1848. Unemployment had reached 2.75 million.
In the eye of this storm Labour chose as leader of the party, George Lansbury, an old ILP comrade of Hardie. As with Corbyn, this was astonishing after a decade of Labour ‘moderation’. But, like MacDonald, Lansbury had moral authority derived from opposing the 1914 war. It is as if the Labour Party, in a crisis as in 2015, suddenly remembers the ethical purpose for which it was founded.
Some claim that Lansbury (pictured below) saved the Labour Party. It could have just aped the MacDonald government, but instead Lansbury promoted the radical plans later implemented by the Attlee government of 1945.
The Lansbury correction gained immediate rewards in municipal elections – the meat and drink of ethical socialism. In 1934 Labour won control of London, and in the 1935 general election Labour gained 154 seats. Raymond Postgate wrote that the policies of Attlee’s government were influenced by no one more than Lansbury. As with Corbyn later, the huge vote for Labour in 1945 was due to “a flood of previous non-voters and of first-time voters.”
The Fourth Correction (1960)
In 1951 Attlee was defeated, but not overwhelmingly. Labour received more votes than the Conservatives and still had a radical feel. But, after 1951, Attlee continued to move to the right and was succeeded as leader in 1955 by Gaitskell, further right still. By 1959-60 the majority of Labour supporters were unable to recognise the difference between the policies of the main parties. This was the same scenario that lent lustre to Hardie in 1892, the ILP in 1914, Lansbury in 1932, and Corbyn in 2015.
As with the previous corrections, this one was heralded by an explosion of militancy from below (1889, 1912, 1926). In 1957 strikes in shipbuilding and engineering produced the most serious crisis in industrial relations since the General Strike. In 1957, too, a ‘New Left’ began to challenge the right. By 1960 the New Left Review was aiming for a movement based on ‘socialist humanism’. Edward Thompson said this was a “moral standpoint” that rejected the twin “philistinisms” of Stalinism and social democracy. Like the ILP’s ethical socialism it was based on one humanity and the power of universal reason.
The fourth correction came, however, not from the strikes but from the peace movement. In 1958 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was launched and it was CND who won a vote at Labour Party conference in 1960 that shattered the cross-party consensus nurtured by the Labour right. The formation shortly afterwards of the ‘Committee of 100’ by Bertrand Russell made the break decisive. The Committee advocated non-violent direct action on the streets and, like the ILP, had a hegemonic profile, enlisting film directors, art critics, playwrights, musicians and poets to the cause.
By this time it was no longer the ILP but the Tribune group of MPs who represented the Labour left. In 1932 the ILP had disaffiliated from Labour and been replaced on the left by the Socialist League, which attracted former ILP members such as Cripps, Attlee, Salter and Cole, as well as Murphy from the CPGB. Although eventually shut down by the party in 1937, the Socialist League left behind as a gift to the next generation – a left periodical, Tribune. It was an alliance between CND and those MPs who supported Tribune that led the charge in 1960.
As before, this correction led to a re-energisation and Harold Wilson, Labour’s next leader in 1963, although not a left-winger, was a left reformist. In the 1964 election Wilson used left-wing language, attacking commercialism, speculators and the aristocracy. He offered a left-wing manifesto: a national economic plan, public ownership of the private monopolies (steel, water), the right to trade union representation, comprehensive schools, equal pay for equal work, support for an Arts Council, and laws against racial discrimination.
Just as MacDonald gained in moral authority on account of his anti-war stand in 1914, so Wilson gained by his stand of 1951 in defence of the NHS against the claims of war expenditure. In his 1962 conference speech, Wilson even tried on the mantle of ethical socialism: “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”
The result was a great reforming government, comparable to those of Gladstone, Lloyd George and Attlee, although that was not recognised at the time by the socialists for whom feminism, anti-racism and humanitarianism were subsidiary questions. In 1965 the TUC had called on government to implement equal pay and equal opportunity for women and in 1968 militant action by women sewing machinists at Ford’s triggered, via Barbara Castle, the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
Accompanying this historic advance for working-class women, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partly decriminalised homosexuality and an Abortion Act in 1967 legalised abortion. In 1969 the establishment of the Open University democratised access to higher education, and capital punishment was ended for nearly all offences. Wilson also supported film-making and the arts, kept out of the Vietnam War, and ended Britain’s ‘East of Suez’ imperialism. Without the 1960 correction the Gaitskellites might have remained in place, unelectable for ever.
The Fifth Correction (1972)
In 1966, after winning a second election with a huge vote for Labour, Wilson was beset by an economic crisis and the government moved to the right. In 1967 the pound was devalued, and there were spending cuts to the NHS, education and housing. Unemployment soared above one million while party membership slumped. In 1969 the controversial white paper, In Place of Strife, proposing reform of trade unions, divided the Cabinet, and in 1970 Labour lost a general election they were expected to win.
The upsurge that now ensued once again originated outside parliament, with trade unions and social movements. There were passionate demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In 1971 the first demonstrations by the Women’s Liberation Movement took place. There were spectacular campaigns over homelessness, such as the occupation in London of an empty skyscraper, Centre Point, in 1974.
The most serious ‘uprising’ came from the trade union movement. A full-scale miners’ strike began in 1972 and later in the year the Pentonville Five dockworkers were released from prison after the TUC, astonishingly, threatened to call the first general strike since 1926. In 1973, three million trade unionists protested on the streets against the Industrial Relations Act. The labour unrest of 1970-74 “dwarfed its predecessor of 1910-14 in terms of its daring, its comprehensiveness and its success”.
The fifth correction may be dated to the Labour Party conference of 1972. Subsequently, Labour’s Programme for Britain (1973), was hailed by Michael Foot as “the finest socialist programme I have seen in my lifetime”. Famously, Labour’s radical manifesto of February, 1974, promised “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people”. Labour would legislate to prevent discrimination against women and racial minorities, as well as introduce disability benefits, free family planning, nursery education, and the final end of selective education.
After election in 1974 Labour passed the Health and Safety at Work Act (which saved many lives), the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act (promoting equal opportunities at work), the 1975 Employment Protection Act (which included maternity leave) and the 1976 Race Relations Act (against racial discrimination). Thus the correction of 1972 had reversed Labour’s right-wing drift, won two elections, and brought about radical legislative benefits all within four years.
The Sixth Correction (1980)
In the aftermath of the oil crisis in 1973, another economic recession occurred in 1975 and once more the right of the party regained dominance. In 1976 the government borrowed from the IMF, who imposed strict conditions of austerity on the UK, and this curbed state expenditure on further left-wing projects. Finally, in 1977 prime minister Jim Callaghan made a pact with the Liberals in order to stay in power, thus ending any hope of a (peaceful) socialist revolution which some on the left had dreamed of during the correction of 1972-74.
It was not just the flagging economy that was dragging Labour to the right but a change in the structure of society. In 1978 Eric Hobsbawm wrote an article in Marxism Today, the innovative left-wing journal edited by Martin Jacques, called The Forward March of Labour Halted?. Britain’s foremost Marxist historian analysed deindustrialisation and evidenced the decline of the manual working class and the labour movement since 1951. It was later generally agreed that his analysis was correct, although the conclusions he drew were hotly disputed.
Indeed, the situation was more serious than Hobsbawm thought. By the 1970s globalisation was eroding the viability of social democracy and Communism, both of which relied on a centralised nation-state in control of a national economy.
In 1980 came the sixth correction, prepared in 1977-79 by an upsurge of trade union and social militancy. The correction took political shape when left reformist, Michael Foot, was elected Labour Party leader with the support of the left. However, this time was different. The unions did not attract the public sympathy they had in 1972 and the correction did not bring the usual gains to the Labour cause. Hobsbawm’s pessimism was justified.
Instead came a serious right-wing backlash. In 1981 four leading figures from the right broke away from the Labour Party and founded the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In alliance with the Liberals, they diverted millions of votes from Labour. Unsurprisingly, Labour was defeated in the elections of 1983, 1987 and 1992.
Tony Benn (pictured above), the de facto leader of the Labour left, was aware of the three corrections since Attlee (1960, 1972, 1980), although he did not call them ‘corrections’ but three ‘waves’ of struggle against ‘revisionism’, and he dated them to 1959, the late 1960s, and 1979-80. What he did not appreciate was that this wave was not going to work its usual magic. The breakaway by the SDP, dividing the Labour vote, was going to handicap Labour for well over a decade.
More profoundly, the combination of financialisation, deindustrialisation and globalisation was the biggest transformation of British capitalism since the advent of the industrial revolution. Even if a Labour government had been elected in the 1980s it would not have been able to resurrect a social democratic programme of central planning any more than the Soviet Union President, Mikhail Gorbachev, was able to breathe new life into Communism. Henceforth the left would have to forsake notions of a superior Fabian elite or a vanguard party handing down doctrines, strategies or central planning from on high to social movements below.
It was fitting, therefore, that the revival of Labour after the 1980 correction started with municipal socialism. It was no longer possible to impose ‘socialism’ by directives from the state, but local government could be more hegemonic and ‘garden’ social values as they sprouted up organically from below. Thus, in the 1980s left-wingers took control of many local councils across the country and tried to unite together, in some ‘rainbow coalition’, all the social movements of women, workers, ethnic minorities, gays and greens. For their pains they were dubbed by the press as ‘loony-left councils’.
wo of the leading ‘loony-left councillors’ were Ken Livingstone, elected in 1987 as an MP in Brent, and Jeremy Corbyn, elected in 1983 as an MP in Islington. Livingstone had become the leader of the Greater London Council in 1981 and in 2000 and 2004 he was elected Mayor of London. He was the most successful left-wing politician of the day, before Corbyn’s victory in 2015.
Livingstone and Corbyn were just one part of a new socialist movement in the 1980s that, like the old ILP, was rooted, simultaneously, both in local community and global humanity. Symbolised, perhaps, by the Live Aid concert of 1985, it appealed to common humanity and human rights, encouraging left hegemony not from the top down but from the grass roots upwards. The arrival of the Green Party on the political scene, with its concern for the whole planet, reinforced the same perspective.
Such an outlook was not far from the ILP’s socialism in which the Labour Party had been grounded – the ILP was not so much a party as “a way of life” said Brockway. That approach had been marginalised during the Cold War by (Fabian) social democracy and Soviet Communism but, with their demise, it now re-emerged. In the 1960s Raymond Williams had bemoaned its loss, and “blamed this not only on the Fabians’ imposition of a utilitarian outlook but also on the uncompromising economism of the Marxists who opposed them.” However, by the end of the 1980s, the ‘socialism of humanity’ was back, still playing music, still adamant for its principles, but wearing new clothes.
The recovery of Labour at national level was of a different nature. Severely damaged by the SDP defections, it was not until 1997 that Labour won its next election and, by then, it had in Tony Blair a right-wing leader. Nonetheless the 1997 victory still obeyed the rule that Labour cannot be elected (as opposed to re-elected) without a radical programme. Blair’s programme included legislation on human rights; child care; devolution in Scotland, Wales and London; abolition of the House of Lords; consideration of proportional representation; a Freedom of Information Act; a minimum wage; and greatly increased spending on health and education. Blair claimed it was the biggest programme of constitutional reform ever undertaken in a democracy.
However, the policies were not from Blair’s New Labour, but inherited from his predecessors, John Smith, Neil Kinnock and Foot. Devolution and abolition of the Lords dated back to Hardie. Though not enamoured of New Labour, the left was nonetheless enthusiastic for this programme. Corbyn named as his “proudest moment in politics” cycling home after voting for the minimum wage under Blair’s leadership in 1998.
The Seventh Correction (2015)
Disillusionment with Blair was fairly swift, despite his undoubted gifts as a communicator. Not only had he felt obliged to dilute several policies that were promised in 1997 but from 2001 his own New Labour policies started to appear and these proved unsatisfactory to many Labour voters, especially those on the left uneasy about the marketisation of public services and the proliferation of Private Finance Initiatives.
In the 2001 general election there was a drop in Labour’s vote of nearly three million and turnout plunged below 60 per cent. By the 2010 election, after two more terms of New Labour, Labour’s vote had crashed to its lowest level since 1918, at only 29 per cent, and that barely shifted in 2015.
Unease in the party deepened under Brown since ethical questions raised about the Iraq war and the use of torture (by rendition) were multiplied by the banking crisis of 2008 and the crisis over MPs’ expenses in 2009. Within the party, New Labour tried to keep the left at bay by restricting political debate, locally and at conference, but this depoliticised not only MPs but also local councillors, many of whom came to regard themselves not as political representatives, but only as administrators.
Nonetheless, the economic crisis of 2008 opened up a wide-ranging cultural and ethical debate. Whereas in the 1950s, debate on the left was conducted in the collectivist terms of state and class, debate in the 21st century revolved around either self-interest and identity or ethical appeals to our common humanity against the divisions of class, sex and race.
In 2009 The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson responded to the economic crisis by initiating a debate about equality. It was followed by Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) by Thomas Piketty, and books by Danny Dorllng and Owen Jones. For the first time, such debates were amplified on social media through Facebook and Twitter, short-circuiting the press.
The literary critic, Terry Eagleton, who had oscillated previously between Catholic ethics and Althusserian Marxism, now arrived at an ‘ethical Marxism’, after realising that ethics and politics are “not separate spheres but different viewpoints on the same object…” He found in Marx that economic analysis was always interwoven with ethical passion. In Why Marx was Right (2011) he argued: “In line with his Judaic legacy, Marx was a strenuously moral thinker.”
Similarly, Naomi Klein identified a necessary linkage between green and ethical discussion (connected since the fate of the planet was also the fate of humanity). She echoed Kollontai in warning political parties that it was not possible in a democracy to win the argument on climate change by appealing to self-interest alone. They must also forge alliances around “a moral imperative”.
From 2013, a new upsurge began. Protests and strikes, notably by doctors and nurses, but also by other employees such as railway workers, proliferated in the next few years. The upsurge may be dated precisely to February 2013 when the People’s Assembly against Austerity was launched. Its initial supporters included Benn, Corbyn, McDonnell, Caroline Lucas and leading trade unionists. Reflecting an ethical sense of injustice at the burden being imposed on lower and middle income groups by the banking crisis of 2008, its branches soon spread across the country.
Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. After Labour’s two successive election defeats, first under the right-wing Gordon Brown in 2010 and then under the insufficiently reformist Ed Miliband in 2015, the Corbyn correction re-energised the party. His victory stunned the press and shocked the stalwarts of New Labour who had convinced themselves that “non-voters do not vote” and were therefore amazed to find that a ‘non-voting’ younger generation who chanted Corbyn’s name at music festivals did, after all, vote. They had found something to vote for.
Corbyn won because it was felt he hoisted a bright flag of honesty and principle above the desolate mud-flats of double-talk and triangulation. It was agreed that Corbyn, on his bike going to tend his allotment, was not a synthetic politician but ‘authentic’. Researchers discovered that even at school he had been driven by “a very moral sense of what was right for society”. When he became a vegetarian it was for ethical reasons (“I got attached to the pigs”). During the expenses scandal of 2009 Corbyn had claimed the smallest expenses of any MP.
Corbyn consciously looked back to the left Labour tradition, revering not only Benn and Bevan but Lansbury and Hardie. His message was an ethical socialism: “Corbyn appealed for a new type of society where ‘we each care for all, everybody caring for everybody else: I think it’s called socialism’.” To this end he often ended a speech by calling for action “together”.
‘Together’ was a key word in his political vocabulary. Quoting Rachel Shabi on how he was “binding together” groups divided by “rampant individualism”, Mark Perryman in The Corbyn Effect said: “None of this would appear either new or all that threatening to those steeped in the Labour tradition of Keir Hardie and Ellen Wilkinson…”
For any Labour leader to win power they must, given the absence of media support, exert ethical authority. MacDonald and Attlee exercised such authority because their opponents had taken the country into war, unnecessarily it was thought. In 1964 Wilson could refer to his anti-war stand of 1951, and turn the plight of the scandal-hit Macmillan government into an ethical indictment by attacking a decadent ruling class. Even Blair was able to take the high moral ground after the turpitude of John Major’s MPs in the cash-for-questions affair. But Corbyn did not have to talk up his ethics. He had voted against all three disastrous wars (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) and from the start he had opposed austerity.
The Corbyn correction led to a dramatic revival in Labour’s fortunes. In 2015 membership was down to 221,247 but by July 2016, it was 515,000. In the 2017 general election the Labour vote share rose from 30.4 per cent in 2015 to 40 per cent. This rise of 9.6 per cent was the biggest jump in vote share for Labour since 1945. In parliament Corbyn forced policy retreats on the May government with regard to tax credits, cuts in disability benefits, and the Saudi prisons contract.
His only problem was that he was constantly under attack from the right-wing MPs of his own party, even during the 2017 election campaign, which Labour might otherwise have won. As with the SDP in 1981, the Labour right preferred a Labour defeat to victory under a left Labour leader.
Nobody can predict how the Labour Party will fare after the correction of 2015. The history of such ‘lurches to the left’ (the media’s term for what are here described as ‘corrections’) does show, however, that none of the left-wing prophets became a prime minister – neither Hardie, nor Lansbury, nor Bevan, nor Benn – nor did any of the left-wing ‘parties within the party’ (the ILP, the Socialist League, the Tribune Group) exercise power.
What happens is that a subsequent prime minister introduces some, but only some, of the policies that a prophet has campaigned for. Instead of a full-blown socialism the prophets are rewarded only with radical reforms – which may be universal suffrage or the welfare state – but these are enough to secure them the gratitude of posterity. Acknowledgement is granted also to the prime ministers who, for all their faults, did the decent thing. Not only are John Stuart Mill and the Chartists honoured, but also Gladstone and Lloyd George.
Corbyn was, from the beginning, unlikely to become prime minister. Nothing is impossible of course – over Brexit the Conservatives may, for example, split. But what is more likely, from the history, is that in the 2020s there will emerge a Labour prime minister who will be able to implement ‘the best of Corbyn’, and make a lasting contribution to social progress, just as happened after previous corrections.
And, of course, it is not beyond possibility that one day some such correction may achieve Corbyn’s dream of a socialist society.
This is a slightly edited version of an article that first appeared in the Labour Party in Historical Perspective, edited by David Morgan and published by the Socialist History Society.
Graham Taylor is the author of Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism published by Lawrence & Wishart and available to buy here for £20.00.
Graham Taylor’s ILP pamphlet, Ada Salter and the Origins of Ethical Socialism, published by the ILP can be ordered now from our Publications page.
 Morgan, Kenneth: Labour People (1989 ed of 1987), p. 24
 Hardie, James Keir: Serfdom to Socialism (2015 ed of 1907), p.80
 Jefferys, Kevin: Leading Labour: From Keir Hardie to Tony Blair (1999), p. 16
 Callow, John: Introduction to From Serfdom to Socialism by Keir Hardie (2015 ed of 1907), pp. 26-28.
 Benn, Caroline: Keir Hardie (1992), p. 260
 Bryan, Pauline (ed): What Would Keir Hardie Say? (2015), p. 32
 Jefferys, Kevin: Leading Labour: From Keir Hardie to Tony Blair (1999), p. 27
 Morgan, Kenneth: Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist (1997 ed of 1975), p. 253
 Taylor, Graham: Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism (2016), p. 121
 Laybourn, Keith in Stop the First World War! (SHS pamphlet) (2016), pp. 4-24
 Taylor, Graham: Ada Salter: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism (2016), pp. 138-40, p. 146, p. 180
 Kollontai, Alexandra: Selected Articles and Speeches (1984), p. 67
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