Defend Jeremy Corbyn
It would be wrong to presume the attempted coup is merely or even mostly an attack on Corbyn himself. The extreme personal focus is due to a mixture of intellectual vacuity (the plotters genuinely have no useful ideas) and the fact that the only way they can win is by breaking Corbyn and forcing him to resign as he would be likely to win any leadership contest. It would also be imprecise to present the coup attempt as an attack on the left by the right, it is rather an attack on both the capacity of the membership to exert any control over the Parliamentary Party and, even more importantly, an attack on the potential of the party to be anything other than subordinate to the purposes of capital and the state. Of the early 1960s, Raymond Williams argued of the Labour Party, Co-operative movement and Trade Unions, “the point has been reached when each of these institutions is discovering that the place in the existing society proposed for it, if it agrees to limit its aims, is essentially subordinate: the wide challenge has been drained out, and what is left can be absorbed within existing terms. For many reasons this has sapped the morale of the institutions, but also fortunately led to a crisis and argument within them.” This line of argument is even truer today and the crisis, therefore, sharper and harder to resolve as the benefits of incorporation into existing social patterns no longer offer the meaningful, if limited, benefits for both the working-class as a whole and for particular sections of the working-class in particular that they once did.
This deeper question of what Labour is for is the context for the demand that Labour be “electable”. Firstly, especially in the argument Labour can achieve nothing outside power and, with this, the implication that everything Labour will do in power is positive, there is the exclusively parliamentary ethos which has been extensively discussed. However, against Ralph Miliband, “parliamentary socialism” is not Labour’s original sin but a consequence of a deeper set of struggles and their resolutions aiming at the sundering of the Parliamentary Party from the struggles, culture and institutions of the working-class that have been able to generate the alternative purposes that would go beyond subordination and compromise. It is widely asserted that Corbyn is “unelectable” whilst it is imagined Angela Eagle or perhaps Tom Watson or the apparently soft leftist, but anointed by Tony Blair, Lisa Nandy, are “electable”. There is little evidence for this beyond the increasingly flimsy assertion “elections are won from the centre” and the Parliamentary Party’s level of concern about winning elections under the current leadership has been clearly demonstrated by their behaviour and the damage it will do at a time when a snap election is possible. “Electability” does not mean being likely to win an election but an exclusively parliamentary orientation underpinned by absolute conformity to the purposes of existing power with the ever deferred promise of gains one day. At the extreme end of this line of thinking is the possible attempt by some in the PLP to break completely with the Party as a whole and establish themselves on a purely Parliamentary level.
The crucial point was made by both McDonnell and Corbyn at Monday’s rally, McDonnell lucidly opposed “the democracy of the movement” to an extremely hollowed out representative democracy with contempt for ordinary people’s capacities. Corbyn argued any meaningful rights or reforms anywhere (the perspective was explicitly internationalist) have been won through struggle, often struggle that is opposed violently by those with power. There is an increasingly late 18th- early 19th century flavour to the current situation with Burkean representatives arguing for the autonomy of their mature judgement from any collective, external control against what is presented as an immature, potentially violent mob. Moreover, this equation of those calling for movement against representative democracy allows the absurd propagandistic identification of people making demands on representatives through protest with fascist assassins.
It should be clear what is at stake in defending Corbyn and also the contempt the PLP have for us. However, to defend Corbyn is not to say either that a radical socialist programme would guarantee electoral victory or that winning an election is unimportant. There is a long socialist project involving building a socialist culture and shaping consciousness whose temporality is in potential contradiction with that of winning elections, let alone with that of the media cycle. Part of the problem is that Corbyn came to the leadership much more through the inability of the crisis discussed by Williams to be resolved (Ed Miliband’s floundering leadership was a symptom of this) than through mass social movement mobilisation, although the anti-war movement and part of the student movement provided some basis. The absence of a movement has meant much of what would have been the work of the movement has happened (or failed to happen) either entirely within Labour or in close contact with it with Momentum, in particular, this has meant the demands of electoralism have often limited the work of movement building. As Hilary Wainwright argues, Labour as a political party is directed towards the taking and exercising of state power rather than “raising and extending socialist consciousness and grass-roots organisation among working people in general”. Should Corbyn survive, the question of the contradictions between the electoralist Party and the movement, such as it exists, are going to be central. Should Corbyn go, it is likely (though not certain) that the energy that his campaign produced will not go into social movement building elsewhere. One benefit of the coup attempt, however, is that it appears that Momentum have grasped the blackmail involved in the demand by the right for compromise (that is subordination) in the name of electoralism.
There is no compromise candidate, it is Corbyn or a candidate of the right. It is important to note that to talk about the Labour right is not necessarily to talk about “Blairites,” and to argue figures like Eagle and Watson are “Blairite” is to miss how they will attempt to deploy their traditionalist, Old Labour Trade Union right credentials to appeal to sections of the left. It should be clear, although it is not to everyone, that there is no alternative candidate who possesses all Corbyn’s considerable virtues but is also in possession of a smooth telegenic charm and conventional media skills. It is not just that any other genuinely left candidate (John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Clive Lewis) is a friend and ally of Corbyn but also that they would face exactly the same or even more hostility from the media and Parliamentary Labour Party. Among a large number of commentators there is bad faith- bad faith need not be insincerity, it can be the assertion of the meaningfulness of that sincerity even when it contradicts the concrete situation- in attempting to slip from the obvious truth that due to Corbyn’s age a replacement needed to be found and prepared in the medium-term due to his age, as any serious socialist project for Labour, let alone the UK as a whole (or what’s left), is a project of years, even decades, to the argument a new, fresh-faced left leader exists now. The difference is both around time, preparing a replacement for Corbyn is a matter of five years not nine months and leftism, Lewis and Cat Smith are left in a way Nandy or Owen Smith with his support for the benefit cap are not. Ironically, however, if Corbyn survives, his being forced to promote people like Lewis and Cat Smith should provide vital experience for a future left leader.
The problem of Corbyn’s poor media skills, which has often been behind (or if one were being more cynical, the pretext) the demand he step aside, is to a large extent a symptom of the lack of a movement. Whilst Corbyn and his team have clearly made avoidable mistakes with media handling that must be avoided in future, a politician with Corbyn’s values (so also McDonnell or Abbott), particularly his anti-imperialism and refusal to compromise on anti-migrant policies or rhetoric will never receive a favourable hearing. There is, therefore, only so much that can be done with the media, what can be done, though, with tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of committed socialists is that the programme can be argued for and presented elsewhere in workplaces, communities, in everyday interactions, as Ralph Miliband argues, “programmes have to be lived, explained, defended, fought for — not only at elections and not only in spasms of parliamentary rhetoric but, over a multitude of diverse issues, great and small.” With this, the importance of the media would recede.
Corbyn supporters, unfortunately, will have to work harder and get more involved. This is not just a question of conversations and arguing for programmes but also of attending meetings and doing boring party work. With a hostile media, election victories require more work on the ground including canvassing, delivering leaflets, other forms of campaigning. Attending and contributing to party meetings is another necessary part of this struggle, whilst new forms of democracy and accountability need to be developed, for the moment the Party meeting is the vehicle for its democracy. These meetings will also become more democratic, their lifeless form humanised both by an influx of new members and as vital rule changes like mandatory reselections empower the party base against the MPs’ desire for autonomy. Reselections also make it vital to begin to think about future candidates for council or parliamentary seats, it is necessary to provide support and encouragement and proper training and strategic planning, especially for left candidates from under-represented groups. Many of the problems Corbyn faces are real but can be resolved by harder work, more serious commitment and better organisation from his supporters.
Alongside a greater degree of commitment from the left in Labour, there are a whole set of more long-term questions to resolve, on a number of levels, around where Labour is losing support. These can only be briefly mentioned here. It is true that the extent of Labour’s lost Northern and Midlands working-class support outside of major cities is overstated by those attacking Corbyn in the name of endorsing “very legitimate concerns over immigration” (or whatever other formulation is used to attempt to dignify not only pandering to but actively producing racism). Firstly, Corbyn is in many ways well placed to address if not these concerns directly but significant aspects of what is behind them with one of his strengths as a communicator an ability to present calmly without compromising with racist sentiments these antagonisms as a consequence of the effects of capitalism in workplace exploitation and of government neglect especially in housing and welfare provision. This line while a useful starting point, remains overly economistic, attempting to dissolve consciousness, in this case racist aspects of consciousness directly into the base. These questions are also, complicatedly, cultural, they are also grounded in a set of geographical contradictions. To some extent this is “culture” as an obvious cover for straightforward racism. However, there is a whole set of other contradictions operating, which often include deeply regressive moments as well as possibilities. The most notably regressive feature, though in a context which can be unpicked, is the clinging to whiteness and masculinity as the only privileges remaining for that section of the working-class that benefited most from Labour and the Trade Union’s integration into postwar society in a context (of now largely gone) economic growth and the limited but meaningful victories resulting from this. With the loss of much of the institutional culture of the working-class, which was both meaning giving and the basis for material improvements the grounding for the kind of conversations and development of solidarity that could be the basis for opposition to anti-migrant feeling is substantially more difficult. It is unclear what is the correct way to address these problems, which are problems of the coming together of different temporalities: the acceleration of the long postwar economic crisis from 1945 in the 1970s as it intersected with the global economic crisis, a class crisis going hand in hand with the later part of this with particularly cruel process of class recomposition and with it the destruction of the institutions and culture of the class and with this and further mediated by other ideological work major changes in consciousness. However, whilst this crisis will take major thought and practical efforts to resolve, it is only the left that can resolve it without supporting and furthering racism.
In many ways, if Corbyn survives, the attempted coup will have helped. Things have been clarified, not only for Corbyn himself and for his supporters, but also for some party loyalists, especially in the Trade Unions. There is no space for compromise and the autonomy of the PLP has to be limited. It is striking that even the very cautious Len McCluskey has suggested he will support deselections.
The defence of Corbyn is not the defence of an individual, even an admirable and, as the present situation shows, extremely brave one, but the defence of a possibility (and at the moment it is only a possibility) that Labour can offer and generate alternative purposes to those given by existing economic, political and social power. To defend Corbyn is also, though, to will and then engage in the thought and practical effort required to resolve the serious problems articulating, defending and finding ways to institutionalise and implement a modern socialist programme.