The Terrifying Hubris of Corbynism
(FYI — a further article responding to some criticisms of this piece, and expanding the arguments a little, can be found here: https://medium.com/@matatatatat/corbynism-without-guarantees-310d760ea5a6#.185nqp9aj)
The Corbyn phenomenon has rapidly become the apotheosis of the conspiracy thinking that pervades contemporary politics, both on the right and left. This means it is extremely difficult to write about ‘Corbynism’ with any clarity or objectivity. Separating what is actually going on from the mediatised fantasy world of vicious Trots, rabid antisemities, and the puppet masters of Portland Communications is virtually impossible, precisely because so many of the key actors believe themselves to be living in that world.
One thing that can be said for certain is that British politics does not currently have a functioning opposition party. Regardless of who is to blame (and it is certainly not Corbyn alone), a parliamentary party whose leader cannot count on the support of his MPs or fill all the positions of a shadow cabinet is not able to hold the government to account. Corbyn supporters presumably expect that if he wins the forthcoming leadership election, the 172 MPs who signed the motion of no confidence will have no choice but to slink back into position. This seems unlikely, and even if they did so, the situation would not hold for long. Equally likely is another leadership challenge, followed by a party split if Corbyn refuses to step down or wins a further contest.
It is striking how few Corbyn supporters seem concerned by the gravity of this situation. Their argument is that the party membership voted for Corbyn, 200,000 people have signed up in recent weeks to vote for him again, and that therefore the parliamentary party should fall in line. Even those critical of Corbyn’s performance up to now, or those who do not dismiss his poor showing in opinion polls, argue that this a matter of principle — that this is a battle between the membership and the PLP over the way power is distributed within the party. It is a fight for its very soul. There can be no compromise, even if it means the outright destruction of the party’s institutional structures.
This argument is closely connected to that deriding the need for a Labour leader to be ‘electable’. When Corbyn was first elected, many people (including myself) believed that given none of the other candidates looked like winning an election in 2020 — particularly after the implementation of pro-Tory boundary changes — it was worth ‘playing the long game’. Only the most naïve thought someone like Corbyn could win an election in the face of a rabidly rightwing media and distorted FPTP electoral system. Rather, this was a ’10 to 15 year project’ — a chance to rebuild Labour from the bottom up, to turn it into a living, breathing ‘social movement’, a 21st century party of the radical left, ready to take power when the next financial crisis hit and the scales fell from Tory voters’ eyes.
The ‘social movement’ argument is the key to understanding why so many people see Corbyn as the only option for Labour, the reason why no other politician in the party is regarded as capable of anything except a collapse into reheated ‘Blairism’ and outright racism (never mind the fact that Jo Cox — targeted by a fascist for her explicit support for migrants — co-wrote an article calling for Corbyn’s resignation a month before her murder, indicating that Corbyn does not have a monopoly on anti-racism within the party). The gargantuan size of the new membership is constantly invoked — 300,000, 400,000, perhaps a million one day! Whatever Corbyn’s failures as a leader — his lack of policy proposals, his tepid public appearances, his catastrophic media management — the fact that so many people are joining the party is a sign that British politics is changing. If only the party could get enough members, enough boots on the ground, it can counteract the power of the media, build concrete connections with local communities and activist groups, and fundamentally shift the terrain of politics — the very meaning of ‘electability’ itself — for good.
That’s the theory. The practice is rather different. My own CLP doubled its membership during Corbyn’s leadership campaign, with 300 people signing up. In the past year, I would generously estimate that perhaps 10 of those 300 has had any concrete involvement with the party (going to meetings, canvassing, delivering leaflets, taking up positions in the local party, running for council). The local Momentum group has had a little more success in turnout, though the majority of people attending were already involved in other campaigns, and the most that has been organised has been a few fundraising socials and the odd pro-Corbyn demo. This indicates that Momentum will be most effective in areas which already have a wide range of activist groups and networks (ie places with a high density of population due to a strong local economy) but far less so in places further away from the urban centres of capital accumulation, where existing political activism is thin on the ground, if not non-existent.
The point here is not to bash people for lack of activity — there are all sorts of reasons why participation might be difficult, from lack of time to the labyrinthine structure of the party rulebook, to the deeply, deeply dull nature of most political work. It is merely to say that simply pointing to the numbers of new members says nothing about the existence or quality of a ‘social movement’. For the vast majority of ‘new members’, joining the party was not a promise of future activity, but a gesture of general support — perhaps similar to signing a Change.org petition — for whatever they thought Corbyn as Labour leader symbolised.
In this sense, Corbynism has been (at least up to now) as much of a top-down mediated phenomenon as anything under Blair. It is rather a simulation of a social movement — a form of clicktivism, of gesture politics based on an identification with ‘what Jeremy stands for’. It makes people feel like they are part of a ‘social movement’ without having to engage in the tricky, boring work of actually building one. This is why the figure of Corbyn himself is so vital, why his tenacity in holding onto the leadership trumps questions of whether he is actually able to wield it in parliament. Because if Corbynism actually was a social movement that had developed over time and culminated in, rather than started with, Corbyn’s leadership victory — if Momentum really was the rebirth of Militant, with well-organised new members embedded within their local parties, taking up positions of power, standing for office — then the importance of Corbyn himself would be correspondingly reduced. The fact that everything rides on Corbyn staying in power testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the ‘social movement’ of which he is the supposed avatar. (On a related, if slightly tangential note, this is also why it seems slightly disingenous to frame the exclusion from the leadership electorate of those who have joined in recent weeks specifically to support Corbyn as an issue of ‘party democracy’. Those 200,000 are, at present, merely a segment of unusually vocal and politically engaged floating voters (perhaps from the Greens or 2010-era Liberal Democrats). The idea that the views of someone who signed up online a week ago should be immediately equated with a longterm member who has been delivering leaflets for years is one dripping with entitlement. It is another clicktivist delusion. On the other hand, the bizarre decision to give those who can afford £25 the chance to buy a vote is genuinely outrageous.)
This leads on to the most fundamental problem facing Corbynism — the difference between ‘extra-parliamentary activism’ and a ‘political party’. The aim of most extra-parliamentary activist groups is not to take control of the state (at present none would be capable of doing so in any case) but to make demands on it — to force it to change laws or provide resources for whatever the particular ends of the group are. The tactics of such groups change according to political persuasion, ranging from direct action to A-to-B marches. The latter form has been the basis of Corbyn’s own political activity throughout his life, particularly in the Stop The War movement. The aims of an organisation like Stop the War are generally to get as many people on the streets on a march or rally as possible, in the hope that eventually sheer quantity of numbers will turn into qualitative change, regardless of who is in power. The belief is that by repeating the same message over and over again, enough people — even if not a majority, or evenly distributed across the country — will be convinced to force the government to accede to their demands.
This is precisely the logic that lies behind the veneration of the hypertrophic growth of Labour membership, and the idea that such growth indicates a ‘groundswell’ of general support for Corbyn amongst the electorate, polls be damned. For a campaign group, 200,000 new members does indeed represent such a groundswell, and will bring them much closer to winning concessions from the state. For a political party, competing for the votes of 40 million people, the enthusiasm of 200,000 geographically unevenly distributed supporters with varying levels of commitment is, unfortunately, nowhere near as important.
Even more pertinently, the one thing that extra-parliamentary activism doesn’t have to worry about, unlike parliamentary parties, is winning over swing voters in Nuneaton or Croydon. The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism, and certainly not a mechanism as freakishly weighted as First Past The Post. There is thus no need to think about ways to tailor messages to deal with the particular concerns of particular groups of voters in particular areas. In this sense, this form of activism is not really political. Or, rather, it is political in a very different sense to that of working out how to win elections so as to actually take control and use state power, as opposed to merely asking things of it. Interestingly this distinction is recognised by both hardnosed Mandelson types and those in the more radical/anarchic sphere of activism, but it is completely missed by the mainstream ‘socialist’ or ‘green-liberal’ left who are the main constituency of Corbynism.
The latter are much closer in form to moral or religious crusades, or perhaps a charity appeal, than marxism or anarcho-syndicalism. They are defined by a complete lack of strategic thinking, and are utterly devoid of cunning. Here, faith in the ‘truth’ of the core demand is all that is deemed necessary, replacing any analysis of, say, objective conditions or the workings of commodity fetishism. Rather than stopping to ask why people may think the way they do, to think about how their material conditions, their relationship to capital and forms of work and social reproduction, may affect their understanding of the world, this approach is instead based on the idea that people who disagree just haven’t been exposed to the ‘truth’ enough yet. This is one reason why Corbyn’s personal example of tenacious honesty — as a politician who just ‘says what he thinks’, who keeps on campaigning in the way he has always done, regardless of whether people agree with him or not — is so highly regarded by activists and fellow believers. This unalloyed proclamation of faith explains his support far more than his actual policy platform, which in real, as opposed to rhetorical, terms is hardly different from that of Ed Miliband.
If the aims of activists happen to coincide with the deeper direction of travel of political culture as a whole, then applying this kind of faith-based logic to a political party may be effective. If they do not — and the 2015 general election result and the EU referendum seem to indicate that the mainstream of British political culture is moving away from Corbynism rather than closer to it — then as a strategy it has serious flaws. Those who adhere to the ‘10–15 year project’ justification of Corbynism believe that the impossibility of a Labour victory in 2020 alleviates those flaws. If electoral victory is out of the question regardless of who is in charge, bringing down the whole edifice of the party as it currently exists in order to gradually rebuild it form the bottom up as a ‘social movement’ may be worth the risk. Political culture today might be pointing in the opposite direction, but who is to say that ten years of activism based around an ever increasing Labour membership won’t pull it around.
However, Brexit has pulled the rug from under the feet of this argument. If such a ‘spare decade’ ever existed, it certainly does not now. If Theresa May were to call an election in the next few months against a Corbyn-headed Labour party that is barely functioning, the polls indicate an increased Conservative majority, alongside the real possibility that UKIP could finally make a parliamentary breakthrough. An increase in the number of new Labour members attending ward meetings in urban seats Labour already holds does nothing to prevent this. We would then be faced with the situation where a strengthened right wing Conservative government, backed up by UKIP, would be the sole participants in Brexit negotiations. Freed from the constraints of the European legal structure, including the European Convention on Human Rights, the right would have a free hand to reconstitute the British polity in its entirety. Everything would be up for grabs, from abortion rights, the rights of Trade Unions to exist (let alone go on strike), to the spectre of forced deportations. This is an unprecedented situation.
At the moment, the one thing standing in the way of this genuinely terrifying prospect is the Labour party, as the only institution nominally of the left with the capacity to take hold of and administer state power. For all the conservative tenor of the present moment, the divisions of Brexit and the fact that boundary changes have not yet taken place does open up the possibility that a competent Labour electoral campaign aimed at the 48% (as well as those who voted Leave but are now wavering — or will be once a recession hits) could achieve a hung parliament — especially if a ‘progressive alliance’ agreement prevents a split in the left/liberal vote in Tory marginals. There is as yet no evidence that Corbyn is willing or able to run such a campaign. Brexit was not his fault, but his reticence was clear to see, as was the total inability to communicate with anyone outside of his core support, something exacerbated by the utter failure to generate the sort of sustained press coverage that is the mainstay of a national campaign. His response to the Leave vote was to call for the immediate invocation of Article 50, without laying out any terms or demands — or even calling for reassurances on the status of EU migrants living in the UK (a task that was left to Andy Burnham). This was a political misstep that has caused huge confusion as to his actual position. It is still not clear whether he has one. These kind of strategic errors could possibly be excused if circumstances were still as they were when he was elected leader, when he still had time. Unfortunately, Brexit means that time is the one thing the Corbyn ‘long term project’ does not have.
If Corbyn wins the forthcoming leadership election, there is a real possibility that the party could split, or cease to function in any meaningful way. This outcome should be treated as a catastrophe by everyone on the left. Under FPTP, a Labour split would in effect mean the end of any left or centre left presence in Parliament, at the same time as all protection from the European legal system and convention on human rights dissolves. Without the institutional support of Labour as a political party, with at least the potential for direct access to state power, the only thing protecting the poor, the vulnerable, the unemployed, migrants and refugees will be their own actions, in concordance with those of already-existing activist groups unevenly distributed across the country. The idea that such groups — under-resourced, voluntarist, impermanent, fragile — are in any position to provide a defence against the combined forces of the state, a triumphant Tory right, UKIP and the far right is hubris of the most dangerous kind. To acknowledge that is not to pretend that Labour governments and councils have not contributed to the oppression of those people. But it is to reject the trite, ahistorical conclusion that there is absolutely no difference between a hard-right Conservative government and a centre-left Labour administration, particularly in a post-EU/ECHR context.
What, then, is to be done? There are no easy answers. But for a first step, all of those who have joined Labour over the past year should perhaps put their efforts into campaigning for Proportional Representation. It is only by getting rid of the farcical imbalance of FPTP that a Corbynist-style party has any chance of power (even if only as a minor partner in a coalition), and it would be far more effective in concrete terms than the membership reaching a million. Corbyn himself has had little to say about this issue, but McDonnell and Clive Lewis have intimated that a deal with the SNP, Greens, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru — and perhaps even UKIP — could be a possibility.
Secondly, the idea that Corbyn retaining the leadership is worth a Labour split (before any implementation of PR) has to be rejected outright. In the light of Brexit, the collapse of Labour as an institution would be an utter disaster. Corbyn should have cut a deal in the weeks after the mass resignations, using his influence among a membership which has decisively turned left to ensure there was a left candidate on the ballot, and then walked. Given that he has not done so, the possibility remains open for another candidate on the left to use Corbyn’s perceived ‘radicalism’ as a means of presenting themselves as a ‘realistic’ moderate — and being recognised as such by the media, even if their actual policy programme was more or less identical to that of the current leadership (save, perhaps, for the simplistic Counterfire-style presentation of foreign policy). That is an unprecedented opportunity, and one which would be Corbyn’s greatest gift to the Labour left, if only they would grasp it.