Why Corbyn won
Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership contest in 2015 against all expectations. He beat his opponents, an assortment of MPs from the Miliband, Brown, and Blair years, by a huge margin; the biggest of any political leader in British history. Corbyn is a lifelong and proud socialist who prior to being elected had, along with his campaign manager John McDonnell, achieved more politically outside the Labour party than he had ever managed inside. He was famous for being a principled anti-war MP and standing up to Tony Blair and the New Labour machine. Coming so soon after a disastrous Tory election triumph and a dismal Labour campaign, his victory stunned everyone.
As his name was announced as the winner in September 2015, there were loud cheers of applause as he shook hands with the other candidates whom he had completely thrashed. That was the extent of his honeymoon.
Since that moment, he has faced a sustained attack on his political authority not witnessed by any political leader in the modern era. At times it’s felt unbearable just watching it from afar. The sheer scale of the assault has been astonishing. At its heart this is about what Corbyn and the movement around him represent: a serious threat to break with the predominant capitalist dogma of the last 40 years, usually summarised by the term ‘neoliberalism’. For this reason, right wing and pro-capitalist forces inside and outside the Labour party have tried repeatedly to crush him and his supporters.
At no point have they come as close to succeeding as they did immediately after the EU referendum. At this point, Corbyn faced a wave of resignations that would have finished most leaders. But just as the Labour right had misjudged the appetite for Corbyn’s politics initially; they also overestimated their ability to depose Corbyn following the referendum result. Their coup would eventually fail. For people who project themselves as light on principle but strong on political judgement, they have repeatedly come up short on the latter.
The coup reached its height at around midday on Monday 27 June. By that point, we had seen shadow cabinet resignations come with a regularity of roughly one or two every fifteen minutes. By lunchtime, the majority of the 63 MPs who would eventually resign had already gone. In almost every case, they wrote self-absorbed letters pleading for Corbyn to step down and bemoaning several aspects of his leadership (but rarely challenged him on actual policy). As has always been the case with Corbyn, this wasn’t just an internal matter for the Labour party - the wider ruling class got involved too.
In an editorial entitled ‘Labour must act now to remove Jeremy Corbyn’, the Financial Times urged the plotters to continue their coup by saying: ‘What is now at stake is not the political survival of a single individual, but the fate of one of the two main parties that has dominated British politics for the past century’. In other words, the party which under Tony Blair had provided the most ruthlessly efficient ally to British business was under threat from a far left insurgency. The FT doesn’t often dedicate editorials to the Labour party, but they clearly felt it was worth their while to advocate the forced removal of Jeremy Corbyn.
The following day, Tuesday 28 June, the staunchly pro-Labour Daily Mirror gave over their entire front page to attack Corbyn. At the bottom of the page in big letters it simply said ‘Go now’. This sentiment was echoed by David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions the following day when he berated Corbyn by saying ‘For heaven’s’ sake man, go!’, prompting a handful of dumb Labour MPs to clap and cheer. By this point, nearly a week after the vote, in most other circumstances, it should have been game over. What Corbyn and his supporters faced wasn’t simply an internal revolt, but an attack from the British ruling class who were feeling threatened.
Brexit had thrown Britain into its biggest political crisis in decades. David Cameron had suddenly resigned, there was no clear future Prime Minister and Scottish Independence had suddenly re-emerged. The economy was at risk with the pound falling dramatically and the EU trying to make life difficult by pushing for a swift exit. In this context, the ruling class wanted stability, not a left wing movement that was trying to exploit the dissatisfaction with the system that had been so deeply exposed by the Leave vote. Corbyn had to go, and the movement around him pushed back and demoralised.
In the political rulebook that usually applied, the plan should have worked and Corbyn should have resigned.
Had that happened, it would have been a major defeat for everyone who had supported Corbyn’s leadership. This would have been even harder to take in the wake of Brexit, where working class division was exposed and racists were feeling emboldened. The offensive was deeply reactionary and undemocratic in its nature, surrendering to it would have led to deep demoralisation.
This attack on the left didn’t come from the place it was predicted to come from - the Tories and UKIP emboldened by Brexit - but rather from the pro-EU Liberal centre of British politics. In other words, the people most wedded to the neoliberal project that had been dealt a severe blow in the referendum reacted to the vote by going for the left and Corbyn. These figures included David Cameron, Stephen Kinnock, Tim Farron and others.
Tom Watson perhaps epitomised the nature of this offensive. Traditionally seen as a sort of a friend to the left, Watson led the court case to ensure that 130,000 people who had joined the Labour party since January wouldn’t be able to vote in the leadership election. As it became clear that Corbyn was going to win, Watson went about trying to make sure his shadow cabinet would be full of MPs who were determined to see him go.
It was from this position of the pro-capitalist political centre that the coup was launched and was able to do the most damage.
The fight back
One of the key reasons that Corbyn held on was the support of the major unions. This gave Corbyn a powerful base within the permanent structures of the Labour party and the organised working class. That support didn’t come because certain union leaders simply support Corbyn; some clearly don’t. It came because they understood the dynamic of what was happening: an anti-left attack from the right that would have left them less powerful. Many in the trade union bureaucracy gained little out of the Blair and Brown years, so would have found it difficult to see the benefit in a rightwing takeover. Also, some looked over their shoulder and remembered that many of their members and the bulk of their representative committees were either pro-Corbyn or simply against the coup on principle. Their support wasn’t free either, with issues such as Trident and immigration being two areas where union leaders have sought to exert pressure on the Labour leader. It’s also true that there were clear differences between unions and that the collective support for Corbyn got gradually weaker as the coup became more intense. Still, had that support not have been there or if open opposition had been expressed, then it’s very difficult to see how Corbyn could have stayed.
Corbyn also had an enormous mandate that was less than a year old. This meant that his power and political legitimacy didn’t come from a small group of individual MPs, but in the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who had got behind him
This gave him a political authority outside Westminster which provided a counterweight to the mutiny in the PLP.
Related to this is the issue that a lot of the MPs who resigned and many of the journalists who declared it was over do not seem to command the trust and respect they seem to think they do.
Their power base comes less and less from ordinary people and increasingly relies on their relationship with each other. This can be seen over Brexit, where Labour MPs who were most vocal in the coup such as Stephen Kinnock and Tristram Hunt had backed Remain (and blamed Corbyn for Brexit), but their own constituencies voted Leave by hefty margins.
In terms of the media, the limits of The Guardian’s ability to shepherd left wing opinion was exposed in 2015 when they decisively opposed Corbyn yet he still won, presumably thanks to many people who read the paper. Since then its relationship with the left in the age of Corbyn has only got worse. The Mirror is a more important paper for the left but it too was found wanting over its decision to get behind Owen Smith.
What this points to is a degree fracturing at the centre of politics, and the inability of powerful institutions to coral the opinion of working class people who are looking for an alternative. This could be seen as a product of the general crisis in society but it has been exposed and heightened by Brexit.
The effect is that when these figures and media groups go for Corbyn as they did over the coup, they do so from a position of less authority. This can be contrasted to the different power base that Corbyn enjoys, which doesn’t come from major institutions, but on the mobilisation of working class people. This is what the phrase ‘new politics’ is getting at.
It was this mobilisation of ordinary people which ultimately stopped Corbyn from being toppled immediately after the EU referendum. On the Monday after the result, when the majority of the shadow cabinet had resigned, the PLP met to discuss a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The motion itself had been brought about by the zombie-like figure of Margaret Hodge, but it had the rotten stench of death coming from several other walking corpses in the PLP.
Outside parliament that evening, something much different was happening. Over 5,000 people had turned out at short notice for a rally to defend Corbyn. This immediately changed the terrain upon which the coup was fought, and took it away from the closed doors of Westminster and into the streets. This wasn’t just about Corbyn, it symbolised ordinary people getting organised and trying to shape the crisis that was unfolding in front of them. And shape it they did. The crowd was not a passive block that night; it was a militant demonstration imposing itself on the political landscape and it’s political outlook was broadly anti-capitalist.
This event had a huge impact, not just on Corbyn and his allies but also on scores of people who were seeing a reactionary attack on the left unfolding at rapid speed. It sparked copy cat #KeepCorbyn rallies across the country. The re-emergence of the movement that had swept Corbyn to power in 2015 was crucial to guarantee his survival in that delicate moment. It provided a vital counterweight to the ruling class onslaught and because that onslaught was aimed at the whole radical left and anti-austerity movement, it was not just offering support for Corbyn but was also defending itself and its right to exist. In this sense, there was a different mood to the rallies that had been held a year prior.
At the #KeepCorbyn rally that was held in Cardiff on Friday 1 July, which I helped to organise, the crowd of several hundred represented a clear shift from the pro-Corbyn meeting that had been held in the city a year prior. At that event, a huge crowd had filled a conference hall to hear Corbyn speak. There were a few passionate contributions and palpable excitement, but it was a fairly top-down affair.
This time round, the mood was different. It was held outside the offices of Welsh Labour and the assembled crowd heard from militant trade unionists, community activists, workers in uniform and left wing Labour councillors. In one section of the rally, people who had become Labour members since the referendum result were lined up to speak about their reasons for joining the party. This diverse group of half a dozen, mostly young people went on the offensive as to why we had to resist the coup against Jeremy Corbyn. They had joined Labour as a response to the offensive and to defend Corbyn but also in reaction to the general political upheaval caused by the Brexit vote. Instead of simply joining and sitting back down again, they were now getting organised to shape the political world around them.
One of these new members was a local community worker. She told the crowd how she had never wanted to join any political party because it was all too often just about people in suits spinning lies. It was these same people who were now trying to depose Corbyn, someone with genuine political integrity. To huge applause, she spoke with real class anger at how the system was rigged against people like her and why we needed to change it. It was in these moments that the event became more than just a fleeting defence of a political leader, and began to address the political questions that had been thrown up by the referendum, and take aim at the system as a whole. Here was the potential for a movement to develop that could go beyond the confines of the Labour party.
These events took place up and down the country. In Liverpool, the local paper declared that 10,000 had turned out to see Corbyn and several roads had been blocked. And it wasn’t just the main cities that were mobilised in defence of a radical left, anti war and anti racist politician.
Over the summer of 2016, Corbyn toured various parts of what is lazily being called ‘left behind’ Britain’; areas where de-industrialisation followed by austerity has seen livings standards plummet.
These included places such as Merthyr Tydfil, Hanley, Hull, Leeds and Sunderland. Some of these places had seen little political activity for years and some, like Margate or Matlock, were deemed no-go areas for the left due to them being ‘safe’ Tory seats. Writing on the eve of Corbyn’s stunning re-election, The Financial Times put the aggregate number of people who attended these events at 75,000. Many of these places were, non-coincidentally, the kind of places which had swung the referendum for Leave. But far from lurching over to the right in the event of a Leave victory as was predicted, here were undeniable examples of a left wing movement seizing the moment instead.
Coupled with the anti-capitalist nature of large parts of these events, the rallies over the summer across the U.K showed the possibility of working class people overcoming the divisions exposed by Brexit and taking on the real enemy. Here was the real potential for delivering the kind of change so many people were craving.
The sheer scale of the onslaught that rained down on Corbyn and his supporters after the referendum demanded a massive political response. That response came from the mobilisation of ordinary people and it was this that swept Corbyn back to power on an increased mandate. It will be the ability of that movement to re-energise and re-establish itself that will determine whether or not a radical, anti-capitalist politics is heard in our tumultuous social landscape.