In May 2015 things in the British Labour Party (LP) were not going well for the Left. Still struggling to absorb a catastrophic election defeat which left the Conservatives standing alone in government and Labour reduced to nothing in Scotland, the party seemed set for another leader following in the footsteps of Tony Blair. Leftists were mournfully predicting that the recent election might have been Labour’s last as a workers’ party.
A year later, not only did Labour have its most left-wing leader ever, but the traditional power of the unions in the party was insurgent, Blair’s epigones were in full panic mode, and over a hundred thousand people had joined Labour to support that left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, against a stale and previously unheard-of challenger. How did we get from that election to possibly the most promising conjuncture for the British Left in our lifetimes?
Enter Richard Seymour from stage left. Seymour is the longtime proprietor of the blog “Lenin’s Tomb,” and a prolific author of books on topics ranging from the history of liberal imperialism to the Marxist theory
of austerity. His most recent, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, is a timely intervention meant to orient the British Left to new challenges that face us with the rise of Corbyn-style social democracy. Combining sharp empirical analysis with an understated theoretical sophistication, it deserves to be read by the whole of the UK Left and anyone interested in understanding the past, present, and future of British politics.
How did Labour get into the debacle that led it to Corbyn? Suffice it to say that what was once the quintessential social-democratic party, enjoying hegemony among the working class and a guiding role in British capitalism in the 1950s and 60s, was faced by a two-pronged crisis with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The LP experienced an exodus of white workers in Thatcher’s direction, as she used the dog whistles of racism and crime to great effect, and she attacked, routed, and crippled the union movement, the main base of the party, during the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984.
The Labour leadership responded by turning sharply right. They began a protracted war against the guiding role of the traditional constituency of the party—the unions—and against the trappings of socialist ideology and policy goals to which the party had been (tepidly) committed. By the time the Tory governments of Thatcher and then John Major had burned themselves out in the mid-nineties, New Labour under Tony Blair seemed to present a fresh alternative to business as usual.
Blair and Labour came into office in the 1997 elections by a landslide. But the electorate, which had been so ready to get rid of the Tories, quickly realized that this was different from previous Labour government programs of mild social-democratic reform. Blair, adopting the “Third Way” ideology of the Clintonite leadership of the US Democrats, accelerated the drive toward austerity begun under Thatcher. The Iron Lady herself was so pleased that she reportedly named Blair’s Labour Party as her greatest accomplishment.
Labour was in government from 1997 until 2010, first under Blair and then Gordon Brown. During this time, Blair and the Labour Right remade the party in their own image. Former trade unionists and activists had once made up a major portion of Labour MPs; now they were overwhelmingly middle-class careerists. The reward of all this was a massive decline in party membership. Activists, unionists, and radicals left Labour in droves, a process accelerated after 2003 when Blair’s commitment to George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq left millions disgusted and deprived of their last illusions in reclaiming the socialist heritage of the party.
Labour’s restructuring under Blair, however, cut the ground from under the feet of Blairism itself. Its right-wing policies caused such a crisis in the party’s base that there was an opening for Scottish and Welsh nationalists to begin to occupy the ground of left-wing social democracy that Labour had vacated. Clause IV of the party constitution, which committed Labour to public ownership and eventually socialism, was revised and there was a creep towards depriving unions of their block votes on party policy and leadership. But ironically, the one-member one-vote leadership elections they instituted in its place have now led to the election—twice—of Labour’s most left-wing leader ever.
The Labour Right, by professionalizing the party and demobilizing its base, built a prison they ended up occupying. They were unable to see the polarization of British society beginning with the financial crisis in 2008, which on the left worked its way through mass rioting in Tottenham against a racist police murder and the student rebellion at Millbank, the Conservatives’ campaign headquarters, in 2010, to arrive in the constituencies of the Labour Party itself. They were not ready for someone like Jeremy Corbyn, who could speak honestly and unpretentiously, from outside the circle of politics as usual. And they unwittingly facilitated his rise—Corbyn’s initial leadership bid got the required signatures to run from right-wing MPs who sought to make an example of the lack of support for their rivals on the left.
Corbyn has been Labour leader for nearly two years. Having seen off several open and covert coups, he is now in a formidable and, for the moment, unimpeachable position to direct the Labour Party as he likes. What are his prospects?
Seymour, as might be expected from an editor of Salvage, sees no straight way forward. Despite their disconnectedness from reality and repeated failures to unseat Corbyn, the Labour Right remains strong. The majority of Labour MPs are rightist and centrist career politicians who followed Blair and, due to his reforms, they control the national machinery of the party. The Right remains strong as well in many individual constituency parties, where it could block the entry of radicals, maintain an iron grip on the local machinery, and ready itself to turn back to the right at the soonest opportunity. The uneven nature of Corbyn’s support, relying as it does on the votes of thousands of scattered Labour members and registered supporters, most of whom have no experience in activism and party politics and who, in many cases, have no intention of getting involved in on-the-ground organizing, is another reason for pessimism.
One of Corbyn’s strengths is that he understands the potential of mass mobilization outside of Parliament and Labour National Committee meetings to force legislative change. He and John McDonnell, his number two, have launched Momentum, an organization with the aim of mobilizing the thousands of left activists and young people new to politics who have flooded into Labour since 2015. Corbyn and McDonnell are prepared to play a long game around building consensus for a revival of social democracy.
But, as Seymour writes, “electoral cycles are not willing to wait for Corbyn’s long game.” Momentum remains limited to those activists willing to sign a party card, and as a group in formation it is very weak compared to the party machine. It remains to be seen just how much Corbyn as leader of the parliamentary opposition will be able to foster a form of politics that takes place fundamentally in opposition to Parliament, and certainly in opposition to how Labour, even in its left-wing heyday, has traditionally gotten things done.
It is also unclear just how much support there is for radical left reformism at the bedrock of British society. Recent polling, if one believes in it after Brexit and Trump, indicates consistently that the Tories, despite six years of incompetent and destructive government, are still heavily favored to win the next election. They certainly have steadier support than Corbyn’s Labour Party, and hold the immense advantage of having nearly the entire ruling class and mainstream media on their side.
This is compounded by geographic disadvantages. Even under Corbyn Labour remains without a hope of winning back Scotland, where the party’s name continues to be associated with its rejection of independence during the 2014 referendum campaign. In England and Wales alone he faces the massive disadvantage of accumulated rural and middle-class bigotry and “little Britain” ignorance, given a fillip by Brexit, which inclines to the Tories or further right.
Even were Corbyn to survive until the next scheduled elections in 2020 and become prime minister, one suspects that is where his problems would really begin. As Neil Davidson has written, a key success of neoliberal economic policy was to make itself irreversible, thus depoliticizing economics; it is, perhaps, impossible to govern as a traditional social democrat today. The wreckage of Syriza in Greece looms large in the background.
Corbyn’s leadership, therefore, represents the high point of the British Left for more than four decades, but at the same time is facing many stumbling blocks ahead. It has energized us certainly, but is not a panacea. Furthermore, the limits of parliamentary politics and Labourism as an ideology are becoming clear and may constrain his radicalism in advance.
Corbyn has not obviated the need for an extra-parliamentary left. As Seymour has noted in the past, Corbyn and Corbynism need a left outside Labour, which is unimpeded by party unity and capable of drawing knives against the LP right wing, and mass mobilization in the streets to succeed in implementing any of his platform. This is a more difficult task than it seems, however, because of the poor state of the Left in Britain and the magnet of Corbynism drawing many revolutionaries into Labour Party membership, whether individually or in groups, without clear goals, a strategy to achieve them, a sense of what they can offer Corbyn and his followers, or of what they can gain.
Inside or outside Labour, it is not clear whether the British revolutionary Left, which is bitterly divided, suffering shellshock from recent political crises, and deeply affected by malaise and seeming impotence in the wake of Brexit, can or will rise to the needs of this moment. But the necessary starting point is an objective assessment of the concrete conditions, and the possibilities for and limits of radical projects to change Britain, Europe, and the world. To this task, Seymour’s Corbyn is an essential and necessary contribution.