The Remarkable Rise of Jeremy Corbyn

Photo credit: Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a Global Justice Now Event, February 2015. Global Justice Now 

On September 12, 2015, a membership ballot for leader of the Labour Party showed that Jeremy Corbyn—the anti-austerity outsider (two hundred to one in early betting)—had won a stunning 59.5 percent of the vote. The candidate supported by Tony Blair won only 5 percent of the vote.

The small group of Members of Parliament (MPs) gathered to endorse Corbyn’s leadership candidacy earlier in the year had no access to the traditional levers of mobilization within the Party that could get his campaign off to a strong start. Moreover, much of the Party apparatus was adamantly hostile. Many of those who had signed Corbyn’s nomination did so only to ensure a debate and openly declared that they would not be voting for him. For some of them and many in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the problem was his long-standing belief in the (re)-nationalization of industry and public services and the need for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and for others, the belief that Labour would never regain power under his leadership. They, along with the beleaguered group of left MPs, including Corbyn himself, were amazed by the mobilization of trade union members, disaffected Party members, and young activists that erupted once he was on the ballot. Early on, his campaign meetings attracted hundreds and eventually thousands from outside and inside the Party. How did this happen?

The Roots of Change: Anger and Activism in Need of a Political Voice 

Unlike the case of leftist Tony Benn, who in 1981 came within 2 percent of winning against right-wing Denis Healey for deputy Party leader, strong environmental, trade union, and anti-nuclear movements no longer existed.[i] What there was, however, was widespread anger, provoked not only by Margaret Thatcher but also by Tony Blair’s continuation of her policies, especially after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, from which many working-class communities still have not recovered. In the absence of a party that stood up for working people,  those  battered by neoliberal  policies had  begun  to  get  organized.  Over the last decade, a multiplicity of scattered, localized initiatives had grown up, born out of the struggle to resist such threats as climate change, corporate power, escalating inequality, and deepening poverty.  For  example, in London, the revived IWW (Industrial Workers of the World—historically known as the Wobblies)— which in the mid-1990s had started to organize growing numbers of casual and part-time workers  many  of  whom  were  women,  started  to press the mainstream unions to support these workers and get the Labour Party to make pre- carious employment a central policy issue.

In the absence of a party that stood up for working people, those battered by neoliberal policies had begun to get organized.

Memories also played a political role, memories of what had been possible but was blocked by Thatcher, and crushed by Blair. Young activists have been pulling together archives of past struggles: the movement of women in mining communities during the 1984-1985 coal miners’ strike, which was ultimately crushed, along with the union, resulting in the closure of mines across the country, and the radical Greater London Council, responsible for land use and transport, which was abolished by Mrs. Thatcher in 1986. A new generation interviewed key actors,   retrieved   important   documents,   and made them accessible for use in schools and communities.[ii] 

As important was the fact that relationships of trust and comradeship had survived beneath the surface, as people who had become disillusioned  with  the  state  were  still  hopeful  for social  change  and  had  become  involved  in social movements to achieve it. All these bub- bled up to create sources of energy, vision, and collaborative engagement when the possibility of radical change opened up with Corbyn’s Party leadership campaign.

Once Corbyn was on the ballot, these former movements and some of their most experienced activists became an invaluable resource and organizational backbone for the new generation of activists whose energies, experiences, and skills were in social media and networked, non- hierarchical forms of organization. The combination of the two proved highly effective, despite the occasional instances of tension and culture clash.

Labour’s Historical Compromise with Capitalism

Also important was an unintended consequence of Thatcher’s defeat of the trade unions. While she succeeded in drastically curtailing their political influence, in her determination to destroy all traces of the social democratic post- war system—what she saw as “socialism”—she also radicalized union members, and thereby broke the foundations of Labour’s conservative compromise with capitalism. This compromise had been a hidden bulwark of the stability of British politics even in periods of the greatest inequality and popular anger (as in the interwar period from the1926 General Strike through the 1930s depression to World War II).

Marxist scholar and historian Ralph Miliband, father of former Labour ministers David and Ed Miliband, provides the most reliable guide to the underlying conservatism of the Labour Party, despite occasional appearances of radicalism. Central to his analysis, which he laid out in Parliamentary Socialism (1961) was the concept of “Parliamentarianism,” which applied to both the conservatism of the Party’s structure and its deferential policies toward the British state.  He noted that the Party’s founding manifesto, “Labour and the New Social Order,” contained virtually no commitment to constitutional reforms that would democratize the British state. Rather, it reassured voters that its policies of public owner- ship and redistribution would be carried out by means of Britain’s Parliamentary monarchy.[iii] 

In Miliband’s analysis, Parliamentarianism was  reinforced  by  a  corporate  and  sectional trade unionism concerned with bargaining over workplace issues, while delegating political issues of welfare, taxation, industrial policy, macroeconomic  policy,  and foreign  policy  to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Miliband’s concept of “Labourism” was the idea of the Labour Party as an instrument of a sectoral, corporate understanding of the interests of organized labour, reflecting “the growing integration of the trade unions into the framework of modern capitalism.”[iv] 

After Thatcher’s sustained attack on the trade unions, such conditions no longer held. This, together with newer forms of informal “popular insubordination,” coordinated and spread with the help of social media, led to the breakdown of this traditional Parliamentary Labour Party–trade union leadership alliance. Corbyn’s leadership election owed a lot to the pent-up anger of trade union members, not only in the long aftermath of Thatcherism but in response to Blair’s continuation of many Thatcherite policies, including the privatization of public services. Union leaders such as Len McCluskey,  General Secretary of Unite—one of the largest U.K. unions—either shared this anger, or as with Dave Prentis at UNISON—the main  public  sector  union—could  not  hold  it back from determining their union’s decision in both leadership elections.[v] 

Furthermore, under Ed Miliband’s term as Party leader, the centralizing grip that Blair and his team had imposed was somewhat loosened— so that a few left-wingers got through the process of Labour candidate selection. Moreover, leadership election rules were changed so that unions no longer voted as a bloc, allowing individual trade union members and Party supporters to register and vote independently. Rather than giving a “moderate” membership a voice against an “unrepresentative” leadership, as Tony Blair had assumed, this released the expression of membership anger. Almost a hundred thousand trade union members directly signed up to join the Labour Party, while even more signed up as registered supporters.

Labour’s new members and supporters have been the source of Corbyn’s resilience in the face of determined attacks from the right of the determined attacks from the right Parliamentary Party and its apparatus.

To  understand the leftish inclinations of these disaffected trade unionists, it is worth pointing out that Blair and his supporters had significantly overestimated the extent to which Thatcher’s  authoritarian  defeat  of  the  unions and municipal government was paralleled by widespread support for her individualist pro- market values. They underestimated the extent to which social democratic values of solidarity, mutualism, and equality had not diminished but changed, evolving into different forms of mutuality, such as neighborhood associations. The experience of Tory-imposed austerity, deregulation, and privatization radicalized those who shared these social values.

A New Kind of Party Membership 

Corbyn’s appeal is not that of a charismatic leader whose supporters expect him to solve their problems. Neither does he present himself as part of a paternalistic technocratic elite, presuming to know what people need. Instead, in his thirty years as an MP, he has shown himself able to work with people, supporting their own forms of organization to help each other and solve problems. This belief in people’s social knowledge and capacity represents a break not only from Conservative contempt for working people but also from the paternalism of Labour, left and right. The contrast with Theresa May (“Maybot” as she has become known because of her discomfort in interacting with the general public) is dramatic.

Almost a hundred thousand trade union members directly signed up to join the Labour Party, while even more signed up as registered supporters.

Labour’s new members and supporters have been the source of Corbyn’s resilience in the face of determined attacks from the right of the Parliamentary Party and its apparatus.[vi] The new activists were shaped less by inner party life and more by community or other non- electoral struggles to bring about change—at a time when the entire political class was insisting, with Mrs. Thatcher, “There is no alternative.” Corbyn recognizes that the movement to which he has given a voice and confidence is as important as he is, if not more so.

The 2017 General Election

The Corbyn effect brought in activists unsure of party rules who share his vision of Labour being a social movement again. He continually encourages supporters to take politics into their own hands to win local victories now, while campaigning for a Labour government. His outright victory in two leadership elections, and his success in increasing Labour’s majority in the June 2017 general election, have shown that his leadership is electorally credible and has given his supporters confidence to campaign in their own ways.

That is a significant change, since Labour, as Ralph Miliband pointed out, has been above all a parliamentary party; local parties were little more than its electoral machine. This shift is linked to Corbyn’s electoral strategy as one that is driven by local activists, and aimed not at the “moderate” vote, traditionally presumed to be Labour’s only option, but reaching out to the disaffected, especially the young, who often do not vote. These campaigning methods have been consolidated by the Party’s appointment of community organizers across the country.

In this, he has been decisively supported by Momentum, a grassroots movement founded in the weeks after his leadership election victory. In 2016, Momentum set up a paid formal membership structure; then, under its new constitution (January 2017), ruled that Momentum activists must also become members of the Labour Party, although this is more flexible in practice. As of January 2018, there were more than 170 local groups across the United Kingdom, and as of April 2018, the organization has forty thousand members.[vii]

John Taylor, local organizer of Momentum in Teesside in the Northeast explained, “They are seen to be active in the local community rather than Party meetings,” so “through Momentum we work with local community associations, trade union campaigns, a socialist clothes bank, socialist bookstore, and more.”[viii]

Labour won 60 percent of the under-thirties (36 percent in 2015), with a 13 percent increase in the turnout of eighteen- to twenty-four-year olds. The spring 2018 local election results showed that Labour, 3 percent behind the Conservatives in the general election, had drawn level. Youth turnout is very low in local elections, which generate little debate and negligible opportunities for the kind of youth campaign Corbyn could mount during a general election. The Party has mapped the local results onto social movement campaign activity; going forward, the new community organizers will concentrate on areas where Party involvement in community and everyday struggles is relatively weak.

The New Socialist Economics of Corbyn’s Labour Party

The new membership is one characteristic of Corbyn’s Labour Party. Another is its new policies. Laid out in the manifesto on which Corbyn campaigned so successfully in June 2017, the central theme of this manifesto was the restoration of strong forms of state intervention and control over infrastructure—including  restoring telecommunications,  transport,  energy,  and water to public ownership, and bringing back “outsourced” public contracts to the public administration of public services. Since the 2017 election, the policy teams of Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John MacDonnell have been doing further work on “new forms of public ownership,” drawing on lessons of all, so far failed, attempts to implement a radical industrial strategy, that a real transformation of the economy requires the exercise of power within production by the organized producers, not only over those who own the means of production. Such power from below—workers and affected communities—needs to be supported by state intervention, but its distinctive feature is that it involves the exercise of power as a transformative capacity involving the practical knowledge and self-organization of working people. This points to a vision of a left government as one that enables the collaborative creativity of workers and consumers to be realized, rather than substituting for it. A condition of its success is a direct transformation of production—rather than simply more radical forms of redistribution.

…[I]n the manifesto…[t]here are several other commitments to re-establish and extend public ownership, which could potentially be combined with participatory forms of control…

There were important commitments in the manifesto, which already had exactly this purpose of strengthening workers’ existing transformative capacities. For example, there are several commitments to support the growth— indeed the doubling in size—of the cooperative through a National Investment Bank and regional development banks, specifically charged with supporting this sector, and through legislation to create a proper legal definition for cooperative  ownership.  Also very important and notably innovative is the commitment to introduce a “right to own,” making employees the buyer of first refusal when the company they work for is up for sale.

There are several other commitments to re-establish and extend public ownership, which could potentially be combined with participatory forms of control, avoiding the paternalism of the post-war Atlee government—which delivered its impressive social welfare measures in a way that failed to entrench radical change  in the actual social relations  of daily life—work, family, community, and public pro- vision. At a January 2018 Labour Party conference, John MacDonnell declared, “We should not try to recreate the nationalized industries of the past . . . we cannot be nostalgic for a model whose management was often too distant, too bureaucratic.” Instead, he said, a new kind of public ownership would be based on the principle that “nobody knows better how to run these industries than those who spend their lives with them.”[ix]

Challenges, Old and New

In the case of Corbyn, opposition has come within the Party—both from those who, following Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown, identify with the global elites and those of the more traditional Labour right who identify with the nation-state. The force that binds the critics is their sense of entitlement to the Party after Blair seemed to have crushed the left in the 1990s, and their belief that Corbyn has wrongfully robbed them of this entitlement.

From the moment he was elected leader, the right and center-right of the Parliamentary Party used every opportunity to attack and humiliate him, ranging from questioning his loyalty to the Queen (citing his failure to sing the national anthem) and his commitment to national security (citing his membership of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) to accusations of anti-Semitism based on his support for Palestinian rights. All sections of the mainstream media have goaded and amplified these attacks. The future of the Corbyn leadership depends in part on the extent to which he and his supporters, both in the Party and in Momentum, can over- come, or at least marginalize, this internal opposition—and  prepare  for  government  and  the external opposition that will hit them then.[x]

Two issues, however, have acted as a continuing source of division in the Party: Brexit and anti-Semitism.

The pragmatic right, represented by the organizations Progress and Labour First, is slowly getting over the shock of Corbyn’s victory, but does not know what to do next. Part of their difficulty is that they do not understand the new membership. They both echo Blair’s contempt for those who voted for Corbyn, dis- missing them as “Trots” (though Trotskyist organizations are small) or as the manipulated young,  who  are  considered  useless  as  they never did the hard canvassing on which “moderates” prided themselves.

That changed after the June 2017 general election, when Party loyalists began to notice the decisive role of energetic campaigning by new members. MP Wes Streeting, who had worked for Progress, said frankly at its 2018 conference,

We’ve made the terrible mistake of lumping  so  many  idealistic,  energetic, and young new members who want to change the world in with the old battle- hardened Millies (members of the Trotskyist Militant) from the 1980s who want to carry on the internal fight…For too long now, we’ve been not just out of office, but out of answers, too.[xi]

Two issues, however, have acted as a continuing source of division in the Party: Brexit and anti-Semitism. These issues have been used by the right as part of what New Statesman commentator Stephen Bush has called the “grim opportunism” of Corbyn skeptics; however, they do not fall into a simple left-right divide.

Brexit and Pan-European Collaboration of the Left

Corbyn’s position in the 2016 Brexit referendum was “Remain to Reform Europe,” although many believe he could have been more forceful. He has never wholeheartedly supported the EU, largely owing to the neoliberal basis of its central treaties and his belief that the centrality its rules give to market competition would con- strain his vision of a re-nationalized, socialized economy. He has preferred, with reason, to downplay the issue of Europe, focusing instead on housing, unemployment, poverty, and regional development, which after years of industrial decline and abandonment were the central issues underlying the support for Brexit in the North. This strategy worked in the 2017 election. But many on the left as well as the right believe that as Theresa May finds it impossible to unite her party, Labour—and Corbyn especially—needs to take a clearer position.

Corbyn retains the internationalist perspective that lay behind his support for the Remain campaign: “By working together across our continent, we can develop our economies, protect social and human rights, tackle climate change, and clamp down on tax dodgers. You cannot build a better world unless you engage with the world, build allies and deliver change.”[xii] He and MacDonnell now argue for a strategy toward the European Union that can maximize the benefits for working people from access  to  the  European  market—tariff   free trade; alignment of standards, including environmental and health and safety standards; and employment protection—without accepting all EU rules, including free movement of people (the Single Market); hence, their plan for government is to negotiate a voluntary customs union, which would also overcome the problem of the Irish border that arises with a hard—customs union or association—Brexit. Momentum has explicitly decided against taking any position on Brexit. Corbyn and his team are committed to strengthening their cooperation with parties of the left across Europe.

Labour activists in Another Europe, a coalition of progressives who argue for “Remain and Reform” and who include Green Party members, believe Labour will lose vital votes from Remainers unless it is more positive toward Europe. They hope to convince the Party to pursue opportunities for reforming Europe and tackling international challenges, and hope for a resolution supporting a popular vote on the government’s Brexit deal, if it manages to negotiate one—which seems increasingly unlikely.

Anti-Semitism and Support for Palestinian Rights

In spring 2018, the use of live ammunition to shoot at least sixty unarmed protesters on the Gaza-Israel border was pushed off the front pages by the continuing accusation that the Labour Party is riddled with anti-Semitism about which Corbyn has allegedly done nothing. A distinctive and admirable feature of the Jewish community is its richness of argument and reasoned debate, all reflected in the Labour Party. Since Corbyn, a strong supporter of Palestinian rights, has become leader and possibly the next prime minister, this has turned into a toxic antagonism, according to Oxford law professor Stephen  Sedley,  with  “groups such as the Jewish Labour Movement seeking to drive out pro-Palestinian groups like Jewish Voice for Labour by stigmatizing them, and Corbyn with them, as anti-Semitic.”[xiii] Sedley adds, “It is also a proxy war in which outside bodies—the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council are weighing in, aided by generous media coverage.”[xiv] Indeed, Jonathan Arkush, former head of the Leadership Council, was quoted in an interview with the Daily Telegraph saying “Delegitimizing the state of Israel is anti-Semitic.”[xv]

It should be added that in response, Corbyn called for an inquiry, headed by Shami Chakrabarti, Labour   Party member of the House of Lords, which reported in 2016 that this charge could not be sustained. Moreover, the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee reported that such evidence as there is locates the source of about three-quarters of all anti- Semitic incidents on the far right of the political spectrum, while a YouGov survey last year indicated a marked reduction since 2015 in the number of Labour voters prepared to endorse anti-Semitic propositions. It also indicated that, Liberal Democrats apart, other parties had a markedly higher proportion of voters prepared to endorse these propositions.[xvi]

What Next?

Despite his critics, Corbyn now heads a Labour Party renewing itself, growing exponentially with the influx of a new generation of activists driven by a rejection of the political class and a desire and energy to change the world, starting in the here and now. In this sense, the Labour Party is unique among social democratic parties in Europe, which are generally in decline. How will it fare going forward?

Driven more by the energy (or sometimes desperation for the neoliberal nightmare to end) of his different social constituencies  than  by any conscious strategy, Corbyn has repeatedly created his own alliances: a coalescence of the disintegrating but stubborn forces of the old consensus and the new precarious and super- exploited creatives plus the disenfranchised underclass of the globalized digital economy.

This new coalescence—the parts are too disparate to call it a coalition—provides a new basis of unity of Party purpose and electoral success. In 2018, the young creatives facing intolerable housing costs and the burden of student debt, and public service campaigners alongside socially regional-rooted business make up a twenty-first- century Labour Party that has already proved that it can unite to at least challenge austerity, privatization, and Tory rule.

…Corbyn and Momentum are attempting to build a vested interest in Community Wealth just as Thatcher in re-founding the Conservative Party sought to create a material basis for market politics.

A striking feature of Corbyn’s strategy for building this unity is to make it the basis of winning victories in the present rather than focusing all energies on winning government. His office has created the Community Wealth Building Commission—local council leaders, public-sector trade unionists, Party and sector activists, and academics to advance initiatives to create community wealth: decent local jobs for a living wage, co-ops, and no more privatization. In a sense, Corbyn and Momentum are attempting to build a vested interest in Community Wealth just as Thatcher in re-founding the Conservative Party sought to create a material basis for market politics.

Corbyn spends at least two days of every week outside Parliament speaking to meetings, visiting constituencies, and grassroots initiatives around the country. It is a signal of where he believes unity has to be built.

Divisions in the Parliamentary Labour Party can only be bridged through strengthening the Party locals on the basis of the new coalescence. Many former Corbyn skeptics have become pragmatic Party loyalists in the process. Momentum’s approach is generally to welcome this. At a time when the far right is growing across Europe in part on the ashes of declining social democracy, there is too much at stake to let ideological divides keep the Tories in office. And members on both sides of the divide over Corbyn recognize this. From where we sit now, it appears that Labour has the best chance in years—after which the real challenges will begin.

Author Bios

Hilary Wainwright is a British sociologist and radical activist who co-edits the magazine Red Pepper and is a member of the Transnational Institute, based in Amsterdam. A contributor to numerous magazines and journals, including The Guardian, The Nation, and Jacobin, she is most recently the author of A New Politics from the Left (2018), published by Polity Press.

NOTES


[i] An exception was the Stop the War Coalition whose members were an important component of Corbyn’s activist base.
[ii] See the GLC Story 1981-1986, available at www.glcstory.co.uk
[iii] Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1961).
[iv] Ibid., 13-14.
[v] The full story of union support for Corbyn’s campaign is vividly told in Alex Nunns, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, 2nd ed.(New York: OR Books, 2018), 141-62.
[vi] Corbyn’s supporters have recently won control over the national apparatus—though hostile members remain in position in many regional offices.
[vii] Report of National Coordinator to the National Coordinating Group, June 2, 2018.
[viii] Interview with author, May 2018.
[ix] See: https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/hilary-wainwright/new-economics-of-labour 
[x] Not least from the forces of finance capital, as seen by the experience of Syriza in Greece. See Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Socialist Challenge Today: Syriza, Sanders, Corbyn (London: Merlin, 2018).
[xi] See: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2018/05/05/moving-labour-forward-together/
[xii] See: http://jeremycorbyn.org.uk/articles/jeremy-corbyn-my-speech-at-senate-house.See also: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/15/world/europe/jeremy-corbyn-european-union-brexit.html 
[xiii] Stephen Sedley, “Labour and Anti-Semitism,” London Review of Books, May 10, 2018, available at https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n09/stephen-sedley/short-cuts 
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] See https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/ may/30/jeremy-corbyns-views-could-drive-jewish-people-from-uk-leader
[xvi] As reported by Sedley, “Labour and Anti-Semitism.”

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