Corbynism, martyrdom and the other Labour split (parts I-III)

Part I: Jeremy Corbyn’s destructive utopianism has been reaffirmed by Labour Party members – but there are signs of a widening divergence among Corbyn’s support base, with uncertain implications for Labour’s future

After the emphatic re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party, speculation that the Labour Party might split in two is intensifying. It remains uncertain whether any of Owen Smith’s supporters in parliament will return to the shadow cabinet (with the issue of whether Labour will return to the system of elected shadow ministers yet to be resolved). However, although it is clear that many thousands of anti-Corbyn members will now desert the party, the electoral ramifications for Labour – which matter a great deal more to his opponents than to Corbyn himself – render a formal split rather unlikely.

One possibility that has to date been discounted in commentary on Labour’s future, however, is that Corbyn’s supporters are themselves divided, with rival camps upholding quite different approaches to politics, and held together only by Corbyn’s unwitting ability to offer a blank canvas onto which supporters have been able to paint their own portrait of political leadership.

The remarkable (and, it seems, reluctant) decision made by Guardian columnist and longstanding Corbyn supporter Owen Jones to repeatedly criticise Corbyn’s leadership over summer indicates the contours of this growing chasm. How it is navigated will determine Labour’s future as a mass party. The first part of this three-part post explores the historical roots of the intransigence that characterises the Corbyn leadership, while the second explores the evolving dynamic within the Corbyn support base. A final instalment considers how Corbyn’s opponents within the Labour Party might respond to their present predicament.

It is often said of Corbyn that his views, and political modus operandi, have been unchanged since he was elected as an MP in the early 1980s. It is certainly true that his politics are grounded in the Bennite politics of the period, combining support for a planned economy, an emerging anti-imperialist perspective, and the industrial militancy embodied by the miners’ strike.

Yet Corbynism is best understood as an echo of this period, rather than its resurrection. The time-lag is crucial: what we now call Corbynism has its roots in the 1980s, but its survival, in North London pockets of elite politics and the fringes of the trade union movement, has been predicated on the resounding election defeat in 1983, the failure of the National Union of Mineworkers to defeat Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn’s humiliation in challenging incumbent leader Neil Kinnock in 1988, and the emergence of New Labour. From its relatively mainstream position in the late 1970s (Foot, unlike Corbyn, enjoyed majority support among his parliamentary colleagues, and Tony Benn had of course been a leading cabinet member), the faction now accidentally led by Corbyn is ironically, yet acutely, defined by its marginality.

And thus a self-affirming folklore of martyrdom was created on Labour’s hard left. The failure of Benn et al to change the system from within contributed to the foundational myth of Corbynism, that is, that parliamentary democracy is not only an insufficient means to socialist ends, but actually a barrier to socialism. The seeds of the current alliance with far-left revolutionary socialist groups (and a crude belief in the ‘false consciousness’ of non-believers among the working class) were quickly sown, and nurtured within the anti-war movement of the early 2000s.

Paradoxically, both New Labour and its hard-left critics came to share the view that only when Labour seeks to accommodate neoliberalism is it able to capture the British state through parliamentary means. The 2008 financial crisis took a hammer to this illusion, as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s social democratic modernisation project was vilified as left-wing profligacy by a capitalist elite in damage-limitation mode, and New Labour’s failure to restrain the finance sector created the space for a more radical critique of neoliberalism on the mainstream left.

In hindsight, it is clear that Labour’s 2010 leadership election contest, absurdly fought between two sons of Ralph Miliband, typified Labour’s distress. By 2015, the party’s confusion had amplified rather than abated – as several members of the Labour’s parliamentary elite nominated Corbyn despite not supporting his leadership bid. Evidently, they deemed Corbyn useful as a sacrificial lamb of the left, desolately hoping to demonstrate that the party was listening to its base, while at the same time underlining that there could be ‘no going back’.

The plan backfired spectacularly. At last, the political descendants of Benn and Arthur Scargill had the party leadership – but little inclination to exercise it responsibly in terms of the parliamentary process. This mentality translates as incompetence to those accustomed to high office, but this is only part of the story: Corbyn may perhaps be unable to lead, but he is also unwilling.

Martyrdom is strongly ingrained among Corbyn and his key allies. Even as it became clear he would win a second leadership contest by a convincing margin, Corbyn consistently intimated that the election had been rigged in favour of Owen Smith by the party machine, creating an image of Corbyn as insurgent rather than incumbent. This was not duplicitous on Corbyn’s part, but rather simply an intrinsic characteristic of his worldview.

The central plank of Smith’s campaign – that he offered a more electable packaging for left-wing politics – appears rather misguided in this context. Fundamentally, judged on the terms that have underpinned Labour statecraft since the party’s formation, Corbyn is not trying to be an effective leader. Crucially, a significant chunk of his supporters are unconcerned by this: 40 per cent agree that he is incompetent, and 44 per cent agree he is unlikely to win the 2020 election.

This tells us a great deal about the pathology of Corbynism – yet it is perhaps just as surprising that a majority of Corbyn supporters would disagree with either assertion! Part II will discuss this increasingly anxious group in more detail.

Corbyn considers governing through the British state, as currently oriented, a futile endeavour. Instead, the rather abstract hope of Corbyn et al is that a more destructive strategy might over time clear the way for someone else to succeed – or more precisely, for some other political formation to emerge, encompassing Labour but not beholden to its conventions. To clarify, this is not necessarily a scenario Corbyn is actively planning for; if the British establishment were so vulnerable to the first heave of a left-wing Labour leader, there would be little need to denounce it in the first place.

Rather, it is a form of utopian politics – the logical corollary of political martyrdom – sketching an ideal future, but not the path to its accomplishment. This is Corbyn’s strongest attribute as a leader, enabling him to present himself as a genuine socialist, in contrast to predecessors prepared to settle for anything less than paradise.

But his greatest strength may also be his undoing. Like all utopianisms, Corbynism is characterised in practice by a blend of populism and authoritarianism. However, while Corbyn and his key allies may have chosen the righteous path of the martyr, his leadership relies on a much wider group of supporters not necessarily so intent on destruction; younger, more pluralist by nature, and genuine (if a little naïve) in their ambition to elect a left-wing government. This group is becoming increasingly aware of Corbyn’s intransigence. As explored in the next two posts, the unravelling of the alliance underpinning Corbynism will be music to the ears of Labour’s ‘moderates’, but it is a process that will unearth new perils for the party’s future.

Part II: Labour will not split, but Corbynism might – Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party depends on a large group of activists increasingly uneasy with his approach to politics

Part I of this post explored the phenomenon of Corbynism in relation to political ‘martyrdom’, arguing that Jeremy Corbyn and his key allies offer a destructive form of utopian politics.  Suddenly and unexpectedly elevated to the forefront of growing unrest on the left regarding Labour’s failure to sufficiently challenge austerity and Osbornomics, Corbyn’s decades-long indifference to the parliamentary and policy-making processes enabled him to be presented as a relatively ‘blank canvas’ to a newly-mobilised cohort of left-leaning activists in search of a vehicle for pursuing their various crusades.  Yet at the apparent apex of Corbyn’s rule, the ideological and cultural juxtaposition which defines Corbynism is beginning to unravel.

Corbyn and co. could never have captured the party leadership were it not for the concretisation of a hitherto amorphous network of protest groups, epitomised by campaigns such as Occupy London and UK Uncut.  Slowly, but surely, however, this activist base is discovering that the canvas of Corbynism was anything but blank.  Corbyn may be an outsider, but he is an outsider by choice, and over the past year has become increasingly uninhibited in demonstrating his instinctively authoritarian approach to party management.

If the younger activists have a spiritual leader, it is probably Guardian columnist Owen Jones, insofar as Jones is one of the few mainstream media personalities with substantive links to relevant networks.  He has consistently given voice to their disparate range of concerns in public debates.  Importantly, he also served as the key conduit between these groups and the Corbyn camp, with Jones having previously worked for Corbyn ally John McDonnell.  Organisationally, we should also note the instrumental role of Unite in linking some of the smaller, unrepentantly Bennite unions (many of which have now been amalgamated into Unite) and campaign groups such as the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

Corbyn and his newfound followers were united at first by their marginality and broad opposition to austerity and neoliberalism, but their quite different approaches to politics have quickly become apparent. Above all, while protest, including direct action, is part of the latter’s repertoire, fundamentally they accept the conventions and institutions of liberal democracy.  In fact, their campaigns often centre on advancing the essentially liberal character of political life, in terms of strengthening the democratic process and citizenship rights.

This is an orientation which blends naturally into a quite pluralist approach to political organisation – many of Corbyn’s supporters have therefore advocated a ‘progressive alliance’ between Labour and other parties of the left and centre-left. Yet Corbyn and McDonnell are disdainful of the notion of Labour allying with non-socialist parties.

It is no coincidence that the Owen Jones generation were mobilised in the immediate wake of the financial crisis, the point at which the economic model upheld by New Labour failed. Caroline Cadwalladr’s sympathetic profile of many of the young activists involved in Momentum, the campaign group which grew out of Corbyn’s first leadership campaign, demonstrates the crucial role of student politics, and the 2010-11 anti-fees protests, in radicalising this overwhelmingly middle-class group.

Corbyn’s acknowledgement of their concerns is more a populist façade to his long-standing agenda than a genuine volte-face. Momentum has undoubtedly become an important focal point for a previously disparate network of young activists, connecting them to formal politics, albeit only through the rather indifferent conduit of Corbynism.  Momentum’s leaders, however, belong to the ultra-loyal sect of Corbynism, with longstanding links to far-left organisations.

They are the children of Benn and Scargill, whereas Jones and many mid-ranking Momentum activists are instead the children of New Labour.  On policy, the latter are Corbynistas (for what it’s worth) but their understanding of politics is quintessentially Blairite.  Hence Jones’ repeated insistence that Corbyn adopt a ‘media strategy’ and ‘message discipline’.  Jones offered a staggering attack on Corbyn’s record in this regard in the midst of his second election campaign (echoing similar arguments made by Momentum activists such as Aaron Bastani), castigating Corbyn for not following advice Jones first offered publicly after Corbyn’s election in 2015.

Jones’ views were offered in a self-indulgent manner, but also, it seems, in good faith. But Corbynism is not a creed that welcomes dissident views. The vicious and personal nature of Corbyn insider and union leader Manuel Cortes’ response to Jones indicates the severe tensions within the Corbyn coalition.  But its most interesting aspect was actually Cortes’ argument that Corbyn already has a media strategy, albeit one that, unlike that proposed by Jones, is based on the pseudo-Marxist view that most media organisations ‘exist to defeat the left, not enable it’.

There are signs of disquiet even among Corbyn’s (skeletal) parliamentary team. The hitherto ultra-loyal Clive Lewis (now shadow defence secretary) was visibly shaken last week when learning with only seconds to spare that Corbyn staff had rewritten a passage of his party conference speech relating to nuclear disarmament.

Of course, signs of a split within Corbynism should not convince us that the less-loyal group is any more capable of developing a coherent agenda for Labour statecraft than the ultra-loyalists. To reiterate, the group in question is largely middle-class, and has few substantive links to Labour’s working class base.  As inadvertently evidenced by Jones’ recent demand that Labour adopt a clear and soundbite-sized position on virtually everything – from ‘economic policies’ and ‘middle-income people’ to ‘older voters’ and ‘the North’ – there remains on the British left an acute lack of diagnosis of how the British political economy is developing, and therefore how this might translate into a coherent governing agenda.

Of course, Jones is primarily a journalist, not a politician; his job is to ask questions, not necessarily to answer them. But political parties, in contrast, are precisely the places where the answers must be devised and indeed delivered.  Yet it is increasingly difficult to detect this attribute – or even the inclination – within the contemporary Labour Party.  As it stands, therefore, Corbynism’s next generation offers few solutions to the impasse happily occupied by its progenitors.  Labour risks replacing a half-baked, fatalistic, left-populism with a half-baked, click-happy, left-Blairism.

Interestingly, while John Harris (from the soft left of the party), Philip Collins (from the right) and Rafael Behr (from the centre) have all espoused the self-consciously contrarian view in recent days that there are reasons to be optimistic about Labour’s future, having been pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of many of the Momentum activists they encountered on the Labour conference fringe, the most important account of the party conference in this regard has been offered by Corbyn sympathiser Ellie Mae O’Hagan. O’Hagan’s article on Labour’s ‘dysfunctional family’ reported on the obstinacy demonstrated by many new members towards socialising – let alone compromising – with those from the right or centre of the party.

It hardly needs pointing out that political realities mean a post-Corbyn progressive alliance, if it is to stand any change of challenging the established order in the foreseeable future, needs to encompass all of the Labour tradition.  Jones is close to many of Corbyn’s opponents on the soft left; indeed, many of his fellow-travellers, such as Bastani and Paul Mason, openly espouse the view that Corbyn is merely a ‘placeholder’ leader.

The emerging divide between the two Corbynisms will therefore grow rather than abate, but O’Hagan’s report indicates that the implications of this remain extremely uncertain. It would be churlish to deny that the convening role played by Momentum offers some light at the end of the tunnel for a labour movement at its lowest ever ebb.  But it remains to be seen whether its more positive elements can be unshackled from Corbynism in time to prevent Labour disappearing into an electoral abyss.  One thing that we can be certain of is that Corbyn will cease to be leader of the Labour Party at some point (2020 is my best guess, but British politics is full of surprises these days).  The succession battle will be bloody, and it seems highly unlikely now that there will be a single ‘Corbyn continuity candidate’, with any anointed successor unlikely to be able to pull off Corbyn’s ‘blank canvas’ trick.

The danger therefore is that without a leader to rally around, the enthusiasm and optimism which characterises Labour’s new generation of activists will be dissolved as networks splinter, with different groups seeking comfort in the Green Party, the slowly regenerating Liberal Democrats, or single-issue campaigns. The most depressing scenario for anybody who cares about the health of our democracy is that many of these activists lose faith in politics altogether.  The third and final part of this post will consider what mainstream Labour politicians need to do to build upon the positive elements of Corbynism, without succumbing to Corbyn’s own deceptively destructive project.

Part III: The future of the Labour Party depends on how the party’s centre and ‘soft left’ responds to the emerging divide between Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters

The attempt to renew the British left via Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has failed, largely because his supporters’ efforts to sanitise Corbyn’s destructive politics has failed.  Through a mixture of naivety, hubris, loyalty and fatigue, however, his supporters will not act to depose him before 2020, despite the deepening of divisions occasioned by Corbyn’s recent speech at a Socialist Workers’ Party rally.  This impasse reveals the near-impossible situation the Labour Party now finds itself in, with a leader whose own supporters acknowledge has put the party on an inalterable path to electoral oblivion.

Of course, after the somewhat farcical Owen Smith challenge to Corbyn over summer, Labour’s ‘moderate’ wing (for want of a much better term) is in no position to act again on its own behalf. It must accept the coming wound of the 2020 election as penance for the complacency of the New Labour era, when Labour’s leaders were, at best, indifferent and, at worst, openly hostile to the resilience of the labour movement.

However, while Corbyn’s unassailable position is currently an acute problem for Labour, the ‘Podemisation’ process which underpins this status quo must ultimately be seen as a positive development for the British left. Crucially, there remains the possibility of a reconfiguration within Labour’s sizeable activist base, as support for Corbyn continues to ebb and the Conservative government’s flirtation with ‘hard Brexit’ acts to unify the party irrespective of its leader’s Euroscepticism.  A new entente between the less-loyal group of predominantly younger Corbynistas and the centre and ‘soft left’ of the party would accelerate this reconfiguration, and offers the only meaningful path to a post-Corbyn reconstruction of Labour.

The former group, increasingly, is a movement without a mission. Entente would mean co-operating with the latter group to forge new framings, objectives and organisational forms for the left, acknowledging that the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – not Corbyn or Momentum, nor even, to a lesser extent, the trade unions – is now the most important conduit between the party and the working class.

It is primarily the PLP, however, whose next few moves will be most decisive in this regard. To succeed, it must be bold in its political strategy, yet simultaneously humble in recognising its failings.

Paradoxically, the pre-requisite of any entente with Corbyn supporters (i.e. future former Corbyn supporters) is for the PLP to cleanly disassociate itself from the Corbyn leadership. This is not to suggest that MPs in particular shadow ministerial briefs cannot do some good in opposition.  But whether frontbench or backbench, Labour MPs opposed to Corbyn require a single, separate structure within parliament through which to organise, with an identifiable leader and a coherent policy platform.

A formal split would be a disaster for Labour under first-past-the-post, and would kill any hope of entente. At the same time, however, individual Labour MPs need to be able to offer a plausible account to voters in their constituencies of why they should vote for Labour despite reservations about the party leadership.  The formation of new parliamentary mechanisms by which to oppose the government and showcase an alternative could be at the core of these conversations.  The ability of the PLP to connect with voters and effectively oppose the government will contrast sharply with the inadequacies that Corbyn’s own supporters are increasingly recognising in his leadership.

The new grouping need not be seen as inherently hostile, insofar as it would be focused on developing responses to exigent political dilemmas rather than opposing Corbyn for its own sake. In fact, Corbyn has himself presented the PLP with a delicious opportunity in this regard.  The appointment of the widely-respected Keir Starmer to shadow David Davis’ Brexit bravado means that Starmer is now well-placed to lead the group, and focus its attention on the most pressing political issue of the day.

Choosing a leader from within the existing shadow cabinet – especially someone Corbyn will be unable to sack in the near future without exposing the weakness of his position – would demonstrate a willingness to work with Corbyn on an issue-by-issue basis, while usefully drawing upon the formal, procedural frameworks of parliamentary opposition. Crucially, Starmer could make it a condition of his appointment that he shares responsibility with Corbyn for Prime Minister’s Questions, an arrangement more than justified by the gravity of Brexit.

But this bold strategy needs to be matched in equal parts by a new humility. Labour’s moderates must come to embody the style of politics Labour’s new members thought they would get from Corbyn.  I remain somewhat flabbergasted that Owen Smith failed to make a progressive alliance with other centre-left parties, a strengthening of the democratic process, and a radical plan for devolution, the key pillars of his leadership campaign. This should be natural territory for the soft left, and these agendas are all core Corbynista goals that Corbyn himself will never actually deliver.

Smith tried a crude version of this approach by promising a second referendum on EU withdrawal, hoping to galvanise the cosmopolitanism which many young Corbynistas embody. This was, however, entirely the wrong pitch.  It simply communicated that Smith was closer to Cameron and Osborne than Corbyn; moreover, the sheer improbability of the plan served to reinforce the perception that Smith was just as hopeless electorally as Corbyn appears to be.

Labour’s moderates can also demonstrate both boldness and humility – and without directly challenging Corbyn’s leadership – by acknowledging the national significance of local politics.  The Labour leaders of Sheffield, Bristol and Sunderland, for instance, should be as familiar to voters in Birmingham, Glasgow and Lincoln as the MPs for Streatham, Leicester and Stoke-on-Trent (and indeed local leaders in London) are.

And the PLP must, fundamentally, come to understand both the positive and negative reasons so many young, left-leaning activists have turned to Corbynism. Push factors related to the moral, political and economic collapse of the centre-left are as important as pull factors related to the Corbyn agenda.  Labour’s moderates need to be in listening mode, and to demonstrate that they are as interested in building a broad-based social movement as Momentum’s mid-ranking organisers are (or claim to be).

Of course, part of the agenda of Momentum’s leaders is to ensure that such conversations do not occur. Cross-fertilisation between Corbyn’s less-loyal supporters and the moderates is a threat to their version of Corbynism – this explains the disruptive tactics employed by Momentum within local Labour branches, and the remarkable decision to hold their The World Transformed conference at the same time as Labour’s annual conference.

Labour’s moderates might therefore need to undertake a series of symbolic sacrifices to underline the sincerity of entente, and undermine the conspiratorial narrative of Momentum’s leaders. As a matter of urgency, Progress should be disbanded, or at least denounced by the PLP’s leading lights.  Ellie Mae O’Hagan’s account of the party conference, first cited in Part II, painted a tragic portrait of Progress based on its traditional conference rally:

As always, everyone was well-dressed, manicured and slick, but in many ways it reminded me of the rallies held by the Labour left I used to attend five years ago. The usual suspects were huddled in a room out of the conference zone, angrily lamenting the loss of their party, promising to take it back, but without a clue of how to do it. The gist of the speeches was that ordinary people are frustrated and want change, but it’s unrealistic to expect policies that alter the system too much – and besides, there’s nothing you can do about globalisation anyway. The standard worshipping of Blair was also a feature, although this nostalgia was an odd sight from a group of people in love with their self-image as modernisers. In short, Progress seemed utterly hopeless: struggling and failing to come to terms with the incredible sea change in their own party, but also with what the wider public wants.

It is, to be frank, a little embarrassing. Progress existed to advance the New Labour agenda, that is, socialising the neoliberal growth model.  Whatever one thinks of this legacy, it is clear that the challenge facing the centre-left following the financial crisis, amid the Brexit chaos and ‘secular stagnation’, is quite different.  Labour’s ‘continuity Blairites’ know who each other are by now, and no longer need to maintain the provocative and unproductive Progress branding.

Furthermore, the continuation of entities such as Progress creates the impression of a stark policy divide between Corbyn and the rest that simply does not exist, fuelling an imaginary that serves to unite Corbynism’s disparate sects. Tony Blair himself feeds this form of interaction, while hinting of his own return to frontline British politics, by depicting Corbyn’s policy agenda as outmoded and unworkable – without ever naming a single domestic policy of Corbyn’s that he disagrees with. In reality, Corbyn offers little that is radical on economic policy – Financial Times columnist Martin Sandbu’s description of shadow chancellor John McDonnell as ‘a sheep in wolf’s clothing’ is entirely apt.

Corbyn and McDonnell are accidental leaders and political relics. Their attempt to present a rather mundane policy programme as a radical departure from neoliberalism is unnecessarily divisive and undoubtedly doomed.  The challenge for social democrats is the same now as it ever was: to press a genuinely radical agenda for reforming capitalism, pitched as a set of rather obvious, common sense solutions – in short, to make the case that only the left, by managing capitalism, can deliver in practice what the right promises in principle.  The coalition that can be built around this agenda is potentially enormous – but it will never include Jeremy Corbyn.

Image: Garry Knight

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