Corbynism, martyrdom and the other Labour split – part I

26 September 2016

Craig Berry - Deputy Director at SPERI 

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.

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