Corbynism, martyrdom and the other Labour split – part II

03 October 2016

Craig Berry - Deputy Director at SPERI

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.

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