Corbynism at a Crossroads

The infrastructure of Corbynism provides a unique opportunity to build the socialism of the future: it is imperative we take it in our hands.

The Mythical Beast of Corbynism?

Is it Seven Sisters, rather than seven splitters, that will decide the fate of Corbynism? The formation of The Independent Group undoubtedly poses a threat to Labour’s electoral coalition, as Jeremy Gilbert outlined, but the mass movement stands a strong chance against this last gasp of neoliberal technocracy. The biggest challenges facing Corbynism are of a more structural nature.

The Latin Village, a hub for working-class Colombian migrants in North London, faces demolition at the hands of Haringey council leader, Joe Ejiofor, who sits on Momentum’s National Coordinating Group (NCG), along with his deputy Emine Ibrahim. The developer’s plans include nearly 200 homes, not one of which will be at council rent; dozens of traders risk losing their livelihoods. In other words, a leading Corbynite is overseeing a neoliberal policy violently dispossessing working-class Londoners.

Only two months ago Ejiofor was waxing lyrical in Tribune, the UK’s in-house magazine of democratic socialism, about ‘Corbynism in Local Government’, how he would build “a Haringey for the many, not the few”. The manifesto of his new Labour Council grouping, which had replaced the centrist cohort of councillors under Claire Kober, promised “to involve residents as our partners”, and immediately cancelled Kober’s widely-resisted Haringey Development Vehicle.

Yet now Ejiofor presides over a brutal act of dispossession. When pressed, his defence has been to cite the cancellation costs of the contract, signed by the previous administration, for a council pushed to the brink by Tory austerity. It does not stack up: with £190m in usable reserves and an annual expenditure of £250m, it is safe to say the council could cover the potential cancellation costs, estimated at a few million pounds. What’s more, Ejiofor isn’t simply accepting the ‘regeneration’ scheme, he is actively making the case for it, repeatedly adopting the neoliberal discourse of ‘social and economic renewal’ in statements to the media.

This is a political choice. The Council could cancel the compulsory purchase order and turn the relentless displacement of London’s working class into a massive and pressing public issue. There is even an alternative community plan, radical and practical, for the Village.

Momentum’s leadership, called out on their complicity, have maintained a studious silence. When challenged, Momentum founder and chair Jon Lansman gave an all-too-familiar ‘tough choices’ speech. Meanwhile, the local Labour membership, having originally voted against the Village’s destruction, have proved powerless to stop it. Upon his election as Council Leader, Ejiofor promised “to show everybody what this mythical beast the ‘Corbyn council’ actually does.” The answer seems to be: curb capitalism’s worst excesses while enforcing its quotidian violence, with alternative economic models suppressed and its base disempowered. Corbynism is attacked from the right, but already it is falling prey to co-option by the state. How did we get here?

Momentum: Praetorian Guard or Transformational Outrider?

The NCG, on which Ejiofor sits, did not always head up Momentum. Until January 2017, it was governed under a kind of Dual Power arrangement, with a Steering Group and National Committee. Dysfunctional and internecine, with Trotskyist groups eyeing control, this system was put to an end by Jon Lansman’s faction, which disbanded the National Committee and established the NCG. The latter mirrored Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), with a minority of positions elected by the grassroots – Ejiofor, for example, sits as a public office holder. Momentum pivoted away from a ‘social movement’ position and towards a praetorian guard for Corbynism within Labour. Non-Labour members were banned, and Lansman signalled his desire for Momentum to affiliate to Labour, which would prevent it from having its own policy programme.

There have been considerable benefits to this shift. Momentum’s efficient use of social media and its ‘mynearestmarginal’ website were key to Labour’s success in the 2017 election. Patently, there is no socialist project without a Labour government. Likewise, winning internal elections, as Momentum has done with laudable success, is vital to the transformation of party democracy. Even staunch anti-Lansmanites recognise that Momentum is now “a much slicker, top-down mobiliser of Labour members in internal and general elections.” Similarly, it has mobilised the base effectively against attacks on the Corbyn project from the right, now as in 2016.

Nevertheless, the Latin Village débâcle demonstrates the need to change strategy – with the leadership relatively secure, Momentum can afford to shift focus. A focus on national elections has left its local groups largely without infrastructure or purpose. Momentum’s base is largely inactive, and the organisation relatively disconnected from struggle on the ground across the country. Simon Hannah’s claim that Corbynism has sapped energy from grassroots struggle in Britain is questionable but he is right to diagnose an electoralist paternalism in recent times.

This paternalism is best encapsulated by Momentum’s online presence. Success in internal Labour elections may be welcome, but all it necessitates from the grassroots is one click. Likewise, Momentum’s social media presence is the quintessence of the economy of reaction, one-liners designed to fuel outrage at injustice and thus extend both hits and reach. The much-discussed ‘social movement’ is one of leaders and followers. Corbyn leads, we follow. Sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo has theorised ‘platform parties’ of ‘hyperleaders’ and ‘hyperfollowers’ in the digital networked age, with online participation replacing democratic deliberation. Such a theory might usefully be applied to unlikely rockstar hyperleader Corbyn and Momentum. Though the role of e-democracy in a reconstituted Momentum held much promise, its most significant impact, a consultation on party democracy, was still tightly controlled by the bureaucracy. The base is left both directionless and powerless.

This disempowerment also risks breeding conspiracist and anger-driven responses among Corbynism’s activist base. As Corbynism’s outriders triangulate in an (often misguided) attempt to win the war of position, the base is left lamenting ‘betrayals’ and ‘capitulations’, rarely with any analysis of the political forces at stake, or a strategy for how to shift them in our favour. This bodes ill for the prospects of a Corbyn government, which will surely be doing many things we don’t want it to do, especially in the absence of effective counter-power from its left. This situation is not inevitable. Rather, it is the result of a process of disempowerment, and a lack of political education – education, not as in ‘educating the ignorant base’, but as in building a skilled and empowered movement, while deepening, sharpening and radicalising its socialist consciousness. Instead, vast swathes of the membership are dismissed as ‘cranks’ by the left itself, a dubious and unproductive conceptualisation.

Momentum’s strategy has led to similar failings in policy positions. As Corbynism struggles on the rocky shore of the state (more border guards, more police, end freedom of movement), Momentum fails to challenge or push it, instead producing slick videos arguing for more police officers, and keeping silent during the outrageous decision (later reversed) to abstain on the Tory immigration bill. This stance is aided and abetted both by a kneejerk defensiveness which sees every critique from the left as a handmaiden to the ceaseless siege from the right, and by an unimaginative left-bureaucratism. The latter tendency in particular was on show in the numerous defences of Ejiofor, with many misguidedly financial realism. The task before us is to marshal political forces able to push Labour in government, both in support of its manifesto and beyond it. Instead, we are left with an impotent movement decrying betrayal from the sidelines.

To McDonnellism, And Beyond

Labour’s 2017 manifesto transformed British politics. From the desolate depths of ‘racist mug’ triangulation, the Corbyn project has now won the argument convincingly against austerity and for public investment, regulation and nationalisation. These wins matter. But Corbynism, on the whole, maintains a healthy scepticism about the prospects for socialism within the British state. The arguments are well-known around limits of the postwar settlement and the social forces which enabled it: everyone’s agreed ‘we can’t go back to the 1970s’.

As John McDonnell’s former economic adviser James Meadway stated recently, the UK has shifted to a ‘rentier’ economy, with financialisation and the City of London at its heart. To adapt to the new challenge, and overcome the failures of the past, McDonnell, the brain of Corbynism-in-government, has revived the 1970s slogan of In and Against the State, vowing to ‘take power to give power’. New forms of common ownership, including co-operatives and worker stakes in major FTSE companies, lie at the heart of this vision.

As Barnaby Raine outlined intelligently in a recent essay, McDonnellism relies on “an alliance of proletarians, debtors, and sectors of capital to overthrow the outmoded institutions and rentier interests” and thus stabilise capitalism by rebalancing social forces through common ownership. The coast will then be clear, or so it is hypothesised, for a ‘technofuturist’ state to harness the power of long-term planning and modern platforms in service of an equal and just economy, with halting and mitigating climate breakdown a top priority.

McDonnell has written that “questions of ownership and control over production…must now be at the heart of everything we do”. The 2017 manifesto – with workplace democracy, renewed trade union rights and plans for municipal ownership of utilities – was an excellent start, built upon by his Alternative Models of Ownership report, the much-vaunted ‘Preston Model’ and a plethora of research by organisations like the IPPR and WeOwnIt. There is a route to success here, but we cannot rely on the Labour leadership alone. McDonnell even signalled as much in a speech last year, advocating for the base to be as involved developing and implementing socialist policies as the leadership.

Similarly, socialist strategist Leo Panitch has advocated “specific implementation plans by sector to overcome obstacles and restructure state functions and institutions with a democratic orientation.” The broader movement cannot simply be mobilised for protests, it must be actively involved in the formulation of the socialist project. The alternative N15 plan for the Latin Village – devised by the community for its own benefit – is a perfect example both of this strategy and of the laboratory that local government could play in this regard. Equally, the reality of its suppression in favour of the status quo speaks to the weakness of our movement – Momentum and the Labour Left are not currently in and against the state, they are simply in it.

Building power at the grassroots towards radical socialist policies is vital to the success of our project. In doing so, we are not acting against the leadership, but in concert with it: at a recent event around a ‘Green New Deal’ in the UK, Rebecca Long-Bailey actively called for a grassroots movement to develop policy and push from below. Such pressure is vital to overcome the reactionary interests within and beyond the Labour movement who will stand in our way. Equally, we cannot neglect the huge failures of Corbynism regarding borders and questions of ‘security’, failures actively encouraged by some on the left. Recent victories of grassroots Labour campaigns around the establishment of ‘sanctuary boroughs’ for refugees and asylum seekers show us the real possibility of shifting the terrain. Assailed by capital, the state and the media, the Labour leadership can only succeed through the collective endeavour of its base.

Furthermore, Raine is correct to posit McDonnell’s project as a reformist holding strategy. His neo-Keynesian alliance with capital can only ever be temporary. But the relatively weak position of working-class struggle in this country and the urgency of the climate crisis necessitate such a strategy. Our task more broadly must be to build working-class power in Britain, both within the workplace and beyond it, e.g. supporting and expanding struggle around the home through tenants’ unions and the women’s strike. Just as McDonnellism represents a radicalisation of and potentially an advance beyond Corbynism, so equally must we build for the horizon beyond McDonnellism. Waves of socialist offensives using the productive tension of ‘In and Against the State’ are key to a transformative left project.

Socialism Comes in Waves

It is vital to have an infrastructure facilitating such a strategy. Such an infrastructure is easily imaginable: a Momentum which fights for the Left within Labour, with a more critical bent on policy; a national and permanent World Transformed project, building power in individual towns and cities while constantly redefining a socialist horizon; and an empowered, skilled grassroots movement with an ambitious political education programme, organising as part of a healthy left ecology.

Momentum has the potential to build a skilled movement active within Labour and supporting struggle beyond it. Continued mobilisation for internal and public elections is vital, but this can be done in a way which genuinely empowers and educates the grassroots: The Organiser, a recent mass email initiative offering a forum for Momentum members to exchange campaigning tips, is an excellent example of its potential. E-democracy operations could be rolled out more ambitiously to give members a real stake in policymaking within the organisation and the party. Likewise, an expanded role for the largely toothless members’ council, which nominally oversees the NCG, would counteract ‘hyperleadership’ tendencies. An empowered base would build the socialist policies of tomorrow; indeed, Momentum’s national co-ordinator Laura Parker recently advocated an “engaged base of organised workers, developing local and regional plans, integral to implementing John McDonnell’s alternative forms of ownership”.

More broadly, Momentum has the capacity to build autonomous working-class and anti-imperialist struggle in Britain, as it has done previously when supporting striking PictureHouse workers and antifascist mobilisations. This could be recreated and expanded, in conjunction with the party’s Community Organising Unit, to support renters’ unions or the Youth Climate Strike. Likewise, Momentum’s recent young BAME organiser training demonstrates a potential role facilitating the (re)growth of radical Black self-organising in Britain, more needed than ever given Labour and the Left’s substantial failings on questions of race and anti-imperialism.

The World Transformed has shown promising signs of challenging Labour’s history (and present) in this regard, with sessions on imperialism and sex work at the festival in 2018 examining Labour’s record critically. More generally, the festival was teeming with energy and ideas, making the current expansion into a permanent project, with locally-organised events in individual towns and cities, highly welcome. Projects like ‘Bristol Transformed’ go beyond mere panels: cultural events and parties can bring people in beyond the usual confines of the left, while workshops and active campaigning work, ideally tied into specific local struggles, provide training and political education. They could even provide a basis, in tandem with local Momentum groups, for the building of new socialist institutions and policies locally, creating a blueprint for eco-socialist reconstruction in towns across the country. Brighton’s ‘many-festo’ shows the way forward. Similarly, partnerships with local Momentum and Labour chapters could develop political education through reading groups and socialist clubs. TWT can be the hub of the Left-as-a-movement, redefining our horizons and holding the party’s feet to the socialist fire.

Our aim should be to build an empowered political base within the Labour Party, able to “organise and formulate [its] own political demands” and “equipped to make use of democratised policy-making structures”, as Tom Blackburn suggested last year. The relative strength of the Young Labour reforms proposed by Max Shanly and weakness of the party’s Democracy Review and open selections stitch-up demonstrate that party democratisation needs to be pushed from below, in concert with left party structures. That means active training from left institutions. But it also means taking agency into our own hands. The Labour for a Green New Deal and Left 2030 initiatives should only be the start: let a thousand Labour campaigns bloom. A vibrant left should equally organise within unions to help turn their defensive orientation to a propositional one, actively building a transformational state, providing a Lucas Plan for Britain’s decrepit industries, and intensifying demands for a shorter working week.

The infrastructure of Corbynism provides a unique opportunity to build the socialism of the future: it is imperative we take it in our hands. Socialist agents, movements and institutions cannot simply be wished into existence, they must be built through struggle. Now more than ever, we must keep our eyes on the prize.


Angus Satow

Angus Satow is a Labour and Momentum member. He organised with The World Transformed 2018 and is co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.