Corbynism from Below?

The Labour leadership must urgently turn its attention to how it harnesses the capacities of the party membership, buoyed up by their recent successes.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has earned just rewards for a laudably radical election campaign and manifesto, along with a huge grassroots door-to-door effort - almost 13 million votes and a net gain of 30 MPs, bringing Labour’s Commons cohort up to a total of 262. As our election editorial argues, this strong performance - particularly remarkable coming as it does after almost two years of factional warfare within the party - now leaves Corbyn in an unassailable position as leader.

It would, however, be naive to think that those MPs who have been in opposition to Corbyn will simply fall into line as a result. And furthermore, we should not allow a good showing in one general election to blind us to the need to rebuild Labour’s social base - which in many places remains in a parlous state. Corbyn now has the opportunity to proceed with the radical transformation of the Labour Party, but this is not just a question of taking control of the existing machinery for the left - the Labour leadership must urgently turn its attention to how it harnesses the capacities of the party membership, buoyed up by their recent successes.

Renewing Solidarities

In an article for The Guardian, Momentum activist Deborah Hermanns outlines a possible way forward. Noting the party’s struggles in its post-industrial former heartlands – a multifaceted crisis frequently pinned on Corbyn despite being many years in the making – she calls for a process of ‘bottom-up cultural renewal’ driven by the Labour Party’s grassroots.

Citing Greece’s Solidarity4All network as a possible model for Labour, she suggests that this process might involve the establishment of ‘social spaces, cinema clubs, food banks and sports centres’ – to which might be added unionisation drives, breakfast clubs and political education projects. Another forerunner is the Black Panther Party, which ran a range of social programmes - from breakfast clubs to health clinics - in cities across the United States in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Perhaps this wasn’t a conscious omission, although citing this example may not have gone down too favourably among the Guardian’s genteel readership. Regardless, Hermanns correctly points out that this work is not a distraction from or substitute for electoral activity, but a necessary complement to it.

This kind of solidarity work should not be treated as just another method of getting out the vote, nor should it be viewed as an attempt to soothe some charitable do-gooding impulse – building a ‘Big Society’ of the left. Rather, it should be seen as part of the process of building a modern-day ‘world of labour’, renewing labour movement culture for the 21st century, and rebuilding bridges between the Labour Party and those working-class communities which have been neglected by it for so long.

While Corbyn needs to ensure he has a supportive party machine at his disposal - and having already twice won a huge mandate for change in leadership contests, he has a right to one - the existing structures of the Labour Party are in many ways inadequate. Therefore, the task facing Corbyn is to reorientate the way the party organises and campaigns – turning constituency parties into hubs of ongoing discussion, education and culture, with a democratic, participatory ethos. To succeed, Corbynism must begin the vital process of rebuilding popular self-confidence, and the capacity of working-class people to take real collective control of their everyday lives.

Community solidarity work of this sort will be vital to tackling the profound sentiments of isolation, frustration, alienation and political powerlessness so widespread in so many British towns and cities – including Middlesbrough, where Labour narrowly lost one local seat to the Tories in the election just gone. However, this work and the building of new labour movement institutions must not be an end in itself. Rather, it should aim to lay the foundations for a mass movement which can empower a future Labour government not just to occupy office, but to wield power with the goal of delivering wide-ranging social transformation.

Against the Grain

That the Labour Party came so close to government in this election is staggering given the circumstances. As Leo Panitch argues so convincingly in his seminal 1986 essay ‘The Impasse of Social Democratic Politics’, any attempt to shift the Labour Party meaningfully to the left inevitably unleashes the kind of factional warfare we’ve seen since 2015. This unavoidably hits the party’s poll ratings hard. What Corbyn’s Labour has proved is that it can make up a great deal of this ground in a short space of time. But there will be more factional battles to fight over the coming months and years, and there is certainly further turbulence to come if the Corbyn project is to do what needs to be done.

Corbynism represents a tentative, embryonic attempt to break with four decades of neoliberalism’s ideological hegemony. Making this break successfully would therefore require a significant escalation in the level of popular organisation, mobilisation and political assertiveness. In fact, this sort of activity is likely a prerequisite to win even the kind of social-democratic concessions as outlined in Labour’s recent election manifesto. Even the programme of the 1980s Greater London Council placed great emphasis on mass participation. Hilary Wainwright observes in her Labour: A Tale of Two Parties1, that this opening up of resources and access to community groups was what distinguished the new-left GLC from the so-called ‘gas-and-water socialism’ which had previously been the stock-in-trade of Labour councils.

All of this would also represent a major departure from the political practice of orthodox labourism. As Panitch asserts in the aforementioned essay, Labourism’s traditional mode of operation has generally tended towards the top-down, paternalistic and technocratic. Panitch observes that this has all too often served to dampen down working-class radicalism, curb expectations and reinforce inactivity. While Labour won 12.8 million votes in this election - certainly proving that a broad swathe of voters are prepared to give a hearing and respond positively to unashamedly leftwing policy offers - it would be wrong to interpret that performance straightforwardly as 12.8 million votes for socialism. The party’s new left must remember that it has to actively cultivate popular support for a radical political alternative, rather than assuming that there is sufficient support already latent, just waiting to be tapped into.

The workings of parliamentary democracy itself - played out as they generally are among MPs, journalists and a select coterie of hangers-on - also tend to inculcate a deep-seated sense of subordination, deference and passivity. Yet Labour’s message of hope, solidarity and national renewal - and its campaign, powered by the determined efforts of thousands of rank-and-file activists - clearly resonated with an electorate increasingly dissatisfied by neoliberal technocracy and austerity. Only by continuing to foster grassroots creativity and creating new institutions for popular participation can Corbynism succeed over the long term.

In the aforementioned book, Wainwright described labourism as ‘essentially an ideology of decent and dignified subordination’.2 Corbynism offers a historic opportunity to build a genuinely new labour movement politics, abandoning that long-established tendency towards paternalism and technocracy for genuine popular engagement, creativity and empowerment. Its ability to achieve this is, ultimately, the Corbyn project’s litmus test.

Looming challenges

Community solidarity work is vital to re-embed the Labour Party in communities and pave the way for, in time, a radical Labour government. But this is alien to the prevailing political orthodoxy. Ordinarily, the demands of the 24-hour ‘hot take’ media cycle would make it extremely difficult for the Labour leadership to articulate this kind of strategy without merely inviting further derision. However, the successes of Labour’s recent election campaign - and its grassroots-based nature - have surely earned Corbyn the right to encourage experiments. But there is also the risk that, after such a good election result, some on the Corbynite left underestimate the fundamental work that is required before we are able to govern effectively from the radical left. This would be dangerous, as we may not have much time in which to do it.

Any attempt to embark on this kind of approach would face not just mockery from outside the Labour Party but serious opposition from within it. The leadership’s control over its party machinery is still tenuous, and an unsupportive bureaucracy could simply withhold the resources and logistical support necessary to make radical community organising a reality nationwide. Members looking to open up local parties and experiment with new methods of organising can currently expect little support from an unreformed Labour HQ.

None of this is to suggest that the rank-and-file Labour left should just sit around and wait for help from on high before organising in their communities. Indeed, there is already a great deal of highly useful and relevant experience of grassroots organising among Labour members - the hands-on experience of anti-cuts campaigners and trade union activists is already substantial. Rank-and-file initiative can make substantial achievements. But for this sort of approach to solidly take hold nationwide, an attentive and supportive central party apparatus will be invaluable.

Already, Corbyn’s Labour has been able to establish a highly impressive get-out-the-vote operation, as evidenced in the recent election campaign. Legions of post-Corbyn recruits joined time-served members in pounding pavements across the country in the hope of a Labour victory. But previously, there had been times when the leadership seemed unsure of what to do with its new recruits, beyond mobilising them to successfully defend Corbyn’s leadership last summer. Given the unlikely circumstances in which Corbyn was thrust into the leadership this was inevitable, but the leadership must now start to provide its rank and file supporters with clear guidance and encouragement if this project is to progress further.

What is also required is clarity and honesty about the scale of the task facing Labour’s new left, and the nature of that task as well - to re-establish the Labour Party as a campaigning force in working-class communities, to democratise its policymaking structures and to bring through the next generation of Labour left cadres, candidates and activists. Again, articulating this effectively in the current political environment is difficult. But Corbyn has to find ways of steeling his supporters for the job ahead. His newly-strengthened position as leader potentially gives him more room for manoeuvre in this regard.

Limitations and potential

Hermanns also writes that Labour activists could ‘step in to fill the hole’ left where public services have been cut back. We should be careful not to overstate the potential of radical community organising programmes. Despite the real potential they hold, grassroots organising and campaigning can do no more than partly ameliorate the damage being done by continuing austerity. Its main purpose is to demonstrate practical solidarity with working, oppressed and marginalised people, hopefully going some way to regaining their trust after too many years of neglecting their concerns and needs.

Indeed, the Labour left - whose representation in councils is still weak - needs to start thinking seriously about local government. The days of 1980s Liverpool-esque showdowns are almost certainly over, but it is vital for socialists in the Labour Party to begin the work of devising a national left strategy for councils. This is a debate which has yet to get meaningfully underway; the Labour leadership has itself appeared reluctant to broach the topic. But there is little point getting left councillors elected without a clear idea of how they can best use the powers available to them. A socialist community organising drive could inform and influence that left strategy for local government, providing Labour activists with the experience and knowledge necessary to drastically reshape Labour-run councils.

To be genuinely transformative and radical, community activism has to be coupled with an ambitious, coherent and rigorous political programme aiming at social and economic transformation. The British socialist left, for the first time in many decades, finds itself responsible for developing such a programme. We have to offer the people we aim to organise among and to serve a distinctive, socialist alternative vision of the future. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin correctly make the point in Black Against Empire, their history of the Black Panthers, 3 that without this, community organising risks being little more than a social service.

There is, however, a major potential pitfall. The Labour left has capable organisers, thinkers and activists, but the Corbynite base as a whole remains somewhat inexperienced. When Syriza entered government in January 2015, its most capable cadres were soon drawn towards parliament - which meant that attempts to maintain the social movement that initially sustained it inevitably took a back seat. There is a danger of something similar happening to Corbyn’s Labour, particularly if it were to win a general election in the not-too-distant future.

Given the weakness of the Tories’ position in parliament, there is the very real possibility of a left Labour government coming to office sooner rather than later. We may therefore find that we have less time than we had anticipated in which to develop a socialist programme that’s equal to the task. The left must develop an adequate intellectual infrastructure. Rank-and-file activists must be encouraged to develop and contribute their own ideas, rather than waiting for them to come down from on high. In addition to implementing new methods of community campaigning, Labour’s policymaking processes must also be radically reshaped to facilitate greater grassroots input.

There are reports that Labour Party membership is again rapidly expanding in the wake of the general election. While there is as yet no official confirmation, a membership potentially heading towards a million comes with immense potential - though the Labour leadership should mount an active recruitment drive to ensure it reaches this target. Not only can we expect Labour to mount an even more impressive campaign whenever the next election is called, with thousands of activists getting to work to win a Labour government right from the start, it also opens up the possibility of putting the Labour Party at the heart of workplaces and communities in a way scarcely seen in Britain before. Labour could even become as central to many communities as the post-war Italian Communist Party was. This is evidently a hugely exciting prospect. It is therefore incumbent upon the leadership to engage these newcomers, and to give them the autonomy to organise and campaign in ways they consider to serve their people.

Labour’s impressive performance in the election provides us with an indication of just how far Corbynism has come in a short space of time. We should take time to remind ourselves that two years ago, none of us saw ourselves being in anything like this position at this stage. However, the real promise of Corbynism lies less in its existing political demands but in what it might be conducive to. Active engagement in community and workplace-based struggles will be crucial if Labour’s new left is to bring about the social and political renewal it aspires to.

  1. Hilary Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth, 1987, p. 28. 

  2. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 294. 

  3. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Berkley, University of California Press, p. 385.