Office Without Counter-Power?

Without the backing of a vibrant and assertive social movement behind it, any left-led Labour government risks merely occupying office rather than wielding real power.

Although a social movement cannot be invented artificially, efforts can be made to encourage its revival. The Right needs only the votes of its electorate. The Left, if it wishes to carry its reforms, requires the active support of its electorate to force the capitalist Establishment to yield.
Daniel Singer, ‘Is Socialism Doomed?’1

After almost a decade of Conservative-led government, there is a palpable and justified eagerness among Labour activists to throw the Tories out of office as soon as possible. All the expected consequences of such an extended period of Tory government – including but not restricted to ravaged public services, entrenched poverty and vindictive attacks on the most vulnerable – have manifested themselves to devastating effect.2 Beyond desperate self-preservation and its somewhat phantasmic pursuit of a fire-sale, rights-slashing, Singapore-on-Thames Brexit, the incumbent government is motivated primarily by bitter hatred towards its socialist-led opposition, and particularly by the fear that it might mount a serious challenge to the fundamentals of the post-Thatcherite political and economic settlement in Britain. Whether Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is yet in a position to do exactly this, however, is very much open to question.

With the possibility of a general election within the next few months, one danger now facing Corbynism is that of arriving in government on the back of a tenuous counter-hegemony and weak organisation among the working class at large. Here the failure of Syriza, returned ignominiously to opposition in July, hangs heavy over Labour. Costas Douzinas has observed that despite the large-scale popular mobilisations that preceded Syriza’s arrival in government in 2015, by the time it assumed office much of that energy had already dissipated.3 Syriza’s emergence from relative obscurity was sudden, and having polled less than 5% of the vote in the 2009 legislative election, it secured 36% and 35% in the two elections of 2015 respectively. Douzinas concludes that this meteoric rise was fuelled mainly by sheer antipathy towards the old political caste that had colluded in subjecting the Greek working class to such misery, which hardly provided Syriza with a stable base for the kind of measures that might have at least allowed it some chance of alleviating the social crisis with which it was immediately faced, or for fighting back against a European establishment so eager to make an example of it pour décourager les autres.4 As Douzinas has put it:

These successive victories in a short nine-month period were unprecedented and cannot be attributed exclusively to Syriza’s radical credentials. Electoral victory did not emerge out of but against the ideological hegemony of the right-wing and Pasok parties, against persistent anti-left institutional biases and state strategies and without the support of any major electronic or print medium. The vote for Syriza was negative: a guilty verdict for the ancien régime instead of a positive adoption of socialist ideals.5

It may well be similar sentiments that push Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party into government at the next general election. But as Raymond Williams once warned, “no new government can do much with the assembly of negative forces generated by a previous bad government”, and socialists must instead be concerned with “converting enough of these negations into positive ones for practical reconstruction”.6 Antipathy alone is hardly a secure foundation for a transformative left-wing government to stand on, even before taking into account its likely precarious parliamentary arithmetic and the obstructionism it should expect to encounter from within the state apparatus – and from within its own ranks. How might we go about countering this? The Syriza experience, as Douzinas has argued, underlines among other things the need to keep the party at the grassroots alive and at least partly autonomous when its leaders are in government: the movement must be able freely to make its own criticisms and exert its own countervailing pressures. Unless the Labour leadership truly appreciates the importance and necessity of strengthening rank-and-file mobilisation, the entire Corbyn project will fall well short. But if its activists are consistently encouraged and allowed the space to organise productively and foster new solidarities beyond their own ranks, they may yet play a vital role in laying the necessary foundations for a lasting shift of wealth and power towards working and oppressed people.

Hard realism about what a Corbyn-led government is likely to accomplish is essential, taking into account its highly unpropitious starting point. Even were it to succeed in implementing the entirety of its first-term programme, such a government would have only achieved a very partial and incomplete break with neoliberalism’s most iniquitous aspects, though even this would mark an important advance. It goes without saying, in addition, that a socialist-led Labour government can hardly conjure up a mass movement out of thin air, though there was much talk in the early days of Corbynism about building a social movement, and Jeremy Corbyn himself made a swift statement of intent the weekend he was first elected Labour leader by spurning an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show to address a pro-refugee rally instead.

In terms borrowed from Tony Benn,7 who had to learn this lesson the hard way, any left Labour government which does not make continual efforts to nurture a broad-based and firmly-rooted popular movement capable both of supporting and pressuring it risks finding itself simply occupying office for whatever length of time it endures, while the substantial political power necessary to pave the way for any more extensive and lasting change continues to elude it.

Fragility and fragmentation

Two recent additions to the burgeoning literature on the post-crisis ‘new politics’ of which Corbynism is but one manifestation add helpfully to our understanding of it. Jack Shenker’s Now We Have Your Attention8 and Corbynism from Below,9 a collection of essays edited by Mark Perryman, each cover slightly different but adjoining territory. Shenker’s book touches on Corbynism and provides useful context for its rise to prominence, but broadens its scope to encompass a wider range of recent social movement activity while also surveying the wreckage of austerity Britain. Perryman’s collection is more focused specifically on the Corbyn-model Labour Party, and evaluates the myriad challenges it now faces as it aspires to lead a radical-reformist left-wing government.

Now We Have Your Attention, in particular, is especially useful in that it makes clear that there is a genuine groundswell of people looking for a radical political alternative, despite the best efforts of unsympathetic politicians and pundits to shove the Corbynite genie back into its bottle. It also makes clear that this groundswell cannot be reduced to the Labour Party alone, closely connected though they are. Shenker differs from many of his journalistic peers in his healthy scepticism towards the Westminster hothouse, and in his eagerness to get out of it: as such, his journey takes in a plethora of struggles and campaigns, from the Demand the Impossible political education initiative in Manchester to asylum seekers resisting the hostile environment in Glasgow, and from renters organising for housing justice in the shadow of Grenfell to cleaners fighting back against exploitation and precariousness at the Ministry of Justice. Indeed, Shenker is quite withering about those among his journalistic peers who “continue to fixate on the personalities, parties and parlour games of Parliament”, noting with alarm an “epic disconnect” between:

the breathless frenzy of Westminster on the one hand, where things seem to change at a thousand miles a minute but are actually mired in stasis, and real life on the other, where we continue to go about our days as normal, even as, gradually, many of the political, economic and social building blocks of the country around us are transformed.10

One thing that stands out when reading Shenker’s account is the sheer creativity and ingenuity so frequently displayed by each of these campaigns; further evidence, if it were needed, that even in circumstances of incredible adversity, ordinary people still find it in them to continue probing, prodding, looking for the weak spots of their oppressors and exploiters, and that through working together they maintain the strength of character and the will to fight: they remain admirably vivacious, ebullient and defiant whatever is thrown at them. Though few could blame them if they were, they are not beaten down. The embattled political establishment which continues to cling on like grim death has no answers to any of the problems with which it is confronted, even where it is honest enough to acknowledge them, and these people know that perfectly well.

Though it feigns horror, Brexit has come almost as a lottery win for the liberal centre, allowing it to effectively displace (for now, at least) the tentative rebirth of class politics reflected in Corbynism in favour of an excruciating, performative culture war, to sidestep the thorny task of addressing Brexit’s root causes, and avoid discussing its own role in creating them. But as Shenker insists, “in our post-crash era it is those fighting for radical change who are the realists; the fantasists are those who believe that the pre-2008 world can be resurrected and continue”.11

What is also apparent, however, is how fragmented and isolated many of these campaigns and struggles against Britain’s gaping social inequalities and its glaring injustices still remain. It is true that Corbynism derived much of its initial impetus (and acquired many of its leading young cadres) from the student and anti-cuts movements which emerged at the outset of this decade in opposition to the Tory-Liberal coalition government and its austerity agenda.12 But those movements had long since passed their peak by the time Jeremy Corbyn’s first Labour leadership campaign presented itself as an alternative outlet, and despite the emphasis on the need to build a social movement around Corbyn’s leadership, actual social movement activity in the years since 2015 has remained muted to say the least.

It was originally hoped that Momentum might be able to take on this function of building bridges between the Labour Party and causes independent from it but sharing complementary objectives, though there was never much clarity about how it would perform this task. Regardless, the acute need to defend a seemingly permanently embattled leadership has taken priority, forcing it to curb its ambitions and to serve more straightforwardly as a vehicle for organising and mobilising the Labour left internally. Nor has the rise of a left-wing leadership within the Labour Party helped to stimulate any consistent renaissance of workplace organisation and strike action. We should also remind ourselves that Britain’s anti-austerity movements of the early-mid 2010s never approached the level of militancy or participation seen in those continental European countries which were worst affected by the financial crisis. The sudden rise of Syriza, for instance, emerged in a context of enormous mass mobilisation, with more than a quarter of Greece’s population having participated in the ‘movements of the squares’ in 2011.13

This question of building popular counter-power is one of the utmost importance for the Labour left. The movement which has gathered behind Corbyn has already demonstrated its practical worth: firstly in the 2015 and 2016 leadership campaigns, and then again during Labour’s general election campaign of 2017. But outside of these, the Labour left grassroots – outside of a few fairly isolated and localised instances – has struggled to cohere and consistently develop its own independent initiatives. When it has lacked a national campaign to rally around, the Corbynite base has often appeared somewhat directionless. It has been to a considerable extent reliant on the guidance of the Labour leadership, but with Corbyn’s inner circle constantly having to fight its own battles and engage in the particularly delicate task of party management, this has not always been forthcoming. No doubt this partly reflects a certain jitteriness about upsetting more ‘moderate’ opinion within the Labour Party, but it also points to the party’s ingrained paternalism and an unwillingness to genuinely unleash the capacities of its own activists.

Hilary Wainwright, who contributes an essay to Corbynism from Below, has noted previously that this has constituted an historic feature of mainstream social democracy. Wainwright points out that even at the peak of their powers, these parties were too often preoccupied with the maintenance and exercise of what she terms “power-as-domination”.14 Concerned above all with securing short-term electoral success, the parties of social democracy have traditionally been geared towards “winning the power to govern and then steering the state apparatus to meet what they identify as the needs of the people”. In restricting themselves to such a limited role and adopting such a “paternalistic methodology”, social democratic parties have consistently revealed their own “low estimation of people’s capabilities”. In opposition to this, dissident tendencies from the New Left through to the alter-globalisation movement have led the charge to develop “power-as-transformative capacity”, in the process “discovering through collective action that they had their own capacity to bring about change”.15

Corbynism’s success (or otherwise) in developing this capacity will be decisive for its overall chances of delivering the social change it aspires to. Wainwright has struck a perfectly justified note of scepticism about its ability to truly reshape the Labour Party into a vehicle for fostering power as transformative capacity, given the scale of the change needed and the urgency with which this reform must be brought about. The old Labourist mindset of managerialism and paternalism remains, as she puts it, “deeply embedded” in the institutions of the Labour Party and the labour movement at large.16 The fact that a sizable number of the activists who have flooded into the party since 2015 themselves have a background in the social movements that emerged in Britain after 2010 is a potential strength in that they are less likely to be intellectually bounded by the political and organisational imaginaries of traditional Labourism, but also a potential weakness in that they may be less prepared for the interminably long slog of both taking control of labour movement institutions and changing the way these operate. The struggle for control alone consumes much time and energy, and there is always the temptation simply to wield bureaucratic power on behalf of the left once it has been obtained.

In the present political context, successfully achieving even relatively modest social reforms is likely to require considerable popular mobilisation and activism. André Gorz was among those to make the point that when pursuing such programmes of social reform, left parties that successfully come to office do not automatically secure “the power to put the reforms into practice” in doing so. This is implicitly understood by electorates, and breeds widespread scepticism about the left parties putting forward such alternatives. In order to win the consent and trust of the masses, left parties require the heft of organised social movements to help demonstrate their potential power in confronting vested interests and their ability to mobilise active mass support.17 But without such a mass movement standing foursquare behind them, “electoral logic will tend inevitably to work in favour of those political leaders for whom the role of the ‘left’ consists essentially in promoting the same policy as the right, but doing it better”. Furthermore, in the absence of a programme adequate to the task of carrying the struggle forward and further changing the political terrain to the advantage of the working class, “the situation will rapidly degenerate and the working class, despite its tactical victory, will find itself driven back to its original positions”.18

Writing in what transpired to be his valedictory work, Socialism for a Sceptical Age, Ralph Miliband reminded us that any socialist government must prioritise “the reinforcement of the forces of the Left throughout the country”, taking active steps to bolster the socialist left as a social, cultural and educational presence.19 Miliband insisted that it is only by successfully embedding “sufficiently strong ‘fortresses’ and ‘earthworks’ committed to the Left in society” that a left government can empower any successor socialist administrations to continue carrying forward “the process of radical reform”. However, political and social intervention of this nature has generally been anathema to social-democratic parties. While for Miliband a socialist party must serve as “a crucial source for the articulation of a value-system which directly challenges the prevailing one”, the reality is that bargaining for and extracting concessions from the status quo has been the preferred modus operandi of social democracy for most of its history.20 This not only goes a long way to accounting for “such de-radicalisation as has occurred in the wage-earning population of advanced capitalist countries” but also, combined with social democrats’ absolute horror at being seen to represent a purely sectional interest – the interests of capital rarely being conceived by social democracy as sectional in the same way as those of labour21 – for “the virtual occlusion of class from political discourse” in recent decades.

It follows from this that social-democratic reformists “have tended to be blind to the severity of the struggle which major advances in the transformation of the social order in progressive directions must entail”.22 Miliband, citing the Austromarxist thinker Otto Bauer, points out that it is not just the prospect (real or imagined) of radical, potentially revolutionary rupture and upheaval that provokes intense fear and bitter resistance on the part of the capitalist class, but likewise “an accumulation of reforms which substantially reduce their predominance, even if that predominance is not thereby fundamentally challenged”. Thus any government committed to ambitious social reform, regardless of how “conciliatory” it attempted to be to the existing holders of economic and political power, “would still be faced with intense opposition from the Right as long as it remained committed to radical reform: opposition from inside the state, from conservative forces in society; and from external forces”. Gorz makes a related point when he suggests that capital’s own awareness of the system’s faltering dynamism leads it to struggle against meaningful social reform with vehement resolve, meeting “partial attacks with overall resistance”.23 This makes it all the more important that the labour movement is “fully aware from the start of the nature of the stakes it is playing for”, and that it is able to posit a comprehensive alternative of its own.

By the end of his life, Miliband had come to envisage the advance of socialism as an unavoidably long-term project, one unfolding possibly over the course of several decades, with surges and setbacks along the way; it is indeed hard, in present circumstances, to see how the struggle for socialist advance in Britain can be anything but very gradual. Acknowledging this is not to succumb to illusions of serene, Fabian-style incrementalism, or to pretend that capitalist class power can be “slowly nibbled away” via a “gradual and imperceptible transition from capitalism to socialism”, as Gorz put it.24 Instead, it is simply a recognition of the extremely low level of socialist consciousness, popular mobilisation and workplace militancy which was Corbynism’s starting point, and the very long process of confidence-building and movement-building which is obligatory in order for it to stand any chance of advancing beyond the boundaries of left social democracy. Secondly, the real potential of the existing Labour programme lies in what its attempted implementation could set in train: a process in which the self-assertion of the rank and file will be necessary in order to see the manifesto through to anywhere close to completion. This in turn presents the potential to push well beyond the beginnings laid out in the 2017 manifesto and into new, more radical territory. The significance of that manifesto should be understood, to borrow a formulation from J.P. Nettl, “not as a political expression of wants but as a process of political stimulation”.25 It is this that needs to be encouraged.

However, the much better than expected 2017 general election result, though powered as it was by a remarkable grassroots campaign, had the paradoxical effect of shifting Labour’s centre of political gravity back towards Westminster, precisely where the Labour left is weakest. In the absence of an alternative rallying point around which the base can reinvigorate, cohere and energise itself, the focus of Corbynism tends to be drawn to Parliament, and all the alienating, obscure and frequently trivial manoeuvring and gossip contained therein. Also, with minimal support for Corbyn inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, and with much of the parliamentary Labour left being young, inexperienced or simply consumed by the demands of their shadow cabinet briefs, there is a dearth of MPs who can perform the indispensable link role between the party in Parliament and the party at the base. Hence, without an effective Corbynism from below which might allow it to channel its energies productively and creatively, the whole Corbyn base finds itself continually being pummelled by the news cycle, into which hostile members of the PLP are constantly dripping poison.

It certainly helps to maintain a sense of perspective considering some of the rather wild claims made on behalf of Corbynism as a social movement. That movement remains inchoate, and it has struggled to translate its online presence into a consistent campaigning presence in the wider world. But the need for perspective works both ways. Corbynism has had only four years to transform a hollowed-out party which has never served as an effective vehicle of socialist agitation, cultural activism and political education – and all this against a backdrop of quiescent social movement activity outside the party, and continuing trade union frailty after decades of defeat. Of course mistakes have been made and opportunities not always taken, but it was always going to take time and a great deal of patience to translate the initial Corbynite upsurge into the kind of socialist organising necessary to rebuild the labour movement from the bottom up. Nor was anybody ever going to make that easy.

The party we need?

Nevertheless, nearly two-and-a-half years since the last general election and just over four years into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, the transformation of that party has made only very modest progress. Certainly, the recent Labour conference made clear, once again, that the party’s left wing is making all the running intellectually. The Labour right, perhaps wisely, remains entirely absent from the battlefield of ideas. Impressive grassroots organising efforts were able to secure the passage of welcome new policy commitments, most notably for a four-day week, the integration of private schools into the state school system, and a Labour Green New Deal. Conference delegates also demonstrated an encouraging willingness to challenge the party leadership from the left, instructing it to defend and extend freedom of movement; a position which would, if it is abided by (and this undoubtedly remains to be seen), mark a very welcome departure from the leadership’s vacillation on migration over the last few years.

However, neither the party’s structures nor its political culture have changed fundamentally in recent years. Some of the contributors to Corbynism from Below attempt to address why this is so. In her contribution, Hilary Wainwright observes that while Corbynism has alluded to a “desire for a new kind of party”, it has been vague on how to bring this about; the closest model is that of the ‘party of movements’ which, though “inadequate” in certain respects, at least has the right idea in that it envisages “a new kind of party, or at least a new kind of political representation, responsive to the ideas and innovative organisational forms of radical movements”; one “rooted in social movements and struggles, for which it provides a resource and parliamentary voice”,26 as well as providing them with coherent, socialist political leadership which they would otherwise be unlikely to develop among themselves. Given the Labour Party’s traditional aloofness to social struggles and campaigns which are beyond the purview of the official labour movement, this would represent a substantial break with its orthodox political practice; the nature of the shift this would involve, and the immense difficulty of making it a reality, must not therefore be underestimated.

Neal Lawson points out that while the massive increase in Labour membership has defied all pre-2015 expectations, the party has found itself “struggling to retain its members, to know what to do with them”. Like SNP membership and to a lesser extent that of the Greens, the sudden increase in Labour membership was in part a viral phenomenon, but has struggled to put down roots and translate into consistent offline mobilisation.27 Lawson laments the lack of concrete, structural change in the party since 2015, and the leadership’s inability to open the party up to the social movements which provided the initial Corbyn surge with much of its original energy, and which carried it through the electrifying election campaign of 2017. There has, as he argues, “been no thoroughgoing re-examination of the form and function of a twenty-first century socialist party”, and as such Labour remains much the same as it was: an electoral machine, rather than a vehicle for the development of socialist political consciousness and new forms of collective self-expression.28 He issues a stern but highly pertinent warning on this point:

There is an incredible wealth of talent in Labour’s vast and diverse membership; a huge range of practical experience and tacit knowledge. The party should be seeking to tap into and utilise the best resource it has - its membership. Power and resources should be devolved down to the local level to enable this to happen, but instead these are being held tightly at the centre. We are seeing a pattern whereby the new members who were attracted to Labour because of Corbynism are attending fewer and fewer meetings and becoming less and less active. The moment is being lost as an old and out-of-date organisational culture that doesn’t feel like the new politics we were promised persists.29

That said, reforming the party is a massive undertaking and the lack of progress probably has relatively little to do with any autocratic tendencies of certain advisers around the leader. The fact is that Labour has never been anything resembling the kind of party Lawson envisages in a history going back nearly 120 years – and the struggle for party reform has been complicated further by the failure of the left to take that struggle into the trade unions, and to make the case for party democracy there. Many on the Labour left have come to expect left-wing trade union leaders to accede automatically to their demands for democratisation within the party, not realising that even left-wing union leaderships tend to be fundamentally cautious in these matters – and not without reason, giving the underlying fragility of the Labour ‘broad church’ – hence the shock and outrage among many constituency delegates when the Democracy Review was gutted by the National Executive Committee of much of its substance on the eve of the party conference in 2018. This outrage was legitimate, and the sudden disembowelling of the final Democracy Review report was certainly no way for a genuinely democratic, mass party to be running its affairs, but without a parallel struggle being waged inside the unions, such an outcome was always probable.

Furthermore, turning Labour into a “twenty-first century socialist party” is precisely the fate much of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and some union leaders, have spent the last four years straining every sinew to avoid: not least because a transformation of this kind would risk a major split. Leo Panitch has made the point that the burden of party unity always weighs heaviest on the Labour left; where the right of the party is hard-headed and ruthless enough to split, if it comes to that, the left’s sentimentality renders it “easily guilted” and thus always more likely to make concessions, however futile these ultimately prove to be. A split in the party may well be unavoidable whatever concessions are made, and if the Labour right were to regain control – though a soft-left interregnum leadership would probably have to come before that could happen – there can be little doubt that the counter-revolution against the party membership would be relentless and unforgiving, and the right would certainly work flat out to ensure that the Labour left was never in a position to wield serious influence within the party again (bringing back the old electoral college would only be the start). For all the Labour right’s complaints about the supposedly mortal threat to the ‘broad church’, the irony is that Labour would remain more of a ‘broad church’ under the continued control of its left wing than it would under the right.

In his keynote essay for the book, Mark Perryman touches on the often unwelcoming and bureaucratic political culture of the Labour Party at local level, which has changed relatively little since 2015. As Perryman observes, most branch and constituency Labour Party meetings are defined above all by their tedium and procedure, being primarily administrative with substantial political discussion kept to a minimum. This can be profoundly alienating for newcomers to the party hoping to find the same boisterous spirit that animated Corbyn’s two leadership campaigns as well as the 2017 general election campaign – and those members who are, though quite rationally, turned off by all this often find themselves condemned for not sticking it out, or dismissed as clicktivist dilettantes. Perryman thus concludes, with some justification: “In short, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, despite all the considerable positives, hasn’t done very well at becoming a mass party.”30

It is probably instructive that CLP activity has occupied such little space in the extensive literature on the Labour Party. Tom Forester has provided one of the relatively few extended examinations in that literature of the constituency Labour party’s role, and even this is more than four decades old.31 The fact that so much of his critique still applies speaks volumes about the party’s unwillingness and inability in the years since to deepen and diversify its range of constituency work. Forester notes that as CLPs are generally restricted to working within particular constituency boundaries rather than in organic communities as such, this restricts their effectiveness in putting down firm roots in those communities. Another factor hampering the development of the local CLP into “a major community institution” is that even where constituency parties have elected representatives on their local council, these are overwhelmingly not genuine community leaders, truly voicing the aspirations, nurturing the capacities and understanding the needs of the people they claim to represent. Instead, their “reference group” tends to be “the local political community”, i.e. other councillors and petty local grandees. Most MPs are inevitably even more remote. Because local parties only really exist as electoral machines, the opportunities for effective accountability and community input are very limited, a problem which is compounded in safe seats where there has often been little requirement for representatives to actively and consistently involve themselves in pressing local issues and problems.

Because of the narrowness of CLP activity, not to mention the monotony of most local meetings (which all too often are strictly a masochists-only affair), many party members are still deterred from regular active involvement, so that, as Lawson notes, their potentially very useful skills and capacities go unappreciated by the party. As well as inspiring existing Labour members to undertake that active involvement, new and broader forms of community engagement – if developed on a sufficiently wide scale – also have the potential to draw in many more new recruits to the party, primarily by demonstrating to them in practical and direct terms that Labour is fully committed not just to their best interests but to their empowerment as well. For example, Holly Rigby has suggested mounting national campaigns involving Labour’s community organising unit in pursuit of “key demands” from the party manifesto, as part of building “a fighting left” and establishing a tangible, active link between grassroots activity and national party policy. There have indeed been some positive indications that Corbyn’s Labour is grappling (albeit still very tentatively) with the need to go beyond using state power to deliver services, and also using it to facilitate self-organisation and build counter-power. However, the old top-down habits remain deeply ingrained in the party and only a prolonged struggle has any chance of overcoming them.

Despite this, some Labour activists are already working to build community counter-power under a plethora of different banners. The community organising unit is quietly undertaking a variety of interesting local projects, largely under the radar of mainstream political commentary, across the country. In Now We Have Your Attention, Jack Shenker devotes careful attention to housing struggles, in particular the hugely valuable work of the Acorn community union, which has for several years actively campaigned on housing issues in working-class areas across several cities and which works in tandem with the Living Rent union in Scotland.32 Acorn’s activists recognise their own campaigns as being part of a wider struggle over the terms of social reproduction. They realise that the housing crisis cannot be decisively resolved in the interests of working people except as part of a comprehensive process of radical social change, and that achieving this requires them to seek broader alliances. Hence, a non-negligible proportion of Acorn activists are also involved in their local Labour parties and, in some areas, Acorn groups have worked productively with these. Acorn’s activism has even been personally endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn himself, a further indication that under the current leadership the old Labourist standoffishness towards campaigns and movements not under the control of the party or its affiliates is starting to be broken down.

One of the advantages of Labour’s expanded membership is that there is already considerable experience of activism and organising among the party’s rank-and-file, not least among trade unionists and those who received their political education in the anti-cuts and student movements, and potentially a greater willingness to work in good faith with other movements and organisations. It should be emphasised again, however, that the reliable support of Labour’s party machine will be important in making socialist community organising an ongoing, regular part of the party’s work at the local level. Labour’s activists are not just a stage army which can be wheeled out on cue come election time; they need to be encouraged, supported and consistently provided with the solidarity they need if they are to help develop lasting counter-power at the grassroots. For any ‘Corbynism from below’ to take hold and develop into a permanent feature of Labour Party life, careful and patient nurturing from a corresponding ‘Corbynism from above’ is a necessary complement to it. But by the same token, a ‘Corbynism from above’ without an active and assertive ‘Corbynism from below’ is likely to degenerate into manipulative manoeuvring, technocracy, stage management and, in all likelihood, eventual indifference, decline and dissipation.

The challenge ahead

Overhauling the party to make it genuinely ‘member-led’ was never solely in the gift of its leadership, given the number of interested parties concerned, with both the Parliamentary Labour Party and the trade unions prominent among them. Yet an opportunity to decisively advance that transformation after the 2017 general election – when Jeremy Corbyn could surely have claimed an undeniable mandate for doing so – was effectively passed up. Proximity to office has, in some important respects at least, bred an apparent aversion to risk as far as the party is concerned: the temptation is always to avoid rocking the boat in the hope that Labour will be rewarded with a shot at government. But overwhelmingly, its parliamentary party remains either unenthusiastic about or openly hostile towards the incumbent leadership. With the recent round of trigger ballots having done effectively nothing to change the political composition of the PLP to make it more favourable to Corbyn, the Labour left’s failure to secure full mandatory reselection (or ‘open selection’, in the rebranded terminology) in 2018 now looks as if it may have disastrous implications.

Of course, the passage of open selection would not have guaranteed a major and rapid overhaul of the parliamentary party. Yet it would have helped to draw much of the negativity out of the reselection process, and would have allowed dynamic new socialist candidates to put themselves forward sooner, at least allowing for a genuine contest. Though the threshold for triggering a full reselection was significantly reduced at last year’s party conference (from half to one-third of branches or affiliates), even this has proved too onerous for the Labour left in the vast majority of cases. It is likely that many party members, especially with an imminent election apparently looming, were turned off by the prospect of having to campaign negatively against a sitting MP rather than being able to campaign positively for an alternative candidate, a danger noted in the run-up to the 2018 conference by Rachel Godfrey Wood. And as Sam Foster has detailed, sitting MPs also have plenty of other advantages which make them difficult to beat in a trigger ballot, including access to members’ data and, allegedly, the assistance of parliamentary staff. In addition, the implicit threat of MPs leveraging their contacts with sympathetic journalists to turn any deselection attempt into a damaging media kerfuffle no doubt deters many members from pursuing it.

Even so, it is hard to escape the feeling that a movement with the wind truly in its sails, and whose rank-and-file supporters were truly engaged and enthused, would have been able to force rather more reselections than the Corbynite left has thus far. MPs who have for four years devoted ceaseless energy to the task of undermining their own party’s leadership have sailed through the trigger ballot process with nary a scratch; anyone hoping that this particular section of the PLP will suddenly start behaving itself for the benefit of a left-led Labour government is sadly mistaken. Any Labour government returned at the next general election – most likely either as a minority government or perhaps, under a more optimistic scenario, with a slender House of Commons majority – is therefore at risk of being effectively held to ransom by these same people. It is worth noting further that the more Corbynism has been dragged into jockeying for position in Parliament, the more susceptible it has become to the demands of the political centre (encompassing the Liberal Democrats, centrist Tories and the Labour right) and the more it has appeared devoid of its previous insurgent energy. Yet a socialist-led Labour government with the backing of only a narrow majority in the Commons will be even more in need of sustained support and pressure from below if it is to carry through its programme.

The raft of new policy motions passed at the recent Labour Party conference provide real grounds for optimism, but also for caution. Some of those new positions, particularly on the four-day week, Green New Deal and freedom of movement, will also require an escalation in the party’s educational efforts and renewed ideological struggle (especially given the likelihood of a vicious, demagogic Brexit election campaign) in which the movements will potentially be very valuable. Jeremy Gilbert has rightly commented that had it not been for the recent revival of environmental activism around the world, it is unlikely that the demand for a Labour Green New Deal would have gained the impetus it has as quickly as it has. This and the other new policies endorsed by Labour conference arguably represent more of a challenge to the prevailing political common sense than perhaps the 2017 manifesto did, with (for example) support for renationalisation of key utilities having been substantial for many years, and the task of challenging attitudes towards migration having then been sidestepped.

Indeed, part of the 2017 manifesto’s success was that while hinting at the need to transform notions of what Labour governments might be and do, it simultaneously made a sly nostalgic appeal to what they once were and did. Ensuring that this year’s successful conference motions are turned into concrete commitments will require rank-and-file campaigns to maintain pressure on the leadership, which will come under persistent demands to water them down; interviewed in the aftermath of conference, Diane Abbott gave a dispiritingly evasive answer on freedom of movement. In the Labour Party, there are many excruciating and elaborate ways to skin a cat, and the real acid test of the Corbyn leadership’s commitment to conference sovereignty will come at the pre-election Clause V meeting to decide what makes it into the next manifesto.

It is worth reminding ourselves what the Corbynite left actually wants. Herbert Morrison is often said, perhaps apocryphally, to have defined socialism as ‘what Labour governments do in office’. Certainly, simply reinserting the dreaded S-word into Britain’s political discourse, as Corbynism has successfully done, is itself an achievement. Yet it seems that many Corbyn supporters still tend to define socialism as what Labour governments used to do before Tony Blair. Were Labour members to be surveyed on how they conceived of socialism, the responses and the aspirations contained therein would probably be quite modest on the whole – a more generous welfare state, renationalisation of major utilities, and so on. In short, at present, Corbynism aspires simply to make society that bit less inhumane than it currently is for far too many people. This is one reason why the reaction against it has been so grotesque: even these moderate reformist aims are continually sneered and scoffed at, more often than not by people who have never seriously wanted for a thing in their lives (including many who consider themselves ‘centre-left’). But the paramount purpose of socialist political education, a prerequisite if the labour movement in Britain is ever to progress beyond those boundaries of left social democracy, would be to clarify these ambiguities about the purpose of socialist struggle, raise people’s sights (or rather, encourage them to raise their own), stimulate bolder demands, and in time put the question of a more fundamental social rupture up for discussion.

Perhaps the ambitions of Corbynism, after going through several years of intense aggravation and toil simply in order to get some sort of grip on the party machinery, have settled for the implementation of a programme of modest amelioration, alleviating the worst of the immediate damage done by austerity. It is questionable, for a number of reasons only some of which have been outlined here, whether the party in its current form is adequate even for this limited aspiration. Probing to find openings for socialist breakthroughs in such profoundly unrevolutionary conditions, and indeed where even the reformist left is debilitatingly weak across so much of the world, is an extremely difficult task. Even so, if Corbynism really aspires to open up new paths to more fundamental social change in the future, it has no alternative but to drastically rethink the way Labour operates and to then put that transformation into effect.

Few who took part in Labour’s 2017 general election campaign, in whatever capacity, are likely to forget it. Laughed at and written off by the bien-pensants of mainstream political journalism, the party’s heroic campaigning efforts and the most progressive Labour manifesto in years saw it come within a whisker of overturning the colossal poll deficit with which it was faced when the election was first called. Many Labour activists are hoping they will be able to rely on a repeat performance, but it is far from guaranteed that this will materialise. Four years of constant denigration and a relentless campaign of character assassination have undeniably taken a toll on morale, as has the ongoing Brexit saga – which has tended to deprive Labour’s agenda for social and economic renewal of vital oxygen – not forgetting the frankly glacial pace of party democratisation. The job facing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour at the forthcoming general election, whenever it arrives, is if anything an even harder one than that of nearly two-and-a-half years ago. And if the party fails to win that general election, with another leadership contest almost certain to follow hard on its heels, the Labour left will need the support of the movement behind it more than ever if it is to survive as a serious political force at all.

What would a socialist-led Labour government inherit if one were returned at the next election? Increasingly inadequate public services, a dysfunctional and decrepit state apparatus, a tattered social fabric, a hopelessly unbalanced and underperforming economy, aggressively and unscrupulously hostile media – all against a backdrop of likely isolation on the international stage, worsening global economic uncertainty, a revived and revanchist threat from the far right, and accelerated environmental destruction bordering on the nihilistic. Jeremy Corbyn, the unassuming veteran backbencher who had not too long ago appeared destined for a quiet retirement whiled away on his local allotment, now finds the hopes of the British left pinned on him. The odds are stacked against him, but then they always were. It is just as well that Corbynism is nothing if not resilient in the face of adversity. It will need to draw on all its reserves of doggedness, implacability and creativity if it is to stand any chance of succeeding in the tasks it has set for itself.

  1. Daniel Singer, Is Socialism Doomed? The Meaning of Mitterrand, Oxford University Press 1988, p126. 

  2. For in-depth investigations into the social consequences of austerity, see Stephen Armstrong, The New Poverty, Verso 2017, Lee Humber, Vital Signs: The Deadly Costs of Health Inequality, Pluto Press 2019, and David Whyte (ed.), The Violence of Austerity, Pluto Press 2017. 

  3. Costas Douzinas, Syriza in Power: Reflections of an Accidental Politician, Polity Press 2017, p69-70. 

  4. Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, Vintage 2018, p115. 

  5. Douzinas 2017, p72. 

  6. Raymond Williams, Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, Verso 1989, p141. 

  7. Tony Benn, Office Without Power: Diaries 1968-72, Arrow 1989. 

  8. Jack Shenker, Now We Have Your Attention: The New Politics of the People, Bodley Head 2019. 

  9. Mark Perryman (ed.), Corbynism from Below, Lawrence & Wishart 2019. 

  10. Shenker 2019, p3. 

  11. Shenker 2019, p4. 

  12. See Matt Myers, Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation, Pluto Press 2017. 

  13. Christine Berry and Joe Guinan, People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn Government, OR Books 2019, p147. 

  14. Hilary Wainwright, A New Politics from the Left, Polity 2018, p13. 

  15. Wainwright 2018, p17. 

  16. Wainwright 2018, p114. 

  17. André Gorz, Socialism and Revolution, Doubleday 1973, p138-9. 

  18. Gorz 1973, p139-40. 

  19. Ralph Miliband, Socialism for a Sceptical Age, Policy Press 1994, p87. 

  20. Miliband 1994, p136. 

  21. Leo Panitch, Working Class Politics in Crisis: Essays on Labour and the State, Verso 1986, p25. 

  22. Miliband 1994, p163-4. 

  23. Gorz 1973, p153. 

  24. Gorz 1973, p136. 

  25. J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, Verso 2019, p680. 

  26. Hilary Wainwright, ‘Beyond the Labour Fragments’, in Perryman 2019, p288. 

  27. Neal Lawson, ‘Labouring Under Illusions’, in Perryman 2019, p176-7. 

  28. Lawson 2019, p178-9. 

  29. Lawson 2019, p182-3. 

  30. Mark Perryman, ‘The Party Turned Upside Down’, in Perryman 2019, p27-8. 

  31. Chapter 4, ‘Labour in the Local Community’, in Tom Forester, The Labour Party and the Working Class, Heinemann 1976. 

  32. Shenker 2019, p170.