Thousands of people had already gathered in London’s Hyde Park on 12th September for a mass demonstration in solidarity with refugees when news started spreading: Jeremy Corbyn had been announced the winner of the Labour party leadership contest. While Corbyn had been the frontrunner for weeks, few had predicted the scale of his victory in which the other candidates representing varying shades of Blairite neoliberalism were completely marginalised as he received 60% of total votes including 50% of the votes of full members of the Party. An over half a million-strong electorate consisting of Labour Party members, registered supporters and members of affiliated organizations like trade unions had chosen Corbyn overwhelmingly - despite the Labour Party machinery having ‘purged’ thousands of leftists who had joined in the course of the campaign by disqualifying them from voting. Later that afternoon, in an important first act as leader of the opposition, Corbyn addressed the ‘refugees welcome’ demonstrators as they ended the march and held a rally opposite Parliament, making an impassioned speech against war and for humanity and justice for refugees.
While in other countries in Europe the wave of resistance to austerity and neoliberalism has found expression in new political formations and alliances like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, in Britain it developed unexpectedly around the candidacy of veteran left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. Corbyn has not only been hailed as indisputably the ‘most left-wing’ figure to ever lead a major party in Britain but received the largest share of votes of any party leader in British history, bringing to a decisive end the stranglehold of what Tariq Ali calls the ‘extreme centre’: the neoliberal pro-austerity, pro-war consensus in British politics.
It was the movement which emerged around Corbyn’s candidacy and developed its own momentum which took the campaign from its initial objective of simply making sure a left perspective was represented in the contest – Corbyn struggled to get the 35 MPs required for a nomination, securing the last few nominations only minutes before the deadline - to a decisive victory. While the extent of Corbyn’s win was not predicted even towards the end of the campaign, it was clear that something was building when Corbyn's campaign meetings as he toured the country drew audiences overflowing onto the streets, and young people – long dismissed in Britain as apathetic about politics – literally tried to climb in through the windows. It was not however Corbyn’s generally low-key speeches which were electrifying audiences – it was the agenda he was standing for : an alternative to austerity which included a guaranteed living wage and an end to zero-hours contracts; reinstating the benefits which have been savagely cut by successive governments; abolishing tuition fees for university education; nationalization of banks, energy companies and railways; taxing the rich; ending military intervention abroad and scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system; and a ‘new kind of politics’ built on grassroots democracy.
While some commentators have hailed the result as representing a return to the Labour Party of Keir Hardie who formed it in 1900 to represent working class interests in Parliament; or to the approach of the post- Second World War Labour government of Clement Atlee, celebrated for setting up the National Health Service and the welfare state, and others have used this parallel to argue that Corbyn is hopelessly outdated, there are fundamental differences: Corbyn is in fact very far from a 21st century avatar of ‘Old Labour’.
Firstly, the Labour Party has historically always been a pro-imperialist party. Long before Tony Blair’s crusade in Iraq, its strategy was to support the empire and use its resources. As Tariq Ali puts it, ‘Keir Hardie’s socialism floundered on the battlefields of the First World War’. The early years of building the welfare state also saw the British Labour government trying desperately to sustain colonialism, unleashing appalling repression on the independence struggle in Malaya and restoring French colonial rule in Vietnam and Madagascar, as well as presiding over the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians. It was also a period of acute racism in Britain faced by workers invited from former colonies in South Asia and the Caribbean to work in British industries – racism in which the Labour-affiliated Trade Unions actively participated. Corbyn’s politics on the other hand is one in which anti-imperialism and anti-racism have been central – he has not only been at the forefront of the ongoing anti-war movement but, like his close ally and newly appointed Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, is a long standing supporter of the Irish Republican movement and the Palestinian struggle and an advocate for refugee and migrant rights.
Secondly, the policies being put forward by Corbyn and McDonnell do not represent a return to the Keynesian corporatism built on the plunder of imperialism represented by the pre-Blair Labour governments of the last century. Corbyn’s politics are clearly not revolutionary, being framed in terms of the reform of capitalism rather than its replacement. Nevertheless, policies such as basic social provision and protection of workers’ rights – particularly when this extends to all workers including women, migrants, contract workers and all those whom corporatist trade unions excluded in the past but who now form the majority of the labour force - become threatening to capital in an era of neoliberalism precisely because they expose the limits of what is possible in the context of contemporary globalised capitalism. Capital will not be prepared to accept the kind of compromise with elements of labour which characterised the 1960s and 70s in the Global North. Instead the struggle to implement these policies can only strengthen working class movements, lead to greater confrontation and potentially open the way to more radical transformations.
However one must not underestimate the vulnerability of the newly elected left forces within the Labour Party. The hostility of the majority of Labour MPs (less than one in ten voted for Corbyn) – many handpicked by the earlier Blairite leadership – and the clear intention of some to get rid of Corbyn before the 2020 general elections makes the way ahead extremely challenging. This is exacerbated by the fact that some of those Corbyn has appointed to his Shadow Cabinet (the main opposition party’s ‘government in waiting’) in the name of inclusivity are also hostile to many of his policies. On the other hand, the Labour Party is no longer the tightly controlled corporate spin machine it has been since the 1990s in which members (never as right-wing as the career Blairite MPs and political managers) were sidelined. With a large influx of new members who back Corbyn (50,000 more people have joined the Party in the week following Corbyn’s election and numbers continue to grow) a clear division has emerged between the majority of its members and the majority of its MPs.
Part of Corbyn’s appeal has been what is seen as a new kind of more democratic political practice – in his first Prime Minister’s Question Time, traditionally a heckling session between the parties epitomizing Westminster’s macho political culture, Corbyn successfully changed the format by asking questions he had solicited directly from the public. When right wing newspapers, more used to ridiculing feminists, cynically managed to turn attention from the fact that Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet had an unprecendented number of women members (16 out of 31) by condemning the fact that the so-called ‘top jobs’ of Chancellor and Home and Foreign Secretary went to men, Corbyn pointed out that such a definition of ‘top jobs’ was a legacy of the 19th century imperial state – given his policies, Health and Education ministries were equally if not more important. When the mainstream media attacked him for not attending the opening of the Rugby World Cup to ‘cheer for England’ – part of a sustained campaign to brand Corbyn ‘unpatriotic’ - social media hit back with the news that Corbyn had spent the day on a regular commitment - holding an 8-hour-long ‘surgery’ for constituents in his impoverished inner London constituency to meet him about their problems. But of course this approach can only continue to be meaningful if Corbyn and his allies are able to sustain and take forward their commitment to the concrete policies they have set out, and not allow them to be diluted under pressure, and many are urging serious consideration of the experience of Syriza in Greece.
Predictably, the last week has seen the Conservatives along with the Labour right and the corporate media launching a massive counter-offensive to try and prove their claim that Corbyn is ‘unelectable’ in the 2020 general elections – despite the fact that many of his policies have already been shown by opinion polls to be extremely popular and Corbyn himself received the biggest majority of any Labour candidate in the last elections (in which many lost their seats). Though the Conservatives’ efforts so far have been the stuff of satire (a mass email claiming that Corbyn threatened ‘national security, economic security and your family’s security’ coincided with pushing through more welfare cuts and a Trade Union Bill which removes the basic right to organise) and the media has come up with some bizarre Cold War-style innuendo – notably describing Corbyn’s preferred form of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’ and claiming that he and new Shadow International Development Minister Diane Abbott went on a ‘motorbike holiday to East Germany’ during an alleged ‘affair in the 1970s’, the potential impact of the triumvirate of the Conservatives, the Labour right and the whole spectrum of mainstream media from the supposedly left-of-centre Guardian to the right-wing Murdoch press cannot be underestimated.
Clearly there is a need for a sustained movement both inside and more importantly, outside the Labour Party, building grassroots struggles and continuing to find new ways of bypassing the media. The Corbyn victory did not reflect the potential of the Labour Party to be a progressive party – in fact the Labour machinery did everything possible to prevent it and is still largely controlled by the Blairite right. It was the movement which coalesced around the possibility of change the campaign represented which propelled it to victory. Corbyn as a leader appealed precisely because of his steadfastness to his principles over 32 years as an MP which had led him to vote against his own Party over 500 times.
The Labour Party as an institution is still committed to imperialist war-mongering and deeply entwined with corporate capital. This is what underpins the almost ridiculous attempts to discredit and undermine Corbyn from some of his own MPs who have reproduced and fuelled the hysterical attacks of the mainstream media – for example in creating an issue over Corbyn not singing ‘God Save the Queen’ (Britain’s monarchist and imperial national anthem) at a remembrance service for the Battle of Britain. Most recently Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has launched an attack on Corbyn as a supporter of ‘terrorism’ and affirmed not only his own loyalty to and reverence for the Queen but that of his extended family in Pakistan – indicating the extent of sycophancy which the Labour establishment requires from ambitious Black and South Asian career politicians.
Some Blairites are already rumoured to be planning defection to the Tories; but the majority will stay and continue to try to undermine Corbyn. On a local level too, some of the most protracted battles against neoliberal policies have been confronting Labour-run Borough Councils – such as the movement for social housing in East London where Labour Councils have been carrying out mass evictions and selling off housing stock to corporate developers. Corbyn may have stronger allies in Parliament in the anti-austerity Scottish National Party MPs (who are determined to force Labour to keep Corbyns’s promise to get rid of Trident nuclear weapons based in Scotland, a major plank of their own campaign). Some believe an alliance with left pro-independence forces in Scotland may prove more effective than attempts to revive the discredited Scottish Labour Party.
Some commentators have drawn parallels between Corbyn’s win and the growing popularity of left-of-centre candidate for the Democrats’ presidential nomination Bernie Sanders in the US. However, the differences are not simply that Sanders is generally far less radical in his politics. Sanders’ main supporters are in overwhelmingly white states, and he has faced criticism by Black Lives Matter campaigners, among others, for not engaging sufficiently with questions of racism. This contrasts with Corbyn’s support base – his constituency of Islington North, which has re-elected him seven times, is one of the most ethnically diverse in Britain, with only 50% considering themselves to be ‘white British’ - and he has consistently been involved with issues affecting Black and ethnic minority communities. When it comes to foreign policy, the differences were underlined when Sanders was recently compared to Corbyn by lobbyists for Hillary Clinton in order to discredit him. They suggested that like Corbyn, Sanders would recognize Hamas and Hezbollah as political forces and had been on friendly terms with Hugo Chavez. Sanders responded angrily that it was ‘vicious’ to suggest that he would talk to ‘Middle Eastern terrorists’ or to link him with a ‘dead communist dictator’!
There is no doubt that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as opposition leader has given a massive impetus to the left in Britain. But it would be extremely dangerous were those who campaigned for and elected him to treat this as a mission accomplished, a tendency encouraged by the parliamentary system. As events since then have only served to underline, it is essential that it is followed by sustained struggles to build a powerful multidimensional movement which can continue to shape the political landscape and hold him and his allies to account.