So, farewell then

1. Him

The first thing I want to say about Jeremy Corbyn is how much I admire him as a person, and how grateful I am to him. There was some adverse comment during the 2019 election campaign about his ‘tetchy’ and ‘sarcastic’ manner with hostile interviewers, but in the context it’s hard to blame him for that – the context being four and a half years of relentless aggression, harassment and bad faith, both from the media and from people who he could reasonably have expected to be on his side. A small example is the press pack we frequently saw on BBC News, camped out outside Corbyn’s house, ready to fire questions at him as he walked to his car. Corbyn never answered questions outside his house, and indeed had explained that this was his policy – and yet they carried on doing it, en masse, day after day and month after month, hoping that they could goad him into letting something slip. This isn’t reporting, it’s harassment – and the mere fact that Corbyn never lost his rag with them attests to a superhuman level of patience. (I would have snapped within a week.)

It’s been suggested recently that media hostility to Labour was predictable, so the way they stitched us up during (and before) the last election campaign actually reflects on Corbyn’s lack of a strategy to manage the media. Given the level of hostility Corbyn faced, this is a bit like saying that everyone knew what Harvey Weinstein was like, so any woman who got assaulted by him only had her lack of an Entitled Creep Management Strategy to blame. Only that particular entitled creep is in prison, and everyone believes his victims. (We used to believe victims of press harassment, come to think of it – wonder what changed.)

As well as for managing to be “Mr Zen”, I admire Corbyn for sticking to what he believed in – more than that, for the integrity he displayed; for getting the message across that not sticking to what he believed in wasn’t an option, wouldn’t even occur to him. To go into politics because you want to achieve X, Y and Z, to state frankly that you want to achieve those things and to answer every question from the point of view of someone who wants to achieve those things – it doesn’t sound like much, but the break it represents from Labour’s recent history can’t be overstated.

The managerial, clientelist ‘realism’ of the old Labour Right; the hesitant, defensive triangulations of the centre-left past and present; Blairism, with its toxic combination of charismatic populism and rightward-trimming calculation: all these different traditions shared one fundamental assumption, the pessimistic certainty that you can’t go Left. It’s a pessimistic assumption, and it’s also disabling: if you’re trying to run a party of the Left and you’re convinced that sooner or later you’re going to need to move Right, a degree of capitulation is built in (left-wing policy? they won’t have it in Mansfield), as well as a degree of dishonesty and even self-deception (right-wing policy? are you calling Labour policy right-wing?).

Corbyn’s leadership swept all of that away, for a time at least; he demonstrated that you can go Left, and – perhaps the single biggest attraction of Corbynism – that if you’re a Labour politician and you go Left, you can hold your head up: you don’t have to capitulate or lie about anything. The Labour Left has always prided itself on political principle; in Jeremy Corbyn we had a chance to see what a principled political leader might look like, and it looked pretty good. It looked like someone who wasn’t in love with his image or his historical mission, didn’t feel he had to meet anybody’s expectations, didn’t feel he had anything to apologise for and was comfortable in his own skin (literally and politically).

This is also why I’m, eternally, grateful to Jeremy Corbyn: not so much for what he did as for what he showed was possible. It’s always been possible to be on the Left in the Labour Party – the party has certain ideals and certain traditions, after all, and there’s nothing to actually stop you believing in them, if you want to. What hasn’t been possible, at least for as long as I can remember, is being on the Left and having any kind of prominence in the party. (Yes, I remember Michael Foot. I remember him running for the leadership on a pledge to stand above the factions and unite the party, and then backing the Falklands expedition and trying to bar Peter Tatchell from standing for Labour. At best, Foot led from slightly left of centre – and even that was enough to trigger the spectacular wrecking operation that was the SDP.)

Corbyn showed that it was perfectly possible for the Labour Party to have a left-wing leader, a left-wing leadership team and left-wing policies. This alone was a revelation. There are certain principles I believe in, and certain policies that are particularly strongly associated with those principles. With the exception of the 1995-2010 period, I’d always supported the Labour Party because of these commitments; this remained the case even while I was wearily aware that it was unlikely ever to offer the policies, and had a sneaking suspicion that its leadership was only paying lip service to the principles. Under Corbyn, suddenly none of this applied: the Labour Party actually shared the commitments that were the reason why I’d supported them all that time. Suddenly there was no cause to be jaded or suspicious: the principles were there, pure and simple, and there were the policies to back them.

That’s an experience that won’t be forgotten – especially since the resultant combination turned out to be rather popular: it turned out that a left-wing Labour Party could offer the country things it both needs and wants. Bear in mind, the 2017 election wasn’t just another loss, or even just a near miss, and it certainly wasn’t a case of a weak opposition fumbling a loss against an unpopular government (a bizarre and counterfactual story that still circulates on the Right of the party). Theresa May’s Conservatives took 42.3% of the vote – the highest Tory vote share since Thatcher’s second victory in 1983, and an increase of more than 5% as compared with 2015. We underestimate the extent to which the 2017 election actually went to plan, for the Tories; May called it to give her government a secure majority, and 42.3% of the vote – up from 36.9% – really ought to have done the trick. Instead, the Tories lost seats, and Labour deprived them of the slim majority they’d had. Although we were polling in the mid-20s when the election was called, on the night Labour took 40% of the vote – our highest vote share since Blair’s second victory in 2001 and an increase of 9% since 2015. Taking turnout into account, Labour took 14 votes for every 10 we’d got just two years earlier.

At the same time Labour transformed the political agenda: in two years we went from a country where the Labour leadership was endorsing austerity to one where the Tories felt the need to disown it. If Corbyn had been any other leader – or rather, if he’d been a leader from any other part of the party – the pundits would have been sitting at his feet asking how on earth he’d done it. But, of course, if they had asked the answer would have been “by consistently supporting democratic socialist principles and inviting other people to support them; by having beliefs and sticking to them, saying what I believe and only what I believe; by disregarding your assumptions and rejecting your calculations”.

2. Him and Us

Am I grateful to Jeremy Corbyn for making me believe in the Labour Party again, and for leading me (and a few hundred thousand others) to join? Well, yes and no. Being a member of a Labour Party branch in the last few years hasn’t always been the most rewarding experience, as I’ve documented on this blog from time to time. Corbyn’s election took place under peculiar, almost paradoxical circumstances – a left-winger became leader of a party whose internal democracy had largely been dismantled by the Right, thanks to the empowerment of individual members by reforms promoted by the Right. What this meant was that his victory was acutely uneven: substantial layers of the party were not only unaffected by it but resistant to it, to the point of continuing to treat the Left as a marginalised minority even while it was represented by their own leader. Attitudes like these ran deep, grounded as they were in that basic pessimism about the possibility of ever moving Left. Persuasion and dialogue were never going to make a dent in them; those groups could only be brought into line by action, either from above or from below – or, ideally, both.

Unfortunately the Left on the ground was a lot weaker than it appeared on paper – not least because many (most?) of the new recruits were relatively new to party politics, and unlikely to be enthused by the prospect of sitting through a meeting in a church hall for the sake of possibly getting some guy you don’t know elected to some position you don’t quite understand instead of some other guy you don’t know (who seems perfectly nice and is friends with all the local councillors). Perhaps we could, even so, have had a big push to deselect the Right – officers, councillors, MPs – or at least to deselect enough of them to let the others know who was boss; if so, we let the moment pass. As for action from above, again time was of the essence. We can now see that Corbyn wasted a lot of time trying to extend the hand of friendship to the Right in the PLP, and then had to waste a lot more time fending off the ridiculous Smith leadership challenge. By the time reselection of MPs was on the agenda, the conditions were all wrong – there was an election in the offing and the leadership was on the back foot once again. It would have been far better to move on day one – get reliable people in key positions (starting with the Whips’ Office) and let Momentum take responsibility for getting the unreliable ones replaced, or at least putting the fear of God in them. The Right of the party, and their friends in the media, would have thrown a fit – but really, what’s the worst that could have happened? Hostile profiles, recycling old smears and rumours? Accusations of sexism and racism? Resignations from the Shadow Cabinet? Resignations from the Labour Party? New centrist parties? How terrible that would have been, eh?

(Parenthetically, this is what “I welcome their hostility” means. It’s not “I welcome their opposition”; it doesn’t mean you’d rather have people opposing you than working with you – what would be the sense in that? It means that, if you know perfectly well that somebody’s opposed to your entire political project, you would prefer them to bring it on, and stop pretending they just want what’s best for everyone (which, let me check, why yes, it does involve your entire political project being defeated, good guess). And you’d prefer that partly as a matter of honesty, but mainly because you know it’s eventually going to come to that anyway: either your political project is going to go away (and it’s not), or there’s going to be conflict. At some level, hostility implies respect; you welcome them taking you seriously enough to recognise that you’re in their way. (If they really thought you were as laughable as they keep saying, why would they keep saying it?) This, in my experience, is one translation of the vexed phrase “soft Left” – the soft Left are “the Left who hate the hard Left but don’t want to make a big thing of it and would rather they just went away”. Give me hostility any day.)

I am one of those who voted for Tom Watson for deputy leader; he promised that he would support Corbyn, and forgot to add “like a rope supports a hanged man”. I still think that an alt-Tom Watson – a version of Tom Watson who could spell the word ‘loyalty’, say – could have made a great enforcer for Corbyn and supplied something his leadership sadly lacked. And this, I’m afraid, comes back to a weakness in Corbyn himself – at least, a quality in Corbyn which turned out to be a weakness in a leader of the Labour Party. It relates to his pure-and-simple advocacy of the causes he believed in, backed by the confidence that people who listened would join him in supporting them. While this was a huge strength in itself – if only, as I’ve said, because it made such a pleasant change from most other Labour politicians – it brought with it a blind spot with regard to people who weren’t going to listen to him, weren’t going to believe what he said, weren’t going to be persuaded. Perhaps this goes back to Corbyn’s “movement” background: if you’re campaigning for destitute asylum seekers or imprisoned trade unionists, you can’t afford to care about all the people who don’t support you, you just want to maximise the number of people who do. Whatever the reason, I think Corbyn’s attitude has always been “I tried, they didn’t listen, I’ll just keep trying”, or in other words “with you if possible, without you if necessary” – and a party leader’s attitude really needs to be “with you if possible, over your dead body if necessary”. Apart from anything else, the leader owes it to their followers to apply some pressure on backward elements in the party – there’s only so much we can do from below.

This relates to another weakness, which again is connected with Corbyn’s strengths as a communicator and campaigner. The confected scandal over antisemitism in the Labour Party had a real issue at its root, and an issue which Corbyn fumbled badly. The “IHRA” definition of antisemitism was developed as part of a long-running campaign to get anti-Zionism classified as anti-semitism, thereby delegitimising much anti-Israel activism. Moreover, it’s not strictly speaking a definition at all, but an open-ended list of behaviours which may constitute antisemitism; as such it’s peculiarly ill-suited to being used as a way of identifying behaviours – and individuals – which are antisemitic, as it’s guaranteed to be over-inclusive. (This point has been made by the definition’s author, Kenneth Stern.)

Facing demands to adopt the definition (and its examples), entire and unadapted, for internal disciplinary purposes, Labour politicians from Corbyn down could have set out some of this background and acknowledged that the leadership’s position on the state of Israel was more critical than that of any Labour leadership in memory, and that this was – sadly – likely to repel many Jewish voters. Instead they responded by reaffirming their heartfelt opposition to antisemitism, then by delaying and attempting to find some sort of compromise, and then by wholeheartedly caving in – a third stage which Keir Starmer is intending to prolong indefinitely, if we’re to believe the Observer (a very big ‘if’, admittedly).

The issue here is not that Corbyn has anything to retract or apologise for with respect to antisemitism – he doesn’t, a point which was conceded (in calmer times) by at least one of the people who were demanding retractions and apologies. (No, I don’t understand it either.) The issue is that, while “principle pure and simple” works well as a form of advocacy, once you get into argument it’s a one-shot strategy; if it doesn’t work, you’ve got nothing to back it up except trying it again. Corbyn didn’t just refuse to get into personalities (“they go low, we go high”); all too often, he refused to get into detail – and that left the space for his enemies to define the issues on which he was being challenged. Not once did we hear Corbyn acknowledge that he is a long-term friend of the Palestinian cause (a position which many people disagree with, particularly in the Jewish community, but which has nothing to do with antisemitism); or draw attention to the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism (which has to be understood if we are to promote justice in the Middle East while standing firm against Europe’s oldest racism); or even point out the fundamental problems with the IHRA “definition” (problems acknowledged, as we’ve seen, by the definition’s own author). Even Corbyn’s affirmations of support for the Jewish community in Britain weren’t backed up by any details – details which he could easily have supplied. Again, the pure-and-simple style of advocacy left the field open for people who were only too happy to fill in the details, to the disadvantage of the anti-imperialist Left – and it gave very little cover to those of us who came under attack.

Corbyn’s a campaigner; you’d never mistake him for a machine politician or for a policy wonk. In many ways that’s been a strength, but it comes with weaknesses. The way his leadership got trampled on by his own MPs, and the relentless negative campaigning that did so much to torpedo our campaign last winter, suggest that we need a bit more of the operator and a bit more of the geek from our next leadership team. (These aren’t necessarily qualities that one person has to embody, just as long as somebody covers them – and as long as the leadership works together. Angela Rayner, Hammer of the Centrists? Stranger things have happened.)

3. Us

What about us – what now for the Left in Labour? The prospects are fairly gloomy; apart from anything else, if we haven’t managed to take the party over by now, we aren’t likely to manage it under the new leader – particularly if (as seems likely) the new leader is Keir Starmer. It’s even possible that we’re all about to get expelled – or, more realistically, that they’ll expel enough of us that the rest of us feel honour bound to take the hump and leave. (I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I think it’s a real possibility.)

Assuming we have a future in the party, what can we learn from the last few years? Again, I think it’s a matter of strengths and weaknesses. At its best the Corbynite Left has looked a lot like a social movement: the enthusiasm, the good humour, the playful creativity and above all the sheer numbers; the sense that everything could be different now, in the line from Victor Jara I borrowed back at the start of it all, Porque ahora no estoy solo – porque ahora somos tantos! Diversity in unity and unity in diversity – and so many of us!

The trouble is, we weren’t – and aren’t – a social movement; we were and are a faction within a political party. This matters in two ways. First, organising within a political party requires organisation. We’ve had organisation, or rather we’ve had an organisation in the form of Momentum; what we haven’t had is any real articulation between the leadership’s strategy and what Momentum were pushing at any given time. I’m guessing the leadership adopted a hands-off approach to Momentum because of the bad press they would have incurred otherwise – and, again, this seems like a missed opportunity, if only because it’s hard to see how the press they got could have been much worse. In the absence of strategic steers from the top, Momentum has had to come up with its own strategy for party activists – and, as a group formed to support Corbyn’s leadership, its focus has understandably been on securing Corbyn’s position within the party. The problem with that is that it tends to turn every issue into a meta-issue – “the NEC is divided, so we should push hard on issue X” – or a meta-meta-issue – “the Left gaining advantage at this point would provoke the Right, so we should hold off on issue Y”. Which is, ironically, the very opposite of the “principle pure and simple” approach that drew so many of us to Corbyn in the first place.

It’s tempting to recoil from this kind of organising into a dream of a pure ‘movement’, but I’m afraid we can’t take much comfort there either. It’s a question of scale. A Corbynite social movement would have been a movement linking up people doing, and campaigning for, the things we all believe in: people who were active in trade unions and legal advice centres and tenants’ unions and environmental campaigns and occupations and workers’ co-ops and direct action campaigns and food banks and women’s groups and solidarity campaigns and credit unions and, and, and… Labour meetings should have been down time by comparison – a chance to compare notes with fellow activists and co-ordinate bigger actions. It’s no answer to say that the background level of activism is too low, or the landscape of radical self-help isn’t there any more, or that all of this sounds like a throwback to the seventies – those things are all true, of course, but what that tells us is that we weren’t all that much of a social movement.

Arguably turning the groundswell of support for left-wing policies into a social movement – and refocusing Labour members’ attention on what there is to do locally – is a long job; arguably it was getting under way before the election with the work of the Community Organising Unit (although it’s saddening to realise that the unit was only launched in September 2018). But there’s also been a tendency – and I’m not innocent of it myself – to see the Left as a social movement within Labour, and to see working within the party as an end in itself. People only have so many evenings and weekends (or so I recall), and they may not want to spare very many of them, but I do feel that we can do better – and that we need to reorient. Work within the local party, if that’s possible; if not, work to take positions in your local party, if that’s realistic; but in any case, be a Labour member outside the party. Don’t wait for the ward secretary to organise the next round of door-knocking or litter-picking; put a Labour Party badge on your jacket and act on your beliefs, do something that needs doing. (This is a Note To Self, of course; I don’t assume it’s got any wider application.)

New times will call for new forms of organisation, bad new times especially; Momentum has a big part to play (as long as it isn’t proscribed), but it can’t be the whole answer. We are almost certainly going to need to fight to hold every inch we’ve taken within the party – but we can’t let that be our sole focus. What comes out of the strange, sometimes harrowing, sometimes wonderful period we’ve just lived through won’t live up to all the hopes we’ve held – but it won’t be a return to business as usual either. Led by Jeremy Corbyn, we have already changed British politics. We’ll keep on changing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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