The Labour Party was going through something of an identity crisis at the time. Then led by Ed Miliband – the son of Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband – it positioned itself as a party that accepted the coalition government’s austerity and deep cuts to the public sector, while also proposing an increase in the minimum wage and a mansion tax on overvalued houses to fund the National Health Service.
Trying to move on from the audacious neoliberal politics of the Blair years, they adopted a more social democratic orientation – though a social democracy in its intellectual dotage. There was discontent from the right and the left of the party as Miliband plotted a treacherous course to try and be more progressive than the Tories whilst conceding ground to them on every significant question.
Many expected the election to result in a hung parliament, a messy complication that rarely occurs in Britain. When the election results were announced, a mood of despair gripped much of the country. It wasn’t a hung parliament, it was the unthinkable: a Tory majority government, the first since 1997. The Liberal Democrats were annihilated, going from 57 to eight MPs, their lowest number in a century.
Labour won some seats but was almost wiped out in Scotland, a victim of an insurgent Scottish National Party and the fallout from the 2014 independence referendum. Miliband, to his credit, arrested the trend downwards in Labour votes, which saw significant declines in every election since 1997. He also managed to bolster the Labour presence in London. But it wasn’t enough. He had to fall on his sword and resign as leader – opening up the usual post-defeat election contest that British political parties inflict on themselves.
Outside of the three main parties, the Green vote increased significantly. The so-called Green Surge saw tens of thousands of people flock to the party and more than a million votes across the country. The right wing nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party led by professional demagogue Nigel Farage got a worrying 4.7 million votes. But under Britain’s archaic first-past-the-post system, both parties only returned one MP to parliament. The far left vote was totally negligible, even if the campaigns were conducted quite seriously, demonstrating how difficult it is for the socialist left to cohere an electoral base in the current political situation.
As the Labour leadership election contest got underway, the Tories moved into action. With only a slim majority of 12 seats they knew that momentum and audacity was the order of the day. They announced their legislative agenda, more cuts – particularly the welfare bill targeting in-work (also known as earned income) tax credits and housing benefit. There were more cuts to the public sector, with each government department expected to slash jobs and pay to “save” millions of pounds. Meanwhile Trident renewal, a program to replace aging ballistic missile submarines which will cost up to £100 billion – goes ahead.
Even more outrageously, the Tories made good on their threat to impose even more restrictive anti-union laws which would make most strikes impossible to organise and would decimate Labour Party funding by attacking the union link. It is a sign of just how vicious the current Conservative Party is that they would attack their main rival’s funding in such a direct and public way. (Convention has it that any legal changes to party funding should be agreed upon by a cross-party parliamentary committee, a convention the Tories have ripped up.)
The Labour leadership campaign initially looked like the usual boring affair with identi-kit middle of the road politicians – the kind you could throw a stick at in parliament and hit several. Blairite candidate Liz Kendall started to make media appearances parroting the line (which became gospel for the Labour ruling clique) that they lost because they were “too left wing” and the public didn’t trust them enough on the economy. This is code for “Labour has to be more like the Tories.” Her line was a shadow of Tory Chancellor George Osborne III: fiscal responsibility, tackle the deficit, make difficult choices.
Then two centre candidates emerged, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham. Both people of the middle, they played up to various core Labour constituencies with very similar policies, Burnham as a northern lad done good and Cooper as a hard-working woman defying the glass ceiling. Their policies were effectively a continuation of Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband’s direction. Uninspiring and routine, they probably would have suffered the fate of Brown and Miliband at a general election too.
From the left, veteran MP Jeremy Corbyn threw his hat into the ring. A long-time supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the anti-apartheid struggle and almost every major protest and social movement you can think of, Corbyn and his team initially thought that this would be the usual outing for the left of the Labour party.
It seemed unlikely that he would get on the ballot, and even if he did he was not likely to win. Indeed, the odds seemed stacked against him. Under the current system Corbyn needed 30 MPs to support him, but only around 15 Labour MPs in the parliament could in anyway be described as close to his politics.
But, with only a few minutes to go, it was announced that he had won enough support from the Parliamentary Labour Party. A number of his backers said they did not support Corbyn and would be voting for someone else, but that they wanted him on the ballot to ensure “the widest range of debate.” Nevertheless, this was a step forward from the 2010 leadership contest when leftist John McDonnell failed to get on the ballot paper.
The first few weeks of the leadership campaign were as you would expect. There was some coverage about the “rank outsider” Jeremy Corbyn who had been down as a 200-to-1 long shot by the bookies to win, with his quaint, old fashioned “principles” and his jumpers and strange hats. But as the campaign developed several unexpected developments took place. After a month of the contest, a YouGov poll put Jeremy Corbyn clearly as favourite to win.
Assured of their backing and support, the other candidates dismissed this as an oddity. Then the unions moved into action, first the smaller unions like the RMT (representing Britain’s rail-workers), but then astonishingly the two largest unions in the country, Unison and Unite (representing workers in the public service, industry, energy and other sectors) both agreed to endorse Corbyn (over the heads of the General Secretaries). The press began to change tune, attacking Corbyn as a dangerous man with dangerous ideas.
But this only spurred on more support. Thousands of people turned out to rallies across the country. Rooms overflowing, people filled the streets to hear Jeremy Corbyn address them. Corbyn’s message was a simple one, quite moderate from a socialist perspective, but electrifying to a public that had been crushed by Thatcher, then battered over the head with Blairism and neo-realist triangulation for more than 30 years. Corbyn wanted to end austerity, close tax loopholes, create a national investment bank to fund jobs, and scrap Trident. He was against the attacks on welfare and the constant barrage of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
To many young people these ideas seemed almost scandalous. Certainly they hadn’t heard a “mainstream” politician utter such heresies to popular opinion in public before. People flocked to the campaign, thousands joined the Labour Party or signed up as supporters – paying £3 to vote in the leadership election without becoming full members. Left politics became electrified even over the traditionally sleepy summer months. There was a sense of excitement that many hadn’t felt in years – the left could actually win the leadership of the Labour party.
That excitement wasn’t shared. Certainly the media responded with both vitriol and laughter, trying to write Corbyn off as simultaneously an unelectable buffoon and a dangerous threat to British democracy. But inside the Labour Party, panic set in.
For a party that had been thoroughly gutted of democracy by Neil Kinnock and then neoliberalised by Tony Blair, Corbyn was an anachronistic throwback to a long forgotten age. He reminded people of the bad old days when the trade unions had influence, and people called each other comrade. Put simply, Corbyn represented everything Labour Party leaders had been trying to get away from for years. In the soundbite dominated media age where craven calls to support business and the wealthy are a benchmark of how serious you are as a politician, he was the personification of “unelectable.”
The Labour apparatus swung into action. Around 70 people at head office worked around the clock to weed out Trotskyists, communists, anarchists, Greens, anti-war activists, anti-austerity activists, people who had criticised Labour on Twitter back in 2014 – anyone they thought might be part of the Corbyn-mania surge. Thousands received emails declining their supporter status or even expelling them for “not agreeing with Labour values,” whatever those are. No one really asked what “Labour values” might mean when the party can have a war criminal like Tony Blair as well as a socialist like John McDonnell.
But it wasn’t enough. In the face of a genuine popular movement an apparatus can rarely stop it. All they can do is slow it down and then bide their time to strike when more fortuitous opportunities present. On September 12, Corbyn was declared the leader of the Labour Party, winning in the first round of votes by as many votes as the other three candidates combined.
It was rightly heralded as a triumph for the left – both inside and outside the Labour Party. All of the campaigns and protests and meetings that the left had organised – often small or half-baked – seemed to have embedded a latent energy in the working class that was just waiting for a credible expression.
It showed that the Labour Party’s decision to support austerity in 2012 had been the wrong one. It showed that the trade unionists wanted someone of the left, not a centre-ground non-entity. It demonstrated that the Labour Party was, despite everything, still the go-to party for progressive minded people and workers. It demonstrated that what seemed impossible could happen – if the cosmic alignment is favourable.
Now that the euphoria of the impossible moment being made possible has passed, we can begin to see the lay of the land for the next few months. It is clear that Corbyn’s election only opens up a space. It is not the solution to the problems we face in Britain. Not least because this victory takes place in the heart of a party that for over a hundred years has been an integral part of the British establishment.
It is a party that has always played the role of demobilising and frustrating the hopes of millions, whilst proving to be a loyal negotiator for the interests of the capitalists. It is also a victory with huge contradictions, not least that the Labour Party at the moment has spent the last 30 years moving to the right, and it has just elected its most left wing leader in history.
Corbyn was under fire from Day One. The press of course has been relentlessly against him – that much was inevitable. But from within his own party, particularly the parliamentary party (PLP), he has little support. The PLP is well to the right of Corbyn, after all many of them think that Ed Miliband was too left wing. Key frontbench MPs resigned within hours of his election, people began briefing against him in the press.
Many of the women in the PLP, elected under Blair and loyal to their old boss, accused him of sexism by not appointing more women to “top positions” in his shadow cabinet. It is widely put about that Corbyn has until May 2016, when local elections and elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly will take place, to prove himself.
A degree of triangulation and compromise is inevitable from the new left leaders. There is no way that a parliamentary party like Labour won’t exert a huge pressure towards conciliation. But socialists shouldn’t simply wait to denounce each “backtrack” as proof of the dangers of reformism. Such an approach has limited appeal in the current situation – though it would be more of a mistake to be an uncritical cheerleader.
No, the most important step forward would be if Corbyn’s election can act as a detonator for increasing the level of struggle across society. Will it open up a chance for trade unionists to take action? Will community campaigns around housing or poverty feel a new lease of life?
Many socialists are joining Labour to have the fight inside the party. But many still want to remain active outside of Labour, so there will be plenty of opportunities to build networks and campaigns together. Certainly there is an important political argument to be had about how we change the world; is it through parliament, is it through a mixed, Keynesian economy, is it through the Labour Party alone?
Corbyn is not a radical socialist. He is more of a left Keynesian and has surrounded himself with Keynesian academics like Thomas Pikkety and Joseph Stieglitz. In the context of a looming global economic crisis caused by the China bubble bursting, it is doubtful if such limited reforms can meet the needs of the day.
But to the $64,000 question. Many are now convinced that the fight to build a stronger left within and turn the Labour Party into a radically different party is the order of the day. How long this window of opportunity is open for remains unclear. The next general election is in more than four years’ time, and it will be a huge fight inside the Labour Party to de-select the many right wing MPs and put in place new, more radical ones.
Will Corbyn still be leader in four years’ time? The jury is out, as this is without a doubt the most destabilising leadership result the Labour Party has ever had. Unleashing such immense centrifugal forces in politics generally results in splits or dramatic upheavals of the old order. The alternative is that the momentum is deflected and dissipated, and an isolated Corbyn has to make too many concessions to keep the right happy.
For a small, socialist party like Left Unity, the developments raise very serious questions about what role we can play in the new alignment. On the one hand, the Corbyn bounce might only last a short time, meaning that an explicitly socialist party like Left Unity will be very important in the fall out when the Labour Party starts to re-establish itself in its previous ways. But on the other hand, many hundreds of thousands now look to Labour as the vehicle for progressive change and feel that the moment is an historic one that cannot be sidestepped.
Our conference in November will be discussing the future of our party and what role our members can play in the coming struggles in Britain. One thing we can all be sure of is that however vicious Tories are red in tooth and claw, savage attacks on the working people and the poor, and on our democratic rights, will only get worse. They represent the majority wing of the British ruling class which is committed to undoing every last trace of the post-war Social Democratic settlement.
With such powerful forces behind them, the next few years will see a titanic clash between the working class and the bosses. With Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, we finally have one of us in charge of the main opposition. If it has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.
Simon Hardy is an executive committee member of Left Unity and co-author of Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics (Zero, 2013).