Can Corbyn Survive? The Labour Party and the Electoral Turn

When hundreds of thousands of people join the Labour Party and are promised a voice within it, either via Constituency Labour Party groups (CLPs) or in leadership elections, it is entirely justifiable when some of these members feel angry and cheated by the rapid suspension of CLPs and the barring of many new members from the upcoming leadership election. The entirety of Manchester Gorton CLP was recently suspended due to alleged ‘bullying’ and ‘infighting’ (otherwise known as ‘discussion’, ‘disagreement’ and ‘democracy’, with the admittedly very small minority of genuine cases of abuse), along with Brighton and Hove CLP. The councillor for Swansea’s Uplands ward, Nick Davies, told the South Wales Evening Post that the CLP suspension ‘stifles democracy and does not make the party look good. There was meant to be a discussion on Friday [the 15th], and a vote of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, and now that won’t happen’.

Labour membership cards clearly state that the party is a socialist and democratic one, and yet it seems fairly clear by now that the Conservative Party acted in a much more democratic fashion during its recent leadership race. Suspending CLP meetings (coincidentally at the precise time when people like Tristram Hunt were having motions of no confidence passed against them and one was being planned by Angela Eagle’s CLP) and preventing new members from voting in the leadership election is surely going to be considered by future historians as one of the most brutally undemocratic moves by any British political party in modern times.

The state of British democracy would be laughable if it didn’t inflict so much hardship and misery. Many are living under a government they didn’t vote for, being led by a new prime minister they didn’t vote for, and the only political leader they approve of – for whom many voted for in last year’s Labour leadership election – is now part of a second leadership contest for which they’ll have to pay £25 to vote in.

Along with the right-wing of Labour, many figures comfortably within the mainstream media are also questioning Corbyn’s ‘leadership’ qualities. John Harris at the Guardian has come out fairly clearly against Corbyn (along with his editors) and has pushed for a centre-right accommodation with Labour superficially tinged with the usual assortment of working class nostalgia and rugged northern family values. Figures such as Harris (and even Owen Jones, who recently spoke of pushing for a third way alternative to Corbyn) are players firmly within Labour party politics, and not within broader social democratic movements or interests. These mainstream media challenges to Corbyn often invoke the crass language of the business world to justify their opposition to the Labour leader. We are told that Corbyn is a ‘high-risk’ figure who cannot ‘generate effective leadership’. Of course the complaint of rebelling Labour MPs disappears completely if they simply were to get behind their leader and unite against a swiftly re-forming Tory government. But the coup plotters, who call Corbyn ‘unelectable’ in the same breath that they call to keep him off the leadership ballot, have made their priorities quite clear: Careerism and centre-rightism first, doing their jobs as representatives second, challenging the Tories third.

The party machine responded with force to the decision of the National Executive Committee (NEC) to allow Corbyn on the leadership ballot, but even with the new £25 registered supporter fee and the unjustifiable two-day sign up window, Corbyn is still almost certainly going to win. The Parliamentary Labour Party has proven itself capable of Olympian levels of detachment from its base and members, and they are well aware that the longer Corbyn remains leader, the smaller their chances are of wresting back the reactionary, interventionist, ‘neoliberal consensus’ of the New Labour years.

Of course Corbyn also needs to do his part in winning over some of the more reasonably social democratic MPs who voted no confidence in him. Instead of triangulating against those who are forcefully against him, he should seek out new alliances with the kinds of people and parties who could act as the formers of a new progressive economic and social agenda – the Greens (who also need to tone down the alleged differences between themselves and Corbyn and admit that they stand a much better chance of succeeding by siding with the Labour leader), certain elements of the SNP and perhaps the Liberal Democrats. Corbyn’s team needs a serious media presence (meaning more than a Snapchat profile) along with hosting major social and fundraising events (meaning more than the traditional speaking events where anti-capitalist audiences are ironically reduced to passive consumers of information while a few big names get to be heard and applauded).

The Tories may be fractured, but are rapidly re-constituting themselves as a serious reactionary force. What should our response to this be? In a world in which the Labour Party actually permitted its members to open their mouths, the immediate tactic would be to get involved in CLP, BLP, LCF and Momentum meetings to put forward the kind of progressive agenda Corbyn and others are proposing (even if that means going a bit further than Corbyn himself is willing to go in order to push the party in the right direction). The only way to change and reform the current CLP meeting dynamic is to stuff them full of progressive, animated and angry people who are fed up of the right-wing elements of the party undermining Corbyn any chance they get. CLPs have been suspended most likely because so many of them were annoyingly passing motions of confidence in their party leader (over 80% of CLPs), so getting involved when the ban is lifted in September is going to be vital to ensure Corbyn’s continued survival.

There is clear breathing room for this at the moment. To pick one of many examples, George Osborne’s recent sacking by Teresa May leaves behind a legacy of repeatedly failing to cut the deficit, and he has achieved virtually nothing else. Six years of potentially progressive economic programs have been wasted, and it’s high time Labour members helped their leader and shadow chancellor implement a progressive set of policies oriented around anti-tuition fees, pro-social spending, and anti-cuts.

Corbyn and Momentum need to be given as much support as possible over the summer, because – as the thirty or so staunchly Blairite MPs and the rest of the moderately Blairite coup-supporting MPs are well aware – if Corbyn survives until the crucial annual party conference in late September in Liverpool then the shadow cabinet will be able to push forward a radically new program, solidifying Labour’s status as an anti-austerity, anti-racist and anti-imperialist social democratic party; one of a kind in the current European political context. There will also be a new NEC, hopefully barring events like the dreaded, recent meeting of Monday 11th from happening again.

September will also likely see substantial structural changes to the party, making way for more serious levels of party involvement and democratic, grassroots engagement, with Labour likely being able to integrate further with non-parliamentary left-wing groups. McDonnell and a few others have wholeheartedly embraced the People’s Assembly, and Corbyn has naturally been involved with a number of CND events and Stop the War Coalition rallies, but the true test will be integrating the party apparatus with the external forms of organisation and policy proposals of these and many other progressive groups.

As Corbyn is well aware, many of the core Labour institutions continue to fundamentally represent a deeply hierarchical form of social relations, even as the world becomes more defined by cooperative networks, as Paul Mason discusses in PostCapitalism. Corbyn, in his constant outreaching to social movements and younger activists (who previously tended to glide between supporting the Greens, SNP and Lib Dems while attending the occasional left-wing demo and reading the odd Verso book, but typically didn’t get involved in party politics), represents a break from this consensus.

Many have begun to experience the limits of extra-parliamentary social movements (the Tory government has proven itself very adept at ignoring the tens of thousands of protestors who regularly march outside Downing Street rallying against cuts and foreign military intervention) and are now willing to also be part of a growing electoral turn in political activism. From the anti-G8 organisations to Occupy, this mass of non-party politicos is sensing the potential latent in the shadow cabinet and Labour’s emerging institutionalisation of peaceful, coordinated and formal forms of socialist activism in the form of, for instance, Momentum. Now that Labour has ruled out CLP meetings for the summer, another form of organisation needs to take its place, and Momentum is well-equipped and staffed to act as this substitute.

Some of these recent changes are reflective of a generational shift in left-wing politics. A lot of young progressives have never heard of the Durham Miner’s Gala and many would consider one of the slew of documentaries about the 1980s miner’s strike as an interesting history lesson, but a history lesson nonetheless. The young multi-ethnic working class of London, for instance, many of whom pull endless part-time agency shifts to cover exorbitant rent, are seeing in Corbyn’s rise something entirely different from what the older trade unionists are seeing, and those worldviews, while not incommensurable, need to be geared towards common enemies and purposes if the numerous groups representing both generations are going to work effectively together.

Given enough support and attention, a Corbyn-led Labour Party could send a new set of messages to the electorate, encouraging them to sign up to left-wing organisations and become union members (at a time when membership of these groups is at an all-time low) and generally become more militant. Currently, Momentum only enters the headlines when it’s are being accused of bullying and has the audacity to discuss the possibility of deselecting MPs who fail to represent their constituents. Throughout history, progressive forces have typically taken advantage of whatever organisations can bring about progressive change. Right now, the Labour Party is a strong candidate for achieving that change – but the chance to deliver it could slip away rapidly. Alliances from across the left and centre (ranging from older socialists to trade unionists to re-engaged Labour voters to the younger precariat) need to be built; the urgency and uniqueness of Corbyn’s position demands it.

This will be, in its own very subtle but serious way, one of the only times in UK political history that large numbers of far-left extra-parliamentary activists and Labour campaigners will work together seriously for a common cause. Indeed, Labour’s base is already constituted by a mixture of the multi-ethnic working classes on precarious wages and the sharp-elbowed middle classes with a mortgage; what the Labour intellectual Maurice Glasman referred to as a working class dad and a middle class mum. Labour’s institutions will soon have to reflect that dynamic balance, as it will also for the influx of new, left-wing members. The anarchists are beginning to meet with the centrists, and a generation-long split between social movement activists and party political activists might begin to give way to a Labour Party which can act as an allegiance-forming point of transition between the world of parliament and the world of civil disobedience.

Elliot Murphy is a writer based in Houston, Texas, and the author of Arms in Academia: The Political Economy of the Modern UK Defence Industry (Routledge, 2020) and Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature (Zer0 Books, 2014).