Jeremy Corbyn deserves support, but the left must recognize the Labour Party for what it is and instead build an autonomous social movement.
In 1997, I was only 9 years old. I didn’t know much about British politics—for some reason, I was convinced that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been a Blue Peter presenter rather than a far-right, fascist-supporting sociopath. Yet despite my innocence, several images of Tony Blair’s victorious election campaign stuck vividly in my mind.
I remember the Labour Party’s surreal “Things Can Only Get Better” promo video, full of people giving flowers to sad Tories and grinning maniacally, as if they were all on some weird 1990s rave drug. I remember John Prescott looking embarrassed as Peter Mandelson dad-danced to the same tune. Most of all, however, I remember the day of triumph itself. I remember going to school and our teachers asking if we had seen the election results. For reasons I couldn’t understand at the time, they all seemed strangely, unteacherishly happy.
The public education system thereby taught me a very important life-lesson: It is not the despair that kills you, but the hope.
Over the next decade, the man Thatcher described as her “greatest achievement” exploited the mass optimism that had swept him to power in roughly the same way that dementors suck all happiness from the human soul. Or, for that matter, a class of PFI-funded rentier capitalists that hoover up public money into their Cayman Island-registered pockets. Indeed, in terms of its political economy, Blair’s “Third Way” was very arguably to the right even of Thatcher, achieving the remarkable feat of significantly widening inequalities of health, wealth and income for the first time ever under a Labour administration.
Since those halcyon days, in which New Labour was at least a functional administrator of the neoliberal agenda in Britain, the party has descended through tragedy into outright farce. Having once possessed the capacity to commit major acts of evil and destruction, they are now reduced to harming the world in smaller, more pathetic ways—like flogging racist mugs or calling people who disagree with them “morons” who need a “heart transplant.” At least if Jeremy Corbyn, a member of parliament (MP), ends up leading the Labour Party, we might still be able to get such critical, life-saving operations free at the point of use.
But I’ll put down the whip and step away from the dead horse. In fact, the truth is that former Prime Minister Tony Blair didn’t really ruin the Labour Party at all or, at least, not exactly in the way that we might think. Rather, his ascent and the transformation it signaled are merely indices of a much more fundamental process within the party that operates at the structural level beyond any particular leader. Just as Blair was largely an expression of this long-term historical process, which had been eroding whatever radical credentials Labour possessed since the days of Neil Kinnock, it is highly naive to believe that Corbyn’s leadership could revive the party into a genuinely progressive political force.
Labouring under illusions
The Labour Party have always struggled for coherence between the contradictory desires of, on the one hand, their left-wing members and active social base to pursue a transition toward socialism and, on the other, their right-wing to accommodate themselves to the interests of capital. This is nothing new, and it is largely the latter tendency that has been dominant throughout the party’s history. The General Strike of 1926, the Jarrow March and the Minors’ Strike of 1984-85 were all ignored or actively opposed by Labour—as are Stop the War and anti-austerity movements today.
Jeremy Corbyn is an honorable exception to this dismal record. However, it would be foolish to believe that he is capable of dragging Labour significantly leftward in anything more than a superficial or precarious manner, to be reversed at the first opportunity if it is not strangled at birth. After all, former MP Tony Benn tried and failed to do this, at a time when the left were far more powerful within the party, society as a whole was far more militant and mobilized, and the globalization of large capital had not yet completely pulled the rug out from under social democracy’s feet—laying the ground for Blairism in the process.
We just have to look at the numbers to see how difficult it would be for Corbyn to actually lead the Labour Party. He squeaked onto the leadership ballot at the last minute, in large part thanks to nominations from MPs who have no intention of actually voting for him—but whose panic is hilarious to watch, now that the “open and grown-up debate” they asked for is going against them. In the absence of significant parliamentary backing, Corbyn’s leadership bid is driven almost entirely by unions, the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and individual supporters.
As positive as such engagement is, any candidate elected overwhelmingly by people outside of the central party apparatus will seriously struggle to exercise effective leadership. As discussed in Tim Bale’s Five Year Mission, even the moderate Ed Miliband, Labour’s former leader, found significant internal resistance to his perceived leftism. A more basic question also has to be asked: If the political priorities and principles of Labour’s active social base diverge so sharply from those of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), then what is the point of the former investing any hope, energy and trust in the latter as their representatives?
Perhaps in the long-run, the most valuable contribution of Corbyn’s campaign will be to have brought this deep-seated and long-sharpening contradiction into the clearest possible view. Ultimately, the message from the vast majority of the PLP to its non-parliamentary support is this: If you are attracted by Corbyn’s politics and values, we disagree with you on every count and will do everything we can to block your efforts. In this sense, Corbyn’s campaign does not show that Labour can be saved, but that it is in fact fundamentally hostile to the left and “progressive” politics more generally. Corbyn, along with a handful of others, has been isolated within the PLP for decades. He will remain so, whatever the outcome of the leadership contest.
This is before we even consider the Labour bureaucracy or, in the event of Corbyn becoming the British prime minister, the Civil Service and other institutions of state. As Nicos Poulantzas wrote in his classic study, State, Power, Socialism:
“Given the complex articulation of various state apparatuses and branches … the formation of a Left government does not necessarily or automatically entail that the Left exercises real control over all, or even certain state apparatuses. This is all the more so in that the state institutional structure allows the bourgeoisie to meet a popular accession to power by permutating the sites of real and formal power.”
What this means is that “real” political power cannot be gained simply by occupying the positions nominally at the apex of the state structure. Should a leftist government ascend to such heights and gain “formal power,” it will very likely encounter active or passive resistance from the status quo, as the latter shifts the exercise of “real power” to those institutions—including the media—in which they remain dominant.
The United Kingdom is no exception to this rule. The first Labour government was brought down in 1924 by the infamous “Zinoviev Letter,” forged by officers in the Secret Services and passed on to media and Tory allies. As Seamus Milne chronicles in forensic detail in The Enemy Within, the same forces conspired against Harold Wilson and, later, framed Arthur Scargill using much the same strategy. More recently, it has been revealed that ex-activist Labour MPs such as Ken Livingston and Peter Haine were spied on by MI5 throughout their parliamentary careers.
The lesson of history is simple: When a threat is identified, the various organs of the British establishment will set aside their internecine squabbles and go to almost any lengths to destroy it. There are rumblings of this already beginning with Corbyn: Labour insiders discussing a coup should he win; intimations that major donors will remove funding; suggestions that the whole process should be aborted; and preposterous smears from a “free press” that seems incapable of engaging in adult conversation about policy and instead resorts to the most infantile scaremongering.
Make no mistake: If Corbyn becomes the Labour Party leader, let alone prime minister, he will be attacked and, if possible, publicly humiliated as a symbol of the “failed left.” By his own party, by large capital, by the press and, very possibly, by more shadowy state institutions. No matter how strong, committed or articulate Corbyn is, his chances of transforming the “formal power” of leadership into a modicum of “real power” capable of effectively directing state institutions are slim to nonexistent—unless he has strong social support. And he should get it, because despite everything written above, he is the best thing to happen to British politics for a generation.
Support Corbyn, but organize autonomously
Nothing meaningful has ever been gained by simply voting for someone. All the things that make society tolerable, secure and nourishing for human life have been won through struggle, both in Britain and elsewhere: decent wages; the welfare state; the abolition of slavery; the fight against colonialism; universal suffrage; civil rights; and rights for women, workers, different sexualities, genders and ethnicities. None of these things were handed to us by a benevolent elite, but had to be fought for tooth and nail against determined opposition, often across multiple generations. In this regard, nothing whatsoever has changed.
If we want to stop the achievements of previous eras from being dismantled beyond repair, we have to accept that this will take a lot more than paying £3 to vote for Corbyn. We have to recognize clearly that the Labour Party—unless massive social pressure is applied—is a busted flush and that parliamentary politics in general is not the major arena of action or vehicle of change.
Fortunately, Corbyn, like Benn before him, seems very aware of the latter point. He often talks about how he wants to transform the Labour Party into the heart of a social movement. And while he is vague about how that movement would function, who would be in it and how radical its demands would be, it is not really his job to figure these things out. It’s our job and, if we can’t do it, his leadership bid will go nowhere, whether he wins or loses.
The real potential of Corbyn’s campaign will be decided by us. If, like the Scottish Referendum in 2014, it can provide a point of focus for wider engagement and mobilization, then it may open up real possibilities. Sometimes, such a catalyst is necessary to trigger a momentum that goes beyond the event itself. If that happens, then Corbyn and his allies can be real assets in the British Parliament. Whether or not it can happen is difficult to say. We all have responsibilities and pressures; we often feel powerless and isolated. All these things can stop us from becoming politically active. However, there is no other way.
We have to tread a fine line between optimism and realism—between giving strong support to Corbyn and not investing all our hope, energy and time in a Labour Party that seems institutionally incapable of representing our interests. Whether the former extends to actually signing up to that party and voting in the leadership contest is a personal choice that each of us must make, aware of the potential benefits and risks. Regarding the latter, we have to find a way to participate in progressive politics outside of the formal structures of the Labour Party.
This autonomy is crucial. While the huge public enthusiasm for Corbyn is extremely encouraging, as is his willingness to embrace it, we must develop our own independent momentum, organization and aspirations. Only in doing so can we ensure that our collective hopes do not become too closely dependent on Corbyn’s personal fate in the Westminster machinery and corporate press. There are hundreds of groups across the United Kingdom, large and small, that can help us to do this. In the long-run, such self-organization will be far more effective in realizing Corbyn’s agenda and far more resilient in terms of creating a social movement.
There is no magic formula for successful struggle, but all of us must contribute what we are able, where we think it will be most useful. We should not feel guilty if we do not have the time or confidence to be in the front rank of every rally and meeting. However, we should try to understand how we can participate in building the society we want to live in.
To paraphrase a famous line, only if we each give according to our abilities will we all receive according to our needs. If our abilities extend only to casting a vote and attending a few hustings, if we are incapable of both supporting his leadership bid and moving beyond it, Corbyn will be a sitting duck and our hopes will go down with him.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.