A vote by the members of Britain’s Labour Party, due to end later this week, will decide if left-winger Jeremy Corbyn remains leader of the party.
Corbyn, a veteran of many union and social struggles and a member of parliament (MP) for more than three decades, stunned the whole British political establishment when he ran last year to be Labour’s leader in opposition following a disastrous general election defeat for the party–and won by a wide margin.
The party’s traditional leadership–modeled politically on pro-war, neoliberal former Prime Minister Tony Blair and concentrated among Labour MPs, who are known collectively as the Parliamentary Labour Party–bided its time until it could launch a coup against Corbyn. But the campaign that led to the current month-long vote of the membership finally coalesced around the mediocre figure of Owen Smith, Corbyn’s rival in the leadership vote. Party apparatchiks have pulled every trick in the book–including disenfranchising any recently joined members of the party–but Corbyn is considered a favorite to be re-elected party leader.
Richard Seymour is a veteran left-wing activist in Britain and author of several books, including most recently, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics. Here, he answers SW‘s questions about the stakes in Labour’s leadership election and how the left should respond.
WHY IS Corbyn under attack?
IN A way, the surprise would be if he wasn’t under attack. He is the first radical left leader the Labour Party has ever had. He’s well to the left of Michael Foot [Labour’s leader from 1980 to 1983], who came more from a radical liberal background than the hard left–and arguably also of George Lansbury [Labour leader from 1932 to 1935], despite the latter’s pacifism and his role in the “Poplarist” rebellion against unjust local tax rates in the 1920s.
It’s not just, therefore, that Corbyn is too far to the left of the centrist consensus to be acceptable. He’s a complete novelty in a party that has never, in its whole history, had a socialist left that was more than a relatively powerless fringe.
WHY does Labour’s established leadership, concentrated in the Parliamentary Labour Party, despise him so much?
THIS IS where it gets interesting. The coup emerged in the worst possible way, indicating that the attack is really overdetermined in the Freudian sense. It can’t be explained in straightforward strategic terms.
They went after him prematurely, before they had a developed critique, a viable alternative or even a potential usurper in place. The fact that they ended up with an egocentric gaffe-merchant like Owen Smith as their candidate, trying and failing to sell himself as a respectable version of Corbyn, is indicative of how badly they orchestrated this.
I think it’s a product of their sense of entitlement. Historically, Labour was dominated by a coalition between the union bureaucracy and the parliamentary leadership. In its integration with the state, it became very weighted toward the latter, with the union leadership using its clout to back up the parliamentary leadership.
The Blairite mission of downgrading the union role, which ultimately sought to turn unions into just another client, changed that calculus of party management. They shifted the locus of power more to the parliamentary wing of the party, and the unelected professionals and spin doctors and party knuckle-crackers, while relying on what they hoped would be a passive, atomized and center-seeing membership base to prop them up.
But that was a mixed process that included democratic reforms, ultimately leading to the adoption of one-member-one-vote in leadership elections in 2014. What they had forgotten is that society –or a part of it–can radicalize, and the membership can take a left turn. And that’s what happened.
So for the first time in their history, the Parliamentary Labour Party has had to put up with a leader they didn’t want, imposed by the membership. And this at a time when the material basis for the left, its infrastructure, has been decimated over decades. They resent it bitterly. They think, despite their own ideological enervation and political exhaustion, that they have a right to rule.
They’re certainly thinking twice about one-member-one-vote, which is why Deputy Leader Tom Watson has been talking about going back to an Electoral College-type system, which would give the Parliamentary Party a disproportionate say.
And there’s something else. Corbyn shames them.
So many of them are educated, but ideologically vapid. They have been trained to be special advisors and technocrats, and they come from a gilded set with a sense of entitlement to rule. But they have met crisis after crisis with a total paucity of answers: unable to deal with the annihilation in Scotland, unable to face up to their electoral evisceration and detachment from their base, they just keep repeating the same failing pattern of “triangulation.”
When Corbyn speaks in simple terms–with what the New Yorker called “priestly clarity”–about opposing austerity, investing for growth, not making ordinary people pay for the bankers’ crisis, they are at a loss. When he articulates a strategy for rebuilding Labour based on its articulation with social movements, they have no convincing reply.
That’s what happened in last year’s leadership election, and it’s happening again now.
WHAT IS Corbyn’s base of support and the sources of his popularity?
THERE’S A lot of ways to talk about this. First of all, I’ll address his support in the Labour Party, then in the wider society.
Corbyn’s base in the constituency membership of the Labour Party can be crudely divided into two demographics. There is an older generation of socialists who survived the locust years of the 1980s and formed an almost subterranean network of hard-left currents: Labour Left Briefing, Labour Representation Committee, and so on. They have known Corbyn and his ally, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, for years.
Many of them dropped out of the Labour Party and rejoined under Corbyn, while others have been quietly members of Labour throughout the Blair/Brown period, putting most of their energy into social movements and campaigns. They have rarely advertised their Labour membership to the wider movement, but they have been there.
Then there is the younger cohort, much bigger, but ideologically less doctrinally left wing. Some of them have had experience in Occupy or Climate Camp activism, and in recent years, as one Labour activist told me, they exchanged their copies of The Coming Insurrection for Gramsci.
Most of them haven’t really been active before and, to be honest, probably didn’t expect to become wildly active in Labour. But the coup brought home to most new members that they would have to fight for the party, tooth and nail. They are learning their politics in these fights.
It’s also true that the majority of trade union members who participate in Labour elections support Corbyn, unless they’re concentrated in military-related industries. That’s because Corbyn is the only Labour candidate who defends their interests in an age of austerity–although the purpose of Owen Smith’s running from the soft-left was to try to neutralize that.
The real surprise is that, for the first time, the union bureaucracy is also largely backing Corbyn. This is a reflection of how far to the left the union membership has gone since 1997, due in part to the devastating experience of Labour governments of Blair and Brown repeatedly attacking them.
The election of a crop of left-wing union leaders has been an outcome of that process. But it’s also an indication of how deep the crisis of trade unionism is. The usual quid pro quo, wherein trade union leaders back the Labour right in exchange for a few humane policies, hasn’t worked for years. Union density, strike rates and the union premium have continued their decline.
Meanwhile, the union role in Labour keeps being attacked. And they were unable to put up any significant fight against the government’s austerity measures, which is decimating their membership and resources, while cutting the public sector. They had to do something quite radical, and that’s what they have done in backing Corbyn. And so far, they’re still backing him.
As to the wider society: If you look at British social attitudes surveys, probably about a quarter of the public is socialist and would be open to a Corbynite agenda. Obviously, if you’re trying to lead the official opposition, you need more than that. You need an electorally viable bloc of at least 35 percent.
Prior to the coup, Corbyn’s poll ratings were respectable and ascending to that threshold. And Labour was winning elections. The gains were overwhelmingly where the press said they wouldn’t be: in the working class heartlands.
For example, in the Oldham West by-election in December 2015, a “poncified” Labour beholden to snotty metropolitan intellectuals was supposed to alienate the salt-of-the-earth, flag-waving, family-loving working class. Exactly the opposite happened–Labour increased both its margin and its total number of votes.
Corbyn has been very good at rebuilding the core vote, without which the party’s future was simply not viable. Where he has lost votes, however, has been in swing constituencies, and Tory marginals. That is a problem for him a first-past-the-post system, especially one that is now being gerrymandered to further reduce Labour’s representation.
Still, at the height of the coup, polls showed that most current Labour supporters wanted him to stay on, and I think that’s a recognition among a sizeable minority of society that something fundamental has to change.
WHAT ARE the chances that they’ll be able to get rid of him? And what has been Corbyn’s strategy in fighting to stay?
THE COUP has been such an “own goal” that they have drastically reduced their chances of getting rid of Corbyn. Prior to this, I would have said it was a near certainty that they would patiently chip away at his standing over a few years and then depose him before 2020.
Now, they’ve just purged themselves from the shadow cabinet, where they had been able to sabotage Corbyn from within; exposed themselves to de-selection campaigns which previously would have been far more divisive among Labour members; and drawn tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of new members and supporters into the Labour Party to back Corbyn.
I understand why they miscalculated. In part, they had good reason to think that if they had a string of high-profile resignations, timed to stay in the media glare–followed up with a string of equally well-timed grandee appeals for Corbyn to “do the right thing”–he would just step down without a fight. They really bought their own bullshit about him being naïve and incompetent, and probably not eager to do the job.
In fact, Corby and his allies knew the coup was coming for a long time and had prepared. They calmly faced it down by appealing over the heads of the Parliamentary Party and the media–to the movement. They asked ordinary Labour members and the wider periphery of supporters to come out and show support for Corbyn–which they did.
The spectacle of big protests in favor of an incumbent leader of the Labour Party is one that would have been literally unbelievable just a year ago. And it worked. Corbyn’s experience in movement politics meant he knew that numbers, organization and militancy could withstand the concentrated power of the state and the press.
Not many other left-wing leaders in Labour would have had this accumulated wisdom, and many of them would have collapsed overnight. So as much as we rightly hate personality cults, we have to give credit where it’s due, to the way in which individuals can embody historical experience and lessons at the right moment.
OWEN SMITH is the opposition candidate to Corbyn. What does he represent in terms of support within the ranks of Labour leadership or among the party as a whole?
HE IS overwhelmingly supported by the Parliamentary Party–although the support is broader than it is deep, and already the Blairite attack dogs have written him off as a lost cause.
Because, frankly, he is. His major advantage was in being unknown. Now that he is known for his sexist and laddish humor, he is unwanted.
There is a significant minority in the trade unions that is in favor of Owen Smith, and also a significant minority of the pre-Corbyn membership of the Labour Party. Taken together, this isn’t a negligible base, but it is an incoherent and fractious one, without any agreed-upon program other than getting Corbyn out.
Smith has positioned himself as soft-left, but he draws support from the Blairites, the old Labour right, a right-wing group of trade unionists, and quite a lot of people who will go back to supporting Corbyn once the leadership election is over. After which, I don’t think we’ll hear much from Smith again.
THERE’S A number of themes to the attack on Corbyn: he was responsible in some way for the referendum vote to leave the European Union; he’s too left wing; he’s destroying the party’s chances to pose an alternative to the Tories. Is there any truth to these complaints? How do they square with the fact that so many people have joined the ranks of Labour recently, primarily to defend Corbyn?
THE BREXIT argument is a myth. Labour members knew for weeks and months before the coup happened that it was coming, and the well-informed ones knew that it would come immediately after the EU referendum, whatever the outcome.
Corbyn stood for election as Labour leader on the basis of a critical “Remain” position. He has never liked the EU and didn’t pretend to, but he said that the negatives of withdrawal were bigger than those of staying in. He added that Labour should not uncritically support the free-market provisions of the EU, but should try to transform the EU: Remain but Reform.
He and McDonnell distanced themselves from the deliriously and fanatically EU-phile center that ran the Remain campaign, and tried to focus on winning over Labour-supporting euro-skeptics, of whom there has always been a rump. They invited [former Greek Finance Minister] Yanis Varoufakis over to do a pro-EU tour, while Corbyn hit the television studios.
They were highly active in campaigning on the basis of Corbyn’s stated position when he won the election. And in the end, two-thirds of Labour voters turned out to back Remain. The reason why Brexit won is because of a switch by lots of Tory voters in the last few weeks before the referendum.
So Brexit is one pretext for the coup. The other argument–that he’s too left wing to be electable–implies that they have a magic formula for electability.
The traditional view is that to be electable, one seeks the center ground. But that wouldn’t explain how the New Labour project lost 5 million votes–largely working class votes. That wouldn’t explain how the Labour Party, under a definitely center-seeking Ed Miliband, lost the whole of Scotland in the last general election.
It wouldn’t explain the whole crisis of representative politics, the fragile state of the old parties and the fact that populist or left-wing parties can suddenly make breakthroughs from extremely marginal positions.
Where they would have a point would be if Corbyn sought to lead the Labour Party based on his own particular mix of views–that in that case, he would only get a quarter of the electorate.
But Corbyn hasn’t done that. He has steered right down the historic center of Labourism. He has compromised on NATO, the EU and nationalization. His economic agenda is a Wilsonite, white-heat-of-technology program–albeit one coming from the left, rather than the technocratic center, and with the intention of shifting the balance of power in society.
There is nothing inherently unelectable about what Corbyn proposes. The limits to Labour’s electability are largely driven by the trajectory of social democracy and the erosion of its material basis over 40 years or so. And the people to blame for that are the actors who drove it–largely the old social-democratic right and the soft-left.
WHAT ATTITUDE should the left take to the question of defending Corbyn’s leadership?
IT IS an unusual situation, but in a way, the entire future of the British left hinges on what happens to the Labour Party.
If you think in terms of class struggle, it is fought out at its highest level–at the level of politics. And I think, odd as it may sound, the struggle for the Labour Party is the front line of class struggle at the moment.
That is partly an artifact of the weakness of working-class self-organization, of course, but it is also a product of the crisis of bourgeois political organization–the crisis of representation. Corbyn’s leadership represents a crisis for the established modes of political management, and for the existing structures of ideological representation.
And if he prevails, as he probably will, the British left will have, for the first time in its history, a mass party of the radical left integrated into the trade union movement, and with significant parliamentary representation. We haven’t done much to deserve this opportunity, but we shouldn’t pass it up, all the same.
This doesn’t mean there won’t be difficulties ahead. Suppose Corbyn were to win an election and become prime minister. That is where his problems would start, where the entire possibility of reforming 21st century capitalism–against the inevitable resistance of investors, the rabid media, most of parliament, potentially the courts, and even sections of the military–would be tested to destruction.
It is quite possible that at times Corbyn will cleave right in ways that are actively destructive, just because of the pressure on him. It is possible that he will make big strategic errors. It is possible that in government, his position would just collapse, like that of SYRIZA.
Defending Corbyn’s leadership is thus not about defending “Jeremy” from criticism. It is about defending our own chances of survival against a broad and powerful coalition of interests that would love to finish us off. I am tempted to say we should support him critically, but unconditionally.