Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Corbyn is a moderniser – Blairites are the dinosaurs.

Richard Seymour explores how Corbyn shifted the political centre - against all the odds.

November 6, 2017
7 min read

An extract from ‘Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics’. 

Subscribe to Red Pepper for 50% off the latest edition, courtesy of Verso Books.

When Corbyn first took the Labour leadership, his critics surmised that it was a return to the discredited, squalid, and angry past: the 1980s. To them, this meant that Corbynism was a project for a permanent opposition, an eternally subaltern protest party rather than a realistic attempt at political and social change. And they began preparing their lines of attack as if this were true. They were wrong. Corbyn’s Labour has demonstrated its ability not just to critique existing failures, not just to protest the limitations of the old governing centre, but to catch the forward motion of technological, cultural, and social change. It has proven to be a modernising project, giving a collective and radical expression to popular ambitions.

When the Right and centre can no longer seriously claim to offer ‘opportunity’ to underemployed and precarious workers, Labour offered workers’ rights, a cradle-to-grave free education service, and investment to create jobs. When ‘aspiration’ is no longer plausibly championed by the Tories; when home ownership is increasingly out of the question even for professionals like teachers, nurses, and junior doctors; when landlords drive up rents for ever dingier properties with impunity and oligarchs drive gentrification, Labour offered to build council homes, control rents, bring back housing benefits for the young, and impose new minimum habitation standards. In this, Labour was addressing the problems of twenty-first-century Britain, something that was already clear in Corbyn’s 2015 leadership bid, but was largely ignored by his oblocutors.

In the 1980s, modernising meant moving to the right, accepting ‘free markets’, marginalising the left-wing ‘dinosaurs’ (such as Corbyn), and imposing an obsessive, managerial, focus-grouped control in messaging in order to win support across classes. Today, modernisation is a left-wing goal, the Blairites are the dinosaurs, and obsessive message control has been abandoned, with the result of rebuilding Labour’s support faster than anyone expected. The boisterous celebrations among Corbyn’s social media prize-fighters are entirely justified. They woke up on 9 June in a country they didn’t know existed: that, arguably, wouldn’t have existed had it not been for Labour’s breakthrough campaign. So, to an extent, are the outbursts of angry triumphalism from those who have been belittled, patronised, and vilified for so long. Many an erring pundit has been christened a ‘melt’ and invited to ‘eat your tweet’ or, better still, ‘delete your account’. At some point, however, this has to give way to a more sober appraisal of the dilemmas facing Labour.

The problem is not just that Labour must now find a way to turn its advantage into electoral victory, which raises a question about where to find the necessary voters in a first-past-the-post system, and how. Even if a fresh election is called soon and Labour does win, it will be in the position of having to try to implement a radical programme in an economy where there is very little investment. It will have to persuade corporations to invest, in spite of the higher taxes, regulations, and workers’ rights they will face. It will have to convince the City and businesses that paying toward an upgraded infrastructure is better for them than hoarding capital in the form of low-risk securities or in offshore tax havens.

Most difficult of all, it will now have to manage the giant task of Brexit, an economic and political mine field. The issue of whether to leave the European Union was settled by the referendum, but the issues of single-market membership and free movement were not. And while pundits may have overestimated just how much people care about Europe per se, the issue of migration cuts to the heart of a cultural and generational divide in Britain today. Not only that, but if the EU isn’t forthcoming with a viable deal, if it decides to punish the UK for Brexit, then Labour would need to immediately win support for an emergency economic programme, far more radical than anything that is currently being contemplated.

Moreover, the divisions within the Labour Party are far from over. The Labour Right is divided, defanged, and demoralised, but there are fresh lines of attack opening up already. Nor is its power completely gone. Most Labour MPs are still well to the right of the leadership and the membership, as indeed are most trade union leaders. Their influence is demonstrated in Labour’s manifesto commitments on NATO, Trident, and policing, as well as, arguably, Labour’s ambiguous position on migration. Nor are the strategic and organisational problems for the Left resolved. Labour has had a rocky two years under Corbyn, in no small part thanks to open sabotage, and the Left has had to think on its feet. If the overall effect of this turbulence has been to weaken and discredit the Labour Right even further, it has also exposed weaknesses on the Left. Momentum, the left-wing Labour activist group, has experienced crises. More broadly, there is evidence that most of Corbyn’s membership base, while it will rally to defend the leadership, abstains from local party activism. This raises the question whether they’re abstaining because there are other forms of activism they would prefer to be engaged in, because they just haven’t been approached properly, or because they’re waiting for the leader to act on their behalf.

Above all, this raises a fundamental strategic question. What is the ultimate goal? In the traditional Labourist view, the goal is a Labour government, plain and simple. It is to elect ‘our’ government and defend it as it, hopefully, achieves some incremental gains. There was never any reason to reflect too much on the structural limitations imposed on any government’s ability to act as long as Labour wasn’t trying to do anything too radical. But Labour’s leadership is, perhaps for the first time, systematically trying to pull British politics to the left, something it will no doubt also try to do in once. And it will be that much harder if it confronts a situation in which the balance of power in British society still overwhelmingly favours the owners of the country, and in which workers and communities are so poorly organised. Corbyn’s own experience and perspective foreground the necessity of extra-parliamentary, grass-roots organisation: ‘people-powered politics’, as his campaign put it. Corbyn won the leadership in part because the idea that change simply, or adequately, follows from winning elections is no longer persuasive. It is no use being in office without power, as Tony Benn once put it. But Corbyn can’t build movements by decree, even if it was in his style to lead in that way, so finding the right way to organise is a crucial problem for his supporters.

These are difficult enough problems, but they happen to be the problems of success. And it would be a fool who would bet the farm on failure at this point. Corbyn began, we can hardly forget, as a 200–1 outsider to win the Labour leadership. At the outset of the snap general election, he cheerfully reminded critics of this fact before confounding their expectations yet again. Everything Corbyn, his allies, and his supporters have achieved has been against the odds – against all odds.

Want to read more? Subscribe to Red Pepper for 50% off the latest edition, courtesy of Verso Books.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright