After Corbyn’s victory: time for a new kind of politics

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters now face the huge task of opening up the Labour Party and putting members genuinely in control. How can they do it? Michael Calderbank gives some ideas

September 18, 2015 · 13 min read


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Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader represents a massive rejection of the culture of politics as usual. While Corbyn’s firm convictions, clear analysis and practical alternatives won him admirers as the campaign progressed, his leadership style is certainly not about the cult of personality. This is unlike many recent left breakouts, which have had an unhealthy dependency on a figure at the top. Think of Arthur Scargill and the Socialist Labour Party, George Galloway and Respect, or Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Party and subsequently Solidarity. The emerging networks – both on and offline – of young people, grassroots campaigners and rank-and-file activists who have rallied to Corbyn’s side have done so above all because they recognise the possibility of a different way of ‘doing politics’.

Above all, Corbyn’s remarkable success is the product of a rejection of the ‘we know best’ attitude of party managers and commentators, who have seen their basic operating assumptions about how modern politics works undermined. Party hacks and pundits have been left indignant that their ‘received wisdom’ has exploded in their faces. The place of the little people, party members and supporters, is meant to be that of unthinking drones, content to troop out to vote now and again and to keep dropping leaflets through doors while their beliefs are ritually trashed to impress Middle England. Don’t they know that Corbyn is a throwback to the politics of a bygone era? Are they incapable of understanding that socialism is dead, that elections are won ‘from the centre’, by parties that speak to the aspirations of the affluent middle class, cultivate links with business and follow whatever the focus groups tell them?

Such people are incapable of seeing this result as anything other than a fit of collective insanity. The more that a succession of the great and the good – Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Kinnock, Alistairs Campbell and Darling, David Blunkett – were pressed into service to warn of the dangers of lurching to the left, the more it reinforced the sense that yesterday’s men were struggling to keep up the stranglehold of yesterday’s politics. Not for a moment will they think the unthinkable – that Corbyn’s victory speaks to the politics of today and tomorrow, while they are the dinosaurs about to face extinction.

By contrast, it’s Corbyn’s very status as an outsider that now appeals. The very lack of artificial ‘polish’ is a welcome relief from the slick clichés, banalities and evasions of New Labour-speak.

The bizarre mixture of wild, unprincipled flip-flopping and deathly-dull predictability exhibited by his rival candidates only confirmed to many how little that form of politics has to offer. The sheer scale of the democratic mandate he has received gives him a basis from which to radically transform Labour as a party of opposition. But it certainly won’t be plain sailing.

Huge challenge

Corbyn faces a huge challenge in terms of party management, and ensuring that a sufficient mass of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will work constructively with him. Only around 20 Labour MPs have been enthusiastically backing Corbyn out of a total of 232. Many of these have little experience, being first elected in May 2015. It is likely that two or three times as many will be actively hostile to a Corbyn leadership – a combination of maverick malcontents (John Mann, Simon Danczuk), old guard right-wingers like John Spellar, and ideologically committed Blairites like Liz Kendall and Tristram Hunt. Of the remainder, there are at least as many again who backed Andy Burnham and may be more prepared to cooperate with a Corbyn leadership, at least initially. The role of left-winger John Cryer as chair of the PLP could be critical in giving Corbyn breathing space, but the numbers suggest that he will come under intense pressure. However, the scale of his mandate from party members as well as new supporters gives him a solid platform from which to build.

Handling the PLP will be a huge challenge. Regular mass rebellions on votes might be seen as undermining the new leader, but may be difficult to prevent without threats of deselection, which would be an immediate red rag for the right. It is a tricky balance to be simultaneously inclusive and uncompromising. One possibility is to make a public break with the practice of the three-line whip, which requires MPs to vote en bloc, instead adopting a relaxed posture. Corbyn would effectively be accepting that there will be a significant rebel rump, but work with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens to build an anti-austerity voting bloc while appealing to the centrists not to play into the hands of the Tories.

Initially, at least, the sentiment of the majority of Labour MPs seems to be one of pragmatism. They largely share the media consensus that a Corbyn leadership will be wildly unpopular with the wider electorate. Yet a commonly heard view is that although his triumph is an awkward accident – the result of unintended effects of the Collins reforms of the party-union link and a desire to ‘let off steam’ after the frustration of losing an election they expected to win – it is not a total disaster, given that we now have fixed-term parliaments. They think, assuming that Corbyn only sticks around for a couple of years (at his age, they reason, he’ll probably have had enough by then), and as long as he’s held back from positions they consider beyond the pale (such as leaving the EU or Nato), there will be time enough for the party to ‘get serious’ and go for a more electable leader who will get things back on track.

A further problem will be transforming the outlook of Labour councillors, particularly where the party wields power at local level. Many Labour groups in councils seem to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, having come to identify with the values and outlook of those who keep them financially imprisoned. Council leaders have often come to believe their own rhetoric about ‘doing better with less’, ‘partnership working with the private and voluntary sectors’ and creatively justifying their passivity while they are transformed into procurement hubs for a market in services that were once provided under direct public ownership and control.

This ideology has become so ingrained that it will be very difficult to achieve a rapid transformation in how Labour runs local services. Those activists such as the E15 mums who, while they might agree with Corbyn, have also been campaigning against short-sighted or punitive decisions of Labour councils, might be forgiven for experiencing a measure of cognitive dissonance. Corbyn could at least signal a change in approach by reinstating those councillors suspended or expelled for voting against cuts, and removing the threat of disciplinary measures for such principled stands.

Two options

In effect Corbyn has two strategic options. One is to take the line of least resistance, informally let it be known that he sees himself as a transitional figure, to demonstrate an inclusive and emollient approach, strive for maximum unity and limit the extent to which he expects colleagues to accept his most radical positions, so long as he can make some structural changes to democratise policy-making over two or three years, and at least establish a basis for members to have an active say over policy-making. This would give him enough cover within the PLP to operate with a degree of comfort, but would necessarily limit what could be achieved under his leadership, and would do little to fulfil the expectations of his supporters. Nevertheless, it will be an option that some of his more small-c conservative advisers might recommend.

By contrast, and in response to the tenor of such arguments, New Economics Foundation economist James Meadway has argued – quite correctly in my view – that ‘Keynesianism is not enough . . . Any programme seeking to end austerity in the UK has to push beyond the point of demand management or some macroeconomic tinkering, and seek to transform the finance-led economy we all now inhabit. It will not be enough to just pull the levers in a different way. The machine needs to be rebuilt.’ Such a thoroughgoing transformation would be far more threatening to the institutional interests of the City of London and meet with a ferocious resistance that would require a political response of an altogether more radical nature than the safety-first ‘inclusive’ approach would allow.

The second option, then, would be far more ambitious and imaginative, but also more confrontational and more risky. The potential rewards, were it to succeed, would be altogether greater. This would involve making clear from the outset that Corbyn intended to refashion the party so it goes into the 2020 election on a radical anti-austerity ticket. It would mean mobilising for both a mass membership drive and to give organisational expression to wider support structures beyond the party. The appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor is a very encouraging sign in this respect as one critical battleground will be economic policy.

While there is broad agreement that an alternative to austerity is necessary, some subtle but genuine differences are emerging. Some proponents of Corbynomics appear content to remain on broadly Keynesian ground in arguing that it is in the interests of ‘the economy’ (i.e. capitalism in Britain) for a more interventionist state to utilise expansionary monetary and fiscal policy to boost economic growth – thus increasing tax yields and reducing the deficit without extreme and self-defeating cuts to the spending power of households and building up a personal debt bubble. From this view, public ownership of strategically important utilities could be useful in directing infrastructure spending, but it is not necessary, at least at this stage, to launch any wider project of transforming the ownership and control of wealth in the economy.

Corbyn’s campaign has been liberating in the sense that masses of ordinary people have seen an opportunity for involvement denied to them over decades of neoliberal dominance

Opening up the broad church

Corbyn’s campaign, however, has been liberating in the sense that masses of ordinary people have seen an opportunity for involvement and participation denied to them over decades of neoliberal dominance. Could we develop a politics that enables them to actively determine political priorities and shape alternative futures, rather than just choosing between pre‑packaged brands like shopping in a supermarket?

Of course, if such potential is to be realised there is still a huge amount of work to do in changing the structures of the party to open the windows and let a little air into the Labour ‘broad church’. Even elements of Corbyn’s own campaign team – especially those who have inherited assumptions from a caricatured version of Leninist vanguardism – share many of these ‘we know best’ assumptions and modes of operating. Even if the message is shifted several notches to the left, and is shaped by politicians, pollsters and policy wonks prepared to question neoliberal prejudices, there is still a danger that people will be treated as passive recipients of a product rather than being engaged in determining for themselves the nature of the alternative on offer.

If the new leadership fails to capitalise on the sense of involvement and participation on which the campaign has been built, its momentum could quickly dissipate. This is a moment when the debate can be opened up to voices that have been excluded for a generation during which the neoliberal consensus has gripped politics. Not since the movement around Tony Benn in the early 1980s, with his emphasis on extra‑parliamentary struggle and the need for the democratisation of the Labour Party, has such a prospect seemed so feasible.

Mobilising local networks of supporters

Clearly Corbyn will need to launch a mass membership drive, aiming to encourage all those affiliated and registered supporters newly (re-)engaged with the party via the leadership contest to become full and active members. While there is likely to be a further spike in membership, other activists will be understandably wary about committing to a party unless they believe that joining it offers effective and meaningful mechanisms to deliver real change.

One important signal could be given if the new leadership team were to work quickly with Labour general secretary Iain McNicol and the national executive to shake up the annual conference agenda to allow more time for democratic debates on contemporary and emergency resolutions, more real voices (personal experiences of benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, disability cuts, zero-hours contracts and so on) and fewer set‑piece speeches from politicians.

Key to reforming the party will be to abolish the opaque and remote National Policy Forum process and institute a new structure to allow for root-and-branch policy review with opportunity for direct debate and democratic deliberation by members and supporters. The party manifesto must be put back into the hands of the members. But to really win the confidence of community campaigners, climate activists, rank-and-file trade union movements and others currently outside the tent, Labour should aim to implement a Copernican turn in the direction of policy-making. Rather than bunkering down in Westminster on behind-closed-doors policy reviews and focus grouping, honing a message to unveil before the grateful populace, we should begin with how people experience real social needs and work with those on the ground to identify what policies would enable them to transform their own circumstances. A democratic, socialist vision of a 21st-century political party would need to return to the sense of enabling the self-activity of popular struggles.

Jeremy Corbyn could call for local labour movement/community committees to be established – drawing together union branches, regions and trades councils (including Labour non-affiliates) together with Constituency Labour Parties, affiliated and registered supporters, and supportive activist and community groups. These would then constitute the nucleus of an attempt to build and sustain a new mass movement against austerity, to consolidate an alternative power base to compensate for his relatively weak position in PLP and party structures. This would have the effect of immediately turning the party’s structures outwards to involve a much wider spectrum of people, and encourage links to be developed way beyond the existing ways of working.

It could be objected that attempts to create such structures already exist, such as under the People’s Assembly umbrella. Given the existing links between the Corbyn campaign and the People’s Assembly it would be superficially attractive just to base it under its auspices. Nevertheless, it would be important for the new structures to be democratic, grassroots-led bodies based on practical organising and genuine deliberation, rather than ‘stage armies’ manipulated by top-down bureaucracies specialising in mobilising for set-piece rallies and demos but offering little in between. Any new organisation of Corbyn supporters would need to embody the desire for a new kind of politics, not one dominated and controlled from the centre by people who arrogantly assume they know best.

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