The radical potential of the Corbyn project

Even worse than failing to win office would be winning it while unprepared for the realities of government. Christine Berry considers what Labour needs to do to avoid the fate of Syriza in Greece

September 20, 2019 · 12 min read
London graffiti. Photo by duncan c, published under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

On Friday 3 July 2015, huge crowds gathered in Athens’ Syntagma Square. It was two days before they would go to the polls and deliver a massive ‘Oxi’ (‘No’) vote against the terms of Greece’s bailout deal. Prime minister Alexis Tsipras was carried in triumph to the square, where he urged the assembled crowd to ‘say a proud No to ultimatums and those who terrorise you’.

Just three days later, everything had changed. Tsipras met with European negotiators and agreed a deal almost identical to the one the Greek people had rejected. Overnight, the Syriza leadership went from heroes to pariahs. ‘Well-known figures didn’t dare go shopping in their own neighbourhoods,’ recalls Stathis Kouvelakis, a former member of the party’s central committee. For the movement, the sense of defeat and despair was crushing.

From this point on, Syriza’s catastrophic loss at the Greek polls in July was all but inevitable. So what is the lesson of this depressing saga for Corbyn’s Labour, and for the movement around it?

After the buoyant optimism that followed the shock 2017 general election result, the route to a majority Labour government is now harder to see, with the unlikely revival of the Lib Dems’ electoral fortunes and the Labour Party scarred by bitter battles over Brexit and anti-semitism. But today’s politics is nothing if not unpredictable: Labour may yet stand on the threshold of power. And as Syriza shows, the biggest risk is not that Labour cannot win the next election. It is that it may be propelled into office unprepared for the realities of government and unable to deliver on its programme. As in Greece, this is what would really crush the left’s hopes for another generation.

Preparing to govern

So what must Labour do to prepare for power? As Joe Guinan and I argue in our recent book People Get Ready!, it can start by taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher’s book. The Thatcherites understood that they needed to achieve a radical shift in the balance of power – and that the groundwork for this began long before getting into government. We trace the story of this groundwork – from the ‘Ridley report’, a chillingly prescient battleplan for privatisation, and the parallel ‘Stepping Stones’ strategy to shift the terms of public debate and secure popular consent for radical change, through to the use of flagship policies such as the ‘right to buy’ council homes and the behind-the-scenes transformation of Whitehall.

Just as Thatcher promised to take on the trade unions and privatise large swathes of the economy, so a Corbyn government must take on entrenched economic interests – most crucially, the extractive financial elites of the City of London – and truly democratise wealth and power. And just like Thatcher’s, this agenda will not go unchallenged. We have already had a taste of what a Corbyn government will be up against – from relentless attacks by a hostile right-wing media, to anonymous civil servants briefing that Corbyn may be ‘too frail’ to govern, to Morgan Stanley describing a Corbyn government as ‘a bigger risk than Brexit’. Such attacks will no doubt intensify dramatically should the party actually take office. And, like previous socialist administrations such as that of President Mitterand in France, it can certainly anticipate various forms of backlash from global capital markets, from capital flight to currency crises.

The Corbyn project is about far more than loyalty to one man or even one party, and to succeed it must have a life beyond them

In the face of this onslaught, Labour must rapidly learn the key lesson of Syriza’s failure. As Gary Younge puts it, ‘Only propose an agenda to take on powerful interests if you have a strategy to fight them and fully intend to pursue it.’ Preparing such a strategy is not just about drafting documents in the leader’s office. Like Thatcher’s Conservatives, Corbyn’s Labour must both shift the prevailing political ‘common sense’ and build a powerful social base for this politics. Unlike Thatcher’s Conservatives, it is not an elite project but a democratic one. This means that the wider movement must sit at the heart of both of these endeavours. As Labour delegates make their way to Brighton for party conference, four years after Corbyn was propelled to the leadership by a groundswell of grassroots support, it’s time for a health check: how are we doing on these two fronts?

Changing the common sense

In 1977, the Stepping Stones report argued: ‘A Tory landslide is not enough, if it only reflects the electorate’s material dissatisfaction since 1974 … It must represent an explicit rejection of socialism and the Labour-trades union axis, and the demand for something morally and economically better.’ Echoing this, in 2017 Tom Blackburn wrote that ‘it would be wrong to interpret [the election result] as 12.8 million votes for socialism. The party’s new left must remember that it has to actively cultivate popular support for a radical political alternative.’ As party insiders we spoke to acknowledged, we have yet to do this nearly effectively enough.

As an insurgent opposition leader, Corbyn did succeed in rapidly pushing the window of political possibility to the left on austerity and public ownership. But even among the party membership itself, support for Corbyn still rests more on opposition to austerity than on a deep understanding of the party’s democratic socialist policies. This is a particular problem in a context where Boris Johnson is promising to go on a spending spree, and the battleground of austerity is likely to become increasingly irrelevant. Moreover, without a strong popular mandate for positive change, a Labour government will be much less resistant to pressure to water down its agenda once in power.

One former senior Syriza figure we spoke to said that this was one reason the party did not survive the sustained battering it received from the domestic and European establishment: people had voted for them because they were angry with the status quo, not because they had a deep commitment to a positive radical agenda. Another observer pointed out that this mass support was split between those who disliked austerity because it was undermining the pre-crisis system, and those who wanted to overturn that system. Syriza ‘chose the part that tried to conserve the system, and they became part of the system really fast’.

If Labour is to avoid the same fate, political education programmes like those now being pursued by The World Transformed will be crucial – building a self-aware, well-informed mass movement that knows what it wants and is ready to fight for it. The neoliberal precedent for changing the common sense – which relied on wielding elite power through small, well-connected think tanks and the media – can only teach us so much. Of course, we need new think tanks to do detailed policy development, and we need an effective media strategy. But we also need these things to be part of a two-way dialogue with the grassroots, where people can participate in creating an agenda for change, and in doing so deepen their understanding and commitment to that agenda. This means new think tanks and Labour’s own policy development process need to find radically new, more open and participatory ways of operating.

Junior Doctors on strike outside Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. By Roger Blackwell. Published under a CC BY 2.0 license

Building mass power

When Momentum was set up in 2015, there were high hopes of it acting as a bridge between formal party politics and social movements. But with Momentum activists increasingly sucked into internal party battles, this early promise has yet to be fulfilled. As US activist Jonathan Smucker notes in his book Hegemony How-To, the problem with this is not just practical (people have limited time and energy) but also psychological: the mindset required to take on internal opponents is the opposite of that required to reach out to those not already engaged with politics and help empower them to organise.

Of course, the dangers of this ‘bunker mentality’ apply equally at the level of the leader’s office, where there is a tension between the commitment to building a mass party and the understandable tendency to retreat into a tight inner circle of trusted loyalists. The recent battle over the party’s Brexit policy has thrown this tension into stark relief.

Once again, the experience of Syriza offers a cautionary tale. Syriza’s base was drawn at least in part from well-organised social movements with a healthy appreciation of the limits of formal party politics. And yet, with the movement’s energy increasingly poured into electoral politics, less was available to sustain the social base it depended on. Similarly, there is a danger that young activists drawn into Labour from social movements such as UK Uncut and the student anti-fees protests swing from outright rejection of political parties to wholesale investment in one.

Syriza’s leadership also failed to build leadership pipelines from the ranks of the social movements, instead centralising power in a small core around Tsipras. As Kouvelakis puts it, ‘They had marginalised the party and were not accountable to anyone.’ These tensions have played out similarly within Spain’s Podemos, the archetypal movement-led party, where one insider spoke to us of a ‘siege mentality’ in Pablo Iglesias’ office. Building a genuinely mass party that is capable of holding the leadership to account is no easy task, but it is one that Corbyn’s Labour must embrace.

A different approach

Can we learn the lessons of Podemos and Syriza and navigate these tensions more effectively? We are undoubtedly starting from a much lower base of popular mobilisation. There are pockets of inspiring activity, from the success of the renters’ movement in pushing rent control and renters’ rights onto the political agenda, to the victories of the new workplace organising among outsourced cleaners and Deliveroo drivers, and the recent revival of climate activism. Such movements will be essential in building ‘balance and counter power, pressure from the movements and the left’, as our ex-Syriza official put it, warning darkly: ‘If you don’t have it, you will lose.’

But this is about more than simply creating pressure. Acting as the leading edge of transformative change under a radical government requires a different approach to movement-building from the oppositional mode the left has been accustomed to during the long winter of neoliberalism.

The new movements must build powerful constituencies for change by organising groups of people around new shared political identities (renters, debtors, NHS patients) and empowering them to tackle their common problems, not simply pressure government actors to tackle them. This can take the form of building new economic alternatives such as co-operatives and community-owned assets – for example, environmental activists in communities such as Balcombe did not just organise against fracking but joined forces with local residents to set up community-owned renewable energy co-operatives. Or it can be about building collective economic power, from trade unions winning improved working conditions to the Just Treatment campaign organising patient-led ‘buyers’ clubs’ to circumvent big pharma’s exploitatively high drug prices.

Here, the Greek experience has a more positive lesson for us, in the ‘solidarity economy’ that sprung up in response to the pressures of austerity – from social clinics to food co-operatives – where bankrupt small businessmen rubbed shoulders with hard-left activists and recent migrants, building common cause through practical solidarity and gaining lived experience of the truth that ‘there is an alternative’. In this view, the role of social movements is not simply to push a Corbyn government to the left. Rather, a Corbyn government must itself be seen as part of a wider ecosystem designed to radically democratise economic power. We need the levers of state power to help transform the economy, but only as one arm of a strategy for popular empowerment. This is where Corbynism’s radical potential lies, and what makes it different from the top-down social democracy of the post-war Attlee government.

Much more must be done to ensure that such movements are genuinely led by those most affected by injustice. Labour’s activist base is still much too white, male and middle-class, while campaigns like Extinction Rebellion too often remain tone deaf on issues of race and white privilege. We need to build leadership pipelines that channel some of these people into formal politics, building the next generation of leaders within and outside parliament – in the same way that Justice Democrats have nurtured the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US.

The Corbyn project is about far more than loyalty to one man or even one party, and to succeed it must have a life beyond them. To borrow the words of John Hoskyns, a former Thatcher advisor and the author of the Stepping Stones report, it is about ‘a gradual transformation of our entire political economy’. And, as Hoskyns ruefully concluded at the end of Thatcher’s first term in power: ‘Turning the country around is a big job.’

People Get Ready! by Christine Berry and Joe Guinan is out now, published by OR Books.

This article is from the Autumn 2019 issue of Red Pepper magazine. Subscribe here.

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