This Is Only The Beginning: the making of a new left, from anti-austerity to the fall of Corbyn

This Is Only The Beginning: the making of a new left, from anti-austerity to the fall of Corbyn, A new book by Michael Chessum, charts the revival of left politics in the 2010s, and comes to radical conclusions about what is needed for it to thrive. Preview of the book is below:

The crises of one’s opponents very often obscure more than they illuminate. There can be little doubt that the Conservative Party of 2022 is an election-losing machine, even if it may wreck many lives on its way out. But if the collapse in Tory support leads Labour to relax into a politics of tribalism and conservatism, it will have learned nothing – and will squander a golden opportunity to change the world. 

The need for a continued revival of the left has rarely been more pressing. The 2010s were a decade in which, through the collective effort of millions of people, radical political alternatives finally returned to the political mainstream after decades in the margins. These alternatives were a response to the crises of the day: the bankruptcy of the neo-liberal consensus; the threat of catastrophic climate change; and the rise of authoritarian nationalism. 

The 2020s will be a decade in which many of those crises are resolved – one way or another. By 2030, we will likely have a good idea as to whether we have either transformed the logic of the global economy or else rendered large parts of the world uninhabitable. Either the onward march of civil rights and civil liberties will continue, or it will be halted and reversed by demagogues and suppression. New technologies will either be used to liberate us, or to surveil and control. 

Building a politics that can deal with these challenges will require us to understand the 2010s and learn the lessons that the decade contains. That is what This Is Only the Beginning aims to do. 

There is a tendency in the world of journalism and professional politics to view social movements as mere warm up acts for the ‘real thing’. Jeremy Corbyn’s’ election as Labour leader is held up as the defining moment of the left’s return to relevance. It was a huge moment, capturing the imagination of many, especially the young, and driving the economic centre of gravity decisively to the left. Corbynism had the potential to strike against the heart of establishment Labourism and transform politics forever, a potential which was squandered. 

But the mass radicalisation that gave rise to Corbynism had, by definition, already happened. To understand the last decade, you have to understand the confluence of two surreal moments. One was Corbyn’s election. The other, five years earlier, was the riot and invasion of Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank Tower by a crowd of dispossessed youth and students incensed at education cuts and the Lib Dems’ betrayal on tuition fees. Until that moment, my generation was known for its political apathy. 

The student revolt of 2010 was the beginning of what became a much wider and more significant movement against austerity. The following year, millions of workers struck over pensions. Occupy took over St Paul’s and spread across the country. Hundreds of thousands marched. Anti-cuts groups coordinated local protests and actions in hundreds of local areas. UK Uncut continued to lead daring direct-action campaigns against tax avoiders. Riots spread across Britain’s cities. 

The movement went into decline by 2012, in large part because of the conservatism of many of the left’s own institutions, but even in defeat it transformed politics. By 2015 the austerity consensus had been broken at a deep sociological level. Ed Miliband’s Labour failed to reflect this mood, and it found expression elsewhere.

In Labour, the movements were flipped onto their heads. Hundreds of thousands of people who had fought austerity – and who were instinctively suspicious of conventional politics – found themselves part of an increasingly orthodox and Labourist project. Having come from a moment in which the organised left was historically weak, many lacked the tools to intervene in Labour in a critical way. As the PLP and Southside moved to undermine Corbyn at every turn, a siege mentality developed. The strategy and internal culture of Corbynism was, consequently, top-down and conformist. It recruited foot soldiers, not activists, who were marshalled between internal and general elections. 

What began as a meeting between extra-parliamentary radicals and the more traditional Labour left became the subordination of one to the other, as the new left movements of the 2010s were digested and defeated by older and more institutional forces. This was a matter of conscious policy. No meaningful democratic reform took place in the party. Momentum’s own democracy was shut down, and the project increasingly run by suited professionals in the party and union hierarchies. 

The defeat of the new left within Corbynism wasn’t just a problem in principle – it was an electoral disaster as well. Using conventional party management methods, the leadership fudged Labour’s Brexit policy, when democratic decision-making and clarity would have done better. Built from above, the project relied on bussing people in and hiring organisers rather than laying down roots. Outside of a few spaces, like The World Transformed, we lacked the level of debate and political education that would have been needed to come to terms with the rise of the new nationalist right.

The experience of the 2010s led me to conclude that the project of the old Labour left is a dead end. The renewal of progressive politics in Britain needs a left which is free from Labour’s monopoly on credible left electoral projects. Just a few years on from the Corbyn era, we now find ourselves back in the ludicrous position of the left being absent from the political mainstream, despite the popularity of a radical economic programme. To change any of this, we will need proportional representation and a fundamental realignment of politics. Whether or not you have ‘radical left’ politics in the same way as I do, that ought to be a project on which we can all cooperate. 

Michael Chessum is the writer of ‘This Is Only The Beginning: the making of a new left, from anti-austerity to the fall of Corbyn, is out now with Bloomsbury.’ You can buy it here.

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One thought on “This Is Only The Beginning: the making of a new left, from anti-austerity to the fall of Corbyn

  1. There is a saying that goes Be careful what you wish for. An implosion of the Tory party may be a prospect many would relish, but would a reduction to double figures in parliament be such a good thing?

    If there’s one thing we know about Labour it is such an outcome would leave it complacent, assuming itself to be untouchable. Poor decisions are made when the opposition’s to weak to hold government to account, the Tories have some knowledge in this. Almost certainly the PLP would lose interest in PR unless the issue is forced, politicians yet again would talk unenthusiastically about how rotten our poltics has become. No need for reform when the status quo suits them fine would be the rationale.

    If anything is to change PR needs to brought in in the next parliament, preferably without a referendum. Surely we should have learned from 2016 that plebiscites and vested interests in this country are very dangerous. Therefore Labour’s manifesto needs to commit to PR without recourse to a public vote in the next parliamentary term. Possibly adoptong a citizens assembly path instead and parliament committing to adopt their recommendations.

    The current Labour front bench may be a competent bunch, but for Labour to get anywhere near power under FPTP it has to woo the swing voters by not being seen as radical, adopting the centre of the middle ground not left of. FPTP the forces the Labour party to be conservative, it prohibits any party from being true to itself while remaining electable. Appealing to different audiences seldom pleases everyone. Radical change cannot be achieved without the Left coming together as a movement (rather than swelling the ranks of the Labour party and its membership voice being ignored by a reluctant leader) and forcing a better politics, more progressive and inclusive. One more suited to the modern age rather than the Victorian era.

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