What was Corbynism, and where now for Labour?

We should probably have answered the first question a long time ago, but it is difficult to understand something which is immediately compelling you to act. Now, as we move on from a crushing defeat, we have the space to think.

The political phenomena which stormed the heights of the Labour Party in 2015 was a strange, chimerical thing. It was only ever called ‘Corbynism’ because Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership made possible the sudden, unexpected hegemony of a Left-intellectual coalition at the top of Labour. Corbyn’s own personal belief system, which is not very systematic, was only one component of that. Corbynism was (and remains, for now), a melting pot of different strains of Left-wing thought, all of which had been utterly marginal in Labour for the preceding forty years. 

Credit: Jenny Goodfellow

At the risk of ‘isms’, I think there were basically seven major strands of Left-wing thinking which came together, in a completely unstructured and opportunistic manner, to form the Corbynite alloy:

1. Post-war Keynesian social democracy 

This is the major tradition of economic thinking which was lost in the transition to neoliberalism within Labour. A huge part of the identity of Corbynism consisted in the ‘recovery’ of this tradition: a commitment to the welfare state, to public spending (anti-austerity), to an activist state sector and to Labour being oriented to the organised working class.

2. Pre-war ‘transitionalist’ social democracy  

From the mid-twentieth century onward, social democratic parties ceased to see themselves as sowing the seeds of a future socialist society, and more as managing capitalism in the interests of workers. Prior to this, social democrats had been, to paraphrase Ralph Miliband, ‘parliamentary socialists’, seeing their role as ushering in real socialism via the ballot box. Like Tony Benn in the 70s and 80s, Corbynism went some way towards reviving this older social democratic tradition within Labour. Examples of this in Labour policy included the radical expansion of public ownership, UBI (universal basic income) and UBS (universal basic services) trials and, perhaps most importantly, the commitment – inspired by the Swedish Trade Union Confederations’ ‘Meidner Plan’ – to gradually transfer the shares of large private companies into public hands via employee ownership schemes.

3. Marxism

What I mean by Marxism in this context is threefold: a) thoroughgoing anti-capitalism, b) a sense of the centrality of class struggle to politics and to the broader movement of history, and c) receptiveness to Marx’s labour theory of value i.e. the theory that capitalism is inherently exploitative and functions via the extraction of surplus value from workers by capitalists. There were plenty of Marxists in the upper layers of Corbynism, including the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. 

4. Methodism and utopian socialism 

What I’m getting at here is that a big part of Corbynism was its moral or even ‘spiritual’ dimension. Moralism is probably an ineluctable part of any socialist movement, but it seemed particularly prevalent within Corbynism. Much of it stemmed, I think, from the inheritance of Bennism, which possessed a strong Christian-ethical dimension alongside hard-headed transitionalism. The sense of moral crusade which Corbynism was able to spark in its most passionate supporters was a source of great strength and energy. It was also, as I suggest at the end of this essay, a source of some moral-economic confusion.

5. Youth ‘movementism’  

Corbynism was, in many ways, a coalition of the old and the young – the veterans of 1968, the factional battles of the 80s and the ‘wilderness years’, and the networked millennials who came of age during the Iraq War and the financial crash (the paucity of prominent ‘Gen X’ activists within Corbynism was also noticeable). The latter formed a major part of Corbynism’s activist and voting base and were responsible for much of its most interesting and movement-oriented policy-making. Via Corbynism, the intersectional green movement found significant purchase within Labour for the first time.

6. Anti-imperialism

Commitment to a foreign policy based on peace and human rights was at the core of Corbyn’s own politics. Corbynism moved Labour in a stridently anti-imperialist and anti-colonial direction, especially apparent in the 2019 manifesto. The refusal to yoke Britain to U.S. geopolitical adventurism was a defining feature of the movement, uniting the older Stop the War/CND generation with younger anti-war activists radicalised by Iraq. In a sense, Corbynism sought to reignite within an established Western political party the spirit of the Non-Aligned Movement, firmly opposing Cold War and post-Cold War geopolitical frames.

7. Intersectional social liberalism

A significant part of the activist base of Corbynism hailed from a range of modern anti-racist, radical feminist, LGBTQ+ and disability rights movements. This, in combination with its firm socialist commitment, contributed to an imperfect but significant intersectionality within Labour, of a type which had barely existed pre-2015. Labour under Corbyn was a more ‘liberal’ party, by far, than the Liberal Democrats, and its pluralist advocacy of social justice was underpinned by class analysis in a manner utterly alien to the Lib Dems or New Labour.

This huge range of influences produced a coalition from the far-Left (former Communists and fellow-travellers like Andrew Murray and Seamus Milne, Stop the War luminaries etc.) to Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group to the Labour soft-Left (Angela Rayner and Barry Gardiner). Eventually, even soft-Left sceptics like Ed Miliband and centrists like Keir Starmer were willing to work within this coalition to achieve power.

The Labour Party is itself, of course, a coalition of forces. The only part of that coalition which was unwelcome within Corbynism were the most hawkish pro-U.S. and neoliberal contingents: the old Labour Right and Blairites. Economic liberalism and social conservatism were not compatible with any element within the Corbynite alloy, though these ideas remained a minority force within the Labour membership and majority positions within the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The price of having such a broad intellectual coalition was a lack of intellectual cohesion. Intellectual cohesion is not actually required to win elections, because it can be covered over with rhetorical and political cohesion. This was achieved, somewhat, in 2017 when Labour’s slogan, ‘For The Many Not The Few’, had massive populist resonance and united a very diverse coalition of voters. But in 2019, this rhetorical cohesion was absent, leaving Labour’s ambitious manifesto bereft of a strong, unifying narrative. 

In the absence on an iron-clad political narrative, lack of intellectual cohesion was a problem. It made facing up to a contingent, one-off problem like Brexit difficult or impossible due to irreconcilable splits within the base. It made defeating a chameleonic opponent like Boris Johnson difficult because, rather than countering his lies and inconsistency with honesty and principle (these qualities being Corbyn’s core brand in 2017), Labour could only respond with its own, much less ruthless, inconsistency. 

But Corbynite Labour was not inconsistent at random. I believe that the party responded to concrete historical and political dilemmas by foregrounding three of the seven elements in its composition listed above: post-war Keynesianism, socialist moralism and intersectional social liberalism. In effect, the more reformist elements in its composition were emphasised at the expense of the more revolutionary elements (transitional social democracy, Marxism and anti-imperialism). Youth movementism and its radical prospectus lay somewhere in-between: courted and supported at times, frustrated and side-lined at others.

This asymmetry was inevitable, given Labour’s commitment to winning elections within a parliamentary system in a country with no revolutionary memory. But the revolutionary elements were woven tight within the Corbynite tapestry and continued to jar with the cautious and managerial elements which took the limelight. The tinder of this unease was frequently ignited by opportunist attacks from the Labour Right and their allies in the media and the Conservative Party. These dynamics gave Corbynite Labour the appearance of being in a permanent state of crisis and civil war.

Corbynism outperformed all expectations in 2017 but failed to form even a minority government. The scale of the 2019 defeat has limited the degree to which Labour members are willing to see Corbynism as a long-term project. This presents serious risks for the Left. With the present leadership election, the Labour Party could end up losing the most radical elements in the Corbynite mix entirely, and perhaps even the stronger elements of its Left-reformism. 

Some Left-wing Labour members appear to be underestimating the degree to which a Keir Starmer leadership might reverse the leftward direction of travel under Corbyn. Comparisons to Neil Kinnock are difficult to substantiate ahead of time, but may prove apt. The party moves sluggishly, via several key institutions. An empowered membership is the only force capable, under propitious conditions, of keeping the leader honest. Starmer’s planned reforms to party organisation include a welcome end to the NEC imposing candidates on local parties. However, while Rebecca Long-Bailey has come out strongly in support of open selection for MPs (the strongest tool Labour could deploy against excessive centralism), Starmer, whose support base in the PLP is more significant, is unlikely to. 

It is quite possible that, under a Starmer leadership, the NEC would lose its Left majority (even if this were not his conscious goal); inegalitarian rule-changes may follow. He has said that the basis for Labour policy should be the 2017 manifesto, meaning that the more radical elements of the 2019 manifesto would be unlikely to survive the 2024 drafting process. In terms of the elements which comprised ‘high’ Corbynism, a Starmer leadership would likely see Labour’s Marxist, transitionalist, anti-imperialist and movementist strains rendered even less relevant, leaving post-war Keynesianism and social liberalism the ultimate horizons of Labour’s ambition.

The radical Left faces an enormous challenge in this situation. The temptation is to simply reverse the polarity of peak Corbynism and ‘foreground the background’ i.e. move in more stridently Marxist, anti-imperialist, transitionalist and movementist directions. This won’t work. Labour is, in fact, a reformist party. All the top Corbynites, including Marxists like McDonnell, understood this and took ‘radical reformism’ to be the immediate goal of a Left-Labour government. But they were a) unlucky (Brexit) and b) lacking some vital ‘reformist’ tools.

If you’re going to be a ‘radical reformist’ party that gives space to revolutionary currents to grow (the goal, arguably, of Corbynism), you need to be offering a complete, hegemonic reformist package. What I mean by this is that your programme needs to appeal to the widest possible coalition of reformists within both the electorate and the activist population. Labour under Corbyn made significant inroads into the Green and Liberal Democrat vote in 2017, and I suspect into the Green activist base. Brexit, unfortunately, reversed that trajectory in 2019. 

But what was always missing from Corbynism was the determination to make targeted inroads into the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru support bases. The purpose of a hegemonic reformist Labour Party should be to make all other reformist parties question, if not their general relevance (though perhaps this), then the staunchness of their enmity to Labour. Something like that did, I think, began to happen within the Green Party as Labour massively improved its environmental offer. From there, the goal should be to open the possibility of pragmatic, limited electoral pacts, including standing down candidates and tactical voting (perhaps even, in the case of the Green Party, standing combined candidates à la Labour and the Co-operative Party), to elect a hegemonic reformist government.

For this to happen with the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru, Labour would have to open up and diversify its offer. The British radical Left has historically possessed three blind spots which hinder this goal. The first is internal to Labour: an aversion to substantive party democracy and the constant, demoralising slippage into centralist and bureaucratic power-hoarding. Corbynism began with lofty ambitions on this count, but the failure of the leadership to push for open selection may well have been fatal to the project. Currently, the ‘Corbynite’ caucus within the PLP is roughly 15 per cent (an improvement on 2017). It’s no exaggeration to say that, had open selection been implemented before the 2019 election, that figure could be closer to 40-50 per cent. With that, I believe, would have come an influx of fresh ideas and a much greater willingness to try new things.

The second blind spot concerns electoral reform. The point of being a democratic socialist party is that you’re for democracy. The single most effective way to win power in Tory-dominated Britain, proportional representation, has remained beyond a Left-wing Labour Party’s policy scope. Liberal Democrat voters are not generally socialists, but PR is one of their major issues. I believe that Labour could win over Lib Dem and Green voters in their millions, even if only for one election, on the promise of electoral reform; with that promise as its basis, dozens of seats could also be won via targeted electoral pacts. Under first-past-the-post, conversely, a decade of Tory majorities awaits.

The third blind spot is constitutional reform, or indeed any position on constitutional issues beyond knee-jerk unionism. The only candidate to mention Scotland, Wales and devolution (including English regional devolution) in his opening pitch for the leadership was Clive Lewis; since then, other candidates have made cursory remarks. Electoral pragmatism dictates that a clear and radical programme of constitutional reform is the only way Labour will ever revive its fortunes in Scotland, in the absence of which majority government is impossible regardless of the electoral system.

To be clear, remedying all three of these blinds spots would be ‘reformist’. Party democracy and electoral and constitutional reform wouldn’t tear the system up by its roots, but they would make it more equal and more democratic. These policies are supported within parts of the Left but also beyond it. They should all have been components of Corbynism from the start.

Clive Lewis, who dropped out of the Labour leadership race with only five nominations, was the only leadership contender whose pitch appeared to grasp the need for a truly hegemonic reformist platform as the basis for winning power and achieving more radical aims in the future. Clive is a long-time advocate of PR, which is also supported by 76 per cent of Labour members. He was also far and away the most impressive candidate when it came to constitutional reform. Consider the following:

In Wales and Scotland, it’s about saying that the December result was more than just a devastating election defeat; more than just a Brexit outcome; it was also about, I think, the ability for the union to survive in its current configuration.

Now what form that takes I don’t know; but the change is coming. And I think what we now have to do for our Scottish and Welsh colleagues is to say to them, we want to give you full autonomy, to decide the best way forward now. Is that for some kind of devo-max federal structure? Or is it for you to campaign for an independent Scotland, independent Wales? That should be their choice.

This is what I would call ‘union-agnosticism’. Under a Lewis leadership, if the Scottish or Welsh parties decided to campaign for a federal Britain or even for independence, UK Labour wouldn’t interfere. It’s hard to overestimate what a sea change that would be for Labour’s thinking about devolution and national self-determination. Clive’s excellent manifesto also contained a pledge for English regional assemblies, the first step towards a more thoroughgoing English regional devolution. 

All these ideas are victims of severe ideological lag. Within the Corbynite core, John McDonnell was more advanced than others on these issues, but his voice was drowned out by Labourist and unionist traditionalism. Rebecca Long-Bailey, for her part, has now called for a ‘constitutional revolution’; details have been sparse but House of Lords abolition, a more proportional voting system and a form of federalism have all been mooted. Keir Starmer has also, more recently, supported the idea of a more federal UK. Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry have promised little, so far, with regards to serious constitutional and electoral reform and Jess Phillips, the Blairite favourite (now withdrawn from the race), even cannily joined Boris Johnson in denying the Scottish people a second independence referendum. 

Long-Bailey is now the Left’s candidate. If she wins the leadership, it will be up to Labour members to vigorously push for a full reformist programme along the lines of Clive Lewis’s manifesto, and to make sure the revolutionary elements of Labour’s 2019 programme aren’t forgotten about. In the event of a Starmer victory, the Left will have to play a game of ‘aggressive defence’ and build its strength, including support for party democracy and electoral and constitutional reform, until it can rise again. Whatever happens, I would call on Labour members to start building bridges with progressive activists from other parties, especially Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens. There will come a time when those connections pay off.

I’ll close with one more point, related to the question of ‘moralism’ in Corbynism. No one doubts the socialist bona fides of the Bennite legacy within Labour. But Corbyn’s moralising rhetoric, points to a broader contradiction between the kind of moral language the Left is accustomed to using, and the intellectual bases of its political economy. 

I make no secret of being a Marxist, and I’m pleased that under John McDonnell’s tenure as Shadow Chancellor, Labour committed itself to much greater common ownership. But when Labour communicates the need for redistribution and changes in ownership, it faces a dilemma. On the one hand, there is the obvious need to identify the ills of capitalist society: poverty, inequality, crumbling public services etc, and how these things impact negatively upon people’s lives. But the unspoken assumption behind mainstream economic thinking, and which has purchase on the electorate’s common sense, is that people’s income reflects their contribution to society

Unless Labour is determined to challenge this assumption, calls for redistribution sound, to the ears of the average voter, like this: ‘The morally right thing is to take money from the most productive people in society and give it to the less productive but needier’. Under propitious conditions, this can be a powerful call for social solidarity. Under less propitious conditions, it can fall on utterly deaf ears, and can even be understood as immoral, since you’re supposed to ‘get out what you put in’.

At some point, Labour is going to have to aggressively argue for something like Marx’s labour theory of value as the moral basis for redistribution and common ownership. This would begin from the assumption that, in existing capitalist societies, we do not ‘get out what we put in’. A small number of people get vastly more than they put in, leaving the rest of us to divide up the remainder. Redistribution, in this frame, is not state charity, but the application of basic economic justice. Socialist policies could be presented as the return of value stolen from workers by capitalists, landlords and bankers. 

By appealing to the self-interest of every working class person, this account of socialist policy would carry a much broader moral appeal than what was, in Corbynism, a kind of Christian-socialist ethics. I suspect it would also better construct the kind of working class solidarity which the moralistic appeal so often struggles to do. The closest Corbynism ever got to this were phrases like ‘workers are the real wealth creators’. It’s a good start but, like so much else, the more radical moral-economic frame fell afoul of the contradictions of Corbynism. 

Despite the disaster of 2019, the Left is probably in a stronger position within British politics than it has ever been. There is everything to fight for in the 2020s, but it will require bravery, honesty and openness to change. So much rides on the leadership election – I hope non-Labour readers of this essay will join up and have their say. 

Daniel Gerke is an early career researcher at Swansea University with interests in Raymond Williams, Western Marxism and 21st century radical humanism. He is a member of the Labour Party and Momentum and blogs at https://anthromodernism.wordpress.com/.

2 thoughts on “What was Corbynism, and where now for Labour?

  1. “ every working class person” –
    I think it is really necessary to update the definition of “working class”. Who are these people? Listening to various labour personalities during the last election I got an impression that the line is drawn based on somewhat arbitrary income based criteria with some mixture of education level thrown in. Granted, it was never said explicitly, but rather implied that university degree and relatively good income close a door for a person to be consider a labour supporter.
    Perhaps, the right way would be to define “working class” based on relation to means of production. In that respect an uni educated professional would be close to a bus driver and not to a banker.

  2. ‘a more proportional voting system’ has been ‘mooted’ is stated above as being proposed by Rebecca Long-Bailey. I think she was only speaking about her ideas for the structure of a replacement to the House of Lords. If so, this would be a very lop-sided reform, with the new advisory upper house having more democratic legitimacy than the House of Commons. Hardly a ‘constitutional revolution’.

    There are quite a few hustings to go yet, but by the end it must be made crystal clear which of the leadership contenders is committed to proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons, and who isn’t. Otherwise, how will those who support a modern democracy know how to vote?

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