A review of Corbynism: what went wrong?
Just over a year after Jeremy Corbyn was elected, in September 2016, the new Labour Leader addressed the Burston Strike Rally in Norfolk. Reminded of this by a “social media snippet” I wonder how many people remember what the Islington MP actually said. The Internet informs us that he spoke of social justice, workers' rights and opposed austerity.
By contrast it is not hard at all to recall the enthusiasm and warmth with which Corbyn was greeted by East Anglian trade unionists, pensioners, socialists. Or the new, often, young, people who came on our coach from Suffolk. That backing was reflected during the General Election in 2017 when people would speak to campaigners about their backing for Labour. Sandy Martin was elected Labour MP for Ipswich, taking the seat back from the Tories with a majority of 831.
Bringing us down to earth Martin Thomas, observes, “In the 2017 manifesto, the words 'socialist' or 'socialism' were not used at all; in the 2019 manifesto, 'socialism' appeared once, and not to state an aim, rather to describe what already exists in the NHS”.
Early on in What Went Wrong Thomas further notes, “Corbyn rarely uses the word ‘socialist’, but he has commented on Chavez’s Venezuela, Evo Morales’s Bolivia, and Castro’s Cuba as if they are, more or less, models of a future society. That model of a future society is one to which workers in a country like Britain could never be won.”
This is a criticism of the “foreign policy” Corbyn project that was made by some on the left already wary of these countries’ socialist claims. It could be said to be a reflection on 1960s/70s "third worldism" which backed a variety of post-colonial states, in Africa, aligned at the time with the Soviet Union, as well as Communist Party led countries such as Vietnam, which have not created any form of socialist society.
Drawing up a balance sheet of "Corbynism", the years when Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the Labour Party, is an important task.
Martin Thomas offers a clear and valuable insight into the workings of the bodies that sustained the Corbyn project. This ranges a detailed account of the workings, and the democratic deficit of Momentum, which became a Corbyn “defence guard. This he states became a ‘virtual’ (web-based) centrally run structure axed around a ‘charismatic’ Leader, which reminds this reviewer of some European political organisations, such as La France Insoumise (LFI) of Jean-luc Mélenchon. All that seems to remain of their ‘left populism’ and ‘social movement’; is a loathing, shared by many others on the Corbyn left, of a new ‘enemy’; Keir Starmer.
The more widely known influence of key Labour advisers, the “Stalinist-heritage” Seamus Milne, Andrew Milne and Steve Howell, all from the Communist Party, Straight Left background, and very pro-Brexit. If there was trade union influence it was from “top officials” and leaders, such as Len McCluskey of Unite.
With these figures at the centre Labour had no “interaction” with “workplace struggle”. Still less did he help with “rebuilding of the labour movement at the base, both ideologically and in organisation in workplaces and neighbourhoods.” It is, nevertheless, hard to see how Labour on is own could recreate a powerful union movement when economic change has underlined the basis for mass trade union struggles outside of the public sector.
What Went Wrong agrees with many commentators that Labour make a mess of Brexit. Since the Leader and key parts of his Office (LOTO) were glad that Britain voted Leave it was hardly likely that they would do otherwise. Conference manoeuvring blocked any clear call to oppose the Hard Right Brexit and fight for a new referendum.
Corbyn was unable to deal with antisemitism, and responded with "passive aggression" to any charges. "He himself had been 'an anti-racist all his life'. Ergo, no real problem. He was unable, or more likely unwilling, to recognise that some of the “political antisemites” considered themselves the best anti-racists and anti-fascists….” That this response is awry had fed the present impasse on the issue. There are those, out of bad faith, only too willing to tar all critics of Israel with the “antisemitic” brush. The present purge of Labour, with its multiple injustices, is a shabby and counterproductive response to these political problems.
In what could be called a digression Martin Thomas criticises the Editor of Chartist magazine for his observations on the Trotskyist “obsession with the Russian Revolution”. Mike Davis has argued that building revolutionary parties is unimportant when radical left objectives might be achieved through existing left mass parties. Perhaps if the AWL could show examples of mass revolutionary parties in the present day that indicate that Davis has placed his wager on the wrong horse. If Corbynism, JC4PM, did not win, surely a serious reform minded Labour government was worth campaigning for?
To get an idea of our present difficulties, hard right Tom Hunt won Ipswich in 2021 with a majority of 5,479.