Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader marks the most radical break in Labour politics since 1931. His overwhelming victory means that the hard left, marginal since the defeat of Bennism in the mid-1980s (except to a certain extent in the Ken Livingstone mayoral operation, in the campaign against the war in Iraq and in some unions), is now the central command of the Labour Party – at least in name.
He cemented his success by making John McDonnell shadow chancellor (once of Labour Herald and close to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, a key figure in Ken Livingstone’s GLC, like Corbyn a linchpin of the Campaign Group in the Blair and Brown years, and chair of the Labour Representation Committee, which from 2004 organised the hard left in Labour’s constituencies and the unions). He appointed as communications supremo Seumas Milne, the keeper of the hard left flame at the Guardian with unparalleled contacts in various hard left networks. (Milne is a veteran of the Tankie Straight Left faction that operated for years partly inside Labour and partly inside the CPGB, and he’s great friends with, among others, George Galloway and Andrew Murray, another Straight Leftist, later of the CPB and Stop the War, now Len McCluskey’s head honcho at Unite). Simon Fletcher (formerly Ken Livingstone’s chief aide and a member of Socialist Action for years) and Jon Lansman (a key organiser of the Bennite surge in the early 1980s and a key figure in the LRC) were already on his team. Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s policy director of choice, was previously a leading light in the LRC. And Livingstone himself has now been given the job of co-chairing the review of defence policy with Maria Eagle…
It’s the most improbable comeback in British politics – for a political faction rather than for an individual – in living memory. The gang that lost and appeared to have been defeated forever (and it is a gang) has come back with a vengeance. It’s different from the 1980s, when the hard left captured the Labour policy-making process via Labour's National Executive Committee, but never the leadership: this time it’s the leadership but not the policy-making apparatus that it controls.
But if this is an extraordinary turn of events, it is not inexplicable. The hard left never went away despite being sidelined by successive Labour leaders: its networks in constituency Labour parties and the unions remained in place throughout the New Labour years, and – particularly from 2003-04 – grew in influence: look at the results of the constituency section elections to Labour’s NEC and the consolidation of the hard left in the TGWU/Unite. (By contrast, the networks of the traditional Labour right atrophied, those of the ‘moderniser’ right never became more than clubs for wannabe career politicians, and those of the soft left all but disappeared.) Long before 2015 there was a widespread feeling among Labour members, by no means confined to the hard left, that the party lost in 2010 – and had been losing support since 2001 – because under Tony Blair it abandoned real Labour values. (The most important reason was the Iraq war, though there were others: spin, PFI, union law etc etc.)
Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, on this view, were massive disappointments who failed to turn Labour back to the true path, although the true path was never particularly coherently described. Corbyn came across during the leadership election campaign as honest, principled, straight-talking and unspun – and untainted by the New Labour era. With money (particularly from Unite) and organisation (based on the LRC and the unions, with a little help from the Leninist sects via the People’s Assembly Against Austerity) on his side, he won the leadership on a wave of enthusiasm against three very weak rivals who made fools of themselves by abstaining on the government’s welfare bill and articulated no vision at all. Corbyn was a symbol of hope, his victory a sign that New Labour was dead.
So what’s not to like? The first and most obvious thing is that Corbyn’s core anti-austerity message takes no account of the fact that Labour didn’t fail in 2015 because its economic policy was perceived as insufficiently radical (except perhaps in Scotland, where the SNP owed at least some of its breakthrough to the appeal of its attack on Labour’s supposed ‘austerity lite’). All the post-election opinion polling shows that Labour was not trusted as economically competent by comparison with the Tories, particularly among affluent working-class, white-collar, self-employed and home-owning voters. It was also seen as soft on welfare cheats and immigrants. There’s a real danger that a poorly designed and poorly presented ‘tax, borrow and spend’ stance will make Labour’s electoral predicament worse. Although Corbyn’s campaign manifesto included some attractive policies (albeit rather vaguely sketched out and unimaginative), it didn’t answer the question the Tories and the right-wing press immediately started to ask: ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ At very least, there’s a lot of work to be done here. (There’s also the problem of getting the new direction through Labour’s policy-making structures, which were designed to prevent radical changes of political tack.)
Then there’s Europe/foreign/defence policy. It usually doesn’t matter for most voters at election time – and didn’t in 2015 – but it does sometimes. Labour lost in 1983 and 1987 at least in part because of its foreign policy stances and internal rows over them (EC withdrawal in 1983, unilateral nuclear disarmament in both 1983 and 1987); it also lost support over Blair's backing for Bush in the early noughties. Corbyn is facing a multiple-vehicle crash already. We can argue about where he’s right and where he’s wrong – I’m particularly worried by his anti-Americanism, his anti-Europeanism, his positions on Ukraine and Russia and on the Middle East; others might baulk at his opposition to renewal of Trident. Whatever, Labour MPs have already started to voice dissent from the Corbyn line, and the potential for massive rows (much bigger than those in the 1980s) is immense. I think Corbyn’s pacifism and crude Leninist anti-imperialism are liabilities, but even if they’re not he has a lot to learn on presentation. His response to the 13 November atrocities in Paris was utterly risible.
Which brings us to the biggest problem: whether Labour can hold together under Corbyn. He won landslide support in the leadership election but has very little in the PLP, and though he had less difficulty putting together a broad-based shadow cabinet than many predicted, the differences among shadow cabinet members are giant. Then there’s the backbench right’s visceral antipathy to Corbyn and the extraordinarily resentful mood of non-Corbynysta Labour MPs throughout the PLP, who suspect that, for all his talk of a kinder, gentler ‘new politics’ – not so far in evidence – the hard left machine is out for revenge and hegemony. This could soon get a lot worse. Unless the Tories fail to get through their planned reduction of the number of MPs, there will be selections for candidates in a very large number of seats in areas with sitting Labour MPs. If the hard left launches a drive to get a PLP more in its own image, using Momentum, the continuity Corbyn leadership campaign, it doesn’t need mandatory reselection for the howls of sitting MPs to become audible very soon. Control of the party machine is already being contested between left and right – and arguments have already started about interpretations of the rules on triggering a leadership ballot, the proper procedure for selections and what constitutes a legitimate reason for excluding someone from party membership.
This is not good for Labour or for the broader left. But what next? There are many plausible scenarios – from disastrous civil war that makes the 1980s look like a tea party to everyone finding a modus vivendi and Labour being reinvigorated by the influx of young enthusiasts. Some people want to walk away, but I think a soft left network in the party to keep hard left and hard right under control and talking rather than feuding might just make a difference. How to create one and what it should do are not obvious. But a big conference early next year with a wide variety of speakers might be a start. Get in touch via comments if you are interested.