What happens if Corbyn wins?

September 9, 2015

The success of Jeremy Corbyn's campaign to lead the Labour Party in Britain has thrown up a series of questions for the left. In an article contributing to an ongoing discussion at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website, Jen Wilkinson argues that Corbyn will need support and pressure from an independent movement that extends beyond the membership of the Labour Party.

JEREMY CORBYN'S campaign for the Labour leadership has been extraordinary. He has hosted some of the biggest political meetings for decades in towns and cities across the country. The audience he's attracting is young and diverse. Socialist ideas are back on mainstream news channels. If you are not excited by all this, you are definitely a miserable cynic.

We can't predict what will happen next, of course, but we can start to think about what the Corbyn campaign could achieve. What would count as success for socialists?

Most answers to this question focus on the internal affairs of the Labour Party, or on what might happen in parliament. But I'd argue for a different set of criteria. Corbyn's campaign should be judged by its ability to break the neoliberal consensus and build a credible anti-austerity movement. And closely linked to this is the question of to what extent the Corbyn campaign feeds into building working-class confidence and organization, in the workplace and on the streets.

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

With this in mind, let's look at the challenges the Corbyn campaign faces, the state of play in the Labour Party, and the political balance of forces more widely in this country. I'll analyze each of these in turn before coming to some general conclusions about what the Corbyn campaign means for revolutionary socialists.

Five Hurdles for the Movement

The mainstream media has flipped from writing off Corbyn as a joke to panicking over what they see as his inevitable victory. But Corbyn will face significant challenges if he wins. And these will pose important questions for the wider movement. Here are five of them:

1. The influx of members into the Labour Party is happening at a time when the internal contradictions within the party are intensifying to breaking point. A fierce battle is underway for the soul of Labour. What will happen to the new people being drawn into this? Will they be pulled by Labour or will Labour be pulled by them?

2. The economy is not in good shape, in Britain or globally. The ruling class will not accept the kind of reforms that Corbyn is proposing without a fight. So pushing through those policies will necessitate a confrontation with the ruling class. Will the movement be ready for it?

3. One of our criteria for success is Corbyn's ability to popularize anti-austerity. But there is a danger that anti-austerity debate will get subsumed by the debate within Labour. How do we ensure that the reference points for this debate don't get locked into a narrow reformist framework?

4. What is the actual audience for the debates? Is Corbynmania confined to the existing left, or can it reach people who have so far bought into the Tory narrative? Will Corbyn be able to mount a serious challenge for power in 2020?

5. The level of class struggle outside the Labour Party is clearly a significant factor in all this. Our side isn't looking too healthy at the moment. How can we use the Corbyn campaign to change that? And how would a higher level of working class struggle feed into the political battles ahead?

Some 20 years ago, Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein analyzed the failure of Bennism in their book The Labour Party: A Marxist History. They argued that the political upturn around Tony Benn coincided with an industrial downturn. It reflected a lack of confidence in taking on employers directly in the workplace. People were unconfident to fight at the grassroots, so looked for a political solution outside the workplace.

This resonates with what is happening today--but with one important difference. Seven years of austerity has been met with weak resistance compared to the scale of the assault. The TUC and the unions have shied away from serious action. Communities have mobilized against cuts, but this has been partial and failed to coalesce into a unified campaign. The mainstream political establishment offers only differing concentrations of austerity.

Corbyn is a breath of fresh air in this context. He represents a widespread hope that something can be done to challenge austerity, while at the same time reflecting a lack of confidence in other forms of struggle.

From the Sofa to the Gym

The crucial difference, however, is that Bennism failed when the working class was in retreat and a major rightward ideological shift was taking place. We might have less muscle than the working class 30 years ago--but they were heading back to the sofa, and we are thinking about starting at the gym.

The ideological shift is important. In the postwar years there was an essentially reformist political consensus around full employment, a mixed economy and an expansion of welfare--so-called "Butskellism". But by the 1980s, the political mood had started to crystallize around Margaret Thatcher and what we now call the neoliberal consensus.

The Labour Party began to accommodate to changing conditions and moved rightwards, and has continued in that direction. You just have to look at Labour's pathetic inability to contest the Tory economic narrative at the general election, or their horrific stance on migration. This is what years of following the Labour right has led to.

So the campaign around Corbyn is moving left ideologically, but doing so in worse general conditions than the 1980s. And these general conditions matter. The economic context plays an important role in shaping the capacity of reformism to deliver. The 1945 Labour government could to deliver reforms without sparking major confrontations with the ruling class and the system. By the 1980s, this was no longer possible, and the Labour Party argued the need for compromise. This found its strongest expression in Blairism and his arguments for a "Third Way" between Thatcherism and reformist socialism.

Capitalism today has not recovered from the 2008 economic crisis. Any attempt to push through reforms will necessitate a battle with the ruling class. The Greek situation illustrates how fierce this confrontation can be--and the capacity for even radical reformists to sell out. The SYRIZA government had the benefit of massive strikes and a protest movement, as well as a referendum result giving them a mandate to stand firm against the European Union. Yet the pressure on SYRIZA from the ruling class was enough to ensure that they caved in.

What does all this mean? If we are to win, we need to get organized for a confrontation with the ruling class. This is why the strategy around Corbyn matters. If Corbyn becomes Labour leader, these macro debates will play out through the prism of the Labour Party. A reformist strategy orientated on winning the 2020 general election would channel itself through a struggle within Labour--to "reclaim" the party, to rebuild local Labour groups, to pass resolutions and motions moving the organization in a progressive direction.

Inside the Labour Party

The Labour Party is stratified. At the top of the organization is the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), currently made up of 232 Labour MPs. Then there is the national organization, the party machine. Below that is local government--Labour councilors, some in power and some not. And below that there's the constituencies: local Labour members and their local activity, which is typically geared around elections.

Over the years the balance of power has shifted between these constituent parts, away from the base of the party and towards the party machine. This will create problems for Corbyn's supporters in the party. If you want to change policy in your area around, say, cuts to the local community center, you will come up against a layer of people in your constituency Labour Party who will tightly control the local group. Of course, a large influx of new people into local groups might loosen their hold. But changing Labour policy at a national level is a much bigger challenge.

So the pressure on a Corbyn leadership from the PLP and the party machine will be intense. The Labour right is already threatening rebellion. But if Labour fractures over this, it could make them unelectable in 2020. So there are also enormous pressures to keep the party united. Corbyn has already said he wants a broad shadow cabinet, and indicated he is willing to compromise on policy with the rest of the party. But what that compromise looks like will depend on the wider balance of power around the debate.

Let's start with their side. The right of the Labour Party is dominated by Progress. Solomon Hughes wrote a useful summary of this faction's history in the Morning Star recently. Progress was set up using the money left over from Tony Blair's 1994 Labour leadership campaign. One of its key backers his Lord Sainsbury, who withdrew his funding for Labour and transferred it to Progress when Ed Miliband became leader--he considered Ed to be too left wing. Other Progress sponsors include: the British Venture Capitalist Association (which campaigns for NHS privatization); Lexington (a lobbying firm whose clients include Goldman Sachs); and Bellenden Public Affairs (which represents Serco and Care UK among others).

Progress is the openly pro-privatization, anti-union, pro-business wing of Labour. But the influence of the right stretches more widely than them. One example: Jon Cruddas MP's analysis of why Labour lost the general election. He argues that it was because of Ed Miliband's anti-austerity politics cannot win elections. This position is strongly shaped by the economic climate and the trajectory of Labour since Neil Kinnock in the 1980s.

The Labour Left

What about the left? In parliament there are just nine MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group, which Corbyn is a member of. Around 60 MPs have links to trade unions, representing a broader left within the PLP. At the base of the party, there is an influx of new members which polls suggest are mostly pro-Corbyn. And then there is pressure from outside of the party.

The unions also have accommodated to changing economic and political conditions. In 1983 the TUC began arguing for "new realism"--the world has changed, it is no longer possible to secure gains through working class struggle, so we need to talk to the government. This went alongside growing bureaucratization of unions and a widening gap between leaders and members. This is a serious problem today. The unions are in a far worse state than they were in the 1980s. Unite has mobilized behind Corbyn, but this doesn't contradict its general emphasis on the political as opposed to the industrial wing of the struggle.

The character of the Labour left as informed new members will also be a factor. How many people will move from voting for Corbyn to getting actively involved with the Labour Party? What is the class composition of the new members? How many have been radicalized through issues such as the war, racism, sexism and so on?

In the 1980s the new Labour members were drawn largely from the political middle class. Their experience was of working class struggle going downhill--and so they turning away from that towards a more limited political fight centered on parliament.

This isn't the case today. There is a new audience for socialist politics that is not scarred by the historic betrayals of Labour and the unions. Their reference points are SYRIZA, Podemos and the SNP, not post-war reformist social democracy. But it remains to be seen if these new activists will be drawn into seeing the political fight inside Labour as their focus, or whether they turn outwards towards building workplace and community organization to campaign against austerity.

Corbyn as Opposition Leader

If he wins, Corbyn will play hugely positive role as a leader of the opposition. We will at least see the Labour Party articulating anti-austerity politics in some form. But how big will his audience be? Corbynmania has to reach beyond the left if it is to transform popular consciousness in a way that matters.

Revolutionaries and reformists are likely to have different views on how to go about this. In an interview on Novara Media, Corbyn argued that the government could use a legal framework to set the agenda around social issues such as combatting sexism. He similarly emphasized legal solutions--regulating the banking system, statutory accountability measures for international corporations--when asked what he would do to stop big business from blocking his reform plans by threatening a market meltdown.

In contrast, revolutionaries place more emphasis on how experience transforms people's ideas, politics and confidence. The persistent attacks on Corbyn in the media will get worse if he wins the leadership. But people don't necessarily believe media scare campaigns. The extent to which they will do this has less to do with whether Corbyn's economic policies are "sound" or "credible," and more to do with people's experience of anti-austerity struggles. This is yet another reason why the strategic emphasis has to be on that wider struggle.

Finally, if we are testing to what extent Corbyn can popularize anti-austerity politics, we also need to ask what type of anti-austerity is taking hold. Corbyn is arguing for a Keynesian approach: investment-led growth, corporate accountability, regulating the financial sector etc. But the sheer scale of the ongoing capitalist crisis will raise questions over whether this approach can deliver the social reforms we need.

Revolutionaries also have a different analysis of power and the state from the Labour left. Even the most radical Labour figures place an emphasis on winning elections because they see parliament and the state as the key site of struggle to bring about socialism. Revolutionaries, however, emphasize workplace and community organization, because parliamentary power--political power--is fundamentally circumscribed by economic power.

Unless the working class has both, the ruling class will use its economic power to subvert or destroy progressive policies that threaten their profits or their dominance. Although parliament can be used a platform to advance socialist ideas, revolutionaries don't believe that we can use the structures of the existing state to bring about socialism.

The Big Question

If these debates are important, then how we take part in them also matters. The big question is whether we should be in or out of the Labour Party. This is a tactical question, not a point of principle. Anything which strengthens working class organization requires consideration. I remain, however, to be convinced about joining Labour.

For the reasons I've outlined, the internal battle inside Labour is likely to be complicated and prolonged. You might argue: all the more reason to pile in and strengthen the balance in favor of the left. But the social pressure that exists outside of Labour will also be a crucial factor. The key argument will be over where Labour members concentrate their energies: on the internal fight or on the movement. Even though this debate will start inside the Labour Party, it will spill over into the wider movement--and I would rather spend my energy building that and arguing there.

It also remains to be seen how many people will be drawn into Labour. If hundreds start attending local Labour Party meetings then I might pause and reconsider. This possibility can't be ruled out--but there is a big difference in the level of commitment required to vote Corbyn and that required to become an active Labour member.

Above all, we have to grasp that protests against exploitation and austerity will not be sufficient if they are combined with or hemmed in by an acceptance of the capitalist system. Five years of Corbyn at full strength, or even 18 months of Corbyn at half-strength, will make a massive difference. It will transform the fortunes of the left and put an alternative to austerity firmly on the agenda.

But there is a difference between Labour in opposition and Labour in power. Challenging austerity will mean taking on the ruling class and hitting their profits. The capitalist crisis is ongoing and the willingness of the ruling class to make sufficient concessions is unlikely. This means class war. Reformists inside the Labour Party and revolutionaries outside can work fight that war together. But we can only win it if we collectively strengthen our side--from the ground up.

First published at the rs21 website.

Further Reading

From the archives