Jeremy Corbyn was the least likely contender to spearhead a populist insurgency on the British Left or was he?

An exclusive article for SATU-East by Socialist Historian, Ian Laws

July Feature Story

I remember reading  an article back in 2015. It was in the Guardian. A small beacon of hope, it seemed, for people, like me, on the left of the political spectrum;  it described the emergence, out of a vibrant, some might say desperate, anti-austerity movement, of a radical new Left-wing politics. One arising within, of all places, the reformist compromise that is representative democracy.

It wasn’t an article about British politics. Of course not,  any  half-way sane observer of the time would have added. No, it was an article, written in March, which charted the rising fortunes of Podemos, a  radical movement in Spain that had coalesced over the past few years, from its beginnings as a vague social movement,  a largely  intellectual response to crippling austerity measures back in 2011, into a populist Left-wing parliamentary party that not only threatened the political dominance of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), headed by Pedro Sanchez, but might very well replace it as Spain’s meaningful Left-wing alternative, making the mainstream Spanish social democratic party obsolete.

It could just as easily have been an article about Syriza, which in  a few short years had managed to marginalise PASOK, the main Greek Social democratic party, and one of the two realistic contenders for political power in Greece since the 1970s. While Syriza’s 4.6% share of the popular vote  in the national elections of 2009 hardly seemed to inconvenience it’s larger rival on the Left, with PASOK achieving a commanding 43.9% of all votes cast, by January 2015 the situation was reversed. While Syriza, campaigning on an avowedly anti-austerity ticket, won 36.3% of the vote, allowing it’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, to form a coalition government, PASOK barely managed to maintain any relevance at all, clinging on with just 4.7%.

Although the article was not about British politics, within just a few short months, incredibly, it could have been. Just as Podemos arose out of the energetic 15-M movement, the radical shift in British politics was likewise birthed by the anti-austerity protests of the past few years. Whereas Podemos grew on the back of direct action by such groups as the Platform for those Affected by Mortgages (PAH), author Matt Myers, in his 2017 work: “Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation”, traces a direct link between the students who took to the streets in 2010 to protest cuts to grants and the drastic increase in university tuition fees, and the radicalisation of the Labour Party during the second half of that decade. As a Financial Times article of September 2019 put it, the public protests launched by organisations such as the People’s Assembly Against Austerity planted fertile seeds for the rise of Corbynism.

Indeed, it was at an anti-austerity rally in Norwich in the summer of 2015 that I heard the newly minted Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South, the Honourable Clive Lewis, outline the conditions he would  attach to his nomination of, and support for, the Labour MPS who had announced their candidacy for the vacant Leadership following Ed Miliband’s recent electoral defeat: “I would not consider nominating any candidate who refused to fight on an anti-austerity platform; If they want my support, they need to demonstrate their opposition to this pernicious agenda”. Or words to that effect. No wonder, then, that he went on to nominate the most unlikely Socialist Campaign Group candidate, Jeremy Corbyn; the rank outsider who scraped through the Parliamentary nomination process with the help of those like Margaret Beckett, who thought his inclusion would help widen the debate and stimulate a more meaningful discussion, without having any chance of coming within shouting distance of the ultimate prize. The rank outsider who happened to be the only candidate to have defied the Party whip to vote against the 2015 Austerity Bill. The rank outsider who went on to win convincingly, with an overall majority in the first round of voting.

On the face of it, neither the Labour Party, nor Jeremy Corbyn himself, were likely contenders to spearhead a populist insurgency on the British Left. For most of the previous two decades, it had, after all, been a Labour Government bedevilled by Left-wing demonstrations and protest movements; while Corbyn, a largely unknown backbencher of 32 years standing, was hardly the image of a Marxist firebrand, and had been an MP for almost as long as Tsipras or Iglesias had been alive when they came to lead their respective movements. What made Corbyn different to the long list of Labour luminaries in 2015 was his decades of involvement in direct action, in supporting causes, alongside his representative role. Whether it was his recent role as Chair of the Stop the War Coalition, or his arrest in 1984, a year after becoming an MP, for participating in anti-Apartheid protests outside Africa House, anybody, fan or critic alike, would be hard pressed to label Jeremy Corbyn an Establishment figure. While the then Shadow Home Secretary, Ed Balls, lambasted the unruly nature of the 2010 student demonstrations, and basically reinforced Prime Minister David Cameron’s narrative of the protestors as a feral mob, Corbyn spent his time taking the Metropolitan police to task for their kettling tactics.

The People’s Assembly was, after all, formed largely to fill the void left by Labour; a Party which had utterly failed, according to many Union activists that joined this coalition of resistance in 2013, to provide leadership of the increasing opposition to austerity and related Government policies. Just as  Syriza and Podemos filled the vacuum left by the decline in popularity of reformist social democratic parties that appeared to have given up on reform, the “Corbyn project” did likewise, but instead of trying to replace the UK’s main social democratic party, they simply, or not so simply, took it over.

Like Podemos, Labour, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, began to serve as an umbrella for a variety of wider protest movements. A 2015 article by the journal Peace News urged it’s audience of pacifist activists to mobilise and join Labour to support the new leader, while an April 2016 survey found that Corbyn was more popular with 2015 Green Party voters than he was with 2015 Labour voters, and around 60% of those voters ultimately abandoned the Greens for Labour two years later. In October 2016, Corbyn attended the founding conference of the Stand Up To Racism movement, while in 2018, Shadow Home Secretary Diana Abbott, the current SUTR President, took an active part in its protests against the Windrush deportations. Corbyn’s assumption of the Labour Leadership opened the Party’s door to pacifists, environmentalists, activists for racial equality, and other direct action movements. It also unleashed activists passionate about protecting the rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, along with ensuing allegations of anti-Semitism which would cause so much dissention within the movement, and particularly within the Parliamentary Party, even playing a role in the defection of several of the Labour MPs who went on to form Change UK.

But that, of course, was precisely the problem. Unlike the radical experiments sweeping the left of the political spectrum throughout Europe, the Corbyn project was grafted on to a pre-existing, traditional, mainstream political institution. Corbynism certainly shared many of the strengths of entities like Podemos and Syriza: A massive upsurge of grassroots support, which manifested both in a dramatic increase in Labour Party membership from under 200,000 in May 2015 to over 550,000 as of January 2018, and in the creation of an entirely new movement, Momentum, to support the Leadership and promote radical initiatives from below. And just like Podemos and Syriza, Corbyn’s Labour galvanised the country’s youth behind its “new” idealism. In contemporary Spanish elections, the younger the median age in any given district, the greater the share of the vote Podemos received. In 2017, Labour likewise benefitted from an estimated 16% increase in turnout of 18-24 year old voters, and it would be hard to forget Jeremy Corbyn’s rapturous reception at Glastonbury, or the chants of “ohhhh Jeremy Corbyn”.

It could be argued that there was no direct Labour equivalent of Podemos’ Socialist Circles, which became embedded in local communities, championed local causes and established social and cultural centres like “La Morada” in working class districts of major Spanish cities. These organisations spent far more time fighting landlords who evicted their tenants or protesting the “touristification” of working-class class areas than the more traditional methods of electoral campaigning.

But in 2018 Labour did establish a Community Organising Unit to embed Party politics in local communities and encourage activists to campaign on local issues. In the latter half of 2019, for example, the COU assisted the residents of Walden house to organise their resistance to the Duke of Westminster‘s gentrification plans which would leave them homeless, while in Yorkshire, they helped organise a large scale campaign to save local bus services.

Likewise, while Podemos experimented with various participatory elements in formulating its early electoral programmes, such as utilising technology to contribute to the collective development of online policy initiatives, Momentum also provided a fertile source for grassroots policy initiatives, based on the belief that truly transformational Labour policies could not be derived from Westminster alone, but had to draw on the thoughts and experiences of the wider Party membership. In the run up to the 2019 General Election, Momentum pushed for a more radical climate change agenda: a Green New Deal, as well as proposals for a four day working week. Throughout the Corbyn era, Labour became a hot bed of ideas for potential new forms of public ownership, from municipal socialism, and ‘shares for workers’ schemes, to joint public-private ownership of offshore wind farms, eventually incorporated in Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution as the ‘People’s Power Plan’.

Yet the strength of this politics lay precisely in its grassroots base, rather than within the Parliamentary Party. The Corbyn ‘Insurgency’ may have found itself with an enviable established base, a ready-made Parliamentary Party of more than 230 Labour MPs, but only a small fraction of these enthusiastically embraced this new radicalism. Nothing better illustrates this division between the PLP and the more radical, membership-endorsed leadership than the June 18th, 2016 vote over the renewal of Britain’s nuclear submarine programme. The Labour Leader felt compelled to give his MPS a free vote on this issue, and 140 Labour MPs subsequently voted with the Government on Trident’s renewal.

The constant sniping and opposition against Corbyn culminated in the events of just over a week later, the so called “Chicken Coup”, in which 21 members of the Shadow Cabinet resigned following the sacking of shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn for plotting against the Labour Leadership. This number did not include the elected Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, who publicly called for Corbyn’s resignation, or the two representatives of the House of Lords, who, being elected by Labour Peers, could not resign, but refused to attend Shadow Cabinet meetings while Corbyn remained leader. Thus out of a Shadow Cabinet of 31, 25 members of the Official Opposition were publicly opposed to the Leader of the Opposition. This was followed by a Parliamentary Party vote of No Confidence, which Corbyn lost by a margin of 172-40. A vote that was, of course, invalidated by a membership who endorsed the embattled leader by a clear majority of nearly 62%.

This did not put a stop to internal dissension within Labour. Indeed, watching  the footage of Election night 2017 as results began to come in, results that were considerably more favourable to Labour than the polls had predicted, it was difficult not to notice the sense of astonished disappointment from within the ranks of the Parliamentary Party. Then there was the chorus of condemnation of the Leadership’s handling of anti-Semitism allegations, or the defection of 12 Labour MPs in 2019, 8 of which joined the new, but short-lived centrist vehicle, Change UK.

That is not to say the new radical European Parties faced no comparable difficulties. While Podemos did not have to fight to overcome any traditional conservatism in their own organisation, there were early, and ever increasing, signs that the new Party was becoming institutionalised long before it entered into coalition government with the PSOE; a coalition which is committed to implementing further austerity measures and anti-Labour legislation. In the words of El Confidencial journalist  Estefania Molina, Podemos is “now part of the system”, a fate which had long since befallen it’s Greek counterpart, Syriza.

Both Podemos and Syriza also received scathing criticism from their opponents on the mainstream social-democratic Left. But their typical response, that such denunciations came from irrelevant has-beens, part of an outdated, thoroughly discredited establishment, are not so easily applied to members of your own erstwhile vehicle for change.

Podemos likewise faced internal dissension, most notably the defection of Iglesias’s former key ally,  Iñigo Errejón in January 2019, which undoubtedly weakened the Leftist movement, and a poor electoral performance could always lead to a challenge from within. The difference being, of course, that defeat might lead to a leadership contest within Podemos, but with Labour’s broad church, any such election could very likely spell the demise of this new radical politics. But that is another story.

Of course this all leads to the question of why the new British radicalism was so markedly different from its European counterparts. Why was no new party of the radical, populist left created in the UK? A number of alternative suggestions present themselves.

A case might be made, by some, for the strength of the Labour brand. Talk of tribalism and Party Loyalty in British politics is certainly nothing new, but, regardless of how accurate it may have been as a description of traditional voting patterns, by 2015, any strong sense of tribal identity amongst Left-wing voters was most assuredly a thing of the past. Leaving aside changing economic relations, the decline of British manufacturing, and the weakening of organised labour over the last several decades, the re-branding of “New Labour” from the 1990s led to desertion, first, of Party members, and later, and more gradually, of swathes of traditional Labour voters. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find anyone of that era,  whether political scientist or ordinary voter, who would not put both the Greens and the Lib Dems much further to the left of Labour on any ‘political compass’. The idea of Labour as the home of the British Left belonged most definitely in the past.

Indeed, the election of outsider Jeremy Corbyn would itself attest to the ever-increasing weakness of such a brand; a man who had defied the Party Whip more times than any other MP in every Parliament from 1997 onward, a staggering 428 separate occasions, in total.

There is certainly an argument to be made that the UK has a basically conservative political culture, one not at all conducive to the formation of a radical party from scratch. The Greek Communist Party held 15 of the Hellenic Parliament’s 300 seats in 2019, a result not dissimilar from its performance throughout the past few decades. Likewise, an alliance of far left Spanish Parties, dominated by Communists at the national level, won 4 % of the popular vote, and two of the 350 seats, in the 2015 Congress of Deputies elections. I don’t think we need to dwell on the practically non-existent support for the British equivalent throughput it’s frankly inconsequential history.

But perhaps the most convincing explanation lies in any cursory examination of the voting system employed in UK elections to the House of Commons, that of  First Past the Post (FPTP). The political systems of both Greece and Spain, like those throughout most of Europe, are based on some form of proportional representation, allowing for relatively minor parties to win seats roughly commensurate with their national share of the public vote. With the First Past the Post system used in the UK, a new radical party joining an already crowded field would find it all but impossible to gain any kind of foothold whatsoever. Indeed, it is a great surprise to many that the Liberal Democrats are able to maintain any relevance in what is, structurally, a two horse race. With such a system in place, any remotely viable radicalisation of Left wing politics in the UK would have to arise from within the Labour Party, or, for a time, and to a much lesser extent, in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, within the Liberal Democrats.

Syriza. Podemos. Labour. Nobody, reviewing the long and convoluted history of the British Labour Party since its inception well over a century ago, would ever have thought to associate the party of Blair, of Miliband, even of Wilson, with that list of radical, populist, anti-austerity movements which threatened the very existence of their countries’ established,  and thoroughly institutionalised, social democratic parties. Indeed, Labour would appear to belong squarely in the same camp as those mainstream entities, namely PASOK and PSOE. Or it did, and does again. But for a few short years, between 2015 and 2020, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, it could be argued that Labour had far more in common with those insurgent, and (relatively) uncompromising organiastions of the radical Left. And given the likely resurgence of Government austerity measures post covid-19, and the current explosion of BLM protests sweeping the nation, not to mention the distinctly lukewarm response to these from the new Labour Leadership, who is to say that it won’t again? But that, also, is another story.

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.