Many have been horrified by the continued removal of the Labour whip from Jeremy Corbyn. While Starmer’s counter-revolution tries to ‘settle scores’ with the left, the story could have been very different.
But before this was the Corbyn movement. Owen Jones’ latest book, This Land, seeks to explain how its rise and decline was rooted in the experience of a decade of austerity. While Britain’s richest 1,000 families doubled their wealth, it was workers, students, pensioners, unemployed and disabled people that were thrown onto the scrap heap.
Corbyn was nominated for the 2015 Labour leadership election by a handful of Blairites who had hoped for a wipe-out, humiliating the left as a result.
Those MPs clearly saw a Tory victory as being preferable to one for Corbyn. They aligned with the capitalist press to stage a ‘scorched Earth’ policy, twinned with a bullying campaign designed, as Diane Abbott put it, to “break him as a man”.
Bureaucrats at Labour HQ – themselves leftovers from the Blair era – actively sabotaged the chances of a Labour government, with Jones quoting one as saying they “prayed for an opinion poll putting [Labour] 20 points behind”.
To their surprise, they were faced with a mass movement, defined by city-centre rallies, armies of canvassers and social media work that made use of a new generation of first-time activists. For some time, Corbynism was well placed to launch an offensive to democratically transform the party from the bottom up. Owen Smith’s 2016 attempt to unseat Corbyn was revealed as a farce, as the rank-and-file gathered under the banner of ‘keeping Corbyn’.
But those opportunities were never seized when they could have been. In 2015, Blairite MPs staged a rebellion over the vote to bomb Syria, with the majority of backbenchers voting in favour. The Corbyn movement had an opportunity to lay down the parliamentary whip, to order all backbenchers to vote against war, and then expose those who defied it as warmongers and imperialists. While anti-war protesters gathered outside the offices of Blairite MP Stella Creasy, Corbyn allowed the MPs a free vote, even promoting some of them into his shadow cabinet!
As Jones points out, Corbyn himself was often kept passive, with advisors and other senior figures making these types of decisions. The real architect of the long-form capitulation to the right, he points out, was actually John McDonnell, who Jones writes with endless praise for.
In fact, a consistent theme in the book is Jones’ own dismissal of any ideas that the left could have fought to carry out the transformation of the party. Activists who called for the democratic right to deselect MPs were “derailing” the movement. Corbyn failed to actively “build bridges” with “non-Corbynite” MPs, and so on.
Instead, Jones chooses to locate Corbynism’s decline in superficial details. If only Corbyn had turned up to meetings on time more often, presented himself with a friendlier face to the media and sung the national anthem, then this would have meant the Blairite campaign would have had no effect and ‘party unity’ would be maintained.
This needs a reality check. The years-long push to keep Blairites on board actually caused massive demoralisation throughout the movement. As one of Corbyn’s aides commented to Jones in the run up to the 2019 election, the leader “had the stuffing knocked out of him”. The energy that could have been used to carry through the changes required in the Labour Party was squandered.
Anti-Semitic prejudice remains a common feature of day-to-day life for Jews in Britain and elsewhere, which will be reflected in all sections of society – including, unfortunately, parties like Labour from a tiny but vocal minority. But, as Corbyn’s suspension shows, huge double standards were always at play.
Jones’ conclusions offer nothing beyond essentially saying that ‘Corbyn could have saved himself by dropping his commitment to justice for the Palestinian people’. Jones chastises Corbyn, for instance, for his connections with Jewish Voice for Labour – an anti-occupation, pro-Palestinian grouping on Labour’s left.
It was the failure to respond to these slanders with a clear class approach to national oppression including with regards to Israel – Palestine and a willingness to tackle head-on the right’s narrative that was missing. Eventually, contrary to Jones’ idea that the Blairites could have been kept quiet if Corbyn conciliated enough, Corbyn was forced to pay.
Upon receiving news of the 2019 election result, many who had fought for a Corbyn government were in shock. This loss has to be seen in context. The years-long attempt to appease the right had the effect of severely blunting Corbyn’s anti-establishment edge.
But, bizarrely, Jones argues the complete opposite. To him, the result was down to Corbyn’s failure to adopt a hardline ‘remain’ position in the name of ‘uniting’ the party. But this ignores how things have actually turned out. Starmer has now chosen to conveniently change his position, from being champion of the Remain cause, to now criticising Johnson for not ‘getting Brexit done’ quickly enough!
Jones points out that millions of progressive young people voted Remain, as he puts it, because they had “never heard a Eurosceptic argument which hadn’t been made by some arch-reactionary” He is correct in the sense that, rather than a vote of uncritical support to the EU, it was against what was a narrow, xenophobic, and right-dominated ‘Leave’ campaign.
Both the official Remain and Leave camps were dominated by conflicting capitalist interests. But this didn’t have to be the case. Corbyn had a long record of opposing the neoliberalism sewn into the EU’s fabric. Leading with this from the start, he could have positively fought on the need for a break with the EU along the lines of international solidarity – particularly with the workers of Greece, who were at that time at the height of their struggle against the ‘Troika’. To those who voted Remain out of an opposition to right-wing nationalism, this idea might seem remote. But it was a real possibility that could have radically redefined the parameters of the debate.
Crucially linked to this is the failure of Corbynism to root the movement in struggle. Opportunities to support strikes, lead union recruitment drives and mobilise for mass demonstrations for example were blown under the pressure of the Blairites stressing the need for a ‘party of government’, as opposed to a ‘protest movement’. Consequently, Corbyn treated Labour’s membership as something that could be mobilised during election times, but ignored in between, dissipating the power of the movement.
While Marxists make use of any elected positions that can be gained under this system, the capitalist state is not a favourable terrain for those who want to really change the system. It requires, above all, drawing on the power of the working class and radical youth.
This is certainly a book worth reading for its insight into events behind the scenes of the Corbyn project, but also for a window into the shocking elitism and entitlement of the right.
We have to learn the lessons of the Corbyn movement, understanding its connections to today. In these turbulent times, workers and youth will need a political voice, and this will absolutely not come through waiting for Starmer to act in our interests. Building a new party of struggle and for socialism requires a turn to movements outside parliament, from organising for free education and rent strikes, to the climate and anti-racist movements.
Doing this requires an understanding of the need to never try to compromise with the forces of capitalism. Jones’ book does not offer this way forward.